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I read Andrej Karpathy's A Survival Guide to a PhD and in the section titled “Get the gestalt right” he writes (about scientific papers):

Your papers, as you become a more senior researcher take on a characteristic look. An introduction of ~1 page. A ~1 page related work section with a good density of citations - not too sparse but not too crowded. A well-designed pull figure (on page 1 or 2) and system figure (on page 3) that were not made in MS Paint

I haven't hear the term pull figure before, and can't find a satisfying explanation online.

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I think the author means a figure that pulls the reader figuratively into the paper. Pull is used here in the meaning of

a force that attracts, compels, or influences

Large bodies of text aren't attractive and don't invite the reader to take more than a casual glance, especially when he/she is browsing through multiple papers. A picture (which, as the saying goes, says more than a thousand words) helps getting the reader's interest.

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This is related to pull-quote, which OED defines as

Typogr. and Journalism (orig. and chiefly U.S.) a brief and striking quotation taken from the main text of an article and used as a subheading or graphic feature, usually in a distinctive typeface; (also) a striking quotation used as a caption or graphic feature in an advertisement.

Pull quote example

Quotesgram, sample pull quote

The "pull" in pull-quote is that the extract used is pulled from the article and given prominence. Thus a pull-figure is an image or diagram which is pulled from the text of the main article into page 1 or 2.

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    Great answer, but your answer would imply that the same figure would be included twice, which doesn't make sense (I have never seen the same figure twice in a 8-ish paper). Inspired by what you write I would guess that pull refers to pulling the readers attention, and making them interested. – Toke Faurby Dec 17 '16 at 13:55
  • Well, pull quotes are included twice (although admittedly the image I found doesn't show that). I guess the pull-figure could be a figure highlighting salient points from a more detailed version, just as a summary might present salient points without a great deal of the detailed argument -- which is what pull-quotes do: they are a highlighted sentence. – Andrew Leach Dec 17 '16 at 14:33
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    @TokeFaurby I believe Andrew is correct that it comes from an analogy with "pull quote", but you're right that it's not repeated. Notice in the example how the pull quote is set apart and somewhat stands alone, and (theoretically) summarizes a key point in the article? That's what experienced researchers tend to do with their first figure: I've heard a number of people say to base papers around figures, or that when reading a paper they look at the figures first (or only). (If you're looking more for what it means in practice (versus the etymology), ask on academia.stackexchange.com .) – R.M. Dec 17 '16 at 15:18
  • Typographic design is often based on a dividing the page into a regular grid structure (for example the three equal-width columns in @AndrewLeach's image). The word "pull" essentially means some graphical element (text or image) pulled out of that regular grid arrangement, to make it stand out from the rest of the material in some way - for example its position on the page, its type face or size, contract between color and black-and-white, etc. – alephzero Dec 17 '16 at 20:39
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    Note that scientific papers usually don't have any pull-quote or -figure in the sense described in this answer. Maybe the author of the guide was inspired by the term pull-quote, but they probably wanted to mean something else, e.g., just an eye-catching well-drawn figure. – Massimo Ortolano Dec 17 '16 at 23:25

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