How far should figure legends go in describing the trends within the figure (within a biology paper)?

I've seen some conflicting information on this and I'm unsure if legends need to fully describe trends in the figure, only give a partial description, or leave the reader to observe the trend themselves.

In the main body of the text that the figure will be placed and referenced in, the trend will be described.

  • This depends on which discipline of science you are in. Figures in biology papers tend to have much more detailed captions than figures in mathematics papers. Oct 22, 2020 at 19:51
  • Sorry, I should have specified! It is for a biology paper - I'll update the post now.
    – blammo69
    Oct 22, 2020 at 19:53
  • As far as should, is space limited in your article? (In this case, you should put as much description in the caption as you can because the font size is smaller in captions.) Can the reader understand the figure just from the caption without finding the appropriate description in the text? (This is the ideal in biology, and I think it's a good idea for all fields, although in many of them, like mathematics, it's not actually practiced.) Oct 22, 2020 at 19:54
  • Thank you for the insight, in the end I decided to keep all information necessary for the understanding of the figure without the main text to support it but I stripped off the description of the figure's trends.
    – blammo69
    Oct 22, 2020 at 20:16
  • This question is off-topic in only allowing opinions as answers, presuming that the instruction to authors of the journal to which you are submitting does not contain explicit instructions. But why ask strangers? If you are a biologist and read papers, you have only to ask yourself what style makes for a paper that it easy to follow. Others may agree or disagree with you, but you should do what seems right to you, until any deficiencies are explained to you. Writing in a particular way just because you think it is “scientific style” is a pathetic attitude.
    – David
    Oct 22, 2020 at 21:34

1 Answer 1


I take this as a question about English usage within the constraints of scientific convention. Like some other questions on this site it relates to concise usage, lack of repetition, and clarity of expression. What follows is therefore good practice relating to most figures (but not all) and is not merely a matter of opinion.

Figures are usually shown to present or summarize those data or concepts that are described in the article's prose. They may illustrate examples of things alluded to in the prose. A caption should not duplicate the prose at any length or unnecessarily; this would waste space and would irritate some readers by diversionary repetition of ideas that are already systematically developed in the prose.

The caption should be sufficient to give immediate and concise (even if incomplete) understanding of the core significance of the figure. It should provide a succinct conceptual link between figure and prose by drawing attention to the main theme it illustrates that is developed in more detail within the prose.

Similarly the caption should not repeat unnecessarily any information that is given within the figure (such as the names of the variables already shown on the axes of a simple graph, an embedded title, or the embedded legends).

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