Fig. 1 The picture visual abstract includes all three elements as defined by the authors: the paper’s title, its authors, and name of the journal; a statement of the question that is being answered; and a visual summary of the results.


Published 9/1/2018
Alok D. Sharan, MD, MHCDS; Greg Schroeder, MD; Alexander Vaccaro, MD, PhD, MBA

Visual Abstracts Make Scholarly Publications More ‘Social’

Publishers and authors use graphics and videos to pique readers’ interest

Before the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century, books were printed on hard wooden blocks—a very cumbersome process. Gutenberg’s creation of metal-based, movable parts meant that books could be printed easily and rapidly. This, combined with the many new ideas that were emerging during the Renaissance, resulted in a transformative period in knowledge management.

Academic journals are currently undergoing a similar transformation. Scientists and healthcare providers no longer have to wait for a printed journal to appear to learn about the latest research. The information can be disseminated immediately via social media.

The role of visual abstracts

Social media represent a natural evolution in the communication of scientific information, and visual design plays a large part. It’s clear that graphics and videos generate large numbers of “hits” on social media. Academic journals, including Clinical Spine Surgery, are increasingly using visual abstracts—infographics that provide high-level summaries of new papers—on their social media channels (Fig. 1). This article will discuss standards for the creation of visual abstracts.

Creating a visual abstract begins by distilling the main points of a research paper into two to three sentences. This summary is not intended to replace the article, but rather to pique the reader’s interest. In a sense, a visual abstract should perform the same function as a movie trailer.

Elements of a visual abstract include:

  1. A clear display of the paper’s title, its authors, and name of the journal (Fig. 1). These pieces can generally be done by placing text at the top of the visual abstract and the journal’s logo on the bottom.
  2. A statement of the question that is being answered. It is important that the creator of a visual abstract be crystal clear about the message that the author wants to be delivered.
  3. A visual summary of the results of the study. This can be accomplished through graphics or a combination of graphics and text. Try to be creative with the graphics. Creating a compelling visual abstract requires a foundational understanding of design and the take-away message.

Source: Park, Young-Seop MD; Hyun, Seung-Jae MD, PhD; Park, Jong-Hwa MD; Kim, Ki-Jeong MD, PhD; Jahng, Tae-Ahn MD, PhD; Kim, Hyun-Jib MD, PhD. Radiographic and Clinical Results of Freehand S2 Alar-Iliac Screw Placement for Spinopelvic Fixation: An Analysis of 45 Consecutive Screws. Clinical Spine Surgery: August 2017 – Volume 30 – Issue 7 – p E877–E882.

Visual abstracts’ impact

Andrew M. Ibrahim, MD, is credited with publishing the first visual abstract. Incorporating the principles of design-thinking, he developed the visual abstract with the understanding that communicating via social media requires different rules. In 2017, he and his colleagues conducted a prospective, case-control, crossover study to determine graphics’ impact. The study, published in the Annals of Surgery, demonstrated that papers with visual abstracts in their Twitter posts had a 7.7-fold increase in the number of impressions and an 8.4-fold increase in the number of retweets compared to posts that contained only text.

As of this writing, more than 50 journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine and JAMA, have adopted visual abstracts. Clinical Spine Surgery adopted visual abstracts in June 2017 as a way to provide readers with high-level summaries of articles. Visual abstracts have resulted in a six- to nine-time increase in impressions of Facebook posts and a two- to four-time increase in Twitter impressions. This activity has translated to more visits to the Clinical Spine Surgery website.

The goal of academic journals is to spread new knowledge that can lead to improved patient care. It is clear that the way information is disseminated has changed. Social media are becoming a popular means of communicating for both the lay public and the scientific community. Visual abstracts appear to represent the more commonly accepted method of communication in social media.

To view Dr. Ibrahim’s primer on how to make a visual abstract, visit

Alok D. Sharan, MD, MHCDS, is codirector of the Westmed Spine Center and deputy editor of digital health transformation for Clinical Spine Surgery.

Greg Schroeder, MD, is an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Thomas Jefferson University and executive editor of Clinical Spine Surgery.

Alexander Vaccaro, MD, PhD, MBA, is the Richard H. Rothman Professor and Chairman in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Thomas Jefferson University, president of the Rothman Institute, and editor-in-chief of Clinical Spine Surgery.


  1. Ibrahim AM, Lillemoe KD, Klingensmith ME, et al: Visual abstracts to disseminate research on social media: a prospective, case-control crossover study. Ann Surg. 2017;266:e46-8.