In many disciplines, there is an obvious need to bring in data and discuss what this data means. Non-verbal data are shown in tables or figures that are placed either within the text or in an appendix. Figures include graphs, illustrations, maps, diagrams, pictures and other non-verbal information. There are many issues to consider when contemplating the best form that this information can take.

Need for data commentary

Normally, raw data goes in an appendix with a note in the text referring the reader at that point to see the relevant appendix. Often, parts of the raw data or analysed data will be brought into the text and this should show, in the most reader-friendly way, what you wish your reader to see. The problem here is that many writers take it for granted that what is important will be as evident to their reader as it is to them. This is why the commentary that accompanies the data is so important.

To illustrate, when one of our in-house academic editors was asked what the first thing is that he looks at in a new submission, he replied, ‘tables and figures’.

Aims of data commentary

There has been quite a bit of analysis of data commentary, particularly by Swales and Feak (2012). (See page 56 in the extracted chapter 3 here.) They point out that data commentary should:

       Highlight the key results among a mass of data and draw the reader’s attention effectively to them

       Use the data to support a point or make an argument

       Assess theory, common beliefs or general practice

       Compare and evaluate different data sets

       Assess the reliability of the data in terms of the methodology that produced it

       Discuss the implications of the presented data

       Provide any combination of these elements

Writing about tables and figures as data commentary: Structure

There are three steps in structuring your text to provide commentary for tables and figures.

1.      Direct your reader to the data and provide a broad summary of what it reveals

This is usually done by either starting (active) or finishing (passive) with the reference to the table or figure. For example…

[Active] Table 2 shows how the rate of inflation has increased since the government’s reforms.

[Passive] The rate of inflation since the government’s reforms are found in Table 2.


2.      Highlight exactly what the data shows

You might direct your reader to consult the table or figure several times. Ideally, your reader will only need to glance at the table to see exactly what you are referring to before returning to your text. You might then redirect them to see another important element within the same table. For example…

Figure 1 clearly reveals how the sales peaked in 2015 before falling dramatically

The results show an upward trend which is sustained until

In the above examples, note how the phrases ‘before falling dramatically’ and ‘which is sustained until’ are used to redirect the reader to another important element in the same table.


3.      Explain or point out the implications that are important for your argument

Note that this is also an opportunity to acknowledge any perceived problems or exceptions – if there are any. For example…

It is important to note how effective the drug has been since…

Although the data is scarce, and largely missing for China, we can see the significance of…

Writing about tables and figures as data commentary: Structure

·         Do not repeat everything or attempt to cover everything in the table/figure

You are simply directing your reader to what is important and the table/figure is there to save you words and provide context.

·         You can only make claims of sufficient or reasonable strength

Known as hedging, this is a form of distancing yourself from the result, and means that your claim is defensible. You can employ hedging using a variety of words and phrases. These words or phrases tell the reader your degree of certainty and add credibility to your argument.

For example, you can use…

o   Modal verbs such as ‘may’ and ‘might’

o   Reporting verbs that soften the claim being made, such as ‘suggest’ and ‘imply’

o   Adjectives such as ‘probable’ and ‘possible’

·         There are always differences between disciplines

For instance, political science often makes use of summative tables at the end of sections as reference points for quick referral should you not wish to read the section in detail. You need to be aware of your own discipline’s specific requirements or habits.


Points to keep in mind when submitting an article with data commentary

Finished writing about your tables and graphs? You also need to keep in mind how your commentary will be presented to the reader in the final version of the article. For this, it helps to pay attention to the following points during submission.

·         Pay attention to the journal guidelines for image labelling.

Each journal will have very specific instructions as to how the table or figure should be labelled and where this labelling should be positioned.

·         You can only indicate where you would like the table or figure to go.


Note that the journal will find the most appropriate place for their formatting needs. Remember: your figure and table call-outs within the text indicate when—that is, at what point during reading the paper—the reader should look, preferably before they have already seen the table/figure and formulated a reaction to it. Keep this in mind when writing your commentary and submitting your article.

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