I’ve been working on a paper about my research on fan-throated lizards, and I just sent the manuscript out to my labmates for comments. Everyone who’s seen the manuscript so far has said they love the figures. They’ve had good reason to say so, because (yes, I am bragging), the figures are awesome. Here’s my (and everyone else’s) favourite:
At this point, you might expect me to extol the virtues of the software I used to make these figures (it’s called Draftsight and it’s free), and try to convince you that you should go learn how to use it too. There’s no shortage of opinions on what technological advances–software, statistical tools, gene sequencing methods–we should all be rushing to learn to employ in our research. But in my experience with research so far, we don’t learn how to use tools until we actually need them, and this includes the fashionable ones. I suspect that being told that we need to use this or that tool or method leads more to frustration than to scientific insight.
In this case, I might have delayed things a bit too much when I waited until I was in the field to figure out how to make maps of the locations at which my lizards were observed. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t realise earlier that I’d need to make these maps–had I done so, I’d probably have learnt how to use ArcGIS or some other map-making software. But I waited until the only resources I had were a tape measure, a limited internet connection, and my family members’ phone numbers. Because my parents and brother are all architects, my best bet at this point was learning how to use architectural drafting software. Drawing circles of varying sizes and plotting points at the intersections of these circles are obviously very straightforward tasks for an architect, and that’s all I really needed to make my maps. I got step-by-baby-step instructions on how to draw circles and points in Draftsight from my brother on the phone while I was sitting in a village in Kutch, and I proceeded to make some very useful maps that summer.
Once I was proficient at making circles and points, I expanded my repertoire to include rectangles and polygons and began to learn some marginally more advanced functions such as drawing splines and adjusting colours and line thicknesses. Not impressive at all to an architect or engineer, but that’s all I needed to make the figures for my fan-throated lizard paper. Draftsight will probably be my first choice tool for making figures from now on, but I only became familiar with this tool when circumstances pushed me to learn it. For me, Draftsight proved easy to learn and exceptionally useful, but I fully realise that it isn’t likely to work for everyone. Not everyone has architects on call for troubleshooting purposes, and so I’m not going to recommend that you all learn Draftsight to make amazing figures–you’ll find a way that works for you, if you haven’t already.
I was skeptical before of the “you must learn this!” variety of advice, and my experience with Draftsight has led me further towards dismissing the idea that learning (or not learning) any one especially fashionable tool is going to make (or break) my research. I’ll continue to learn tools as and when I need to, though I’ll try not leave it quite so late next time.