Present Data to Facilitate Comparisons


  • Consistent use of x and y-axes across multiple panels
    • Carefully consider the inclusion of "0" in your axis
  • Sometimes, it is essential to include 0
  • Often, inclusion of 0 is not necessary
    • Consider using a log scale when it is important to understand percent change of multiple factors
  • Consistent use of colors for different categories
  • Consistent use of fonts, line widths, box sizes, etc., to avoid distortion
  • With few categories, a single figure may facilitate comparisons;  with many categories, consider multiple panels


Here is an attempt to compare catches of cod fish and crab across regions and to relate the variation to changes in water temperature. The problem here is that the Y-axes are vastly different, making it hard to sort out what's really going on. Even the Y-axes for temperature are vastly different.


The ability to make comparisons is greatly facilitated by using the same scales for axes, as illustrated below.


Data source: Dawber TR, Meadors GF, Moore FE Jr. Epidemiological approaches to heart disease:

the Framingham Study. Am J Public Health Nations Health. 1951;41(3):279-81. PMID: 14819398

It is also important to avoid distorting the X-axis. Note in the example below that the space between 0.05 to 0.1 is the same as space between 0.1 and 0.2.

Source: Park JH, Gail MH, Weinberg CR, et al. Distribution of allele frequencies and effect sizes and

their interrelationships for common genetic susceptibility variants. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011; 108:18026-31.


Consider the range of the Y-axis. In the examples below there is no relevant information below $40,000, so it is not necessary to begin the Y-axis at 0. The graph on the right makes more sense.

Data from


Also, consider using a log scale. this can be particularly useful when presenting ratios as in the example below.

Source: Broman KW, Murray JC, Sheffield VC, White RL, Weber JL (1998) Comprehensive human genetic maps:

Individual and sex-specific variation in recombination. American Journal of Human Genetics 63:861-869, Figure 1


We noted earlier that pie charts make it difficult to see differences within a single pie chart, but this is particularly difficult when data is presented with multiple pie charts, as in the example below.

Source: Bell ML, et al. (2007) Spatial and temporal variation in PM2.5 chemical composition in the United States

for health effects studies. Environmental Health Perspectives 115:989-995, Figure 3

When multiple comparisons are being made, it is essential to use colors and symbols in a consistent way, as in this example.

Source: Manning AK, LaValley M, Liu CT, et al.  Meta-Analysis of Gene-Environment Interaction:

Joint Estimation of SNP and SNP x Environment Regression Coefficients.  Genet Epidemiol 2011, 35(1):11-8.


Avoid putting too many lines on the same chart. In the example below, the only thing that is readily apparent is that 1980 was a very hot summer.

Data from National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office at