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How to make cover art for scientific journals: study existing covers and make early decisions

When you have a paper accepted by a scientific journal, you might think about submitting an image to compete for the cover. Or you might be contacted by the editor and asked to provide a cover art. Having a cover story would potentially bring a lot of attention to your research, especially when it comes to famous journals like Nature and Science. But the big question many researchers face is: how to make engaging cover art that would win the competition?

The first and probably the most important step is to study the existing covers of the journal of interest and decide what kind of cover art you want to create. However, this step is often ignored by researchers, which reduce the chance of getting the cover.

When you browse through the published covers, you will see that cover art usually falls in several categories discussed below in detail. (We will skip editorial covers and astronomy pictures here. A nice astronomy picture usually makes the cover automatically.) The essential task in this step is to choose a categories that suits best for your research.

1. Photos. Examples: photos of a new species, a recently discovered fossil, a flexible electronic device, a newly invented instrument, and an interesting phenomenon frozen in time, etc. A nice photo is not only visually compelling, but it also serves as a visual evidence of your research. To take a good photo, it requires a lot of practice and creative thinking. If you are interested in taking photos yourself, I highly recommend Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image by Felice Frankel. You might also want to work with a professional photographer if necessary.

Top left: the rock pigeon (Columba livia) exhibits spectacular variation among more than 350 different domestic breeds. The adult male Old Dutch capuchine shown here is one of many breeds with a crest of reversed feathers on its head and neck. Photo: Sydney Stringham Top right: A biodegradable integrated circuit (length: ~2.54 centimeters) shown partially dissolved by a droplet of water. Image: Beckman Institute, University of Illinois, and Tufts University Bottom left: a carved stone head (height: 6.8 centimeters) excavated from the lowland Maya site of Ceibal, Guatemala (around 400 BCE). Reconstruction: Daniela Triadan; Photo: Takeshi Inomata Bottom right: accumulation of algal biomass under thinning Arctic sea ice (image diameter ~25 meters). Photo: Stefan Hendricks, Alfred Wegener Institute, Expedition IceArc (ARK27-3) All images and figure captions from Science Magazine website.

Top left: the rock pigeon (Columba livia) exhibits spectacular variation among more than 350 different domestic breeds. The adult male Old Dutch capuchine shown here is one of many breeds with a crest of reversed feathers on its head and neck. Photo: Sydney Stringham. Top right: A biodegradable integrated circuit (length: ~2.54 centimeters) shown partially dissolved by a droplet of water. Image: Beckman Institute, University of Illinois, and Tufts University. Bottom left: a carved stone head (height: 6.8 centimeters) excavated from the lowland Maya site of Ceibal, Guatemala (around 400 BCE). Reconstruction: Daniela Triadan; Photo: Takeshi Inomata. Bottom right: accumulation of algal biomass under thinning Arctic sea ice (image diameter ~25 meters). Photo: Stefan Hendricks, Alfred Wegener Institute, Expedition IceArc (ARK27-3). All images and figure captions from Science Magazine website.

2. Microscopic Photos and Images. Examples: images taken with light microscopes, fluorescent microscopes, scanning electron microscopes (SEM), transmission electron microscopes (TEM), atomic force microscopes (AFM), and scanning tunneling microscopes (STM), etc. Traditional photos show us the beauty of the world around us, microscopic photos and images reveal the beauty of the world invisible to our naked eyes. Some microscopic images can be as stunning as traditional photos. In addition, microscopic images are visual evidence as well. If you want to submit microscopic images as cover art, it is worth spending some extra time and effort to make the image visually compelling. Pay attention to the composition and colors (if you want to add artificial colors to SEM or TEM images), and reduce defects and artifacts as much as possible (which might require careful sample preparation). One more thing to consider is to use a microscope that can generates enough pixels for high-quality printing.

Top left: immunostained fluorescence microscopy image of memory engram–bearing cells (red) in the dentate gyrus of a mouse hippocampus (image width: 1.5 millimeters). Image: Xu Liu and Steve Ramirez Top right: enhanced-color confocal microscopy image of a cross section of an Arabidopsis stem (diameter of full section: 2 millimeters; excluding the protruding epidermal hair cell). Image: Lisa Sundin, Matyas Fendrych, and Daniel Van Damme/VIB, Belgium Bottom left: false-colored scanning electron microscopy image of carbonate-silica "flowers," each ~50 micrometers high. Image: Wim Noorduin and Joanna Aizenberg Bottom right: a hexabenzocoronene molecule (diameter: 1.4 nanometers) imaged by noncontact atomic force microscopy using a microscope tip terminated with a single carbon monoxide molecule. Image: Leo Gross, IBM Research - Zurich All images and figure captions from Science Magazine website.

Top left: immunostained fluorescence microscopy image of memory engram–bearing cells (red) in the dentate gyrus of a mouse hippocampus (image width: 1.5 millimeters). Image: Xu Liu and Steve Ramirez. Top right: enhanced-color confocal microscopy image of a cross section of an Arabidopsis stem (diameter of full section: 2 millimeters; excluding the protruding epidermal hair cell). Image: Lisa Sundin, Matyas Fendrych, and Daniel Van Damme/VIB, Belgium. Bottom left: false-colored scanning electron microscopy image of carbonate-silica “flowers,” each ~50 micrometers high. Image: Wim Noorduin and Joanna Aizenberg. Bottom right: a hexabenzocoronene molecule (diameter: 1.4 nanometers) imaged by noncontact atomic force microscopy using a microscope tip terminated with a single carbon monoxide molecule. Image: Leo Gross, IBM Research – Zurich. All images and figure captions from Science Magazine website.

3. Molecular visualizations. Examples: protein structures, crystal structures, supramolecular structures, etc. Some molecular structures can by very beautiful. However, visualizations of these structures are often limited by rendering ability of computer software. Currently, there are alternative tools that allow you to import proteins and other molecular structures into professional 3D applications (such as Maya, Cinema 4D and Blender) and create high-quality renderings. If you are interested in this approach, you can check out Molecular MayaePMV and Bioblender. Colors are very important for molecular visualizations. For examples of good color usage, check out Dr. David Goodsell’s Molecule of the Month on PDB website.

Left: end-on view of the atomic model of the bacterial actinlike ParM protein double-helical filament, generated from an electron microscopic reconstruction. Image: Jan Löwe Right: Crystal structure of a molybdenum oxide nanowheel, 2.6 nanometers in diameter, around a smaller molybdenum oxide cluster. Image: Leroy Cronin, Ryo Tsunashima, Haralampos Miras/ University of Glasgow All images and figure captions from Science Magazine website.

Left: end-on view of the atomic model of the bacterial actinlike ParM protein double-helical filament, generated from an electron microscopic reconstruction. Image: Jan Löwe. Right: Crystal structure of a molybdenum oxide nanowheel, 2.6 nanometers in diameter, around a smaller molybdenum oxide cluster. Image: Leroy Cronin, Ryo Tsunashima, Haralampos Miras/ University of Glasgow. All images and figure captions from Science Magazine website.

4. Visualizations with artistic interpretation. Examples: illustrations showing extinct species, protein functions in a living cell, device properties and functions, and nanostructure self-assembly, etc. This type of illustrations can include more information than photos and microscopic images. They are good for showing functions, mechanisms, dynamic processes, and structures that cannot be visualized by imaging instruments. When working with these images, you need to pay attention to the balance between the artistic interpretation and the scientific concepts within the image. Too much artistic interpretation might bury the scientific concepts or cause misconception for viewers.

Top left, artist's rendering of the film-nanoparticle plasmonic system. Image: Sebastian Nicosia and Cristian Ciracì. Top right, optical vortices emitted by an array of silicon ring resonators. Image: Yue Zhang (ciel924@126.com), based on data from Xinlun Cai, Jiangbo Zhu, and Siyuan Yu. Bottom left: artistic rendering of dynein motor proteins moving along microtubules, based on a crystal structure reported by Carter et al. Image: Graham Johnson, The Scripps Research Institute and grahamj.com. Bottom right: schematic representation of one- and two-dimensional RNA nanostructures, 100 to 200 nanometers in length, built from single-stranded RNA building blocks programmed to self-assemble within bacterial cells. Image: Krista Shapton (Blot Media) and Faisal Aldaye (Harvard Medical School). All images and figure captions from Science Magazine website.

Top left: artist’s rendering of the film-nanoparticle plasmonic system. Image: Sebastian Nicosia and Cristian Ciracì. Top right: optical vortices emitted by an array of silicon ring resonators. Image: Yue Zhang (ciel924@126.com), based on data from Xinlun Cai, Jiangbo Zhu, and Siyuan Yu. Bottom left: artistic rendering of dynein motor proteins moving along microtubules, based on a crystal structure reported by Carter et al. Image: Graham Johnson, The Scripps Research Institute and grahamj.com. Bottom right: schematic representation of one- and two-dimensional RNA nanostructures, 100 to 200 nanometers in length, built from single-stranded RNA building blocks programmed to self-assemble within bacterial cells. Image: Krista Shapton (Blot Media) and Faisal Aldaye (Harvard Medical School). All images and figure captions from Science Magazine website.

5. Illustrations and photos using metaphors and analogies. Metaphors and analogies are powerful tools to make complicated scientific concepts understandable to a broader audience. The key here is to distill the essential scientific concepts that are only known to scientists and transform them into objects, characters, phenomena, and stories that are familiar to everyone else. You can be very creative in this category. Since your image might include real world objects and characters, you might want to work with an good artist to bring your idea to life.

Left: nucleosomes serve as roadblocks to transcription, and in this issue, Bintu et al. dissect these imposed barriers to rapid passage by eukaryotic RNA polymerase II (Pol II). Using single-molecule methods, they determine how the individual elements of the nucleosome—the histone tails, the specific histone-DNA contacts, and the DNA sequence—modulate the dynamics of transcription. The clay model on the cover illustrates how Pol II has to overcome two types of barriers during transcription through a nucleosome (blue): the histone tails at the entry site of the nucleosome (horizontal gate) and the histone-DNA contacts at the nucleosome dyad (stop sign). The secondary structure of the nascent RNA (pink) restricts backward movements of the polymerase during pauses, aiding transcription. Conceptual design by Lacramioara Bintu and Manchuta Dangkulwanich. Artwork by Manchuta Dangkulwanich and Gheorghe Chistol. Right: sculpting a functional mRNA out of a pre-mRNA transcript involves coordination of multiple processing events, including pre-mRNA splicing and 3′ cleavage and polyadenylation. Previous work showed that components of these processes were interlinked because U1 snRNP that is crucial for splicing also functions to protect mRNAs from aberrant cleavage and polyadenylation at cryptic polydenylation signals (PASs). In this issue, Berg et al. show that U1 snRNP (U1) plays a key role in suppressing PAS usage throughout pre-mRNAs and that these interactions may serve regulatory functions. The cover image depicts legions of U1 “defenders” protecting the nascent pre-mRNA (green) from the constant threat of cleavage and polyadenylation hordes riding on the tail of RNA pol II. Conceptual design by Gideon Dreyfuss. Artwork by Lili Guo, Chonghui Ma, and Zhaoming Guo. All images and figure captions from Cell Magazine website.

Left: nucleosomes serve as roadblocks to transcription, and in this issue, Bintu et al. dissect these imposed barriers to rapid passage by eukaryotic RNA polymerase II (Pol II). Using single-molecule methods, they determine how the individual elements of the nucleosome—the histone tails, the specific histone-DNA contacts, and the DNA sequence—modulate the dynamics of transcription. The clay model on the cover illustrates how Pol II has to overcome two types of barriers during transcription through a nucleosome (blue): the histone tails at the entry site of the nucleosome (horizontal gate) and the histone-DNA contacts at the nucleosome dyad (stop sign). The secondary structure of the nascent RNA (pink) restricts backward movements of the polymerase during pauses, aiding transcription. Conceptual design by Lacramioara Bintu and Manchuta Dangkulwanich. Artwork by Manchuta Dangkulwanich and Gheorghe Chistol. Right: sculpting a functional mRNA out of a pre-mRNA transcript involves coordination of multiple processing events, including pre-mRNA splicing and 3′ cleavage and polyadenylation. Previous work showed that components of these processes were interlinked because U1 snRNP that is crucial for splicing also functions to protect mRNAs from aberrant cleavage and polyadenylation at cryptic polydenylation signals (PASs). In this issue, Berg et al. show that U1 snRNP (U1) plays a key role in suppressing PAS usage throughout pre-mRNAs and that these interactions may serve regulatory functions. The cover image depicts legions of U1 “defenders” protecting the nascent pre-mRNA (green) from the constant threat of cleavage and polyadenylation hordes riding on the tail of RNA pol II. Conceptual design by Gideon Dreyfuss. Artwork by Lili Guo, Chonghui Ma, and Zhaoming Guo. All images and figure captions from Cell Magazine website.

6. Visualizations of data and models. Sometimes, visualizations of data and models can look like abstract modern art.  Meaningful data + beautiful visualization is a winning formula.

Left: hit distribution (red, early; green, late) of a neutrino interaction with the Antarctic IceCube neutrino detector on 14 July 2011. Credit: IceCube Collaboration. Right: Detail of a "wiring diagram" showing long-distance neural connections between major regions of the macaque brain. Illustration: Emmett McQuinn, Pallab Datta, Myron D. Flickner, William P. Risk, Dharmendra S. Modha/IBM Research - Almaden. All images and figure captions from Science Magazine website.

Left: hit distribution (red, early; green, late) of a neutrino interaction with the Antarctic IceCube neutrino detector on 14 July 2011. Credit: IceCube Collaboration. Right: Detail of a “wiring diagram” showing long-distance neural connections between major regions of the macaque brain. Illustration: Emmett McQuinn, Pallab Datta, Myron D. Flickner, William P. Risk, Dharmendra S. Modha/IBM Research – Almaden. All images and figure captions from Science Magazine website.

After you study the existing covers, you probably have an idea of what might be the best option for your cover art submission. You also have an idea what would NOT be good for the cover. Science covers, for example, have few schematic style images with blow-up insets. In addition, except editorial covers, most Science covers do not use metaphors or analogies.

Finally, many journals encourage you to submit multiple images for cover art suggestion. You can create images in multiple categories if you have enough time and resources. This will increase the chance that one of your images would be selected as the final cover.

Next, we will focus on a few case studies to continue the discussion on how to create cover art.

2 comments… add one

  • Fan Li January 4, 2014, 11:09 pm

    Very nice! You should consider writing a textbook in the future:)

  • Yan Liang January 5, 2014, 12:56 am

    Thanks Fan! Maybe in a few years :)

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