Guest post from Tom Branson

It’s a new year and therefore a new set of exciting cover art awaits us. Last year gave us some great examples of artistic flair matched with clear science communication, as well as a good few covers that can be described as nothing but bizarre. Either way, they got my attention.

But why do authors want their work on a front cover and what does it actually mean to the scientists who designed them? Instead of surging ahead with my own opinions, I thought that this time I should get some answers from the creators themselves. Focusing on Chemical Science, I tracked down the corresponding authors responsible for some of the cover art during 2014 and asked them a few simple questions to gather a small insight into the minds of these artists.

Why would anyone want to create a cover image?

Well, what’s the point? My first thought was simply about extra exposure. And yes, the overwhelming response I received was about gaining extra attention, raising the visibility of their work and attracting more readers. Everybody seemed to agree on this fact.

But another popular reason is that using an image is a great way to tell the story. Rafael Luque, of the Universidad de Córdoba, knew it would be an easy step to create a cover image. He said that his ‘work related to MOF design could be nicely represented by a simple image with Lego-like model building’. The cover in October was indeed simple, incorporating sticks and balls, which makes the concept instantly easy to grasp. Pictures are often better than the written word for describing a difficult concept, especially for a non-specialist audience that the cover may help to attract. Once a reader gets the idea from the image, the article becomes more accessible.

Other interesting reasons included use of a cover image at conferences and the simple fact that seeing your image in print gives your confidence a nice boost. But only if the actual research is particularly strong do some decide to go for a cover image. Michael Wong, of Rice University, said that the work must be extra special for him to spend his ‘hard-earned research funds on publication costs’. He also added that creating a cover was a great way to ‘train students on science dissemination’. I definitely agree with this last point.

Who are these artists anyway?

The author list on a paper gives full recognition to the researchers. But should there be recognition for the artists? I believe that those responsible for grabbing our attention with their images deserve an extra mention. So, who are these people?

I was surprised to find that my (unscientific) survey revealed that cover design was mostly done by the professors themselves. Many were also group efforts or at least the group was involved in creating initial ideas. Lowly PhD students were even responsible for their fair share of the cover designs. Wong created his cover from October together with a student and really enjoyed the process. He even stated that ‘my student got so excited he recruited his wife and came up with multiple designs!’.

Site-specific protein labelling was tackled by Jason Chin’s group, from the University of Cambridge, and the cover from last May provided a different medium to tell that story. Stephen Wallace, the designer and a researcher in Chin’s group at the time, knew that a cover would be a great opportunity to convey the environment for his reaction. Wallace had the initial idea for his cover, ‘albeit on paper!’, he says, but it was Paul Margiotta in their visual aids department who assembled the final graphic.

Luque also thinks that this exercise is worthwhile for the students and it encourages them to develop. He said that he ‘nurtures creativity in students in the early stages of their career and these are the results.’ It must be pretty handy for some institutions having professional designers, but a plucky student can definitely put in a pretty good showing too.

Next month I’ll reveal the answer to the life, the universe and everything or as I like to put it: what makes a good cover? Spoiler… it’s actually a whole bunch of contradictory views that come to wildly different conclusions.

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