Guest post from Tom Branson

Last month I took a look back at the journal covers from Chemical Science in 2014 and asked the authors why they made these startling images. To follow on from these enlightening insights, I delved a little deeper and sought to find an answer to the ultimate question, which is of course: what makes a good journal cover?

Scientific and public audiences

To answer this question you first have to decide who the target audience(s) are and what you want to show them. Most of the authors I spoke to agreed that the image should be accessible to the general public. Julia Weinstein from the University of Sheffield, UK, whose cover was out last March, expressed the difficulty in also keeping the specialists happy. An image needs to have ‘general importance (for general public), and some fine details which will be of interest to professionals. It is a virtually impossible task!’ she said. However, how many members of the general public ever actually see these masterpieces is a question for another time.

Ultimately, the artwork must be visually appealing. If it does not encourage readers to look further into the paper, then the image has, to some extent, failed. This means making the images eye-catching and interesting. A little sense of humour is also often used to good effect, although Tell Tuttle, of the University of Strathclyde, UK, (whose work featured on the cover of the February 2014 issue), warned that you can go too far with the jokes: ‘you’re likely to be ridiculed for making pretty pictures.’

Layers upon layers

One cover in Chemical Science from 2014 stood out for me more than the others. This was not necessarily because it was the most eye-catching or the most information-rich, but because it piqued my curiousity. This cover from Tony James of the University of Bath, UK, was published last September and featured three stamps on top of a fluorescent image.

James says that good cover art ‘should be simple yet have a strong set of images telling a story related to the research.’ You can’t get much simpler than placing stamps on top of an image taken directly from the actual article. But there is obviously a story behind this image. The stamps featured are from the three countries of the groups involved; China, South Korea and the UK. Stamps also relate to sending messages, a nice (although a little tenuous) link to fluorescent imaging as cellular messaging.

At a casual glance, that is where the layers of information seem to end, but this cover goes further, although as it does so it does become a little obscure.  James understates that ‘the next level may not be so obvious.’  The Chinese stamp is a painting of a tree peony, a native of China and used in traditional medicines as an antioxidant. The article describes the detection of peroxynitrite, which oxidises many biomolecules including DNA and unsaturated phospholipids. See the connection there?

The next stamp, from Korea, depicts the metric system, and the research involved taking measurements. I’ll admit that this link is a bit thin, but final stamp makes up for it. The British stamp shows a picture of Dorothy Hodgkin and celebrates 50 years since her Nobel prize for advances in x-ray crystallography and determining the structure of vitamin B12, another molecule with a role in cell messaging. The other two stamps are also from 50 years ago and 2014 was the year that the three corresponding authors all celebrated turning 50!

I love this level of detail and I have a great deal of respect for the story behind the artwork, even though I doubt that these subtleties are easily apparent to anyone not named in the author list. Nevertheless, special touches like these are certainly what interests me and what I believe make the difference between good covers and great covers.

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