Working with images

Images included in academic articles (especially by students) are generally littered with mistakes. The following serves to explain some of the key features of using images in academic writing.


Types of images

There are several types of images presented in academic writing, the key ones are noted in the table below. However, when you store an image you can label it with anything you like; e.g., map, advertisement, or screenshot.

Image type Description
Chart Data displayed as a chart (e.g., pie chart, bar chart)
Equation A mathematical notation
Exhibit Usually artwork or artifacts
Figure Images that are drawn by someone (e.g., yourself or another author)
Table Data contained in a table

Always consult your official style guide to determine which label to use (e.g., some styles use figures for everything other than tables). 


Image captions

All images presented in academic writing need to have a caption. A caption is an image label (type) and number, followed by the running title (see table below). 

Data field Description
Label The image type as noted in the table above
Number A sequential number of images of a specific type (e.g., tables)
Running title The descriptor or short title used for an image

Images in blogs and news articles often do not have a caption, instead, they include a long description followed by the copyright information (as a legend).


Image legend

A legend contains interpretive data about an image (e.g., dimensions or keys to the data) or the source citation for the image. If you are using Harvard, your legend might use the label 'Source:' followed by the citation. For example, Source: Kotler et al, 2002. For other reference styles, the legend may be included in a footnote.

In a newspaper article (see example below), the legend includes the copyright name and the publisher 'Tom Brenner / The New York Times' on the line after the description.



The following image was taken from the Nasa (2008) website to be included in a student paper. Here we see the label and number (Figure 1:) followed by the running title (A man on the moon) and the legend (citation) on the same line as the caption.

Figure 1: A man on the moon (Nasa 2008)


An alternate way to present this would be with the citation contained in a 'source' label (without a number) underneath the image, as follows:

Figure 1: A man on the moon


Source: Nasa (2008)

In news articles and/or blogs, images generally do not have captions but do include an extensive description (instead of a label and short running title) and the copyright details (as the legend). For example, the following image from The New York Times (19-Jun-2018) contains a description followed by the legend on the second line. 




Referring to images in text

In academic writing, images should always be discussed in the text. When we do so, we call it a 'cross-reference'. Where a citation is a reference to something external to the present text, a cross-reference is a reference to something internal to the same piece of work (see figure 1 as an example). 

A cross-reference can include:

  • Prefix: some text sitting before the caption (see...). 
  • Caption: generally only the label and number are included in a cross-reference (...figure 1...). 
  • Suffix: text included after the caption ( an example). 

If you are referring to an image that does not have a label and number, then the words 'above' or 'below' get added (see image above).

In your text, a cross-reference can be added like a citation at the end of the sentence or play a more prominent role in the sentence. For example, see the image types in the table above or images have several types (see table above). Another example might be, Figure 1 displays the source in line with the caption, whereas an alternative is to add the source underneath the image (see Figure 1).

Always explain images in the text. Your text needs to be clear enough to a reader 'as if' the image were not there. Images act to 'add value' to your story; they do not replace it. As a writer, you need to guide your reader by telling them when to go and look at the image AND what they need to look for. If you do not inform your reader about what to identify in the image, then you are leaving them to interpret it themselves, and that could be confusing (i.e., tell your reader what is important about the image).

Newspapers and blogs often add images without describing them in the text because they are using the image as a device to hook a reader into reading the article. That is, the image in a news article or blog is often not serving any real purpose to enhance the actual story. 


  • Always add the cross-reference in lower case text (to match your paragraph text).
  • Try to add the image 'after' you have explained it in your text and not before; that is, the cross-reference needs to inform the reader when to turn their attention to the image. If the image is provided before the description of it, then the reader might get confused or ignore it completely.


© Linda Glassop, 2018 (included here with permission)

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