Software for Making Scientific Figures and Graphs: Your Best Options
Figures catch the reader’s eyes and complement your text and plotting scientific graphs is essential for all researchers who want to present their findings in a meaningful way. Present your data and explain them visually. And thanks to the expanding list of software options out there, you can go beyond simple bar graphs and charts and make your paper stand out.
If you’re used to always using Excel or SPSS, it may pay off to try some newer or more elaborate solutions to really grab your readers’ attention.
Price: from $94/year
Best for: econometrics
Stata is a statistical analysis tool chosen eagerly by Excel users when handling big data that otherwise jam the Excel engine. Its Graph Editor contains all standard plot types used in statistics. Line patterns and markers are plenty, making the graphs easy to read. During your session with Stata, the program keeps the last graph in the memory. Rename your graphs to keep more than one open. For use in a publication, copy–paste the graph or export it to one of the vector or raster formats. Un-exported graphs disappear when the session is closed.
Stata is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
Price: Free 1-year license available for students and teachers, $70/month with yearly subscription
Best for: Big data analysis
Tableau is foremost for data visualization. Unlike in Excel, data in Tableau are plotted first and then edited, which enables analysis and adjustments. Point it to the data, and the program will suggest a chart type. You can then manually change it. Tableau has a rich but self-explanatory user interface. Your chart takes up the main panel, while only your data labels are listed in the side panel. Neat and clear graphics generally only take a few clicks. Copy the view and export it as an image file to create a figure. Tableau is particularly well suited for big data analysis. Its power lies in its ability to extract and merge data from various sources, from simple files to large databases. Both researchers and the business sector use Tableau.
It’s available for Windows and macOS.
Price: Free for educational use, from $35/month with yearly subscription
Best for: Biomedical, animation-style illustrations with character
BioRender offers an abundant library of ready icons for various biology and medicine-related topics. Drag and drop, and you can freely arrange them against each other, scale to your needs, or play with the colors – all within minutes. Note that you can’t interfere with the shapes’ design – you can’t modify, add, or delete part of the object. In BioRender, you compose your illustration by putting together icons and shapes from the library. There are over 40,000 icons made by medical graphics experts to browse from. You can upload your own ones, but you can’t draw them in the program. BioRender is very efficient at creating scientific figures to explain biological cycles, processes, or structures. The figures are textbook–style. A watermark will be visible if you use the free version.
BioRender is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
Price: Part of the Creative Cloud suite or as a separate software, so prices vary based on your needs
Best for: Custom editing figures from scratch or based on exported elements (e.g., biological structures)
Adobe Illustrator is a graphic design mainstay. If you have some design sense, jump in and make some fantastic scientific figures like a design pro. You do need at least some short training to be able to make use of its many tools. But with a few days of experience, you can create elegant graphics and construct 3D objects that can be freely rotated and edited. Illustrator uses a “layers” concept that lets you separate elements of the graphics you’re working on. You can combine lines and shapes to create new ones. And you can precisely modify curvature or switch between sharp and round corners. If you get good, it takes just a few clicks to turn a square into an apple.
Adobe Illustrator supports several vector graphics file formats. It runs on Windows or macOS.
Price: (30-day free trial) $45/month or annually: $125 student, $185 academic, $305 corporate
Best for: STEM data visualization, statistical analysis of various sets of data
GraphPad Prism is useful for more complex data fitting. It is very easy for statistical analysis. It comes with an excellent selection of plots (e.g., bubble, violin, or estimation plots) for an easy-to-read display of various types of statistical data and scientific figures . The program offers a range of biologically relevant plots and data formats. You create a figure using the Layout tool. Then choose the page orientation, which charts to include, and how to arrange them. You can choose whether to keep your chart linked to the data. This way, the chart will be updated if you edit your data. Figure formatting is very easy and quick. This software is good for group use and is very efficient when collaborating and sharing projects.
GraphPad Prism runs on Windows and macOS.
Best for: Creating illustrations
Inkscape is most often described as an open-source alternative to Adobe Illustrator. Inkscape provides vector graphics and comes in handy for quick and easy illustration drawing. Its text editing options are, however, limited.
Inkscape is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
Price: Free for students and educators, otherwise from $99/year
Best for: Structural biology figure rendering
PyMol is a good choice when you need to visualize biological structures (e.g., DNA, RNA, proteins). The program offers several display modes (stick, ribbon, electric potential) of the molecules and a possibility of 3D manipulation to ensure the best viewing angle in the final 2D figure. You can import the structures from the publicly available Protein Data Bank and freely adjust the display mode and colors. It is of invaluable help in explaining biological complexes and mechanisms of biomolecules’ interaction.
PyMol is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
Price: Free 30-day trial, from $49 for student (perpetual license)
Best for: Mathematical issues – focused on advanced modeling, such as in STEM
This is a popular programmers’ choice, and you need some coding experience to use it effectively. MatLab is code-based, so you don’t need to remember editing steps. That‘s a great advantage, such as when preparing a series of similar plots. It exports to commonly used file formats, like EPS, PDF, and TIFF.
MatLab is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
Price: Free Learning Edition, student version from $69/year
Best for: Data analysis, curve fitting, statistics
OriginPro is quite simple when transitioning from Excel. It is particularly well suited for mathematical modeling and statistical analysis, yet easy to use without prior experience. It works with other popular statistical analysis platforms and common programming languages. Interactive curve fitting is easy and efficient with the preview option. OriginPro produces publication-quality scientific figures that you can easily adjust and revise. The line markers are clear to read in grayscale, a feature important for black-and-white printouts. A simplified version simply called Origin is available for beginners.
Origin requires Windows or a virtual machine if you use another OS.
Best for: Biomedical image analysis
ImageJ is a common tool in biology labs wherever image analysis is of interest. Designed to be user-friendly and “light” in its hardware requirements, ImageJ serves researchers from students to project leaders. All its tools are available in the menu bar. This software aids primary analysis of microscope images or fluorescent scans. It’s commonly used to overlay images from several channels. Signal intensity profiling or mathematical operations on images are straightforward. You can also easily adjust contrast and brightness with a direct preview. ImageJ saves graphics in raster formats (e.g., TIFF). Usually, you’ll need another graphic tool to prepare the final figure – often a gallery view of all the channels. As a widespread, open-source software, it enjoys strong interdisciplinary community support. And you can find plenty of plug-ins for it. It also works well integrated with other software. Ease of access is a solid advantage of ImageJ and a reason for its rapid growth, as the platform co-evolves together with life sciences.
It runs on Windows, macOS, and Linux.
To summary, there are of course many other software choices worth checking out but the ones above seems to be the most popular and widely used by scientific community. Among these, you should find something to suit your abilities and budget.