Logo IMG
HOME > PAST ISSUE > Article Detail


Pixels or Perish

The art of scientific illustration will have to adapt to the new age of online publishing

Brian Hayes

Souvenirs of the Web

Another question arises from the choice of graphic formats whose native environment is the Web. My hope is to see these new forms of illustration become enhancements to scientific publishing, but the Web is not where scientists publish. It is a major channel for distributing science publications, including the 1,000 journal titles at JSTOR, for example, or the 700,000 preprints at But almost all of that material comes in the form of PDFs rather than HTML documents. It’s available through the Web, not on the Web. Even the conference papers and journal articles that describe the D3 system are not HTML documents with D3 illustrations; they are PDFs with still images.

Why do authors and readers prefer PDFs for this kind of publication? One factor may be this: A PDF is something you possess. You download it from a server, give it a name, store it in a folder. It’s yours; it stays put. A website built out of HTML has a different character. It’s not a thing you own but a place you visit. You can’t take it home with you—although perhaps you can send a postcard or keep a small souvenir in the form of a bookmark.

Perhaps someday, when all information lives in the cloud, readers will give up their acquisitive desire for thinginess in publications. If not, documents created in the HTML/SVG/JavaScript ecosystem are at a disadvantage, because they cannot readily be turned into self-contained packages for downloading and safekeeping.

For the purpose of getting those nifty D3 graphics into science publications, there would seem to be two plausible approaches. We could open up PDF to accept a wider range of graphics formats. I’m told this is technically feasible; the challenge is making PDF a more attractive working environment for the young programmers who come up with the cool new graphics tricks. It’s worth noting that an active community works on embedding three-dimensional graphics in PDF, with impressive results.

The alternative is to seek a better way to encapsulate all the bits and pieces that constitute a Web application, so that it can be distributed in the same way as a PDF. Something resembling encapsulated HTML already exists; it’s the basis of several file formats for electronic books.

In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, newspapers for wizards are ink-on-paper publications, but the pictures on their pages spontaneously come to life. It’s the best of both worlds—the familiar physical form of reading matter we’ve known since Gutenberg, but no longer lying still on the page. Out here in the land of Muggles we may never quite attain that kind of magic, but we could come remarkably close.


  • Adobe Systems. 1990. PostScript Language Reference Manual. Second edition. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
  • Bostock, M., V. Ogievetsky and J. Heer. 2011. D3: Data-driven documents. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics 17:2301–2309. (Preprint online at
  • Dahlström, E., et al. (eds). 2011. Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) 1.1 (Second edition). World Wide Web Consortium Recommendation 16 August 2011.
  • Friendly, M. 2008. The golden age of statistical graphics. Statistical Science 23:502–535. (Available online at
  • Heer, J., and M. Bostock. 2010. Declarative language design for interactive visualization. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics 16:1036–1043. (Preprint online at
  • Heer, J., M. Bostock and V. Ogievetsky. 2010. A tour through the visualization zoo. Communications of the ACM 53(6):59–67.
  • United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2011. World Population Prospects, the 2010 Revision.
  • Wilkinson, L. 2005. The Grammar of Graphics. Second edition. New York: Springer-Verlag.

comments powered by Disqus


Subscribe to American Scientist