A hyphen is not a minus sign, and other mistaken characters

Several characters are simply short horizontal lines: the hyphen -, the minus sign −, the en dash –, and the em dash —. Each has a specific purpose, but often the hyphen is used regardless. This is bad practice.

The dash is not the only culprit; various other characters are incorrectly used. Typically these relate to mathematics or scientific quantities.

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Add any symbol without leaving the keyboard

Writing about science often involves using symbols. Unfortunately, few of the symbols we need can be found on the keyboard, which presents a problem. It is not difficult to copy and paste symbols needed, but it is tedious and annoying. Here I present a solution that lets you input any symbol by simply typing its name (prepended with a slash).

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Why LaTeX-typeset documents look professional

Documents typeset using LaTeX just look better than than their MS Word (or equivalent) counterparts. LaTeX has many well-known features to make document creation easy. However, it is some of its lesser-known features that together produce a professional-looking document.

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Know your image file formats

Images come in a variety of file types: jpg, png, pdf, eps, svg, tif, bmp, and countless other lesser-known ones. Each have their pros and cons, but they can be divided into two types: vector and raster. In science, we generally want vector images, unless we are dealing with photos.

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Figure captions need not be half a page

Before leaving high school, every scientist should have learned  all the things a graph should contain: a descriptive title, labels for every axis, appropriately spaced tick marks, and a legend if necessary. All pretty straightforward, so you would think any figure published in a scientific journal would adhere to this as a minimum. But I’ve come across far too many figures breaking one or more of these rules. The problem is not that people are excluding the information, rather they are putting everything in the figure caption. Consequently, the figure caption ends up being long-winded, procedural, and not at all interesting. Fortunately, it is easy to make the caption succinct and descriptive with a few quick adjustments to the figure.

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Stop using rainbow colourmaps

Far too often in scientific publications, the choice of colourmap for a figure has been given no thought. How do I know? Because every colour in the rainbow has been used.

For some reason rainbow colourmaps are the default in many programs, despite them being inappropriate for countless situations. I am not the first to recommend never using the rainbow/jet/hsv/etc… colourmaps, but apparently it needs repeating. If I arbritrarily pick a journal and go to the most recent articles, I am bound to come across multiple instances of these awful colour schemes.

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Learn Inkscape

If I could offer only one piece of advice to any scientist on how to improve the figures and presentations they produce, it would be ‘Learn how to use Inkscape’. Inkscape is a cross-platform, open-source vector graphics editor. Let’s break down all those adjectives to see how they help:

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