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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

How to work with an illustrator for your science communication project (Using Images-A Primer, part 4)

Updated: Jan 26

This article is the fourth in a series aimed at helping you enhance your scicomm and sciart by avoiding visual plagiarism. It will do so by laying out some best practices for dealing with images (which are, by their nature) visual intellectual property protected by copyrights.

NOTE: I am not a lawyer, and no part of this article or series should be construed as legal advice. 

Please chime in, in the comments or by contacting me, if you have suggestions for how to enhance this article or the series.


A child holds crayons and a pencil. On the table a paper with a drawing suggests the child has made the drawing.
Custom illustrations can make your science communication more compelling. And they don’t have to be hard to get or break your budget. (Child drawing a bison, © B.G. Merkle, 2017)


As discussed in the first article in this series, humans are visual animals. As a result, your image choices are fundamental to communicating the significance of your research and the information you want your students to understand. Images are often key to engaging people, let alone convincing an audience to support science research or policy making based on scientific evidence. And, image choice is critical for people relating to scientists as people, and picturing themselves as having a stake in science, or becoming a scientist themselves.

Also note: Much of what this article addresses – the basics of working with an illustrator – is also relevant to working with other professional image creators (e.g. photographers, graphic designers, animators, etc.).

That being said, illustrations can be a particularly powerful choice for communicating your science. This is because illustrations can do some things that photos can’t.

An illustration can highlight key features and combine elements, create an accurate representation by showing multiple angles or cross-sections, etc.

Pencil and colored pencil sketches of vertebrae, along with notes that aren't really legible. One phrase reads: connected to the...backbone!
Elk vertebrae sketches, © B.G. Merkle 2017

Furthermore, illustrations “think” like the human brain. Recent neurological research indicates the brain actively seeks outlines. Although we don’t tend to think of it this way, what our mind’s eye sees may look more like a drawing than a photograph [1].

And, importantly, illustrations can generate an emotive connection.

A fair body of research tells us that making affective, emotional, connections is not just a compelling, but an essential way of helping learners connect prior experiences to new information. This affective connection is particularly important if the learning you are facilitating may contradict a student’s, reader’s, or audience member’s prior knowledge [2, 3].

So, let’s say you want to incorporate sciart illustrations into your next scicomm effort. But, none of the images you’ve found online meet your needs. And, you don’t (for whatever reason – time, inclination, skill level) want to create the images yourself.

We can think of commissioning SciArt according to the 4 Cs:

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