With the complexity of scientific research ever increasing, it naturally follows that there is growing demand for figures being able to convey this complexity. In many cases the information churned out by big data projects can no longer be displayed in a sensible way in conventional data visualisation. And if you have ever tried to wrap your head around a 2D map of protein-protein interactions or one of those dreaded 3D bar charts (maybe even created using the standard Excel template), you will understand that there is plenty of room for improvement.

While it is difficult for classical print journals to venture beyond the flat, 2D space of figures, the advent of online journals offers new possibilities, such as including interactive figures or embedding raw data. To cater for this need, an increasing number of platforms, such as Plotly and Code Ocean, allow you to add sliders to animations and all sorts of other fancy features that enable you to visualise your data in a more comprehensible (and visually appealing!) way. Some examples of published work using these or similar tools can be found in recent articles published by F1000 research (see example 1 and example 2).

Another major boon of this development is increased transparency and, hopefully ultimately reproducibility. This is highlighted by for example the Journal of Cell Biology´s Data Viewer tool that let´s you download and explore raw microscopy images, instead of being limited to the low-resolution version included in the article.

And with heavy-weights, such as Cell and Nature starting to include examples of interactive figures for e.g. the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements project or chromatin interaction maps, the trend is set to continue – keep your eyes peeled. Or better still, start creating your first interactive figure today!

For further details, see a recent Nature Toolbox article (no subscription required).