Presenting data

Presenting data usually involves the use of Figures and Tables to present information in a concise manner. Figures can be diagrams of various kinds, e.g., drawings, logos, cartoons, but they are usually graphs or charts. Tables typically comprise numerical data in columns and rows. There are a number of things you can ask yourself when presenting data using these visual presentation methods.

  • Do you really need a table or figure?
  • What should you use? A table or a figure?
  • How should you refer to tables and figures in the main text?
  • How are tables and figures best numbered?
  • Where should tables and figures be placed in the text?
  • What are the key elements of a table?
  • What are the key elements of a figure?
  • How should you check tables and figures when proofreading your thesis?

We will go through each of these in turn. See also The Results section. See also Figures and Tables.

Do you really need a table or figure?

A key consideration is if a table or figure is needed. In some cases, it is easier and simpler to provide explanatory text. For example the following table is best described as follows:

  • In 2011, seven members of the management team received salaries of between $150,000 and $180,000 while the Executive Director’s salary was around $230,000.

(Oxfam, 2012)

The written version is succinct, takes up less space, and does not require much thinking and interpretation, as the table does. A determination should be made on the basis of need, not whether the table or graph looks impressive. Copying and pasting from computer-generated sources (e.g., SPSS) is not acceptable either as the resulting data might be too dense. Always consider readability.

What should you use? A table or a figure?

Tables are used to show precise data; Figures—such as graphs—are used to show trends. The graph below shows how a number of inequality measures have changed over time. A table of the same data would not show the differences between them quite as clearly.

(Yan et al., 2019, p. 457)

By contrast the table below is better than a graph as precise data is needed. Presenting this information in a graph would require fine discriminations between numerical values. A table does this better.

  • Table 2 shows that the proportion of people with catastrophic healthcare expenditure decreases with income decile —with those in the lowest income decile having the highest percentage of people with catastrophic healthcare expenditure. The concentration index for the distribution of catastrophic expenditure was − 0.39 (95% CI: -0.43, − 0.34) in 2006, and increased to − 0.46 (95% CI: -0.50, − 0.42), showing an increase in the distribution of catastrophic healthcare expenditure towards those of lower income over time.

(Callander et al., 2019, pp. 4-5)

The information below, however, is best presented as a graph as it shows a changing relationship or trend over time:

A Figure showing a trend over time.

(Australian Trade Commission, 2011)

How should you refer to Tables and Figures in the main text?

Tables and figures should never be inserted into the text without a ‘lead-in’ phrase, or an indicator referring directly to the table or figure. See below for an example:

  • Interestingly, there were no statistically significant differences across type of enterprise. Nevertheless, when responses were compared by ‘remoteness’ (Table 3), it was possible to identify differences across means that were statistically significant at the 5% level.

The lead-in “hook”, ‘Table 3’, directs the reader to the appropriate table. This can be done in a number of ways:

  • The indicator can be embedded within a sentence (as shown above)
  • The indicator can be prominent at the start of a sentence, e.g., ‘Table 1 refers to the ….’.
  • The indicator can be at the end of an explanatory passage ‘ … (see Table 3)’.

it is a good idea to vary these ways of presenting the lead-in phrase or “hook” as it ensures your writing is not monotonous. The passage above can be written in any of these ways (with minor differences in wording):

  • Table 3 below shows that there were no statistically significant differences across type of enterprise. Nevertheless, when responses were compared by ‘remoteness’, it was possible to identify differences across means that were statistically significant at the 5% level.
  • Interestingly, there were no statistically significant differences across type of enterprise. Nevertheless, when responses were compared by ‘remoteness’ (Table 3), it was possible to identify differences across means that were statistically significant at the 5% level.
  • Interestingly, there were no statistically significant differences across type of enterprise. Nevertheless, when responses were compared by ‘remoteness’, it was possible to identify differences across means that were statistically significant at the 5% level (see Table 3 below).

‘Above’ and ‘below’ (and ‘See …’) are helpful directional expressions for the reader. They are important in large, complex dissertations with many figures and tables. Readers need to know where to look. Note that ‘see Table 3 below’ is shortened in the embedded version as it would be too wordy and result in a less fluent and readable passage of text.

It may not be possible, in dissertations that have a lot of tables and figures to locate the data next to where it is discussed in the text so it might be necessary to consider different strategies for Figure/Table placement (see ‘Placement’ below).

How are Tables and Figures best numbered?

Tables and figures are numbered independently, and consecutively sequenced in the text in which you refer to them, starting with ‘Table 1.‘ and ‘Figure 1.’ In some cases you might need secondary sequencing such as ‘Table 1a’ ‘Table 1b’, or ‘Table 1.1’, ‘Table 1.2’, etc., but avoid more than three levels of numbering as it can be cumbersome and hard to read.

Renumbering is critical when text sequencing changes. Microsoft Word has a figures and tables caption function that allows this to be done easily. This also allows the Table of Figures to be placed after the Table of Contents for the thesis. It is worth learning how to use this function well before thesis preparation.

Where should Tables and Figures be placed in the text?

In general, place tables and figures close to the text where you first refer to them. Sometimes, if there are many tables and figures, it may be necessary to place tables/figures at the end of the manuscript and include a text indicator in the appropriate place, e.g., ‘Table 3.2 here’. Journals often request this of authors when they are submitting papers for publication. For example:

  • Tables and Figures. Tables and figures (illustrations) should not be embedded in the text, but should be included as separate files. A short descriptive title should appear above each table with a clear legend and any footnotes suitably identified below. All units must be included. Figures should be completely labeled, taking into account necessary size reduction. Captions should be typed, double-spaced, on the final page of the main document.”

(Taylor and Francis, 2012)

This is not desirable in thesis writing however. So what do you do if you have a lot of tables and figures? Sometimes it is necessary to have Appendices in a thesis. An Appendix is a separate document at the end of a report, thesis or book. This is where large datasets can be located. Sometimes you might need to condense information from a large dataset and make your own table or figure and refer to the original dataset in your summary table or figure. The original table or figure is then given its own appendix: ‘Appendix 1’, ‘Appendix 2’, and so on. The data presentation is thereby distributed between a small table or figure in the text and larger table/figure in appendices. A much smaller summary table can be located in the text and a reference made to the more expansive data source provided in the appendix (‘see Appendix 4 for more details on …).

Key elements of a Table

The key elements of a Table are: 1) the table title; 2) the column headings; 3) The Data; 4) Footnotes or Notes; 5) demarcation lines. These are all shown below.

Elements of a table

(Collins and Low, 2020)

The Footnote or Notes section will often display a source, and it may also provide explanatory details as it does here. If there is only one note to add, this is done without further identification numbers or symbols. If there are a number of explanatory details to be added the individual notes will be numbered; if there are only a 2-3 sometimes an asterisk (*), a dagger ( † ), and double dagger (‡) are provided—in that order—to distinguish the notes.

Sometimes the Notes can be extensive as they are below:

Table with extensive notes

However, where possible, keep the Notes succinct and place most explanatory information in the text describing the table.

Key elements of a Figure

They key elements of a figure are: 1) the X and Y axes; 2) the X/Y axis labels; 3) the Body data and 4) the Legend. These are shown below.

Key elements of a table

The Legend might simply show the source and description, or it might also contain notes. Sometimes a key is also needed. This is needed to discriminate between categories of data. In this example the key shows average business-led multipliers by postcode.

Figure with key

Here is another example of a figure with a key:

Figure with key

Sometimes the key is included as part of the graph or chart like the example below. Use whatever style is needed to make the information clear:

Graph with embedded key

Can you identify the parts of the figure below? (The terminology is given below the figure.)


Checking Tables and Figures

When proofreading Tables and Figures consideration needs to be given to the following:

  • Choice of format: Have you chosen the format that best meets your needs and those of the reader? Would a Table or a Figure be more suitable for the purpose intended?
  • Placement: Are the Tables and Figures located close to where they are mentioned in the text? It makes little sense, for example, to put a table on page 20 while the analysis/description is on page 25. It is acceptable to refer back to a Table/Figure (‘see p. 42 for data on …‘ ) but the initial description or analysis of a Table/Figure should be as close as possible to the Table/Figure. In the case of summary tables/figures, is there a clear reference to an Appendix where the more extensive Table/Figure is provided?
  • Labelling: Is the labelling consistent and sequenced correctly? This is important when a dissertation undergoes extensive re-writing and reorganisation.
  • Accuracy: Is the data clear and legible? Ask a friend or fellow student to ensure that the information is clear and intelligible.
  • Recency of data: Doctoral-level scholarship requires recent data wherever possible. Is the data provided in Tables and Figures from sources published in the last 5-7 years?
  • Does the text support the table or figure? Ensure that the descriptive text referring to the table or figure is accurate in terms of correctly describing the data provided in the Table or Figure. If a table/figure is used without further referral/discussion in the text, delete it—it is surplus to requirements.
  • Repetition: Make sure that each table/figure only appears only once in a thesis. If it is necessary to interpret the table/figure differently in other places in a dissertation refer back to it as required (‘See Chapter 4, section 4.2 for …’).
  • Numbering: As noted earlier, ensure that Tables and Figures are numbered separately, i.e., Table 1, Table 2, Table 3, etc …. Figure 1, Figure 2, Figure 3, etc … (don’t use excessive numbering, and never exceed three levels, e.g., 4.1.1.)
  • Sequencing: Check the number sequencing. Use the “Insert Caption” function in the “References” Tab in Word to ensure that this is accurate at all times even when the thesis is re-ordered.
The caption feature in Word
  • List of Tables and Figures: If you have used the “Insert Caption” for all Tables and Figures throughout the thesis, a List of Tables and Figures can be created using the “Insert Table of Figures” function (see the above image). This list is placed below the Table of Contents.
  • Citation of sources: Cite all Tables and Figures as appropriate to the referencing style used. If you are using APA7 for your thesis, for example, there are conventions for font style and placement of titles. The table number must appear in bold font and above the table title while the table title appears below it in italics (Similarly, check the formatting rules for figures). See also Figures and Tables.

Citing tables and figures

As per normal scholarly practice, information or ideas obtained from other sources need to be cited. This includes the use of tables and figures. If the table or figure is taken directly from a source without alteration, then normal citation practice applies: the author’s name and year of publication is provided, or—if there is no author—the organisation name and year (see Referencing).

If however, the table or figure is altered or changed to suit your own purposes it is common to see the phrase: ‘Adapted from [surname, year]’ or ‘Based on [surname, year]’, e.g., ‘Adapted from Smith (2021)’. This information can be also cited in parentheses in information prominent citation style: e.g., ‘….. (Adapted from Smith, 2021)’. This makes it clear that you have taken some information from the cited source and used it for a different purpose. This is acceptable as long as a citation is provided.

Sometimes a number of sources need to be cited. You can do this by creating a composite table or figure from information provided in different publications. In this case normal citation practice is used of including multiple sources, e.g., ‘(Adapted from Smith, 2021; Turner, 2018; Xu, 2010)’.

When making a summary table/figure of your own from a large dataset provided in an Appendix, a citation might not be needed if the figure or table is your own work. However, you might still need to write ‘Adapted from …’ depending on how close your summary table/figure is to original source. The original table/figure in the Appendix might need to be cited. Attention needs to be given to correct attribution.

Further Reading

  • Australian Trade Commission (2011).  Australia’s banking industry.…/2792/Australias-Banking-Industry.pdf.aspx.
  • Callander, E. J., Fox, H., & Lindsay, D. (2019). Out-of-pocket healthcare expenditure in Australia: Trends, inequalities and the impact on household living standards in a high-income country with a universal health care system. Health Economics Review9(1), 1-8.
  • Collins, J. & Low, A. (2010). Asian female immigrant entrepreneurs in small and medium-sized businesses in Australia. Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, 22(1), 97-111.
  • Oxfam (2012). Our directors.
  • Taylor and Francis (2012). The Journal of International Research – Instructions for Authors. from
  • Yan, W., Wang, W., van Wijngaarden, P., Mueller, A., & He, M. (2019). Longitudinal changes in global cataract surgery rate inequality and associations with socioeconomic indices. Clinical & Experimental Ophthalmology47(4), 453-460.

For a downloadable helpsheet, see Presenting data. See also: