Diachronic Aaalysis of the visuals in the research paper: a corpus-based study of the strategies and semiotics of visual representation in nutrition biochemistry.

  • Anne Magnet University of Burgundy
Keywords: Visuals, Research paper, Diachrony, Corpus-based, Socio-constructivism, Semiotics, Nutrition Biochemistry


This article reports a diachronic analysis of the visuals as used in the scientific research paper over a 70-year period (1929-1999). The corpus-based (72-articles) study investigates the strategies of specialists in nutrition biochemistry publishing on a single biological theme : essential fatty acids (EFA). It provides data on the various kinds of visuals as well as an inquiry into the size, positioning, nature and function of visual representation within the scientific paper considered as a genre, over the years. Based on the theoretical principle of semiotics, it then proceeds with an analysis of the concept move which underlies the use of visuals, conceived as the hard core of the paper. Readability of a scientific document depends on the number of symbolic and semi-symbolic systems at stake. A scientific visual is constructed as the article itself : It is built as a stratagem, an ambush with no way out. Visuals are used to convince. They are also the only evidence of laboratory work. Semiotic analysis shows that the descriptive nature of the visuals used in the corpus changes after the 60s to become the display of multiple relationships. It also analyzes how the techniques of foregrounding and backgrounding can apply to the study of non-verbal items in the research paper. Social semiotics gives another light on the use of visuals by showing that a scientific paper does not only contain new information. Based on the theme/rheme concepts, borrowed from systemic linguistics, the study of visuals in the corpus and especially that of tables, demonstrates that what is already known by the community (given) tends to be produced on the left-hand side of the tables, whereas the new information is placed on the right. There is also adequation between the title key-words of the tables and the right-hand side results found in these tables. However, due to the development of symbolic representation over the years, the results concerning the research theme in the 80s and 90s tend to follow logical 77 ordering. Thus, the results about essential fatty acids (EFA) are presented or staged in an order according to their chemical composition. Significant results in this case do not appear on the right, but are signalled by special symbols. Specialists can thus very efficiently find the results of interest through this deciphering process, while the layman is more and more at a loss when trying to understand the data represented in visuals. This paper stresses the interest of a diachronic prospect in the study of the visual characteristics of the scientific article, by showing that if visuals are a constant feature, and even constitute the hard core of the article, they should not be considered as stable traits in the research paper contemplated as a genre and their evolution points to changing persuasion strategies pursued by the scientific community represented here.