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The DNA Hall of Shame

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Confession time. Illustrators are people, too. And by that I mean they bring assumptions to the table at the outset of every project. There’s no avoiding it – no matter how educated and experienced you are, you can’t know it all. That is why it is so critical for researchers and editors to be intimately involved in every draft of the drawings they commission and publish. This may sound like a mega no-brainer, especially if you’re an editor or art director in a field other than in the sciences who is accustomed to working intimately with illustrators to get what you want. But in my experience illustrating two popular non-fiction science books, illustrations are treated as icing on the cake and are glossed over by fact checkers and editors who otherwise comb manuscripts for errors. Illustrating Your Inner Fish is a prime example. The manuscript went through four drafts of revisions with at least two specialized scientific editors. And yet this gaffe made it through:

image of Left-handed DNA

Ooooh, how this irks me!

You’re all a bunch of savvy science readers. Can you guess the gaffe?

GUAAAAAAGH!! Left-handed DNA!!!!! How did we let this slip?! And notice I say “we?” I’m not trying to shirk responsibility here, but authors have editors for exactly this reason: to catch this kind of “typo” in the text. Why not extend this practice to the figures and illustrations as well? While Shubin’s text got put through the fine-toothed comb of four professional editors, I got precisely ZERO technical comments on my illustrations from the editors (Shubin, to his great credit, was very involved in the conception and direction of each image, but just as he got editors for his text, he should have been offered the same level of scrutiny of his figures). I suspect that part of this stemmed from the fact that it was Shubin’s vision, not the publisher’s, that the images would be so integral to the text. As it were, I was left to conclude that my illustrations were either spectacularly fabulous, amazing, and perfect or… Wait a sec, guys, could ya look at them, like, for reals?

From my perspective, in the absence of editorial input, I should have run this and the other illustrations by independent parties on my own – but thinking back, I’m not sure this would have been appreciated, given the confidential nature of working drafts. So in this light, wouldn’t it make sense for the editors already assigned to the job to consider the illustrations as carefully as they do the text? I’d be curious to hear others’ experiences with similar projects, but for both popular non-fiction science books I have illustrated, my contact was solely with the author. I was very much removed from the entire editorial process. This works ok (after all, errors slipped through the text as well), but it could be so much better.

So let this be a call to action. If you are an editor for science publications, please, please, puh-leeeeease look as critically at the illustrations and figures your authors submit as you do at their text. And feel free to contact us directly, too. We are working as hard as your authors, trying to convey ideas cleanly, concisely, and accurately. We are not just providing superfluous eye candy.

DNA sad face

Left-handed DNA makes me sad!

It shames me to post this but at least I’m one of many. The Left-Handed DNA Hall of Fame keeps track of examples of left-handed DNA it finds on the web. Have a lookie. Kind of a fun time, if it doesn’t remind you of that painful gaffe you made back in 2008…

Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. edyong209 3:23 pm 07/25/2011

    The Royal Society has these little crystal DNA helices in its door handles. One day, I noticed that one of them was left-handed. Now, they’re all right-handed. Clearly, someone complained ;-)

    Link to this
  2. 2. 4:25 pm 07/25/2011

    Ha! Amazing. This mistake really is pervasive. Doh!

    Link to this
  3. 3. Glendon Mellow 9:32 pm 07/25/2011

    And feel free to contact us directly, too. We are working as hard as your authors, trying to convey ideas cleanly, concisely, and accurately. We are not just providing superfluous eye candy.

    This x100.

    (Oh man. Oh man. I gotta check through my whole portfolio now…)

    Link to this
  4. 4. stevematheson 1:31 pm 07/28/2011

    So, silly me, I missed the handedness thing, probably because I’m not a biochemist. I thought the error was more obvious: the thing labelled “chromosome” is X-shaped. This is a common depiction of a chromosome, but it’s biologically bizarre. The only time genetic material looks like that is during mitosis, and specifically before anaphase.

    We might say, “oh, well it’s not inaccurate, it’s just a little too specific, but it’s only a cartoon so chill.” And if so, I’d say the same thing about the handedness of the cartoon DNA molecule.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Kalliopi Monoyios in reply to Kalliopi Monoyios 5:10 pm 07/28/2011

    Great point, Steve. Thanks for bringing it up. I was going for a chromosome at its most recognizable. But I see your point that it’s a very specific moment in time, and not indicative of what it looks like the majority of the time. Incidentally, left-handed DNA does exist as well, but is much less common than right-handed DNA:

    I suppose I can claim I was just feeling contrary when I drew this, eh?

    Link to this
  6. 6. stevematheson 6:26 pm 07/28/2011

    “I suppose I can claim I was just feeling contrary when I drew this, eh?” That works. Or you could say you were just so tired of right-wing bias in the molecular biology media. :-)

    And just to close the loop on the X-shaped chromosome thing: that kind of picture is so pervasive now, and probably for good reasons (how else would you pictorially depict a chromosome? answer below), that we should probably just adapt to it by pointing out that the picture is a pair of chromosomes and then just go with it. One alternative is to show a portion of a picture of a collection of chromosomes and point to just one of them.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Kalliopi Monoyios in reply to Kalliopi Monoyios 12:31 pm 07/29/2011

    “Or you could say you were just so tired of right-wing bias in the molecular biology media. :-)”

    Oh, man. That is brilliant! Wish I’d thought of that!!

    About the depiction of chromosomes, this is exactly the kind of conversation we should be having between illustrators, scientists, and editors during the process of creating figures to accompany text. Thanks for bringing it up. I’ll certainly keep these points in mind the next time I’m asked to depict chromosomes.

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