Making interactive figures for journal articles

Flash end of life and pdfs.While we knew that Adobe was abandoning Flash for browsers in favor of html 5, it remained unclear what the story would be for Flash (.swf) content embedded in pdfs. The answer is, tough. The Adobe webpage for the impact on Acrobat says that .swf material will not be readable by Adobe products going forward. It alludes to embedding "rich material" being supported going forward, including (somehow) importing rich html material into pdfs. As of this writing, I am unsure of the specific paths that might be possible; online Adobe documentation seems geared solely to linear video material. I believe that at the moment that this means that you can only embed video (in several formats), use layers, or import 3-D models within a pdf with the tools that will continue to work after the start of 2021.

This mini-site is dedicated to assembling directions for making some styles of interactive figures that can be embedded in journal articles (as opposed to being separate figures that are downloaded separately). The focus is on tricks to get into pdf files, as most users will download a pdf instead of view an html version (which remains frequently quite ugly despite CSS and style sheets and HTML5.0). It should also be possible to do this within html versions of papers (indeed, it should even be easier), but until publishers release single download versions of papers or the web interfaces to papers improve on formatted pdfs, it seems more sensible to focus on the pdf opportunities.

A 2013 article in PLOSone (that I missed until recently) documents embedding 3-D images in pdfs

Why do this? Why spend the time and trouble to make such figures? Well, for one thing, they can permit several figures to be combined as one, making it easier to have more material in a paper. In many cases, this allows the reader to explore the data more thoroughly than with static images. Ideally, this permits a stronger line of communication with the reader, allowing your work to have greater impact.

A summary of ideas (as time permits, I'll rewrite the external link material into how-tos with a more common setup):

On a related note, I've been starting to keep a list of interactive figures online that might provide ideas on what could be done (many of these are implemented in HTML5, I think, and so cannot simply be placed in a pdf).

Please send mail to if you encounter any problems or have suggestions.

C. H. Jones | CIRES | Dept. of Geological Sciences | Univ. of Colorado at Boulder

Last modified at June 13, 2020 4:59 PM