Aesthetically pleasing, publication quality plots in R

I spend a lot of my time making graphs. For a long time I used a Unix package called Grace. This had several advantages, including the ability to create grids of plots very easily. However it also had plenty of limitations, and because it is GUI-based, one had to create each plot from scratch. Although I use Matlab for most data analysis, I’ve always found its plotting capabilities disappointing, so a couple of years ago I bit the bullet and started learning R, using the RStudio interface.

There are several plotting packages for R, including things like ggplot2, which can automate the creation of some plots. Provided your data are in the correct format, this can make plotting really quick, and tends to produce decent results. However, for publication purposes I usually want to have more control over the precise appearance of a graph. So, I’ve found it most useful to construct graphs using the ‘plot’ command, but customising almost every aspect of the graph. There were several things that took me a while to work out, as many functions aren’t as well documented as they could be. So I thought it would be helpful to share my efforts. Below is some code (which you can also download here) that demonstrates several useful techniques for plotting, and should create something resembling the following plot when executed.

Example plot created by the script.

Example plot created by the script.

My intention is to use this script myself as a reminder of how to do different things (at the moment I always have to search through dozens of old scripts to find the last time I did something), and copy and paste chunks of code into new scripts each time I need to make a graph. Please feel free to use parts of it yourself, to help make the world a more beautiful place!

# this script contains examples of the following:
# outputting plots as pdf and eps files
# creating plots with custom tick mark positioning
# drawing points, bars, lines, errorbars, polygons, legends and text (including symbols)
# colour ramps, transparency, random numbers and density plots


# Code to output figures as either an eps or pdf file. Note that R’s eps files appear not to cope well with transparency, whereas pdfs are fine
outputplot <- 0
if(outputplot==1){postscript(“filename.eps”, horizontal = FALSE, onefile = FALSE, paper = “special”, height = 4.5, width = 4.5)}
if(outputplot==2){pdf(“filename.pdf”, bg=”transparent”, height = 5.5, width = 5.5)}
# all the code to create the plot goes here
if(outputplot>0){dev.off()}  # this line goes after you’ve finished plotting (to output the example below, move it to the bottom of the script)


# set up an empty plot with user-specified axis labels and tick marks
plotlims <- c(0,1,0,1)  # define the x and y limits of the plot (minx,maxx,miny,maxy)
ticklocsx <- (0:4)/4    # locations of tick marks on x axis
ticklocsy <- (0:5)/5    # locations of tick marks on y axis
ticklabelsx <- c(“0″,”0.25″,”0.5″,”0.75″,”1”)        # set labels for x ticks
ticklabelsy <- c(“0″,”0.2″,”0.4″,”0.6″,”0.8″,”1”)    # set labels for y ticks


par(pty=”s”)  # make axis square
plot(x=NULL,y=NULL,axes=FALSE, ann=FALSE, xlim=plotlims[1:2], ylim=plotlims[3:4])   # create an empty axis of the correct dimensions
axis(1, at=ticklocsx, tck=0.01, lab=F, lwd=2)     # plot tick marks (no labels)
axis(2, at=ticklocsy, tck=0.01, lab=F, lwd=2)
axis(3, at=ticklocsx, tck=0.01, lab=F, lwd=2)
axis(4, at=ticklocsy, tck=0.01, lab=F, lwd=2)
mtext(text = ticklabelsx, side = 1, at=ticklocsx)     # add the tick labels
mtext(text = ticklabelsy, side = 2, at=ticklocsy, line=0.2, las=1)  # the ‘line’ command moves away from the axis, the ‘las’ command rotates to vertical
box(lwd=2)      # draw a box around the graph
title(xlab=”X axis title”, col.lab=rgb(0,0,0), line=1.2, cex.lab=1.5)    # titles for axes
title(ylab=”Y axis title”, col.lab=rgb(0,0,0), line=1.5, cex.lab=1.5)


# create some synthetic data to plot as points and lines
datax <- sort(runif(10,min=0,max=1))
datay <- sort(runif(10,min=0.2,max=0.8))
SEdata <- runif(10,min=0,max=0.1)
lines(datax,datay, col=’red’, lwd=3, cex=0.5)     # draw a line connecting the points
arrows(datax,datay,x1=datax, y1=datay-SEdata, length=0.015, angle=90, lwd=2, col=’black’)  # add lower error bar
arrows(datax,datay,x1=datax, y1=datay+SEdata, length=0.015, angle=90, lwd=2, col=’black’)  # add upper error bar
points(datax,datay, pch = 21, col=’black’, bg=’cornflowerblue’, cex=1.6, lwd=3)   # draw the data points themselves


# create some more synthetic data to plot as bars
datax <- 0.1*(1:10)
datay <- runif(10,min=0,max=0.2)
SEdata <- runif(10,min=0,max=0.05)
ramp <- colorRamp(c(“indianred2”, “cornflowerblue”))  # create a ramp from one colour to another
colmatrix <- rgb(ramp(seq(0, 1, length = 10)), max = 255)   # index the ramp at ten points
barplot(datay, width=0.1, col=colmatrix, space=0, xlim=1, add=TRUE, axes=FALSE, ann=FALSE)  # add some bars to an existing plot
arrows(datax-0.05,datay,x1=datax-0.05, y1=datay-SEdata, length=0.015, angle=90, lwd=2, col=’black’)  # add lower error bar
arrows(datax-0.05,datay,x1=datax-0.05, y1=datay+SEdata, length=0.015, angle=90, lwd=2, col=’black’)  # add upper error bar


coltrans=rgb(1,0.5,0,alpha=0.3)             # create a semi-transparent colour (transparency is the alpha parameter, from 0-1)
a <- density(rnorm(100,mean=0.75,sd=0.1))   # make a density distribution from some random numbers
a$y <- 0.2*(a$y/max(a$y))                   # rescale the y values for plotting
polygon(a$x, 1-a$y, col=coltrans,border=NA) # plot upside down hanging from the top axis with our transparent colour


# create a legend that can contain lines, points, or both
legend(0, 1, c(“Lines”,”Points”,”Both”), cex=1, col=c(“darkgrey”,”black”,”black”), pt.cex=c(0,1.8,1.8), pt.bg=c(“black”,”violet”,”darkgreen”),lty=c(1,0,1), lwd=c(5,3,3), pch=21, pt.lwd=3, box.lwd=2)
# add text somewhere, featuring symbols and formatting
text(0.8,0.95,substitute(paste(italic(alpha), ” = 1″ )),cex=1.2,adj=0)

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