Acceptable Research Paper Fonts

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This post is by DrJanene Carey, a freelance writer and editor based in Armidale NSW. She occasionally teaches academic writing at the University of New England and often edits academic theses, articles and reports. Her website is

Arguably, this question is a classic time waster and the student who poses it should be told to just get on with writing up their research. But as someone who edits theses for a living, I think a bit of time spent on fonts is part of the process of buffing and polishing what is, after all, one of the most important documents you will ever produce. Just bear in mind that there is no need to immerse yourself so deeply in the topic that you start quibbling about whether it’s a font or a typeface that you are choosing.

Times New Roman is the standard choice for academic documents, and the thesis preparation guidelines of some universities stipulate its use. For many years, it was the default body text for Microsoft Word. With the release of Office 2007, the default became a sans serif typeface called Calibri. Lacking the little projecting bits (serifs) at the end of characters makes Calibri and its many friends, such as Arial, Helvetica and Verdana, look smoother and clearer on a screen, but generally makes them less readable than a serif typeface when used for printed text. The other problem with choosing a sans serif for your body text is that if you want passages in italics (for example, lengthy participant quotes) often this will be displayed as slanted letters, rather than as a true italic font.

You would like your examiners to feel as comfortable as possible while their eyes are traversing the many, many pages of your thesis, so maximising legibility and readability is a good idea. Times New Roman is ubiquitous and familiar, which means it is probably the safest option, but it does have a couple of drawbacks. Originally designed for The Times in London, its characters are slightly narrowed, so that more of them can be squished into a newspaper column. Secondly, some people intensely dislike TNR because they think it has been overused, and regard it as the font you choose when you are not choosing a font.

If you do have the luxury of choice (your university doesn’t insist you use Times New Roman, and you have defined document styles that are easy to modify, and there’s enough time left before the submission deadline) then I think it is worth considering what other typefaces might work well with your thesis. I’m not a typographical expert, but I have the following suggestions.

  1. Don’t use Calibri, or any other sans serif font, for your body text, though it is fine for headings. Most people agree that dense chunks of printed text are easier to read if the font is serif, and examiners are likely to expect a typeface that doesn’t stray too far from the standard. To my eye, Calibri looks a little too casual for the body of a thesis.
  2. Typefaces like Garamond, Palatino, Century Schoolbook, Georgia, Minion Pro, Cambria and Constantia are all perfectly acceptable, and they come with Microsoft Word. However, some of them (Georgia and Constantia, for example) feature non-lining numerals, which means that instead of all sitting neatly on the base line, some will stand higher or lower than others, just like letters do. This looks nice when they are integrated with the text, but it is probably not what you want for a tabular display.
  3. Consider using a different typeface for your headings. It will make them more prominent, which enhances overall readability because the eye scanning the pages can quickly take in the hierarchy of ideas. The easiest way to get a good contrast with your serif body text is to have sans serif headings. Popular combinations are Garamond/Helvetica; Minion Pro/Myriad Pro; Times New Roman/Arial Narrow. But don’t create a dog’s breakfast by having more than two typefaces in your thesis – use point sizes, bold and italics for variety.

Of late, I’ve become quite fond of Constantia. It’s an attractive serif typeface that came out with Office 2007 at the same time as Calibri, and was specifically designed to look good in print and on screen. Increasingly, theses will be read in PDF rather than book format, so screen readability is an important consideration.  Asked to review Microsoft’s six new ClearType fonts prior to their release, typographer Raph Levien said Constantia was likely to be everyone’s favourite, because ‘Even though it’s a highly readable Roman font departing only slightly from the classical model, it still manages to be fresh and new.’

By default, Constantia has non-lining numerals, but from Word 2010 onwards you can set them to be lining via the advanced font/number forms option, either throughout your document or in specific sections, such as within tables.

Here is an excerpt from a thesis, shown twice with different typefaces. The first excerpt features Calibri headings with Constantia body text, and the second has that old favourite, Times New Roman. As these examples have been rendered as screenshots, you will get a better idea of how the fonts actually look if you try them on your own computer and printer.

Calibri Constantia

Times New Roman

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Choosing the right fonts can affect how your scientific research is received.

Note: This is part 2 of a 2-part blog series about choices in fonts. You can read part 1 here.

You are dressed in your best. You edited the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb…but are your figures and images wearing flip-flops?

Last time we talked about fonts that suck professionalism out of your scientific research. In this article, we’ll talk about fonts that actually add credibility and professionalism to your research. Dress your research in a custom-tailored suit by just using these fonts!

My friend and colleague, Cassio Lynm described how a good figure should be like a billboard found in many highways around the country. Anyone who sees the billboard will understand what they are advertising in a split second. If someone is confused or gets the wrong idea, the image is not very successful.

Similarly, the best professional fonts should be one that’s easy to read with very little “bells and whistles”. When writing prose of informational value such as scientific research, a reader should pay attention to what the text is describing, not how the text looks.  A good professional font should be like air–we don’t really even pay attention to it most of the time.

Some of the fonts I’ll share with you today are considered “boring” and “overused” by some. These fonts are everywhere because they are champions of legibility and simplicity.  Make your work professional and trustworthy by using a time-tested font.

1. Arial- “All-Around Champion with IBM Roots”

According to, Arial is one of the most used typefaces of the last 30 years. Its electronic origins go back to 1982 for IBM laser-xerographic printers by designers Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders. When it came out, it was supposed to compete with Helvetica, which was one of the core fonts in Apple Computers in the mid 1980’s.

Arial letters have more round shapes and the edges of letters do not end in a horizontal line. Instead, the edges are at an angle.

Arial is an easy-to-read font in small and large blocks of text. Nature requests that the figure text be in Arial or Helvetica. It’s especially nice for figure labels and legends. When using Arial as figure legends, keep the font size small ~8 points for best results.

2. Helvetica- “All-Around Champion with Apple Roots”

Helvetica is the most heavily-used font. Helvetica was originally designed by a Swiss designer named Max Miedinger in 1957. The font was designed to be an easy-to-read font. The name “Helvetica” comes from “Helvetia” – Latin name for Switzerland. Actually, the font received a facelift in 1983-the newer version is called, you guessed it, Neue Helvetica.

Helvetica even has its own movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but please comment in the section below if you have.

Besides its Hollywood (Indie) status, Helvetica is a font that looks great on both print and on screen.  Nature , Science, and Cell request that their figure labels be in Helvetica. (If you need assistance setting up figures, I’m here to help). It looks great small as in figure labels, and it looks pretty good in large formats as posters. I lost count of how many figures I labeled using Helvetica, since that’s what one of the publishers used for their books.

3. Baskerville- “Tends to have positive influence on readers”

Baskerville’s history goes all the way back to 1757 when John Baskerville designed a typeface that works well in print and easy to read.  Mr. Baskerville preferred his letters simple and refined. He was also a writing master, so he had some ornamental letters like the upper case Q.

There was an informal study (not official, but some experiments here and there) that showed using Baskerville font increased trustworthiness of the text compared to other fonts. In the same study, Comic Sans had the most negative influence on the readers.

Baskerville is a serif font, which means that there are “tails” at the edge of the letters. Generally, serif fonts are better suited for print. This font works best when used in long blocks of text. Try to keep this font between 8 and 14pts for best results. This font looks dignified, so use this for your important professional occasions-award ceremonies, recognitions, etc.

4. Caslon- “When in doubt, use Caslon”

Caslon is another font with a long history. William Cason I designed the typeface back in the early 1700’s. This font is considered as the first original typeface from England. This font was very popular in colonial America, and it was used for many historical documents including the US Declaration of Independence.

Caslon is a serif font (with tails), and is best used in blocks of text. Like Baskerville, try to keep this font between 8 and 14 points for best results. Using this in a report or an application would be a good places.

5. Garamond – “Second best font after Helvetica”

This font’s history also goes way back. The font was designed by Claude Garamond (or Jean Jannon), who was commissioned to make a typeface for King Francis I of France (1515-47) to be used in series of books. The modern, electric version was revived in 1989 by Robert Slimbach.

Because there are different sources available for Garamond, there are numbers of different variations of the font. Adobe Garamond is the most popular and widely-available version today.

Garamond is still used extensively by French publishers. They also insist that Garamond be printed in size 9.  Some of the most famous publications in France are in Garamond such as Histoire de l’édition français.  The publishers prefer this font “for its beauty, its richness and its legibility” combined with “an uncluttered graphic style that underscores the rigour of essays and analysis providing a radical critique of contemporary society”.

Garamond is a great font to be used in long proses such as textbooks, dissertations and theses. Keeping it at 9 point is optional. In fact, my master’s thesis was in Garamond.

So that’s the 5 fonts that add credibility and professionalism to your scientific research. Did you find your favorite fonts here? Do you have other favorites? Please share your thoughts in the comment section. Also, please feel free to send this article along to those who might benefit from this short article.


Now that you know about great scientific fonts, learn more about: PowerPoint Tips for the Scientist

Read the article

Sources and Further reading:

Arial vs Helvetica –

Research on font trustworthiness: Baskerville vs. Comic Sans

Caslon typeface

History of Garamond

Cell Press Figure Guide

Nature -Guide to preparing final artwork

Science Magazine: Preparing your manuscript

About Ikumi Kayama

Studio Kayama’s Founder, Ikumi Kayama is an award-winning medical & scientific illustrator who helps scientists and doctors how to be heard and understood and how to express the value of what they do through accurate and useful illustrations. Ikumi's mission is to make science relevant and accessible to everyone using accurate visuals. She also gives PowerPoint Design Tip seminars for the scientists and various illustration technique courses for the artists. Come say hello and follow Ikumi on facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube, and Google+ .


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