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Guide to Writing Alt Text

What is alt text?

Alternative Text (alt text) is a short text description that can be digitally attached to figures or images to convey to readers the nature or contents of the image. It is used by systems such as pronouncing screen readers to make the object accessible to people that cannot read or see the object due to a visual impairment or print disability.

All figures in Taylor and Francis publications require an alt text description (unless they are purely decorative, which is generally discouraged). This includes visual resources hosted in instructor resources, image banks, companion website downloads and author-hosted websites (all websites should be fully accessible in line with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines).

Video and audio content will require the equivalent for alt text, which is at the very minimum, a transcript. You can read more about creating transcripts on the W3C website.

Why is alt text so important?

Alt text is a key aspect of accessible publishing and its inclusion in our content ensures Taylor and Francis meets its key moral, ethical and legal obligations to customers by recognizing their challenges and responding appropriately to their needs. A digital “accessible” text is one that provides equal opportunity to all readers, including those with visual or print impairments. Taylor & Francis is committed to the supply of accessible content, ensuring as many readers as possible have access to the content we publish. Alt text is also beneficial to search engine optimization as the alt text is indexed by companies like Amazon and Google. Implementing alt text will ensure your titles reach the top of these search results.

Alt text will improve customer experience, but there are also legal challenges which require publishers to create more accessible products and services. European Union Member States will have to adopt and publish the laws, regulations and administrative provisions necessary to comply with the European Accessibility Act by 28 June 2022. Member States will then have to apply the measures from 28 June 2025.

Therefore, if Taylor and Francis sell any eBook after 28 June 2025 then that eBook must comply with the accessibility requirements of the Act, even if it the eBook was created before 28 June 2025. We will be unable to retrospectively create alt text for all of our 150,000 backlist eBooks, plus cater to new titles requiring alt text creation. If your title does not contain alt text now, and you expect it to still be in print in 2025, we may be unable to sell it into the European Union from that point forward.

In the United States, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (Americans with Disabilities Act) protects the rights and interests of customers. Under Section 508, agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information comparable to the access available to others. US-based universities cannot receive federal funding unless the titles they adopt are ADA-compliant, so ensuring your book is accessible is one way to safeguard your title for adoptions.

Composing alt text

  • Alt text is not a rote description of the image. Instead it should convey the context and purpose of an image.
  • Alt text is not the same as a caption, which typically provides information supplementing or not already in the visual element itself.

Example:

Two hands holding a heart-shaped rock with the word Hope engraved in it.
Figure 1: Example of an inspirational image
Photo by Ronak Valobobhai on Unsplash
In a hypothetical chapter on inspirational photography, the figure caption for this image may read:
Figure 1: Example of an inspirational image

Without visual context, this caption does not tell the reader anything about what the image contains.

The alt text for this image may read:
Two hands holding a heart-shaped rock with the word ‘Hope’ engraved in it.

Successful alt text descriptions describe key elements and meaning in a way every user can understand. Unsuccessful alt text describes images in a way that is confusing or does not convey the educational goal of the content.

Alt text for a visual element can vary depending on how it is used. For example, the same image of New York City may be used within an architecture book and a book on photography. In the first case, the alt text may describe the construction elements and design of a skyscraper. In the latter, the alt text may discuss the angle of the sun reflecting off windows or the people walking by, or even what makes the photo “good” or “bad” from a photographer’s standpoint.

Ask yourself:

  • Why is this visual element here?
  • What information does it present?
  • What is its purpose?
  • If the image were removed, how would I describe it to convey the same information and/or purpose?

Alt text should be as objective as possible. Successful alt text follows some general rules. It is:

  • Concise. Using a screen reader is time-consuming and unnecessarily long descriptions can create a burden on the user. Alt text should strive to be under 100 words and generally 25 to 30 words long.
  • Targeted. Descriptions should reflect the context and intent of the image, matching the focus of the text, chapter, and title. The alt text may have different descriptions depending on its purpose in a work.
  • Unique. Do not repeat descriptions or text already provided in the caption or the surrounding text. When images are completely described by their caption or surrounding text, consider identifying them as decorative images.
  • Clear. Spell out all contractions, numbers, and non-Latin letters and present the information in a logical and consistent order.
  • Simple. Screen reading software does not read formatting in alt text, so do not use formatting, such as bullet points, in alt text descriptions.
  • Singular. Screen reading software indicates the alt text is a replacement for an image, so do not use redundant phrases such as “Image of...” or “Graphic of...”.
  • Consistent. Use the same level and style of language used within the main body of text.
  • Inclusive. Alt text should not contain additional information a sighted person (a customer not using a screen-reader) would miss.
  • Complete. Conclude your alt text with a full stop/period (this allows for a pause in the screen reader before it continues onto the next body of text).

Sometimes the caption describes the essential content and context of the image, rendering further alt text unnecessary.

Decorative imagery

Alt text is not required for purely decorative imagery. Taylor and Francis discourages the inclusion of purely decorative imagery, unless agreed in advance with your Editorial team. These images do not require alt text: these are marked as ‘decorative’ in the eBook so screen readers skip over them.

For decorative images, or those where the caption is sufficient to convey the meaning of the image, please enter “decorative” in the alt text space.

Long Descriptions

Long descriptions are in-depth descriptions of an image beyond what alt text can provide. Long descriptions are rare, but some STEM titles may require them. These descriptions are added in addition to alt text and generally follow the same rules, but they may be any length and can be formatted with lists and tables to clearly organize complicated information or data (this is particularly relevant on STEM topics).