5 tips for writing plain language summaries

Plain language summaries (PLS) are handy research communication tools that allow scientists to reach a wider audience than their publication alone. This blog post explains what PLSs are, where they came from, and how to write them.

What is a plain language summary (PLS)?

A PLS is a summary of a human research scientific paper or conference abstract that uses non-technical language. That way, it makes research findings accessible to people outside of the scientific realm.

PLS are about as long as an abstract and published alongside their source material (i.e., paper or abstract) without additional charges for the authors.

Why did PLS become a thing?

Recent years saw a push toward involving patients in medical decisions. Conversely, with ample web resources, patients are more informed as ever and are eager to make shared decisions with their doctors. However, the latest clinical data are practically inaccessible to non-scientists, who have difficulties understanding jargon-heavy research papers.

To make sure everyone in the room has the same information when discussing treatment options, the scientific community has started developing PLSs.

Tips for writing a PLS

If you consider preparing a PLS for your next paper or you’re about to write one for someone else and don’t know where to start, you may find the following pointers helpful.

1. Think about your audience
Your audience is the decisive factor for every aspect of your piece.

For effective communication, people have to a) be interested and b) understand what you’re saying. So, the type of audience you target will determine the focus, language and level of background information in your PLS. 
Thus, the first things to think about are: 
– Who are you trying to reach with that piece? Scientists? Healthcare professionals? Patients and carers?  
– What is their level of scientific knowledge?
– What about your work will interest them?

2. How does the study overlap with your audience’s everyday life?
People react to what concerns them. So, try and find the overlap between the study and people’s lives.

In your text, you’ll need to explain:
– what the research question was and how it affects your audience’s lives,
– the main findings
– how this new information impacts your audience’s lives (i.e., why they should care)

It may sound simplistic, but if you answer these questions in this order, you pretty much have your PLS. Add any relevant caveats and limitations (e.g., low sample size), and you’re all set.

3. Get rid of jargon
Typical scientific jargon can have different meanings for non-scientists.

Think about it: A positive correlation between two conditions is usually a bad thing, but for the general public, “positive correlation” sounds like good news. So, eliminating jargon not only means improving readability but also avoids misunderstandings.

I won’t give any more detailed advice here because the Internet is full of extensive, free “conversion” tables and lists for you to grab and keep. For instance, the Plain English Campaign has some brilliant PDFs on their website, which I have found very useful in the past.

4. Test your summary
If you’re a scientist, you’re the best and worst person to write a PLS because you understand everything about that study. So, to ensure the text is clear and accessible, give it someone else to read before submission.

Your test reader should ideally represent your target audience or at least their level of scientific knowledge.

Instead of just asking for general feedback, ask your tester reader to repeat the key scientific findings back to you in their own words. If they can’t, your PLS needs another draft.

5. Take your time
Your PLS may get more reads than the paper: Journalists may pick it up as the basis of a news article; healthcare practitioners may share your PLS with their patients. Thus, a PLS is worth spending time on to ensure that it represents the findings and their novelty in the most accurate and accessible way.

I hope you’ll find these tips useful. Let me know how you’re getting on, and: Happy writing!

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