Part one – The basics

guidance1

Each year billions of pounds of public money is spent on scientific research. Open access to research findings online is increasingly common, but this access doesn’t necessarily lead to wider understanding. Most scientific research findings are still written for a specific audience – the scientific community.

For many who would like to look at the very latest research findings, the style and jargon of scientific-research articles puts that information out of reach. One step in bridging the gap between providing access and improving understanding is to provide an easy-to-understand, stand-alone summary that complements the research article. This guidance is for authors who want to write this type of summary.

Science is for everyone. It’s not just to be shared within a small, closed community. We are in the middle of an information revolution, which has been made possible by Open Access and electronic publications.
Plain-English summaries are the way of the future.

Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government
(Keynote speech, Access to Understanding competition awards ceremony 2014)

Who is this guidance for?

This guidance is for anyone who is planning to write about biomedical or health research for a non-specialist audience. It is particularly intended to help scientists who are used to writing about biomedical and health research for their peers to reach a wider audience, including the general public, research funders, health-care professionals, patients and other scientists unfamiliar with the research being described. This guidance focuses on writing plain-English summaries of scientific research articles, not journalism or promotional writing. However, we hope it will help you craft well-written pieces that engage your audiences, whatever your purposes.

We must get better as researchers at communicating with the public on their own terms. This includes writing and talking to people using plain English. I am therefore delighted to support Access to Understanding, which promotes awareness and skills among researchers and scientists in this important area.

Professor Dame Sally C Davies FRS FSciMed
Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser, Department of Health

What does this guidance cover?

This guidance will give you advice on how to write a succinct, plain-English summary of contemporary biomedical or health research in a clear, balanced and engaging way. Topics covered include:

  • definitions of what a plain-English research summary is, and what it isn’t;
  • reasons why you might need to write a plain-English research summary;
  • practical tips on how to write about biomedical and health research for a non-specialist audience;
  • a source of examples of plain-English summaries;
  • viewpoints from a range of people on the importance of plain-English summaries;
  • a summary of some of the benefits of writing about research in plain English; and
  • a list of links to other relevant resources.

Writing about science in plain English

Plain English is a style of writing that the intended audience can understand on first reading. Plain English is about clarity of language. Well-written, plain English should engage and inform your audience.

A plain-English summary of a science article is sometimes referred to as a ‘lay summary’ as it is aimed at an audience that is not expert in the ideas or methodologies described in the original article. These summaries provide a concise and informative way to share research findings with a wider, non-specialist audience.

Plain English avoids using jargon, technical terms, acronyms and any other text that is not easy to understand. If technical terms are needed, they should be properly explained. When writing in plain English, you should not change the meaning of what you want tosay, but you may need to change the way you say it.

Every scientist should be able to explain what they are doing, why, and how to non-specialists. It is important not just for public communication but it will make you much better at communicating to scientists.

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell,
President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Manchester

What a plain-English summary is not

A plain-English summary is not a ‘dumbed down’ version of your research findings. You must not treat your audience as stupid or patronise them.

Anyone reading a plain-English summary should not need to refer to other information to understand what is being said. Your summary needs to be thorough enough so that the reader does not have to go to other sources to find out what you mean. It should be understandable as a stand-alone piece. That means that you should not cut and paste sections from your research paper without tailoring the text to suit the needs of the intended audience – a plain-English summary is not the same as an article abstract.

A plain-English summary is not necessarily a piece of science journalism. You will generally be writing a summary of a research article that describes incremental progress, rather than a seminal paper describing a giant leap forward in our understanding of a research area. As a result, you need to balance your summary, keeping your reader’s attention without resorting to unsupported claims. You should try to communicate the facts or evidence in an interesting way and put them in the appropriate context.

A plain-English summary is not a critique of the research article. You should avoid personal opinion unless there is a clear reason to include it, and then your opinion should be clearly identified. If you are writing a summary of a peer-reviewed published research article, you should assume that the reviewers have done their job. A plain-English summary presents the work simply, accurately, objectively and without exaggeration.

The main requirements

Below is a summary of the main requirements of a plain-English summary.

  1. It should be written in an understandable way.
    Make sure it is easily read and understood as a stand-alone piece by the intended audience.
  2. It should set the context
    Define the who, what, why, when, where and how of the research.
  3. It should describe the research accurately
    You don’t need too much detail, jargon or any patronising language.
  4. It should be balanced
    You need to reflect the merits and caveats (specific conditions or limitations) of the research in an honest and objective way.
  5. It should be interesting
    This is – of course – subjective but you should aim to engage your reader whenever possible.