Part two – The specifics
If you are ready to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, here are a few more things that you need to think about.
Give yourself enough time
Don’t leave it until the last moment to plan and write your summary. You may write exceedingly well but don’t expect to get it right on the first draft. Plain-English summaries of science are not easy to write. To do it well, you must allow time to plan, prepare, draft and review. You should read example plain-English summaries – and consider what works well and what doesn’t. If you compare an example summary with the research article about which it was written, you will get a feel for what information has been kept and translated into plain English and what has been left out. If you are serious about wanting to communicate with a broader audience, take the time and make the effort.
Clear, concise communication is vital to the work of medical research charities which rely on an engaged, informed public, not only for support, but also to inform future research.
Association of Medical Research Charities
Who is your audience?
The content and language in a summary will depend on your intended audience. One size will not fit all. When considering your audience, think about what they already know about your research topic, what might need further explanation, and what detail you can ignore. Consider the range of people you are aiming to communicate with, and then make a judgement of the minimum level of scientific knowledge you can assume they have. You do not have to explain every aspect of the scientific concept to get the information across to your audience. You will, of course, need to outline some of these details if they are relevant to the point of the article.
Set the research in context
It is crucial that the summary provides context for the research. Setting context may include describing preceding relevant research, explaining why the current research is justified, and outlining what the broader implications of the research are. You should always provide the source for any background information you include in your summary.
However, context shouldn’t take up most of the summary – you are communicating an advance in a field of research. You do not have to explain every scientific concept mentioned in your summary or describe the entire research field to set the context for your audience. Remember, your summary should make sense to the reader as a stand-alone piece. So, deciding what not to say is equally as important as deciding what to say. Draw up a series of sensible questions before writing your summary. Some examples are below.
Why was the research done? What were the researchers aiming to find out? What research had been done previously that relates to the current research questions?
What did the research involve? Why were certain approaches taken? Who was involved? What were the benefits or limitations of the work carried out?
What did the research show? How rigorous was the study? Are the findings important? – If so, why? Who benefits from the research findings? What are the implications for our scientific understanding or research practices?
Structure your summary to engage your audience
A well-crafted plain-English summary should be both informative and enjoyable to read. Not all research findings are momentously exciting, but there are some basic approaches to structuring your summary that can help gain the reader’s interest.
You should aim to maximise your reader’s interest in the first few lines to draw them in. Think about the research from different viewpoints to explore what might interest the reader. You may not necessarily explain the research in the order it‘s presented in the research article, but that’s fine as long as you don’t misrepresent it.
Paragraphs and white space help organise the information into digestible sections. Headline statements to paragraphs can alert the reader to the main points in the summary and allow them to scan and find, more easily, the points that they are interested in.
However you decide to structure your summary, it needs to have a logical flow from the reader’s point of view.
When writing a plain English research summary, there are some golden rules that always work: short sentences are easier to read than long sentences, active sentences work better than passive sentences, and you should always keep the reader at the front of your mind.
Peter Rodgers, Features Editor, eLife Journal
A good summary leaves out unnecessary detail and jargon, and focuses on the main concepts that are relevant to the audience. Consider different ways to describe the science without the need for a complete summary of terms and definitions. When you must use scientific terms, define them and any other technical concepts you use, avoiding further terminology when doing so.
You should also remember that many words in general usage can have a particular meaning when used in a scientific context (for example, control, error and mutant), so take the time to consider whether your audience will understand your intended meaning, and consider your choice of words carefully. If it helps, use analogies or metaphors. The target audience might have an easier time grasping the science if you can relate it to a common scenario or experience. But make sure that analogies or metaphors don’t take over and confuse, rather than clarify.
Be accurate and honest in representing the science. You should aim to grab your audience’s attention but do not exaggerate the facts or weight of evidence. Ask yourself if you have any bias towards the research you are writing about. If you do, manage your views so that you communicate the science impartially. By all means convey excitement about the research findings, but also make sure that you mention any caveats or uncertainties. If you disagree with the findings you are writing about, set aside your views, describe the science objectively, and provide all relevant supporting evidence. If opposing scientific evidence is needed to give a balance and context for the research you are writing about, include it.
We are increasingly seeing early career researchers put science and evidence in the hands of the public, by demystifying how science works: including statistics, peer review and different types of studies.
Access to Understanding is a fantastic initiative to support early career researchers communicate scientific research so that it can reach more people.
Voice of Young Science
Tone is crucial
Don’t patronise your audience. Use language precisely and concisely to convey the information. Don’t fall into the trap of keeping the scientific content simple, but then using unnecessarily elaborate language and phrasing for the piece as a whole. Use short sentences and an active tone to connect with your reader. Read other plain-English science summaries to identify an appropriate tone and style.
Get feedback and use it
You should allow time for at least a second draft. Ask people who have no professional knowledge of the science to provide feedback. Give them some guidance on what you want to find out.
Did they understand it? Does it make sense to them? Did they find it easy to read?
Was it interesting? Did they learn anything new? Did it make them want to find out more?
Did they appreciate the context, implications and limitations?
Do they now feel able to explain the research to someone else?
Take their feedback seriously. Step back from what you have written and consider their views. You may think what you have written is perfect but if it’s not working for them, it’s likely other readers will find the same. Redraft and retest with readers as needed.
Submitting your summary
If you have written your summary for a particular publication or organisation, make sure that you are aware of any specific guidelines to authors. You don’t want to have crafted a brilliant summary that you cannot submit because it goes over the allowed word count, is incorrectly formatted, or is not suitable for an audience given in their guidance. Check and recheck spelling and grammar.
Make a note of what you have learnt and re-use that knowledge and experience next time you write a plain-English summary.