Spread the word

Plain-language summaries are making research more accessible to broader audiences
02 April 2017

Interview with 

Sarah Shailes and Stuart King, asst Features Editors, eLife

Plain Language Summaries.jpg

Plain language summaries


Each month we try to devote at least one of our interviews to consider some of the wider impacts of scientific practice and scientific life. Recently we’ve looked at the impacts of the positive result bias, how women fare in science and whether science is losing its best young talent owing to funding shortfalls. This month, with the help of assistant features editors Sarah Shailes and Stuart King, Chris Smith considers eLife itself and the role of its research digests. And if you’re not sure what a digest is, Sarah can explain...

Sarah - eLife digests are plain language summaries of research articles. We’ve been including them in research articles since their general launched in 2012. They always start with some background information about the area of his research and they’ll setup the kind of research question that the authors of research article we’re trying to address with their research. and then they’ll talk about the main findings of that research and then they’ll go on at the end to talk about the next steps and the relevance to the research.

Chris - How long are they?

Stuart - The average digest is 347 words. I know that because we recently looked back but the range would be about between 200 and 400 words.

Chris - That’s on par with a news piece that you'd see in a newspaper.

Stuart - Yes. So they're short complete articles on their own basis. So we do take a number of the articles and we share them on a separate site called medium. We do that to reach a different audience who aren't all day reading the research articles.

Chris - What's your motivation for doing this, Sarah?

Sarah - Our main motivation is that we want to make findings of research papers more accessible to a broader range of people. That includes other scientists from other fields of research. I'm a plant scientist by training and when I try and read a neuroscience paper, I find it very hard. There's all sorts of jargon that I don’t understand. By using much more simple language, active language, so talking in terms of processes happening as opposed to kind of using lots of nouns and sentences, it really helps people who aren't specialists to get hold of that information and use that. We try and aim digests to be accessible to people who are sort of towards the end of their school years and adults who are interested, and motivated in science.

Chris - Why should the journal do this because you could argue it’s for scientists and scientists know a lot of these words anyway?

Stuart - One of my major motivations is because we’re an open access journal, all of our research articles are freely available to read by anyone. So adding the digest then is part of that, and that the audience could be anyone and they can access and read, and understand the content. If you want your research to have an impact in the real world, you need to reach beyond the academic community. A digest, although it’s a small summary, it’s a small step towards doing that. One of the other motivations for us doing this is that we get the authors of the research article involved in the writing.

Chris - But you haven't always done it like that there, have you?

Sarah - I mean, we’ve always produced digests but when we started, digests were written by us and by freelance writers who were reading the manuscripts, working out what the important messages were from the paper from that. A couple of years ago, we started asking the authors of research papers to answer some questions for us in more plain language and that’s really helped us. It highlights what authors think is the main message of their research. That’s been great because we get different voices coming through in the digest because everyone thinks about research in different ways. But it’s also been great in that when we send draft to digests to the office to check. They’ve made fewer changes because actually, what we’re sending them is something much more similar to what they’ve seen before. I think we’ll end up with something that the authors are overwhelmed or happy within the end.

Chris - More importantly, what do the audience think as the rule of any medium is, give the audience what they want?

Stuart - That’s just something that we’d look into relatively recently. The end of the last year, we conducted a survey of current digest readers and we had over 300 responses. Overwhelming, I think the response was very positive. Most of the audience are scientists but we are also reaching non-scientists as well, and that’s an audience we’re probably looking to engage more with. But on the whole, both scientists and non-scientists alike finds the digest that as we currently write them useful, good structure, good language, so we were very pleased with the results actually.

Chris - What about other journals because lots of journals do go down the same path, so they're offering a similar sort thing, similar synthesis of what you need to take away from this paper?

Sarah - Yes, so we’re working on the series. We found about 50 journals that actually produces plain language and reason. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s in all of them. One of the things that strikes me about them is there's such a variety out there. they're written in different styles, at different lengths, they're aimed at different people. So some organisations for example, the journal Autism are particularly targeting their summaries at patients and their families.

Chris - Do they think this is useful?

Stuart - Definitely. One of the articles specifically looked at this exact issue in patient involvement and how plain language summaries can help that. So, HDBuzz is an organisation that covers the latest research in Huntington's disease and they found that those families who are affected, finding out about the latest research provides them with real hope to deal with these conditions happening in their families. I think it’s a strong motivator for the researchers involved.

Chris - So isn’t that what are newspapers for?

Stuart - Yes and no. So another organisation that’s looked into this is Inspire which is a collection of disease related social networks. They found that patients and their caregivers look into a range of different sources. Over half of them are looking at general articles. But the slight issue with general articles, it’s not written for them. It’s written for other scientists. It often doesn’t quite give them the context of what it means for them and how close it is potentially to a treatment. Newspaper articles on the other hand might over emphasise that. They’ll focus too much on that and get the headlines, compounds XQ as cancer that’s often grossly always implied. Another organisation looking to tackle this is Dr. Media based in the Netherlands and it’s been inspired by the exact conversations, patients coming to their doctors asking for guidance on what a newspaper story means to them. They work with clinicians to produce this content because in one to one consultations, you're only working with one patient but by making it accessible online, they can reach so much wide audience.

Chris - Were you surprised by what you found?

Sarah - Yeah. I think we were pleasantly surprised. Our biggest fear when we went into the survey was that we’d find that no non-scientist were reading eLife digest.

Chris - And then you'd be out of a job.

Sarah - Yeah. It would feel like the aim with them was being missed really. So the fact that there are non-scientists interested and motivated enough to find them was really nice and reassuring I think.


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