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The importance of lay summaries: Making research accessible to all

“Knowledge is power. Knowledge shared is power multiplied.” — Robert Boyce, professional historian.

Making research findings available to people within and outside the scholarly community is crucial, especially in today’s pandemic era. One way to make research articles more accessible is by including lay summaries. 

A lay summary—also called a “plain language summary”—is a concise, plain-English synopsis of a research article geared towards the general public and researchers who may not have expertise in a specific field. A major difference between research abstracts and lay summaries is that the latter is devoid of terminology that requires prior subject-area knowledge.

Why are lay summaries important?

The use of lay summaries benefits not only readers but authors and publishers as well. On the face of it, the most evident benefit of lay summaries is that research that was previously only consumable by researchers and experts in a particular field is now available to everyone. Plain language summaries make studies accessible to non-experts and help broaden the impact of research, allowing a bigger audience to be a part of the advancement of science.

A lay summary is one of the mediums through which researchers can communicate their work to the general public. Doing this benefits both the larger communities in society and the researchers themselves. Studies have shown that communicating research to the general public can improve research visibility and help increase the number of citations

In addition, the scope of lay summaries can be expanded even further by translating these synopses into different languages, making research more accessible to non-English speaking communities.

As the open science movement continues to grow rapidly around the world, the widespread adoption of plain language summaries can enhance transparency in science. An added advantage of lay summaries is that they give researchers the power to control the narrative of how their own research is conveyed to non-experts. This leaves little room for misrepresentation of their work in the media and helps ensure that transparency is being enhanced in a meaningful, positive way.

The elements of a good lay summary

Typically, what constitutes a good lay summary varies across different disciplines. For example, the European Commission has defined recommendations on best practices for writing clinical trial lay summaries. These guidelines contain a list of elements that ought to be included in lay summaries written for the European public, specifically for pharmaceutical trials. Such regulations help ensure that research is made accessible to the public accurately and responsibly.

In general, a good lay summary is:

  • Easily understandable
    A good lay summary provides knowledge about a particular topic without oversimplifying the key points in the study. Infographics may be used wherever necessary to make the concepts clearer to the audience.
  • Concise
    While plain language summaries are best kept brief, they should also address key aspects of the article, like the purpose of the study, why it was conducted, the methods used, the results, and the researchers involved.
  • Free of jargon
    Lay summaries are typically written in simple language, emulating a conversation between the researcher and the reader. It is recommended that jargon and any terms that are only known to specialists and experts be avoided in these summaries.
  • Relevant
    By providing context about the study and describing its impact on the field, a researcher can create a lay summary that is relevant and caters to readers’ interests.

With 69% of the world’s population actively using the internet today, the potential for research to reach people through online mediums is greater than ever. People rely heavily on the internet for information pertaining to nearly every aspect of life. With the ubiquity of the internet only growing with time, it is worthwhile for researchers and publishers to consider lay summaries as a way to provide credible information to the public in an easily available and consumable way.

The scholarly publishing community is continuously exploring ways to broaden the reach and positive impacts of sharing knowledge, and lay summaries can be a valuable tool for achieving this goal.

References and further reading

Image courtesy: Image by storyset – www.freepik.com

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