Creating a plain-language summary

Jargon BarrierWe in the Sharing Science program understand that scientists are technical writers who are used to talking in a language that we and our peers understand, and within the scientific environment, such a method of correspondence (usually) works out well.

However, the scientific climate is shifting such that tailoring your message solely to your peers is unlikely to get your work the notice and reach that it deserves. More and more journals, including all of AGU’s journals, are providing the option to create plain-language abstracts/summaries.

Guidelines for making plain-language summaries

Making the shift from technical to plain-language writing can be difficult, if not seemingly impossible. That is why we have created a list of helpful tools and hints to make the transformation process easier and hopefully enjoyable!

  • First and foremost, think about your audience (e.g. journalists, science-interested public). What is their level of science-specific knowledge? What is going to interest them in your work? (for more ideas, see our “When is Science Newsworthy?” document and our “connecting with community groups” pages.)
  • Get rid of jargon. This includes acronyms, field-specific language, and words that have different meanings to non-scientists (see our page on reducing/eliminating jargon).
  • Explain what the study is about. Remember, others will need more context about what you studied and why than will those in your field.
  • Explain what you found.
  • Explain why this matters. Discuss the importance of these findings not just in terms of their implications for your field but in terms of their relevance to the public: how will these results relate to people, regions, the economy, healthy, safety, and/or technology? Are you results new/novel, related to a current event, in a certain audiences backyard? AT the end of the day people want the answer to the “Why should I care? question.
  • Test the summary. Have a first reader—someone who is not a scientist—read your summary and then explain your study to you. If they can’t do it, the summary should be revised for clarity.
  • Take the time to do it right. This summary may generate wider notice for your paper than your abstract will. That’s why you want to be able to highlight the novelty, value, and importance of your research so that everyone can appreciate and understand it.

Non-scientists care about, and are interested in, science. While creating a plain-language summary from a technical abstract may seem like a daunting task, it can be worth it to place your science in the hands of audiences who just want to be spoken to in a language that they value and understand. And honestly, it can help other scientists understand what you do too.