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Plain-Language Abstracts: A Benefit to Your Research

Wednesday, March 25, 2020 | 2:09 PM

What draws your attention when choosing a book? Is it the cover? Maybe it is the author’s name? Or, did the summary intrigue you? A book cover may be the top attention-getter; however, the summary is what sells the reader on the story. A cover may draw a reader to a book, but a well-crafted summary will make sure they don’t put it down.

Likewise, a plain-language abstract (lay abstract) in scientific research offers a short-and-sweet version of a study to a wider audience. Different from a normal abstract, a plain-language abstract is typically a secondary option that is free of technical language. A plain-language abstract summarizes a study at a high school reading level for general and scientific audiences. It should simply explain why the research was done, how it was done, and the key findings. While some scientists argue that a plain-language abstract is trivial, it takes more than just publishing a study in a journal to make a research paper stand out. Abstracts are effective tools that make research more accessible. That could mean the general public or a colleague that isn’t necessarily in your scientific field. Plain-language abstracts summarize study outcomes and create accessibility in research. This contributes toward a more transparent scientific community.

How Are Plain-Language Abstracts Useful?

A plain-language abstract allows researchers to share their work by summarizing the content in terms that are easily understood by people outside of a specific scientific circle. This opens the window between researchers and the public, as well as other scientists. Even for scientists, research from other fields can be difficult to understand. For example, it might be hard for a botanist to understand a report written on archaeological science. There are hundreds of unique words and acronyms in each scientific field. A plain-language abstract makes it possible for readers to understand the crux of the research. A plain-language abstract opens the door to a breadth of communication. It may help a journalist write an article, allow a policymaker to better grasp an important topic, inspire a high-school student to take an interest in your field, or help a patient understand more about their condition. No matter who the end reader is, they must understand and engage with the research for it to make an impact. Hence, a plain-language abstract serves as a dissemination tool for research out of close-knit scientific circles.

Plain-language abstracts can also increase participation in research, which is an extremely important contribution. However, if participants are misinformed, this could lead to a loss of trust or study discontinuations. Plain-language abstracts are one way to help ensure the participant understands the research at hand. This is one of the many reasons the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has developed a new regulation mandating every clinical trial to share its results in lay terminology irrespective of the outcome on a database maintained by the EMA. The regulation has specifications for preparing the result summaries of clinical trials. Building on those specifications, Cochrane Norway’s dissemination project includes summarizing Cochrane reviews as plain-language summaries in a specific template. Also, the University of British Columbia has taken initiatives to make academic and community-based research in downtown Vancouver accessible to anyone through lay summaries available on an online portal.

The use of plain-language abstracts is growing increasingly more prevalent. Many journals now provide them on their home pages. Some journals have involved the use of social media to post “visual abstracts.” Examples of journals with plain-language abstracts include Autism Research, Wiley, European Urology, Elsevier, Public Health Research, NIHR, PLOS Medicine, and Cochrane Library.

In health and medicine, public engagement may enhance the prospects of research findings - a priority for research funding bodies. Europe houses the largest clinical research funding group—the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). The NIHR established INVOLVE in 1996. It is a government-funded program that supports active public involvement in the research process. Part of their platform is based around jargon busters and plain-language summaries.

Moving forward, we can expect an increase in programs and regulations from regulatory agencies to actively involve the public en masse. With this, the indoctrination of plain-language abstracts in publications will become expected instead of just an added perk. They will also help researchers connect with stakeholders willing to invest in the latest research. Plain-language abstracts allow more funding bodies and stakeholders to understand the research despite not being fully involved in each specific research community.

How to Write a Plain-Language Abstract

Writing a plain-language abstract is similar to writing a book summary. It should be clear and succinct. The International Plain Language Federation defines plain language as communication with wording, structure, and design so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information. A plain-language abstract should be written so that the heart of the research grabs the attention of the non-specialist audience. 

  • Understand your audience – Look at your content and try to figure out who is most likely to read it outside of the intended target audience. It could be journalists, students, or scientists in adjacent fields.
  • Keep the abstract simple – Imagine that you are speaking with a high-school student (age 14–18). How would you summarize your research to someone who knows nothing about the topic?
  • Keep the abstract succinct – Use short, clear sentences broken up into paragraphs. Refrain from using technical terms and define every acronym. Each paragraph should focus on a single idea and the total length should be under 500 words.
  • Understand the questions you’re answering – Make sure your reader understands what the content is about. Explain the findings and why the research matters. What is the impact? Present your findings in terms of the relevance it has to the interests of the secondary audience.
  • Verify the quality of the abstract – Writing a plain-language abstract is not as easy as it looks. Test your summary to make sure the target audience will understand it. Send the summary to a friend or family member outside of the scientific realm. Verify if they can understand what your research is about from the abstract you provided them.

Final Considerations

Although plain-language abstracts are making a buzz, more consistency is needed. There is a sweeping variation in terminology describing these abstracts. Journals use terminology like “plain-language summaries” or “plain-language abstracts.” Others use “significance statements,” “author summaries,” “lay summaries,” “plain-English summaries,” etc. Moving forward, industry consensus is necessary so that terminology is consistent.

At TransPerfect, we develop plain-language abstracts to cultivate awareness of scientific and clinical research. If you would like more information on how we can help you, contact us at

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