What is a lay summary?

What is a lay summary?

“Not only is it important to ask questions and find the answers, as a scientist I felt obligated to communicate with the world what we were learning.”

Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions

This quote by legendary physicist Stephen Hawking highlights one of the most critical aspects of the research lifecycle – communication. Research communication has assumed immense importance in the scholarly publishing industry today. Researchers are increasingly feeling the pressure to step outside the ivory tower of academia and make sure that their findings are communicated to and easily understood not just by their own peers, colleagues, or experts in the field but also by the non-academic community/general public.

The idea behind this is quite simple. Considering that a majority of research is funded by taxpayers, it is only appropriate that the taxpayers (the non-scientists or the laypersons) see the real-world impact and potential of this research. Further, in today’s competitive research industry, it is very important for researchers to not only publish their work but also demonstrate its impact by sharing it widely, and lay summaries present a great opportunity to do both. 

However researchers often find it difficult to write lay summaries or plain language summaries of their work. In this series of posts, I will discuss the basics of lay summaries as well as the advantages and opportunities they present. I will also share some simple tips to help you write great lay summaries of your research. Let’s begin with the basics and understand what lay summaries are and what purpose they serve.

What is a lay summary?

First, let me start with a question – Whom do you write for when you publish your findings? It is incorrect to assume that the only people interested in reading academic literature or research studies are researchers. Today, more and more people (non-researchers) are interested in learning about the developments ushered in through research and understanding how these developments affect them, e.g., in areas like climate change or therapies for patients with specific conditions. However, here, the limitation is that often research is technical in nature. It involves the use of complex concepts, theories, experiments, and data and so research papers or reports of research are typically highly technical in nature and jargon-heavy. While it may be relatively easy for people within the field to understand these concepts, non-academic readers may not be able to grasp these. This is the gap that lay summaries fill.

 

What is a lay summary?

A lay summary, as the name indicates, is meant for the lay person or a non-scientist who may be interested in the research itself but lacks the academic or technical background in the field and so needs to access the information in a more comprehensible format. It is a brief explanation of research written using non-technical terms and language to make it easy for non-scientific or non-academic audiences to grasp the meaning of the research. In essence, a lay summary is similar to the abstract of a research paper, i.e., it presents a snapshot of the research, but unlike the abstract, it is written in a manner that makes it easy for the lay person to understand it and get an idea of what the research is all about.

When and why do you need to write a lay summary?

You can write a plain language summary of your work both before conducting the research as well as after writing and publishing it.

  • BEFORE writing a research paper — Writing a lay/plain-language summary as part of a grant funding application

One of the earliest stages of the research process involves securing funds, and to secure funds, you need to apply for grants. Lay summaries are a critical component of grant applications, i.e., as part of the grant application process, you may be required to provide a brief plain language summary of the research you propose to undertake. A few examples of funders that require plain-language summaries are available here.

But why do funders require lay summaries of research? Most grant evaluation committees include one or more non-academic grant reviewers who help assess the real-world impact or value of the proposed research. Peter Rodgers, who is the Features Editor for eLife, explains in his article on plain-language summaries, “Some charities require researchers to include plain-language summaries with applications for funding, and others include patient representatives in the panels that evaluate funding applications.” Thus plain-language summaries help grant reviewers and evaluators understand the proposed research project better and form a well-informed view of its relevance to society.

  • AFTER publishing a research paper — Writing a lay summary to promote published papers/findings

As per the latest report compiled by the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers, over 3 million articles are published annually by researchers worldwide. This is a whopping figure! It is important for researchers and journals to make sure that published research does not get lost in this sea of information. Therefore, a lot of journals now ask authors to write up lay summaries of their work after it has been accepted or published. These are then picked up and widely distributed by the journals (through their marketing channels) or authors themselves. The resulting publicity helps increase the visibility of published research even among non-scientific audiences, thereby increasing its impact and chances of getting cited.

In an interesting study published in the journal eLife, writer and editor Sarah Shailes wrote about several journals and institutions that actively make use of plain-language summaries to gain deeper insights into how these publications and organizations create and disseminate these summaries as well as the impact they have. Shailes found that “a growing number of journals and scientific organizations are trying to do the same, and not just for papers on topics that the public are generally thought to be interested in, such as fossils, invisibility cloaks and new medical treatments. These summaries go by a myriad of names – including lay summaries, author summaries, significance statements and digests – and can cover topics as diverse as the discovery of water on a distant planet and the lifestyles of bacteria.”

So the next time your paper is accepted for publication, check with your journal, institution, or funder about the possibility of improving the visibility of your work with a plain language summary.  

In some clinical studies, lay summaries are used to enlist participants for trials. Reading a simple description of a study may help participants better understand their involvement and make a more well-informed decision about willingly participating in the trial.

What are the benefits of lay summaries?

In my previous post, I spoke about how lay summaries are of great value to funders. To summarize the key points on this:

  • Lay summaries help funders provide evidence for how taxpayers’ contributions are being utilized.
  • They also help funders communicate clearly and efficiently with mainstream media, to ensure that the most accurate information is disseminated as clearly and simply as possible.
  • Funders share lay summaries to boost their reputation and attract a steady flow of applications from interested researchers.
  • They often use plain-language summaries to demonstrate the potential of research to policymakers and increase public spending on research.
  • At the grant application stage, lay summaries enable grant reviewers to evaluate the potential real-life applications and impact of research on society so that the focus is on relevant projects that should be considered for funding. They also help grant reviewers appraise applicants’ writing and scientific communication skills.

In the case of published findings, they help improve the uptake of research – If your work can be easily understood, more and more people will read it as well as share it widely beyond the academic community. This will help you convey the impact of your work to technical and non-technical audiences alike, thereby improving public engagement with science. So not only can you reach out to journal editors and experts from within your field, but you can also influence important policy makers who could introduce relevant policies for the community based on your work.

In sum, lay summaries help improve the public understanding of science, improve the visibility of research, boost a researcher’s reputation, and justify public spending on research.

That brings us to the end of this post on the basics of lay summaries. We looked at what lay summaries are, at what stages they could be written, and what are some of the benefits they offer researchers as well as funders. In the next post, I will share some very simple tips to help you write a great lay summary of your research.

References:

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