Home Business Insights & Advice Future science group: Why plain language summaries are important

Future science group: Why plain language summaries are important

by John Saunders
27th Sep 21 3:23 pm

The progressive scientific publisher makes medical and scientific research accessible for everyone.

Many scientific publications are read by specialist audiences, which is why they contain so much technical language and detail. But when lay audiences need to access these materials, they often struggle to understand the ideas that authors have written using complex jargon and terms.

Future Science Group publishes plain language summaries (PLS) of these publications to overcome this problem. These summaries break down the complicated information into everyday language so lay audiences can understand the concepts covered in one read.

Why are plain language summaries important?

Scientific research, in particular research concerning developments in medicine and public health, is relevant to audiences much wider than the specialists who work in these fields. That’s why we need publications that are suitable for patients, their advocates, non-specialist healthcare professionals, healthcare policy experts, journalists, and the general public. PLS of journal articles, scholarly manuscripts, posters, abstracts, and presentations make research findings accessible to lay audiences – and they’re essential to patient-centred care.

By producing PLS of both its own publications and other publications, Future Science Group publishes understandable, accessible summaries for all to read. This way, the publishing group can broaden knowledge share and offer the materials lay audiences need to empower themselves.

Making research findings accessible for everyone

Many researchers write PLS as an afterthought – a requirement to tick off at the end of a journal submission. But a PLS holds huge potential as a knowledge translation tool to make findings more accessible. A 3M survey reinforces this, having found that 88 percent of people believe scientists should share research findings in plain language that everyone can understand. This need is particularly topical now; the COVID-19 pandemic has made the general public’s desire to understand scientific developments even stronger.

On top of this, a survey of patients who have chronic diseases has found that almost half of respondents use scientific journals to research diseases. Therefore, it’s important that publishers deliver medical information that is accessible for readers who don’t have scientific expertise. PLS can help patients understand their diagnoses, treatment, and care.

New regulations demand accessible information

As the need for accessible scientific information grows, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has mandated new regulations to make information readily available for lay audiences. As of December 2021, all sponsors of clinical trials in the European Union must submit transparent, simplified summaries of clinical trial results. They must submit these summaries within a year of trial completion for studies in adults and within six months of trial completion for studies in paediatric populations. This regulation applies to all interventional phase 1–4 trials that involve at least one site in the EU.

The new Clinical Trial Regulation (EU) No. 536/2014 will:

  • Reinforce transparency in clinical development
  • Make research findings more accessible to the public
  • Make research results easier to read
  • Make it easier to translate research findings into different languages.

Citizens can’t consent to medical treatments or support if they don’t understand the information that healthcare practitioners give them. Similarly, they can’t meaningfully participate in society unless they understand government legislation. However, new regulations from the EMA will make it much easier for the public to access and understand scientific and medical research.

What are the benefits of plain language summaries?

One of the main benefits of PLS is that they improve health literacy and research participation. Advancing patient-oriented research means that patients are being asked to develop research questions, review grant proposals, and complete literature reviews more often. Meanwhile, plain language summaries make it easier for patient reviewers and research partners to find the information they need to make informed decisions.

Usually, those who participate in clinical trials don’t get to find out the outcome of the trials. PLS make it easier for these participants to access the findings. The summaries show participants that research teams value their contributions. This can encourage them to participate in future trials and contribute to scientific developments.

Furthermore, everyday language makes the summaries digestible for funders and policymakers. PLS provide a way to clearly communicate scientific findings to those who make evidence-informed decisions but don’t have time to read lengthy technical reports. It’s even possible that a PLS could act as a policy brief, eliminating the need for a policy analyst to read and interpret (possibly misinterpret) the summary.

PLS also make interdisciplinary collaboration easier. Each field has its own jargon, so scientific professionals don’t have to stray far to lose themselves in another discipline’s terminology. Plain language offers a common tongue that allows researchers, health professionals, and patient partners to come together and learn about new findings.

How do authors write plain language summaries?

When producing PLS, many writers stick to health literacy principles, which help them create well organised, understandable content. Experts define health literacy as ‘the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.’

Health literacy principles help writers identify their target audience, limit the content to essential information, write in plain language, use enough white space, and balance the text with infographics to emphasise key points.

Upon publication, it’s important not to lock PLS behind paywalls. The content must be freely accessible to fulfil its purpose: to convey scientific and medical information to all readers. Future Science Group makes PLS accessible by sharing the summaries on social media, sending them to relevant patient organisations, tagging them for indexing sites, and assigning them with digital object identifiers (DOI).

Which publications need a plain language summary?

When deciding which publications need a PLS, the publisher should consider the type of research, ideal publication platforms, and how useful lay audiences will find the information.

Often, PLS are helpful for publications that:

  • Report the results of clinical trials for approved treatments and vaccines
  • Relate to patient preference studies and patient-reported outcomes
  • Discuss investigational products (these can help patients who have limited treatment options aware of potential upcoming therapies)
  • Break down systematic literature reviews and meta-analyses.

However, a PLS of any scientific publication can help promote a broader understanding of scientific and medical concepts and developments.

Are plain language summaries as accurate as the original publications?

It’s a common misconception that a PLS offers a less nuanced version or a less accurate synopsis of the original publication. This isn’t true. Instead, PLS define unfamiliar terms and present an original publication’s information in an accessible way. The concepts expressed are as complex as they are in the original material, just articulated in simple language.

Arguably, even scientific and scholarly publications could benefit from being written in plain language. Not only does everyday language reduce cognitive load, but even those who regularly read technical information often prefer to read plain language. Everyday language can make it easier to ensure a firm understanding of the topics covered.

Learn more about the importance of Future Science Group’s PLS.

History of future science group

In 2001, the entrepreneur and philanthropist James Drake founded Future Science Group, creating a platform for breakthrough scientific, medical, and biotechnical research. Over the past 20 years, Future Science Group has grown into a leading publisher.

Today, the group curates print and digital resources for a range of scientific and medical communities. Future Science Group has published over 50,000 articles and receives over 5 million article downloads across 34 cutting-edge, peer-reviewed journals every year. Around 1,000 editorial board members from several medical and scientific disciplines advise on this wide-ranging portfolio.

Future Science Group’s journals include names like Future Oncology, Regenerative Medicine, and Nanomedicine. The group also manages events, publishing solutions, creative services, and digital hubs. Each of its enterprises assembles scientific communities and provides the space for collaboration, translation, and innovation in scientific publishing.

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