How to write a lay summary?

It’s an eternal question that many researchers face. Increasingly you might be asked to write a summary for non-experts for funding applications, to demonstrate progress in your research or perhaps for a research paper you are submitting for publication. At the awards ceremony for the ‘Access to Understanding’ science writing competition last night, we heard some tips from the judging panel. I thought that they were too useful and thought provoking to keep them to myself!

Sharmila Nebhrajani, CEO of the Association of Medical Research Charities and Chair of the panel, began the discussion by explaining that collectively the panel were looking for three ‘C’s from the articles – Curiousity, Clarity and Conviction. She expanded that the judges were looking for a curiousity both in the article and the way that the author approached the subject; and by conviction, they were looking for clear decision making about which aspects of the original research paper it was important to retain, and which could be omitted.

A good article should be able to explain complex science in an accessible way, and be able to explain the ‘so whats’. At the same time it should include the limitations of the study and reflect the achievements or excitement of the new steps in understanding, without exaggeration or hype, Ms Nebhrajani summarized. Each of her fellow judges were asked for their comments or ‘top tips’. Below is a list of as many as I could write down at the time (!):

  • Think of the reader and don’t take your attention away from them
  • Use short, active sentences
  • Be aware that the audience for non-expert / lay summaries is growing by the day
  • Sustain the tone and style of the summary throughout – some start off with a great opening paragraph, but by paragraph three technical words and jargon start to creep in

The Access to Understanding competition was organized by Europe PubMed Central (Europe PMC) and the British Library, to promote the Europe PMC database and to inspire and motivate scientists to write easy to understand summaries of their research. The 19 funders of Europe PMC selected nine full text research papers from the ~2 million available in the database. Applicants chose one of these nine papers and wrote a non-expert / lay summary of no more than 800 words. Those currently working on their PhDs or in the first years of post-doc positions were eligible to enter.
After an initial round of judging from representatives at the British Library, Europe PMC and the funders, 14 articles were shortlisted for consideration by the judging panel from an initial submission of over 400 entries.

Thank you if you submitted an entry for the competition and / or used your contacts to help promote it. Many congratulations to Emma Pewsey, overall winner of the competition and to the other shortlisted authors.

You can read more about the competition on the Europe PMC website and more about Nina Rzechorzek’s shortlisted MND entry on the MND Association’s research blog.