Raise your hand if you’ve ever read the title, abstract or executive summary of a scientific manuscript, poster or talk, and upon reaching the last word, you still had no idea what the author was writing about.
Despite a growing appreciation for science communication within the Canadian science community, this keeps happening. We’ve experienced this firsthand during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Research often involves high level scientific or technical components that are not usually accessible to non-specialist readers. To complicate matters further, there is also a lack of standardized tools or practices across institutions to guide public science communication in ways that make science comprehensible and useful to stakeholders.
This is where plain language — and our new toolkit, Preparing Plain Language Summaries, — can help.
According to the International Plain Language Foundation, a “communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” It’s based on the idea that writers should consider the reader’s needs first, and take responsibility to ensure that complex ideas are communicated in clear and accessible language.
To be clear, writing in plain language is more than shortening text or substituting technical terms for simpler words. As the author, you need to be able to explain the same concepts and information found in technical writing, with the same level of accuracy, certainty and precision, but in language that most readers will understand.
And yes, writing entire documents in plain language is not always possible. In situations such as these, a complementary plain language summary can still benefit the reader. This is a summary written for a non-specialist audience to understand relevant information succinctly, and appreciate its broader value, impact and applications.
E4D has created a Preparing Plain Language Summary toolkit, thanks to a collaboration with the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada’s (IAAC) Science Policy Division. In this toolkit, we present best practices to help you write in plain language effectively, with a special focus on wording, structure and design features. This includes practical tips, examples and checklists to guide you through the process of preparing a plain language summary, starting with factors to consider before you begin writing, the nuts and bolts of this kind of writing, and what to do before submitting your document.
Plain language summaries are slowly being used more often across the Government of Canada. For example, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has mandated that all manuscripts with a DFO author must produce a short plain language summary. Similarly, the Canadian Institute for Health Research often requires the submission of a lay abstract in grant applications, which “should be written in plain language so that the general public will understand the nature of your research project.” We are also beginning to see plain language summaries in the broader scientific community, such as the FACETS journal.
But we can go further still. A significant portion of scientific research is funded through public tax dollars: this means that communicating science broadly, with the public that funds it, shouldn’t be viewed as an additional burden, but rather as a part of the responsibility that comes with being a steward of public funds.
Increased transparency through plain language summaries can help build public understanding, trust, and engagement. With this new toolkit, we hope to empower subject-matter experts with the resources they need to write plainly about their work.
Let’s be clearer. Let’s make plain language summaries more common when it comes to science communication — because the language of science needs to be plain and simple.