12 September 2016

The value of a plain-language abstract

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Shane M Hanlon

Jargon: a barrier to effective communication. Credit - JoAnna Wendel

Jargon: a barrier to effective communication. Credit – JoAnna Wendel

The goal of the Sharing Science program is to provide scientists with the tool and skills necessary to communicate their work with any audience. We often think about such communication opportunities as outreach events with community groups, interviews with members off the media, or meetings with policymakers, just to name a few. But our goal is more basal – we want to help improve communication, not just from scientists to non-scientists, but between scientists as well. I once heard a great quote from a scientist who was also incredibly effective and translating his work to non-scientists who said (paraphrasing), “anyone outside of your specific field of interest is considered ‘the public’, regardless of whether they’re a scientist or not”. This sentiment illustrates the need to effective communication in every way, even, for example, in scientific manuscripts.

Plain-language abstracts (or summaries) are becoming an increasingly popular option in scientific publishing. The idea is that in addition to your normal abstract, another abstract, free of technical jargon and accessible to a broader audience, is also provided. This is becoming an option here at AGU with the option soon being piloted in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Planets. Creating plain-language abstracts is not just a good idea for dissemination outside of scientific circles but it can also be helpful for fellow scientists who may not be in your field and not familiar with your particular type of jargon. However, many scientists are not trained on how to talk about their work in a non-technical manner. That’s where we come in to help.

The Sharing Science program has created a helpful guide on creating a plain-language abstract here. Below are some highlights and tips!

  • First and foremost, think about your audience (e.g. journalists, science-interested public). What is their level of science-specific knowledge? What is going to interest them in your work? (for more ideas, see our “Is my science newsworthy?” document and our “connecting with community groups” pages.)
  • Get rid of jargon. This includes acronyms, field-specific language, and words that have different meanings to non-scientists (see our page on reducing/eliminating jargon).
  • Explain what the study is about. Remember, others will need more context about what you studied and why than will those in your field.
  • Explain what you found.
  • Explain why this matters. Discuss the importance of these findings not just in terms of their implications for your field but in terms of their relevance to the public: how will these results relate to people, regions, the economy, healthy, safety, and/or technology? Are you results new/novel, related to a current event, in a certain audiences backyard? AT the end of the day people want the answer to the “Why should I care? question.
  • Test the summary. Have a first reader—someone who is not a scientist—read your summary and then explain your study to you. If they can’t do it, the summary should be revised for clarity.
  • Take the time to do it right. This summary may generate wider notice for your paper than your abstract will. That’s why you want to be able to highlight the novelty, value, and importance of your research so that everyone can appreciate and understand it.

As a professional science communicator I like to say, “You don’t have a be a scicomm champion, but you should at least know how to explain your work if someone asks you.” Even if you’re not submitting a manuscript to a journal that requires/has the option to submit a plain-language abstract, practicing the translation can only make you a better communicator.

-Shane M Hanlon is a Sharing Science Specialist and plain-language abstract advocate.