The Essential Role of Plain Language in Research Publishing
“Never before has scientific and medical information been so important to the general public”.
This statement was among the opening remarks of Jason Gardner, Head of Scientific Services, CMC Connect, McCann Health Medical Communications, at a webinar organized by the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP) on the critical role of plain language summaries (PLS).
The Growing Need for PLS
Members of the public routinely seek medical information online. A 2018 study showed that patients ranked articles from scientific journals the third most important source of healthcare information (47%), after general Internet searches (61%) and patient-specific websites (57%).
As ever more patients and carers seek access to primary published research, a new challenge has arisen for journal editors and publishers: how can they ensure that specialist content is understood by ‘lay’ readers?
One common barrier to understanding is the complex language of research papers. “Most people don’t even understand what ‘efficacy’ means in a medical manuscript”, remarked Richard Stephens, patient advocate and founding co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal Research Involvement and Engagement, in the webinar.
One solution to this barrier is the PLS, a brief summary of a research paper, written in language that is easily accessible to non-specialists. In a world where the public has greater access to primary research than ever before, PLS are an important tool that researchers can use to communicate clear, concise and clinically-accurate information with the public.
Laura Dormer, Editorial Director, Future Science Group, observed that PLS are often accessed by a global audience, including users from non-English-speaking countries. PLS can even benefit non-specialist or time-poor healthcare providers, since there could be serious consequences if they misinterpret a technical term they think they know.
PLS Guidelines, Mandates and Industry Standards
Currently, there is no single industry standard on PLS content or structure, even though peak bodies such as the UK’s NIHR and the US FDA have developed comprehensive guidelines on plain language communications. Although most common in medical publishing, PLS are gaining popularity in diverse fields like psychology, planetary science, and ecology.
The upcoming version of the Good Publication Practice Guidelines (GPP4) is likely to specifically mention PLS and help drive PLS forward. Further, the Clinical Trial Regulation (Regulation (EU) No 536/2014) of the EU will make PLS mandatory for all clinical trials conducted even partly in the EU, thus increasing the uptake of PLS. Of note, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 in the United States already requires federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control, to communicate in language easily understandable to the public.
Tips for Effective PLS
When writing PLS, Stephens urges authors to use the PLS to help provide context. “Say what the paper is about, why it is important to patients, and which patients is it important to”.
For example, explain whether a particular therapy has been tested in specific groups (e.g., children, older adults, pregnant people). Obviously, PLS need to be written as simply as possible (ideally a Flesch reading ease score of 60 or higher). PLS need not be limited to blocks of plain text but could be enhanced with videos or infographics. In fact, Stephens suggested that the medium the authors use to explain the study while getting informed consent from participants (pictures, videos, text, etc.) might be the best way to present the PLS.
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