Plain Language Summary vs. Abstract: What’s the Difference?

plain language summary – Edanz

Can you explain your science to a non-scientist? If not, why not?

Sure, complex science is complex. But is that always a valid excuse?

Plain language summaries (PLS’s) are simplified research abstracts that bridge the gap between scientific specifics and broader understanding for general readers. PLS’s are jargon-free and briefly explain your work, rather than giving details that only a specialist might understand. PLS’s communicate research clearly and understandably to non-expert readers.

And that increases your impact.

PLS’s have grown increasingly popular over the last decade. And it’s not a moment too soon in our current culture wherein the personal musings of a podcast host can be more influential than those of evidence-backed scientists.

Governments, funders, industry, and academics themselves are waking up to the urgent need to make scientific knowledge accessible to the general population.

PLS’s do that.

A PLS can help article authors, science, and society alike. For starters, understand how a PLS and an abstract are different. That’s what you’ll learn here.

Main features of a plain language summary

The Plain Language Action and Information Network defines plain language, also called plain writing or plain English as “communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.”

A plain language summary (PLS) summarizes a scientific study and its results to help people without scientific expertise, or from another area of science, understand.

You might also see a PLS called a lay summary, plain English summary, or lay abstract. They’re generally the same thing and they share the same objective – explaining science in accessible language.

You may need to write a PLS for a journal article submission, a grant application, or a project report.

Aim of a plain language summary

A PLS shouldn’t be considered a “dumbed down” version of your abstract. If it is, you’re both thinking of it wrong and doing it wrong.

Plain ≠ dumb

Plain = reader-friendly, clear, accessible

In a PLS, you focus on the significance of your research regarding the “why and so what?” rather than the “exactly how.” You’re aiming to put your research in context in the greater world.

Why did you do this study? Why does it matter? Help us, the generally well-educated public, understand it.

Structure of a plain language summary vs. an abstract

Like conventional article abstracts, PLS’s are usually no longer than about 200 words. Also like abstracts, they don’t have a single prescribed structure, but they generally have the same parts in the same sequence.

Subject overview What does a lay reader need to know about the subject to understand your article? Explain the wider scientific area. Provide context for your study.  
Methodology and aims overview What did you try to explore? Give a summary of what you set out to achieve and how you went about it.  
Key results What’s the key conclusion in your paper? Outline your findings but don’t give technical details.  
Key takeaways Why should we care about your results? Tell us why your study is important or relevant to society.  

A lot like an abstract, right? The difference is in the presentation and the language. That distinction can be a challenge for those of you in research bubble and spending most of your time with like-minded researchers.

It’s a great exercise, though. Not just for the sake of writing a good PLS, but for… your life!

Being able to clearly explain what you do so that other can understand will open a world of opportunities for communication, dialogue, and even collaboration.

Breaking down the differences between abstracts and PLS’s

A scientific abstract and a PLS, in the end, give the same information. But they communicate it in different ways.

A PLS’s main goal is to make that detail easy to understand. An abstract should still be reasonably accessible to non-specialists in your area of science. But it needs to give accurate, field-specific scientific detail in field-specific scientific language.

A PLS, if it uses field-specific jargon, isn’t a good PLS. It should, at least, explain the term in plain language.

Compare this abstract and PLS used in a geophysics article.

The first thing that probably catches your eye is that, in this case, the PLS is a lot shorter.

Much of that disparity comes from leaving out technical details. Not all PLS’s are this short.

A closer looks shows how this was done, and why this PLS works well, even though it’s only about 100 words. It manages to convey the key parts of the study in very few words. That’s fine.

Let’s go deeper.

Specifics of an abstract

An abstract will be structured (uses subheadings) or unstructured (is one long paragraph).

With or without subheadings, it almost always has:

  • Introduction/overview: why you did it
  • Methods: how you did it
  • Results: what you found
  • Discussion and conclusion: why your findings matter

This is the typical IMRaD format we talk about so much here at Edanz. It’s also typically followed in the manuscript. It’s a prescription for a reliable research article.

Some journals, especially in areas like mathematics and physics, forgo a full abstract for a summary of about 100 words. That’s because these are usually specific studies with focused objectives. They readers don’t need more than an essential overview of what the paper is communicating.

Specifics of a plain language summary

A PLS covers all the same main ingredients, but in a more accessible way.

Your PLS should free of technical jargon, or easily define that jargon. For example, “low blood glucose” (or even “low blood sugar” instead of “hypoglycemia”).

In the above PLS, note how the authors quickly define the term “offshore freshened groundwater.” A reader might guess at the meaning, but the PLS leaves no doubt about the meaning.

A PLS then provides equivalent sections of a conventional abstract, keeping to its central aim: plain language for effective communication to wide audiences.

Keep sentences short and concise in the PLS, more so than in the abstract. See the list of tools below for help with this.

The truth is, even in your abstract and manuscript, you should aim to use plain language where you can. Science doesn’t have to be obscure and stodgy. If you want to expand your impact, you should always think, “is there a better/easier/plainer way to say this”? (You can also hire an expert editor to help. Dedicated scientific editors, not just language proofreaders or everyday English speakers, are trained in revising scholarly language for clarity and readability.)

Unfortunately, however, many peer reviewers and colleagues may see plain language as somehow less academic, less scientific if you don’t use smart-sounding words.

And you must make your reviewers happy. Don’t take it personally and don’t fight it. You do want to get published, right? The bigger issue in a traditional abstract is clarity and precision.

Target audience(s) of a plain language summary

Your abstract’s readers are other scientists in your broader discipline – this includes fellow researchers, peer reviewers, editors, and maybe even journalists. They’re also scientists in similar or overlapping disciplines. On rarer occasions, they might just be curious readers.

As mentioned, abstracts should be accessible, but an accurate summary of your study is your main goal.

plain language summary – Edanz

Your PLS, however, seeks to reach people outside of your discipline. They may be in a completely different field, science journalists and educators, students, or lay readers. All of these people have the ability to expand your impact.

If a journalist is attracted to your PLS (or a press release, which follows the same goal of communication to a broad audience), they’re the vehicle to take it to their publication or broadcast, and blast it out to the world. They can only do this if they understand it.

In sum, your traditional abstract is for field-specific and general scientists, while your PLS is for any type of reasonably educated reader.

Great… let’s ex-PLAIN our science!

We’ll end with a list of outstanding and recommended tools to help you develop your PLS-writing skills. You can then apply these lessons to your communications in press releases, on social media, using SEO, and even in day-to-day conversations. You’ll be the life the party with tales of quantum plasmonics!

Well…maybe not, but at least your audience won’t glaze over and reach for the canapés.

Useful tools for writing “plain” language and communicating in PLS style

Here are some helpful resources for writing a PLS for different purposes and audiences:

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