Science publications are typically written by scientists and for scientists, yet the audience for science is far wider, especially any reporting on medical breakthroughs in treatments of serious diseases.
In January 2022, the CCC Velocity of Content podcast covered the story when Ipsen become the first pharmaceutical company to commit to publishing, at a minimum, a 250-word plain language summary alongside all company-sponsored journal publications that include data from human studies. Our guests then included Dr. Oleksandr Gorbenko, Ipsen global patient-centricity director; Adeline Rosenberg, medical writer, Oxford PharmaGenesis; and Joanne Walker, head of publishing solutions, the Future Science Group.
“Plain Language Summaries” are an increasingly popular communications tool for researchers, publishers, and pharmaceutical companies “to summarize the contents of a specialist research article(s) for non-specialist audiences.”
For this latest Velocity of Content interview, I spoke with Dr. Catherine Richards Golini, a healthcare publication editor with Karger Publishers. As Dr. Golini explains here in the Velocity of Content blog, “patients and practitioners alike benefit from the simplicity of PLSs.”
– Christopher Kenneally
If the pandemic taught us anything, it was the importance of comprehensible and accurate science communication.
A plain language summary, or PLS for short, is a condensed version of scientific, technical, or medical information presented without jargon or unnecessary complexity. A PLS is written to be comprehended by people outside of the specific discipline or industry.
Complex texts complicate. Plain language summaries explain in simple terms and translate complex science into digestible bites. Patients and practitioners alike benefit from their simplicity.
A PLS comes in various formats: it can be a short, text-only paragraph of around 200 words, something typically seen in a scientific journal. The trend, however, is moving increasingly towards the visual: infographics or animated, interactive videos. In other cases, they can run ten pages, depending on the topic.
The concept of plain language has been around since the early ’70s. It originated in the United States as a kind of push back against the gobbledygook of government bureaucratic communication. The movement swiftly spread to the legal profession with the aim of simplifying communication so that lawyers and laypeople could understand each other. By the end of the ’70s, the plain-language campaign in England had also begun.
PLSs are particularly helpful in medicine. In common with healthcare materials in general, PLSs aim to both support and foster health literacy. Literacy, the act of fluidly reading and writing, is distinct from health literacy, which is defined as the ability to find, understand, evaluate, and act on healthcare information. And while literacy underpins health literacy, a person can be literate but still struggle to understand healthcare information or ask pertinent questions in medical encounters. Some sources suggest that more than one third of Americans and one-fifth of the population of the UK have low health literacy.1,2 Similar figures have been reported for much of Europe. Good health literacy promotes effective communication with healthcare providers and effective communication includes the ability to ask the right questions, understand the responses received, express concern, worries or preferences.
Plain language summaries are also being used by healthcare professionals, to render complex topics comprehensible, and to increase their own understanding of medical specialties outside their area of expertise.
Ultimately, though, PLSs and patient materials share the same goal: to improve the health literacy of the people reading them, so that they can play a central role in their own healthcare and the healthcare of people they are responsible for. With the ever-increasing demand for accessible information, it will soon be hard to imagine a world without plain language summaries.
- Health Literacy Fact Sheets – Center for Health Care Strategies (chcs.org). Retrieved 6 July 2023.
- Simpson, R.M., Knowles, E. & O’Cathain, A. Health literacy levels of British adults: a cross-sectional survey using two domains of the Health Literacy Questionnaire (HLQ). BMC Public Health 20, 1819 (2020).