Have you ever read a scientific paper and struggled to understand the main findings of the research? If so, you are not alone.
When I worked as a research scientist one of my biggest frustrations was how difficult it could be to read research papers, even those within my own field. Research papers are written in a very formal style with lots of jargon, long words and lots of nouns, which help to keep the word count down but also make the text harder to read.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not “anti-jargon”, I do think that careful use of jargon in articles meant for a specialised audience can be very helpful to readers. For example, using the term “photosynthesis” in a scientific paper on leaves is going to be much more concise and less clumsy than writing “the process by which some organisms use energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars” several times.
However, researchers working in different fields can all use different sets of jargon (like different dialects in a language) to the point that a plant scientist like me may not be equipped with the right vocabulary to understand a neuroscience paper (without a significant amount of googling and head-scratching at any rate). New technologies and advances in one field may be relevant to researchers working in other fields, so using different scientific dialects may delay the spread of new knowledge. Another issue is that a lot of scientific research is funded by public money and therefore should be answerable to the public. So how can we make the findings of scientific research more accessible to anyone who is interested?
The media play a big role in communicating the findings of research to the wider public. However, the media can only highlight a tiny fraction of research being published, and they (understandably) focus on the most exciting, weird or funny discoveries. But what about all the other research that might still be of interest to to other scientists and members of the public?
One way that some journals, medical charities and other scientific organisations are making research more accessible to broader audiences is by publishing summaries of research articles written in everyday language using few technical terms. This includes eLife (the journal I work for) and my current job involves producing plain-language summaries called “eLife digests” (you can read a selection of eLife digests on our Roots and Shoots blog.
To highlight the plain-language summaries eLife and other organisations produce, we (the eLife features team) have recently published a collection called “Plain-language summaries of research”. The collection includes articles and blogposts about the experiences of various organisations as well as our advice on how to write plain-language summaries. Furthermore, you can listen to my colleague Stuart King and I discuss plain-language summaries in the latest eLife podcast, episode 37.
The most exciting thing I learned while working on the collection is that there is an enormous variety of plain-language summaries out there covering different areas of science from astrophysics to ecology. Furthermore, different organisations target their summaries at different audiences. For example, the summaries produced by some medical journals and medical charities are often primarily aimed at patients and their families. On the other hand, some journals (e.g. PNAS) produce summaries that are aimed at other scientists who read the journal. I think all of these different approaches have a place in widening access to scientific research.
To help people find plain-language summaries on topics that interest them we have compiled a list of over 50 organisations that produce them. Please do make use of this list, and let eLife know of any other organisations that should be included.