How to Write a Plain-language Abstract

A plain-language abstract is an incredibly effective science communication tool because it allows researchers to reach a wider audience by summarizing papers in terms that are accessible to people outside of a specific scientific circle. We asked Shane M. Hanlon, an ecologist by training and a Senior Specialist with AGU’s Sharing Science program, to share his advice for writing the most effective plain-language abstract.

Written by Shane M. Hanlon

I’m an ecologist by training who now spends the bulk of my time training fellow scientists how to talk to non-scientists through the Sharing Science program at the American Geophysical Union. So, I’ve spent a fair amount of time chatting with scientists on technical issues and reading abstracts from scientific papers on areas both in and outside of my expertise. One thing I’ve learned is that even as a scientist, scientific findings from other fields can be difficult to understand. And even though my professional goal is primarily to help scientists communicate outside of the scientific industry, I 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 is also an effective communicator (paraphrasing), “anyone outside of your specific field of interest is considered ‘the public,’ regardless of whether they’re a scientist or not.” Taking this sentiment into consideration, it makes sense that we as scientists would try to make our work more accessible in our professional communications through, for example, plainspoken abstracts in manuscripts.

Plain-language abstracts are becoming an increasingly popular option in scientific publishing. The basic idea is that in addition the typical abstract, authors write another abstract that’s free of technical jargon and accessible to a broader audience. Plain-language abstracts have two-fold benefits – they’re a good idea for dissemination outside of scientific circles and can also be helpful for fellow scientists who may not be in your field and not familiar with your particular type of jargon. While the option of including a plain-language abstract in journals is increasing, many scientists are not trained in how to distill their work in a distilled and accessible manner. Fortunately, we at Sharing Science developed a guide to help!

  • 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 audience’s 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.

This piece is adapted from one originally posted in The Plainspoken Scientist.