Plain language summaries of published health research articles: how well are we doing?
2Monash University, Australia
3Health Consumers NSW, Australia
Plain language summaries (PLSs) are condensed summaries of research articles written in plain, easy-to-understand language aimed at a non-scientific audience. Most health research is not written with the public in mind, as it contains jargon and acronyms and is usually written at a high reading level. PLSs are an increasingly important tool for disseminating reliable health information in a way that a lay audience can understand.
Objectives: Our first objective was to provide a better understanding of the PLS instructions currently available to authors. Our second objective was to compare published PLSs with author instructions from health journals.
Methods: Initially, we conducted a scoping review of 534 health and biomedical journals to locate journals that contained author instructions for writing a PLS. We searched journals from 11 categories linked to the top 10 noncommunicable diseases. We included journals that published in English and recommended the inclusion of a PLS. We reported characteristics and elements of author instructions such as the label used, whether the PLS was optional or mandatory, word, count, length, and use of jargon. We followed this up with a study to determine the level of compliance between author instructions and PLS for these same journals. Before assessed compliance, we had to determine the extent to which PLSs were included with original articles from the journals.
Results: From our scoping review, we located 27 journals (5.1%) that had author instructions for PLSs. Author instructions were highly heterogeneous between journals. Only one journal recommended one consumer involvement in PLS development and one the use of a readability tool. In our follow up study, approximately half (53.8%) achieved medium or high levels of compliance. A medium rating was 51%-79% and high ≥ 80% compliance between PLSs and author instructions. PLSs were mandatory for seven journals, four of which had low or very low compliance.
Conclusions: This research was an important step in the development of evidence-based, consistent, and uniform instructions for writing PLSs that are easily understood by consumers. Patient, public, and/or healthcare consumer involvement: A consumer was engaged as part of the research team, offering knowledge user insight.