Spotlight on: explaining your work in plain language

Why might you want to explain your work in plain language?

There is growing evidence that explaining your work in plain language can help increase its impact, because more people will find, understand, read and cite it. Findings of studies in this area include:

double_quote “Disparate studies show consistent connections between public communication, increased visibility of research, and greater numbers of citations … scientists who engage in public communication enjoy an enhanced reputation among peers” Koehne and Olden (2015)
Opinion: Lay summaries needed to enhance science communication. PNAS 112 (12) 3585-3586 http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1500882112
double_quote “Journals which publish papers with shorter titles receive more citations per paper” Letchford, Moat and Preis (2015)
The advantage of short paper titles. Royal Society Open Science 2 (8): 1-6. 150266 http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.150266
double_quote “Short titles presenting results or conclusions were independently associated with higher citation counts” Paisa, Lima and Paiva (2012)
Articles with short titles describing the results are cited more often. Clinics (Sao Paulo) 67(5): 509–513 http://dx.doi.org/10.6061/clinics/2012(05)17

Many different audiences can benefit from plain language explanations. As well as making work more comprehensible to the general public, taxpayers, the media and others outside academia, plain language explanations can help other people in your field (or in related fields) to quickly skim, scan and understand work so they know what is relevant enough for them to read in more detail. Nonetheless, many researchers lack confidence when it comes to explaining work in plain language.

In this post, we’ve answered some of the most common questions that researchers have when it comes to trying to explain their work in plain language.

What information should you convey? How should you structure it?

The plain language summaries in Kudos are structured around two key questions:

  • What is this work about?
  • Why is it important?

When we began the process of developing our toolkit, and we asked researchers what they would find most useful to help them digest more of the literature, these were the two questions they wanted a summary to answer.

What is “plain” language?

Imagine you are talking to a non-specialist – perhaps a family member – and keep in mind the language you would use and the depth you would go into when telling them about your work.

Keep your sentences short – strip out unnecessary words.

Keep your language as simple as possible – avoid terms that are specific to the field.

Imagine someone asking you “so what?” and consider whether you have answered that implied question.

Stay focused on the questions you’ve been asked;
minimize references to e.g. methodology – this should be covered in your abstract, which serves a different purpose.

Plain language does not necessarily mean English! Use another language to explain your work if you find that easier. A simple summary of your work might help you find more readers in your own linguistic region, and will will also be easier to auto-translate for readers of other languages.

Want to check your efforts? Test your text for readability at readable.io!

Example from Dr Michele Tobias

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-16-31-57

Example from Dr Maria Chatzichristodoulou

Why might your work be important?

Has your work helped to progress the field?

Has it perhaps corrected a past assumption?

What will people gain from reading it?

What were some of your key findings?

What is really novel?

Sick Baboon screenshot

Example from Claudia Sick

Copier crime screenshot

Example from Dr Benjamin Jones

What other guidance is available?

double_quote “Writing is a challenge for many [researchers and] technical professionals, but following a few simple steps and taking the time to practice can make writing easier.” Platt (2016)
Five Ways Engineers Can Improve Their Writing.
The Institute. http://theinstitute.ieee.org/career-and-education/career-guidance/five-ways-engineers-can-improve-their-writing
double_quote These tips for writing the keywords, title and abstract of your paper are just as useful for writing your short title and plain language explanation in Kudos. Grieves (2015)
Maximising the Exposure of Your Research: Search Engine Optimisation and why it matters.
Methods Blog. https://methodsblog.wordpress.com/2015/12/18/seo/
double_quote For more detailed guidance on writing a plain language summary Buddle (2013)
A guide for writing plain language summaries of research papers
Arthropod Ecology blog. https://arthropodecology.com/2013/08/01/a-guide-for-writing-plain-language-summaries-of-research-papers/
double_quote The most comprehensive guide we know for writing for a broader audience Duke (2012)
How to Write a Lay Summary. DCC How-to Guides. Edinburgh: Digital Curation Centre. http://www.dcc.ac.uk/resources/how-guides

And finally…

We have a series of video guides about how to get started with Kudos. Here’s 2 minutes on explaining your work!

5 thoughts on “Spotlight on: explaining your work in plain language

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