Roger Highfield is 80 per cent executive and 20 per cent author, journalist and broadcaster. He is the Director of External Affairs of the Science Museum Group, and a member of the Royal Society’s Science Policy Advisory Group.

The Tower of Babel (2012) CC-BY-SA (3.0) by Paul Gosselin

The Tower of Babel (2012) CC-BY-SA (3.0) by Paul Gosselin

We have all experienced that moment of epiphany when the very act of explaining a tricky concept to a friend or relative helps simplify a complicated problem, even understand it more deeply. So why not ensure that every scientific paper carries a lay summary?

The many benefits of doing this were outlined recently by Lauren Kuehne and Julian Olden of the University of Washington, Seattle. They concede that some scientists will moan that this as just one more hurdle in peer-reviewed publishing. But it would do a power of good for the visibility, impact and transparency of science if everyone adopted clear, simple and brief summary statements about the why and ‘so what?’ of research.

I also dream of the day when papers no longer contain circuitous, impenetrable sentences, when researchers no longer reach for clunky words such as ‘facilitate’, or write in the passive voice, as if some mighty and impersonal force had done their research. Scientific papers are often so opaque and jargon-laden that science is not really open at all, despite all the lip service paid to the idea of ‘open science.’

But when I mulled this over at a Royal Society meeting on the Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication (which resumes next week), I realised that within that little word ‘lay’ lies a subtle issue that is often overlooked.

To appreciate the true value of lay summaries we have to unpack what we mean by ‘scholars’ and the ‘layperson’.

A genomics researcher can find it just as hard as a smart-but-scientifically-ignorant lay person to read a particle physics paper, let alone the outpourings of a pure mathematician. Relative to the author of a scientific paper, specialists from other fields blend into that familiar-yet-mysterious blob we call ‘the public’.

In reality, ‘the public’ is a mishmash of many different audiences. Communicating with kids requires a different approach from that used for science graduates, for example. The latter can be lumped together with most scientists too – most scientists approximate to members of the ‘lay’ audience. Only a handful count as scholars, those who belong to the same scientific tribe as the author of a research paper.

As a corollary, ‘lay’ summaries will not only strengthen connections between science and the public, and help justify how researchers spend taxpayers’ money, but, importantly, network different kinds of scientist as well. (Indeed, it would be interesting to find out whether science’s Tower of Babel is one reason that interdisciplinary research has not advanced as quickly as some expected.)

Ultimately, the scientific enterprise needs capsule summaries that not only help inspire bureaucrats, policymakers, the media and so on, but also fire up scientists from other fields. In this way, ‘lay’ summaries will help build bridges between the many ivory towers of research, providing a spur for big, interdisciplinary science.


This post relates to our Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication events (#FSSC), bringing together stakeholders in a series of discussions on evolving and controversial areas in scholarly communication, looking at the impact of technology, the culture of science and how scientists might communicate in the future.

  • David_Colquhoun

    I’m sympathetic with this proposal, though lay summaries would have to be checked carefully for hype. And is it really feasible for papers in mathematics? I think it might be quite hard to do for papers like http://www.cs.man.ac.uk/~hsimmons/ROSI-SEXTON/Patch.pdf

  • Mike Taylor

    I couldn’t agree more. To my mind, the opening statement of this blog-post is the core of the issue: explaining a piece of research in terms that non-specialists can understand forces you to understand it — or to realise that you don’t understand it.

    On the kind of language used in scientific papers, the best advice I’ve ever seen is that of Fred Brooks, author of The Mythical Man-Month. He said “Present to inform, not to impress; if you inform, you will impress”.

  • Richard Van Noorden

    Are you proposing that scientists themselves will write the lay summaries, checking themselves for hype & jargon? Or that professional journalists or communicators would do it?

    A professional science journalist writing a lay summary of a paper (say, 200 words), might expect anything from $100-150 for such a service, depending on their experience. Are you expecting to fund this service that way?

  • Peter Rodgers

    A small number of journals already have such summaries. Here
    are a few examples:

    “Digests” in eLife (elifesciences.org.) Disclosure:
    I work for eLife.

    “Editor’s Summaries” in PLOS Medicine (journals.plos.org/plosmedicine)

    “Author Summaries” in PLOS Biology (journals.plos.org/plosbiology).

    There are also some sites that publish lay summaries on
    specific topics, such as:

    astrobites.org

    en.hdbuzz.net

  • Thank you for these comments.

    As Peter Rodgers makes clear, the basic idea is not original. However, I am not interested in being the first but pushing the idea that summaries written in plain English would help scholars as much as ‘the public’ (as well as fulfil the obligation on scholars to communicate clearly with the people who, ultimately, pay for their research, either directly or indirectly.)

    As Kuehne and Olden point out, journals such as PLOS Biology, PNAS, Behavioral Ecology and Functional Ecology have criteria for general synopses. The same goes for grant applications, Significance Statements and so on.

    This suggests that adopting lay summaries more widely really could work! And it is heartening to see that Mike Taylor thinks so too.

    I agree with Richard Van Noorden that some scientists may find it hard to give up jargon, clunky works, convoluted sentences and so on. They are no different in this respect to many other professions (lawyers come to mind). But they do all have experience of communicating in a straightforward way in everyday life. I don’t think it will be necessary for journalists to get involved, though it might mean more work for journal editors and press officers.

    David Colquhoun sounds a sensible note of caution regarding hype, though the benefits of the widespread adoption of ‘lay’ summaries far outweigh the risks.

    And yes, providing summaries for mathematics papers will prove tricky, though as Kuehne and Olden point out: “A lay summary differs in intent and should not be considered a “dumbed-down” version of the standard abstract. The lay summary should focus on the significance of the research with respect to the central or fundamental questions in the field (i.e., the “why and so what?” rather than the “how?”).”