The PLS Series: The Power of Plain Language—4 Reasons Why Every Research Paper Needs a Plain Language Summary, with a Real-Life Example
In the world of academia, research papers are the lifeblood of knowledge production. They serve as the primary means through which scholars communicate their findings, theories, and insights to the broader scientific community. However, there’s a glaring issue that plagues this ecosystem: the language used in research papers is often dense, technical, and inaccessible to the general public. Enter plain language summaries (PLS) – a bridge between experts and the rest of the world, making academic research more inclusive and understandable.
The Challenge of Academic Jargon
Academic jargon, with its complex terminology and intricate sentence structures, can be a formidable barrier to understanding for non-experts. It’s like a secret code that only those initiated into the academic realm can decipher. While this specialized language is necessary for precision and conciseness within the scientific community, it has the unfortunate side effect of isolating researchers from the public. This gap between experts and the general public can lead to a significant disconnect, as the insights and discoveries from research often remain confined within the walls of academia.
The Power of Plain Language
PLS are a vital tool in breaking down these barriers. They are clear, concise, and accessible versions of research papers, written in everyday language, making complex ideas and findings more comprehensible to a wider audience. The concept behind PLS is simple: take the core ideas and findings from a research paper and present them in a way that anyone, regardless of their background, can understand. This approach has numerous benefits.
1. Bridging the Gap
One of the most significant advantages of PLS is its ability to bridge the gap between experts and the general public. Researchers work tirelessly to make new discoveries and contribute to the collective body of knowledge, but their efforts are often in vain if their work remains locked behind academic paywalls and dense language. PLS offers a key to unlocking these treasures and sharing them with a broader audience.
When research is presented in plain language, it becomes accessible to a wider audience, including policymakers, journalists, educators, and the general public. This increased accessibility fosters greater understanding and engagement with scientific research. It allows for the democratization of knowledge, which is essential in a world where evidence-based decision-making is crucial.
2. Fostering Informed Decision-Making
PLS empower individuals to make informed decisions based on the latest research. For example, when scientific studies on topics like climate change, public health, or economics are transformed into plain language, the average citizen can better grasp the implications of these studies. This, in turn, enables them to participate in discussions, advocate for informed policies, and engage more actively in civic life.
Additionally, PLS can be instrumental in helping people understand complex medical and healthcare-related research. Patients and their families can make more informed decisions about their health when research papers are translated into PLS. This not only improves patient engagement but also promotes shared decision-making between patients and healthcare providers.
3. Enhancing Science Communication and Interdisciplinary Collaboration
The benefits of PLS extend beyond just reaching the public. Researchers themselves can gain from this practice. Writing a PLS forces scientists to distill their complex work into its essential components, which can enhance their communication skills. It can help researchers clarify their own thinking, identify the real-world implications of their work, and connect with a broader audience.
Additionally, PLS can be a useful tool for interdisciplinary medical communications. Often, researchers from different fields need to collaborate on complex issues that require a shared understanding. PLS can serve as a bridge between disciplines, helping experts from various fields better comprehend and collaborate on multifaceted problems.
4. Encouraging Scientific Transparency
Scientific transparency is essential for maintaining trust and credibility in the research community. PLS plays a crucial role in this by making research findings more accessible to the public. When research is presented in plain language, it becomes easier for the public to scrutinize, question, and engage with the findings. This not only holds researchers accountable but also encourages them to maintain the highest standards of integrity in their work.
Real-Life Example: The Cochrane Collaboration
The Cochrane Collaboration is a global network of researchers and healthcare professionals dedicated to conducting systematic reviews of healthcare interventions. These reviews are comprehensive assessments of medical research, providing crucial insights into the effectiveness of various treatments and interventions.
Cochrane reviews are known for their rigor and precision, but they often contain highly technical language and statistical data that can be daunting for the average person. However, the organization recognized the importance of making their findings more accessible to a broader audience. To bridge the gap between the academic community and the general public, Cochrane began including PLS alongside their detailed research papers. These summaries distill the key findings and implications of their systematic reviews into straightforward, jargon-free language.
The impact of this practice was profound. By offering PLS, Cochrane made its research accessible to patients, healthcare providers, policymakers, and the general public. This enabled people to understand the implications of medical research, make informed decisions about their health, and engage more actively in healthcare discussions. For instance, a Cochrane review that evaluated the effectiveness of a particular medication in treating a common condition could be accompanied by a PLS that simply stated whether the medication was effective and if there were any potential side effects. This allowed patients and doctors to quickly grasp the findings and apply them to their decisions about treatment.
Challenges and Implementation
While the idea of PLS is undoubtedly compelling, there are challenges to their widespread implementation. Writing a PLS is an art in itself, as it requires researchers to convey the essence of their work without oversimplification. Moreover, it can be time-consuming and often not prioritized in a researcher’s already busy schedule.
To encourage the adoption of PLS, institutions and funding agencies could incentivize their creation. Scholarly journals could also play a role by incorporating PLS as a standard feature in published research papers. Additionally, training and resources on how to craft effective PLS could be made more widely available to researchers.
PLS has the power to democratize knowledge, enhance scientific communication, and build bridges between experts and the public. In an era where the understanding and application of research findings are critical, PLS can serve as a beacon of hope for a more informed and engaged society.
As we move forward, it is crucial for the academic community, research institutions, and the publishing industry to recognize the importance of PLS and actively promote their creation and dissemination. With this simple yet transformative tool, we can make a profound impact on how research is shared and understood, ultimately enriching society with the fruits of human inquiry. In the PLS series, we find a powerful reminder that the true essence of research lies not just in discovery but also in the act of sharing knowledge with the world.
In our forthcoming articles in the PLS series, we will focus more on PLS initiatives by the Cochrane Collaboration and also provide easy downloadable checklists.