Approaches to improve the quality of plain English in lay summaries
The importance of effective communication between researchers and the public is evident. Patients and the public are becoming increasingly engaged in research, clinical studies and treatment choices, and many major funding bodies – including the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) – now require lay summaries of research reports. However, many researchers are used to writing with technical, specialised language that a layperson may not understand. A recent study by Kirkpatrick et al describes effective ways in which authors may improve the accessibility of lay summaries to a non-specialist audience.
With a view to informing best practice in the NIHR Journals Library, Kirkpatrick et al evaluated two approaches to improve the quality of lay summaries in study reports written for NIHR-funded projects. The first approach involved authors rewriting their lay summaries according to enhanced guidelines provided by the NIHR. As well as encouraging the use of simplified language and subheadings, this document directed authors to resources such as the Plain English Campaign and the Flesch reading ease score – a well-established, easy-to-use 0–100 grading system of readability. The second approach involved editing of lay summaries by an independent medical writer. Both approaches significantly increased the Flesch readability score. Original and improved lay summaries were also disseminated to a non-specialist panel to grade their ease of understanding. While neither approach significantly improved self-reported understanding, comments from participants reinforce previous findings that jargon, ambiguity and complex titles are detrimental to laypersons’ understanding.
Effective communication is paramount in strengthening the relationship between researchers and the public. Kirkpatrick et al conclude that employing independent medical writers and adhering to practical author guidance can help researchers, editors and publishers improve the quality of their lay summaries.
Summary by Emma Prest, PhD from Aspire Scientific
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