Plain Language Summaries: Good for everyone

A blank page of a spiral notebook and and fountain pen.What are Plain Language Summaries? These are an invaluable adjunct to abstracts in academic papers. They help more readers understand the content of the article, especially if the topic is unfamiliar. Beth Myers and Teukie Martin provide a good example when explaining why they use these summaries:

What are Plain Language Summaries (PLS)?

      • Plain language summaries are short summaries of research articles.
      • They communicate the main ideas of the article and are easy to understand.
      • PLS are also used by the government, doctors, and places like banks and utility companies. Some research journals use PLS, too.

Why are PLS important?

      •  Research articles can be hard to read and understand.
      • PLS make research accessible to many kinds of people.
      • Everyone should have access to information that impacts their lives. PLS help make that possible.

Why are PLS important for the Journal of Inclusive Postsecondary Education?

      • We want our work to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, including students with intellectual disability and all people who care about inclusive education.
      • We want to show other journals how to be more accessible.
      • We want to make the world a better and more accessible place.

Plain language writing is clear, succinct, and jargon-free, and is organized in a way that helps understanding. It is a reader-centered way of writing so that readers can access, comprehend, and utilise information. Plain language writing benefits all readers while ensuring crucial access for some. It’s universal design.

The title of the article is, Why Plain Language? Linguistic Accessibility in Inclusive Higher Education. The journal is clearly living the message of inclusion in writing up research. As such, this is a short document with all the key information without jargon. 

Example of a plain language summary

Plain Language Summaries are not quite the same as Easy Read or Easy English documents which use simplified language. The wording and pictures in these documents are carefully placed on the page as well. 

What’s the point of academic research if only other academics can understand it? Governments often fund research, so we should all have access to this new knowledge. But if you want to rise in the ranks of academia you need to follow the “rules” for publishing. You also need to show that you know the language and jargon. There is no need to change this. What we need are additional plain language summaries. The picture below shows an example. 

The front page of the academic article showing how the Accessible Summary is presented.

Academic papers begin with an abstract – an outline of what the paper or article is about. It usually says what the problem is, what they researched and what they found. A plain language summary of the abstract gives the same information but in less words. So what does a plain language summary look like? 

A good example is the article, Co-designing the Cabriotraining: A training for transdisciplinary teams. It begins with an “Accessible Summary” followed by the regular abstract.  This is how it reads:

Accessible summary

    • The research was conducted by a team of researchers. Some of the researchers have experience of living with a disability.
    • The researchers created training for other research teams that include experts by experience.
    • The training has six parts. To decide what happened in the training, the researchers read articles and asked the research teams they trained about what problems they had and what they wanted to know about.
    • The article tells why and how the training was made. It also says what training is needed for researchers with and without disabilities to learn and work together in a way that feels safe and useful.
    • In developing and providing the training, it was very crucial to search for a safe and welcome space for all people involved (Figure 8). As we don’t know what is “safe” for the other, this means we have to search together, in respect and with enough time to get to know each other.

Editor’s note: Great to see an academic paper translated into key points that many more people can understand. From my experience, writing succinctly and plainly is a rare skill in academia. I was delighted to see this example. It’s universal design!


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