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In a nutshell: how to write a lay summary

Why “translating” your research for a general audience can bring many benefits – and how to do so

© istockphoto.com/Michail_Petrov
© istockphoto.com/Michail_Petrov

With thanks to Kristina Killgrove

Elsevier Authors' Update is pleased to present this article in support of PHD2Published Academic Writing Month.


You must be rather pleased with that newly-published article. After many long months, your hard work has paid off and that paper has now taken its place in the library of academic literature. Unfortunately, so have another 2.5 million articles just this year. How do you stand out amongst that enormous crowd and get attention? One way of doing this is to make your article as accessible as possible and a good way of achieving that aim is to prepare a lay summary.

What is a lay summary?

Though your colleagues and peers are probably able to get to grips with your article, the chances are that its content will be unintelligible to the average man or woman in the street. What’s more, researchers are increasingly tasked by their institutions and funders to outline the impact of their research for the general public and beyond their specific area of interest. If you can transform your article into something that the wider public can understand, you’ve got yourself another readership  - and one who is more likely to share what it is that you’ve discovered/hypothesized/confirmed further. The key to doing this is in producing a lay summary.

A lay summary, or impact statement, is a very efficient way of conveying the essence of your article briefly and clearly. Fundamentally, what you’re aiming to produce is a short paragraph outlining the article content, aimed at non-specialists in the field and written in a way that they can easily understand. This element differentiates it from the abstract, which is designed with your subject peers in mind. The structure of a lay summary should answer the main questions of “who/what/where/when/how many/why?” (in essence, you’re trying to justify why someone should spend time in reading what you’ve produced). Answering these questions in a concise manner will deliver all the details the reader needs. The most important part of it is a “summary within a summary”: one final sentence which explains why the research is important, and what the article has concluded.

What’s the big deal?

Lay summaries are already commonly used by researchers in many subject areas, as they encourage and increase the possibility of collaboration, and some funding bodies even require them as part of their application procedure. Writing such summaries – distilling your work into a “portable” and maximally-accessible form can bring many benefits for your wider interactions with society at large. Among other things, they’re great for use in press releases or when communicating with journalists. In short: this is a communications skill worth learning.

Here are some pointers on how to write a useful lay summary:

  • Predict and cover the “so what?” factor – justify your research.
  • Give some background and context to the research. What prompted you to do it?
  • Follow a logical order. This may not always coincide with a temporal order.
  • Explain the impact of the work – what is going to change (especially in relation to wider society)?
  • Use succinct, short sentences – and write in plain English. Imagine you’re talking to an undergraduate who’s just stepped into your introductory class. Or, better still, pretend you’re trying to explain your article to a distant family member who works in retail/fashion/hospitality.
  • Avoid jargon unless absolutely necessary and explain it if you do have to keep it in.
  • Use first person and active voice (“we agreed” rather than “it was agreed”).
  • Use positives not negative sentences: “You will have repeat appointments at least once a fortnight”, rather than “The usual practice is not to schedule repeat appointments more frequently than once a fortnight”
  • Images are very important – try to include one if you can.

When you think you’re ready with your summary, ask a friendly non-academic to read it. Ask them if they understood it: the number of questions you get might dictate that further revision is needed!

Supporting lay summaries at Elsevier

Here at Elsevier we’ve been exploring how we can support authors with writing, hosting and promoting lay summaries. Several of the journals we publish including: Epilepsy & Behavior Case Reports, International Journal of Paleopathology, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reportsand Journal of Hepatology now provide lay summaries for selected papers on their homepages. These are made freely available to readers. Note that different journals and subject areas might approach the same basic idea in various ways. For example, the Materials Today group of journals has recently launched its “Contributor” project whereby early and mid-career researchers are encouraged to write “news summaries” of recent articles (which are then checked with the original author(s) for accuracy and published on the Materials Today news page). There might be similar initiatives in your community, so make sure you keep your ear to the ground and get involved if you can.

Looking to the future, we’re also in the process of experimenting with facilitating the submission of lay summaries during the submission process – and aggregating them on a grander scale for authors to aid their discoverability. Stay tuned to hear more on our efforts in this regard.

In sum

Lay summaries can be a powerful tool to extend and broaden the impact of your research. Don’t forget that there are a number of other tools available to you as author – check out our guide to “getting noticed”, for example. Have a go at writing a summary for your next article and ask your editor if the journal in question is interested in participating in the lay summaries project. Enjoy making a splash with your next article!

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