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Plain language summaries

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Published: 05 April 2021

Version: 1.0 - April 2021

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“If the plain language summary is well written, somehow the whole application seems easier to assess – I have an idea of what it is about.” Public reviewer

Who is this guidance for?

This guidance is for anyone writing a plain language summary of research. The NIHR requires a good quality summary as part of its funding application.

What is a plain language summary?

A plain language summary is a clear, brief overview of research. It should be written clearly and simply, without jargon and with an explanation of technical terms. The summary needs to stand alone, and be understood without further information.

Why is it important?

A good plain language summary will improve understanding of your research among:

  • reviewers, board and panel members, including clinicians and researchers who do not have specialist knowledge of your field; they may assess the summary as part of the review process
  • members of the public, health professionals, policy makers and the media.

Research funders may use the summary when publicising the research on NIHR and other websites.

How to write a summary

A few simple rules for writing a plain language summary include:

  • avoid, wherever possible, using jargon, abbreviations and technical terms – if you have to use them, provide a clear explanation
  • avoid complicated language or uncommon words
  • use active not passive phrases, for example, say ‘we will do it’ rather than ‘it will be done by us’
  • keep sentences short
  • plan the order and structure of the summary
  • break up the text, for example, use bullet lists or headings
  • ask members of the public/carers/colleagues to read a draft to find out if anything is unclear
  • use online tools to check the readability of your summary, and assess your language reading age
  • re-read your first draft after a few hours; fresh eyes will help you spot opportunities for improvement.

What to include?

Consider:

Background to the research, including:

  • why does this research need to be done now?
  • what is the impact on members of the public, services and society?

Aim of the research, including:

  • what question will your research answer?
  • what are your key aims and objectives?

Describe your research plan, including:

  • how you are going to answer your research question
  • what design and methods have you chosen, and why?

Patient and public involvement

  • how have patients and the public been involved in developing your proposal?
  • how will patients and the public be involved throughout your research?

Knowledge mobilisation

  • explain your plan for knowledge mobilisation

Resources

Several organisations and groups have developed guidance to support the writing of plain language summaries.

Plain English Campaign produces a series of guides that can be downloaded free of charge including: How to write in plain English; How to write medical information in plain English.

For examples of plain language summaries of research, see NIHR Evidence

Summaries of successful applications can be found on the NIHR Funding and Awards page

Readability and editing tools include: