Furthering the Public’s Understanding of Science with Plain Language Summaries


    In recent years, medical communicators have been creating documents called plain language summaries (PLS) to help patients, caregivers, and the general public to better understand the latest scientific findings and clinical trial results. 

    The terms plain language summaries (PLS), plain language summaries (PLS) for clinical trials, plain language summaries for publication (PLSP), and plain language writing can be confusing — and are sometimes used interchangeably. Although each term has a different application, the documents share a single goal: to work toward inclusion and empowerment of nonexpert audiences.

    Research has shown that using plain language communication increases patient health literacy. As health literacy improves, there is a positive correlation with better patient health outcomes.

    Writing for these documents requires a specific skill set, knowledge of ethical concerns, awareness of clinical trial regulations, and a desire to improve health literacy.

    Defining the Terms

    What are the basic roles of plain language summaries?

    • Plain language summaries (PLS) are a way to help engage patients, patient organizations, and caregivers with health care discussions.
    • Plain language summaries of publications (PLSP) are a way to help both nonexperts and experts  to quickly digest the main findings of scientific articles. 
    • Plain language summaries (PLS) for clinical trials help clinical trial participants, their families, and other patients to understand the results of the clinical trials.  

    Broadening the Reach of Research

    Plain language summaries of publications (PLSP) — or lay summaries — are jargon-free descriptions of scholarly publications that can help increase the public’s understanding of research. 

    These days, most journals are requiring authors to submit plain language summaries. For example, Taylor & Francis Online publishes plain language summaries in several subject areas. The publisher’s Author Services site offers a handy guide called “How to write and publish a Plain Language Summary.” 

    Journals will indicate whether a PLS is required in their Instructions for Authors.

    Expanding Health Literacy

    In a 2022 AMWA Journal article on plain language summaries, Thomas M. Schindler, PhD, writes, “There is a growing demand of patients and nonspecialists to understand the potential implications of clinical and medical research.” Nontechnical summaries can improve communication with patients, caregivers, and medical professionals. However, Schindler cautions that summaries must be created carefully with ethical principles in mind. 

    Schindler’s article offers insights based on the co-creation of a “How-To” Guide on PLS writing developed by the Patient Focused Medicines Development initiative. The how-to guide explores ways to fully inform patients and include them in communication about current scientific and medical developments. One of the key ways to do that is to offer materials they can understand. Those publications need to represent the data and implications of research fairly.

    The how-to guide was created using a collaborative, multistep process that involved researchers, publishers, patient representatives, medical communication agencies, and public officials.

    The how-to guide outlines seven steps for the co-creation of plain language summaries.

    1. Consider the rationale and scope of your PLS.
    2. Identify your target audience.
    3. Consider where the PLS will be disseminated.
    4. Identify the key stakeholders for co-creating the PLS.
    5. Write your PLS. Include visuals and infographics to help engage the reader, and use readability tools to ensure the summary is easy to read and understand. Ask for feedback along the way.
    6. Disseminate the PLS. Distribute the summary to authors, institutions, patients, and advocacy groups. Utilize social media channels, PubMed, and other repositories to distribute the summary.
    7. Track the dissemination and measure success. You can use metrics to understand the value and impact of the PLS.

    Ethical Concerns

    At this time in history, Americans’ trust in science is significantly lower than it was before the coronavirus pandemic. Plain language writing could help engage nonexperts and potentially slow the downward trend. Whether someone is creating a PLS, a PLS for clinical trials, or a PLSP, impact.science shares the following ethical guidelines.

    • Ensure the summary reflects the authors’ intent and reflects their voice.
    • Provide an accurate reflection of the information being presented.
    • Create an impartial and nonpromotional document.
    • Maintain scientific integrity.
    • Verify that artwork does not give false impressions.

    Tools for Medical Communicators

    Some excellent resources for writers creating plain language summaries are

    Toward Inclusivity and Accessibility

    Science does not exist in a vacuum. When scientific findings and data are only read and understood by experts, we miss valuable opportunities for expanding medical and scientific knowledge. 

    Plain language summaries are tools that researchers and medical communicators can use to make medical information more accessible, readable, and inclusive for more people.

    AMWA gratefully acknowledges Anna S. Smith, MPH, BSN-RN, for peer review support for this blog, and Eva Stabenow, MA, MPH, for additional review.


    January 15, 2024 at 9:00 AM

    American Medical Writers Association

    AMWA is the leading resource for medical communicators. The AMWA Blog is developed in partnership with community members who work every day to create clear communications that lead to better health and well-being.