Most of us have had to write a lay summary or abstract at some point. How easy do you find this? In my experience, it is harder than you think!
Whether for your thesis, graduate fellowship grant application, or even lab newsletter, writing about your research in plain English is a crucial skill. Communicating your work to the public is an important element in our job to share our research and justify how those tax payers’ pennies are being spent.
Although there are no standard guidelines, my research institute recommends writing lay summaries at the reading age of 14. This guideline also includes lay abstracts for governmental granting authorities, which may surprise you. Non-scientist members of the public, including members of congress, read lay summaries to understand your research.
Where to Start?
Take a moment to think about the big picture. Basically, why should the people reading your lay summary care? Why is your work important? Who are your audience and would your Granny understand it? Think of a short, snappy title to grab your audience’s attention and keep it simple!
Who to Run Your Lay Summary By?
You can ask your long suffering, but obliging, friends or flat mates to read over your ‘lay’ handiwork. They can provide helpful feedback, but their feedback will be pretty subjective (they know you well and have probably heard lots about what you do). You do have another option—you can turn to the web for help.
For example, ‘The Readability Test Tool’ is an online application in which you can copy/paste your work, and it will return an estimated age and grade level (the latter based on the US system). While ‘reading age’ will always be subjective, the output is quite useful, providing numerous ‘readability’ scales, a traffic light indicator for ease of reading, the number of complex words, the average number of syllables per word and so on.
Using this tool, I will share with you a snippet from a recent attempt of mine to convert a piece of academic writing into something that is hopefully inspiring and engaging to the lay reader. (Warning: this gets addictive!)
For academic peers:
Investigating the Placental DNA Methylation Profile of Cortisol Pathway Genes in Pre-Eclampsia
The placenta is an endocrine organ that synthesises steroid hormones (estrogen and progesterone) essential for pregnancy maintenance. It also metabolises glucocorticoids, protecting the fetus from detrimental exposures. Pre-eclampsia is a common obstetrical disorder, characterised by maternal hypertension and proteinuria. Placental cortisol is increased and genes that regulate its bioavailability are altered. To explore the mechanisms leading to this, we studied DNA methylation at specific candidate loci related to stress-signalling in healthy and pre-eclampsia associated placentas….”
Lay Attempt 1: Estimated 17-18 Year Old Reading Level
The Clues Are in the DNA: How Genes Are Controlled in the Placenta
In addition to nutrient and gas exchange, the placenta produces hormones essential for a healthy pregnancy and inactivates ‘stress’ hormones such as cortisol which can be harmful to the baby. Pre-eclampsia is common and occurs when the placenta doesn’t function properly. This leads to severely high blood pressure in the mother. In pre-eclampsia the levels of cortisol are increased, which may be due to changes in genes in the placenta that control the levels of this hormone. To look at this, we compared placentas from women with and without pre-eclampsia and measured chemical marks on DNA that can affect how and when genes are switched on and off….”
Lay Attempt 2: Estimated 16-17 Year Old Reading Level
The Clues Are in the DNA: How Genes Are Switched On and Off in the Placenta
The placenta exchanges food, oxygen and waste between mother and baby. It also makes hormones important for a healthy pregnancy and protects the baby from harmful hormones. Pre-eclampsia occurs in about 5% of pregnancies; the placenta doesn’t work properly and this can make the mother very poorly. In pre-eclampsia, a stress hormone called cortisol is increased, which may be due to differences in the levels of genes that control this. To understand how genes might be switched on and off in pre-eclampsia, we looked at chemical changes to the DNA in these placentas….”
In this example, I wasn’t able to get below the 16 year old reading level— it’s definitely not easy! While I could probably do with more practice, there will always be a compromise when using science terminology, even popularized words like ‘genes’ and ‘DNA’.
No one wants complete dumbing down to the extent that there is no real message coming across. The main thing is that we keep our message simple, to the point and most importantly, interesting! Good luck!