Summarizing Science

tldr: Scientists should write plain-language summaries of their technical publications to improve communication of science to the public.

One of my favorite traditions in scientific writing – and academic writing, generally – is the abstract. Published scientific articles almost always come with an abstract – typically a one-paragraph summary of the article that includes all of the important results. This is a great courtesy to readers and shows that the scientific community had embraced the spirit of TLDR long before the internet distilled it down to a pithy acronym.

The downside of most abstracts is that they are incomprehensible to almost everyone except for experts in the particular subfield of the article. To achieve brevity and clarity for the expert audience, the abstract indulges in jargon and sacrifices explanation and background information.

I don’t think we should change the style of scientific abstracts – they are great for fast communication between scientists. However, standard scientific writing falls short of making sure that scientific work is understood and appreciated by the public.

There are certainly many great science journalists out there doing work communicating science to the public, but without a deep understanding of the topic, but too much of the reporting on science presents an inaccurate, distorted, or hyped-up picture of scientific results and the scientific process. This can spread misinformation and risks wearing out public faith in science with inaccurate and exaggerated claims. It is up to scientists to take responsibility to make sure their work informs the public as well as possible.

One thing that scientists can do to help in this situation is to write a plain-language summary of each of their technical publications to serve as a public-facing abstract. Scientists are uniquely positioned to communicate their own work, given that they understand it better than anyone, and can avoid the distortion that may occur when someone less familiar translates it into simpler terms. A plain language summary need not be as short as an abstract, and should take the time to explain important results and provide perspective on why the work was done and why it is important.

Plain-language summaries can help the broader community that engages with and communicates science as well as being a resource for the public. They can help science journalists and other science communicators understand the results and significance of scientific works that they present to the public. (University press releases commonly fill this role today, but are unfortunately a significant source of inaccuracy and exaggeration in broader press coverage.) For readers who seek out the source of science they hear about, a plain language summary provides accessible information while carrying the credibility of the original scientific researchers.

I encourage all scientists to write plain-language summaries for their technical publications. Writing a summary is a small task in comparison to writing and researching for a journal publication, and has the potential to greatly expand its value. In any case, exercising your muscles for clear communication is a good idea for any scientist.