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Lay summaries, supplements, primers: Scientists (and journals) strive to make science accessible to public (and each other)

By Erica Tennenhouse

With the rapid pace of scientific advancement, it can be challenging for members of the public to stay informed. News and social media play an important role in translating new science for a general audience. But over-reliance upon second-, or even third- or fourth-hand reports on science can lead to misinformation being spread. As my elementary school librarian taught me, nothing beats reading a primary source.

Despite the fact that scientific research is increasingly being published in open-access journals, and even though science communications aimed at the public often contain links to original sources, I suspect that few members of the public actually read original research articles. And there is good reason for that. Articles published in peer-reviewed journals are targeted at specialists in the field.

Even as a specialist (I am currently completing my Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology), many peer-reviewed articles in scientific fields closely related to my own go right over my head. Indeed, the growing need for cross-disciplinary collaborations among scientists stems from increasing specialization in many scientific fields.

image: studio tdes | CC BY
image: studio tdes | CC BY

Several excellent ideas have been proposed to make peer-reviewed science accessible to a broader audience. It has been suggested, and adopted by some journals, that all authors publishing science papers be required to submit an accompanying plain-language summary (abstract) of the work to facilitate outreach. It has also been proposed that science publications should include an outreach section where all outreach activities associated with the research are listed.

Here’s a slightly different idea.

Pairing research articles with ‘plain language’ supplements

I suggest that researchers publish supplements aimed at non-specialists alongside their peer-reviewed articles, in an effort to effectively engage the public in their research while maintaining scientific accuracy. The supplements would provide various kinds supporting information, all aimed at making the original research articles more comprehensible to non-specialists. These might take the form of additional figures or videos, further explanation of concepts discussed in the article, and links to websites containing helpful resources. With these supplements, readers could then decipher the content of the original articles they accompany. Some articles would undoubtedly remain challenging for readers to wrap their heads around, but the supplements would be a step in the right direction.

Some journals and authors already see value in creating supplemental materials geared toward particular audiences. For example, authors of a recent paper published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences realized that their findings would have a greater impact if they reached individuals involved in fisheries policy. So they distilled the relevant information from their paper into an additional four-page document and infographic, which they emailed to policy-makers and government staff.

Additionally, PLOS Biology (along with PLOS Computational Biology and PLOS Genetics) frequently produce “primers,” which provide introductions to complex topics covered in accompanying research articles (here is an example with figures illustrating research methods involved in the field of metagenomics).

Figure 1. Environmental Shotgun Sequencing (ESS). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000667

Yet, for all of the scientists that embrace communication and outreach, there are many who struggle to engage non-academic audiences. Requiring all scientists to participate in communication training would be an ideal solution. But in the meantime, a push toward the incorporation of public engagement supplements into research articles would likely require the assistance of skilled journal content editors. These editors could guide scientists through the process of producing engaging supplemental materials, providing assistance with making content clear and accessible when needed.

Such engagement would not only benefit the general public, but could also be an effective teaching tool. High school science curriculums are jam packed, leaving little time for teachers to incorporate current research into their classes. The addition of accessible content to peer-reviewed articles could provide a new resource for students to explore, with the potential to improve science literacy and give scientifically inclined students a window into some of the fields of research that they might pursue down the road.

2015 Eureka Prize for Science Communication — KNAW
2015 Eureka Prize for Science Communication — KNAW

Public engagement supplements in open-access, peer-reviewed journals could simultaneously address the needs of a public that is thirsty for current and accurate scientific information, and of scientists who want to broaden the impact of their research. If the inclusion of these types of supplements with publications became common practice among researchers, academic journals would potentially become a one-stop source for scientists and non-scientists alike to explore the latest advances in science.





Erica Tennenhouse is currently completing her Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology at the UniversPicture1ity of Toronto. She is also an editor for the Journal of Student Science and Technology, where she developed a new outreach section called Science from the Source. The Journal of Student Science and Technology is an open-access peer-reviewed journal that
publishes articles written by high school and undergraduate students engaged in high-quality research. On Twitter: @Erica_Ten



The views expressed in this post belong solely to its author and do not necessarily reflect those of PLOS.

  1. Great post! You hit the nail on the head with many of your points. I particularly agree that specialists can struggle to understand papers in related fields. And actually even if you do understand what you are reading, it can be time-consuming to read the “formal” communication (even the abstract can be dense / technical) and a plain language summary can help make it easier for you to quickly skim through more of the literature. I like the idea of the plain language supplement. It builds on what we are trying to do at Kudos (people can add plain language summaries of their work, upload explanatory figures or videos, and link to related resources that further help to explain the work or set it in context). By mapping these activities to meaningful publication metrics (views, downloads, citations etc) we try to show researchers that there is value in this kind of outreach. Certainly the growth in adoption of ideas such as those you present above would suggest there is!

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