Geology & Geophysics Editors' Vox

Plain Language Summaries Explained in Plain Language

Find out what a Plain Language Summary is, how to write an effective one, and how it benefits publications.

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AGU believes that Earth and space science research can address many scientific problems and societal issues in today’s world. However, in order to do so, we need to effectively communicate research findings and their relevance not only among the scientific community but also to broader audiences. Toward this goal, AGU launched an initiative in 2016 to give authors an opportunity to provide a Plain Language Summary (PLS) with their journal article.

In the five years since they were first introduced, PLS have become a key component in making research published in AGU journals more discoverable and accessible, with half of our journals now requiring them for newly submitted articles. Here we explain what a PLS is, offer some tips on how to write an effective PLS, and describe the benefits of writing a PLS.

How have PLS been adopted across AGU Journals?

Chart illustrating how the number of papers published in AGU journals with a PLS increased between 2017 and 2020.
Chart illustrating how the number of papers published in AGU journals with a PLS increased between 2017 and 2020.

Since introducing PLS to our journals, we have seen a significant increase in authors including a PLS with their papers.

In 2017 (the first full year adding a PLS was an option when submitting an article), only 21% of accepted submissions included a PLS.

Comparatively, 62% of papers accepted in 2020 included a PLS, making it the second year in a row where the number of papers published with a PLS was greater than the number without.

As we continue to see the number of papers with a PLS grow, we want to ensure that anyone interested in submitting to AGU journals understands the answer to, “What is a PLS and why should I bother writing one?”

What’s the difference between an Abstract and a PLS?

An article abstract and a PLS should introduce the same information but convey it in very different ways. Both should provide an overview of the main elements of the paper, summarize the results, and contextualize the significance of the conclusions.

While the primary audience for an abstract is other scientists in the field, PLS aim to reach additional groups, including (but not limited to) readers specializing in other fields, policymakers, journalists, and science educators. To do this effectively, a PLS should be free of technical jargon, avoid using acronyms (and explain them if they have to be used), and define any terms specific to the scientific field. A good rule of thumb is to write a PLS for an undergraduate level of scientific understanding.

How do I write an effective PLS?

Sitting down to write a PLS might feel daunting. Summarizing the entirety of your publication in 200 words or fewer is challenging! To help, we recommend breaking a PLS down into four elements, each just 1 or 2 sentences long:

  • Topic Overview – What does a non-specialist reader need to know about the topic to understand your paper? Explain the broad scientific topic to provide context for your study.
  • Paper Overview – What did you set out to investigate? Give a brief overview of what you set out to do in the research and how you went about it.
  • Findings Summary – What was the most significant result or conclusion in your paper? Describe your overall findings but don’t get caught up in explaining technical details.
  • Key Takeaways – Why should a reader care about your findings? Explain the scientific importance or societal relevance of your study.

We have created a set of annotated examples from different subject areas showing how this can be done effectively, which can be found on the “Plain Language Summaries for AGU journals” page.

What are the benefits of writing a PLS for authors?

PLS can benefit papers long before publication. A well-written PLS can help authors prepare a well-written abstract. Once submitted, a clear PLS will help the handling editor to select the most appropriate reviewers for an article, which leads to more helpful reviewer feedback and a stronger final product.

Once published, an effective PLS helps can draw attention to the paper. AGU journal articles with a PLS have a higher average number of downloads, a higher average number of citations, and higher average Altmetric scores than those without. PLS are also great for sharing on social media.

How do PLS benefit the scientific community?

By writing for a broader audience, a PLS can help promote interdisciplinary research. A PLS allows researchers specializing in other fields to identify points of connection between their own work and the work they are reading.

Additionally, PLS help promote and exemplify an inclusive scientific culture. Removing the jargon often present in abstracts makes research more accessible to readers who do not have advanced proficiency in English, helping to address the language barrier that often restricts scientific collaboration. The removal of jargon also provides an entry point for scientists new to the field.

We’d like to hear from you! Tell us about challenges you have faced when trying to write a PLS, let us know if you are familiar with resources that might be useful for other scientists, or share an example of a good PLS. AGU values collaboration with individuals and communities around the globe, so if you have any feedback on PLS, please let us know.

—Amanda Halprin ([email protected], ORCID logo 0000-0003-0569-1114), Senior Program Specialist, Publications, AGU

Citation: Halprin, A. (2021), Plain language summaries explained in plain language, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO158110. Published on 07 May 2021.
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