What Author Instructions Do Health Journals Provide for Writing Plain Language Summaries? A Scoping Review

Karen M. Gainey, Jenna Smith, Kirsten J. McCaffery, Sharon Clifford, Danielle M. Muscat

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Plain language summaries (PLSs) are intended for a non-expert audience in order to make health research accessible and understandable to the public. This is important because most research is written with jargon and at a high reading level. However, there is a high degree of variability in the instructions for writing PLSs, which may impede their usefulness as a tool for communicating health research to the public. Objective: The aim of this scoping review was to conduct a detailed analysis of the author instructions for PLSs provided by leading biomedical and health journals. Method: We screened 534 health journals covering 11 categories selected from the InCites Journal Citation Reports linked to the top 10 non-communicable diseases. We included journals published in English that recommended the inclusion of a PLS (as defined by the National Institute for Health Research) and provided authors with text-based instructions on how it should be written. Two independent reviewers extracted data pertaining to common elements identified in author instructions, such as word count/PLS length, content, structure, purpose, wording to support plain language, and the use of jargon, acronyms and abbreviations. Other aspects of PLSs were recorded, such as the label used (e.g., plain language summary, lay summary, and patient summary), journal publisher, consumer involvement and whether the PLS is optional or mandatory. We recorded the frequency of each element and qualitative details of specific instructions. A consumer representative provided ongoing and iterative feedback on the methods, results, and reporting of this study Results: Despite reviewing 534 journals across 10 non-communicable disease areas and 11 journal categories, we found only 27 (5.1%) contained text-based instructions for PLS. Of the 27 journals included in this review, most (70%) did not require a PLS. Approximately 70% of journals with PLS instructions included advice about the use of jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms. Only one journal recommended the use of a readability tool, however five noted that the reading level of the audience or readability of the PLS should be considered. Author instructions were highly heterogeneous between journals. There was inconsistency regarding the word count/PLS length (e.g., between 100 and 850 words), structure (e.g., paragraphs or bullet points), and varying levels of detail for other elements in the instructions. Although only one journal recommended consumer involvement in the development of PLSs, many recommended authors consult those who are not an expert in their field to review their summary prior to submission. Conclusion: The development of consistent author instructions could enhance the effectiveness and use of PLSs. Such instructions should be developed with consumers to ensure they met the needs of a lay non-expert audience.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-42
Number of pages12
JournalThe Patient - Patient-Centered Outcomes Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2023
Externally publishedYes

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