Locating and Accessing Plain Language Summaries

03 November 2020
Locating and Accessing Plain Language Summaries

Plain language summaries (PLS) are the logical extension of the drive to open science. Science that is accessible to a broad community carries with it a responsibility to communicate effectively with that broad community audience. Particularly in medicine, as we continue toward truly patient-centric treatment and the research behind it, there is an imperative to support informed healthcare decisions by improving our ability to communicate science in a digestible format to a nontechnical audience.

Including PLS in pharmaceutical industry-sponsored articles is an essential part of patient centricity within the industry. However, the responsibility to improve science communication to a broad audience lies with all authors, regardless of the funding source of the research.

Considerable work is underway within the medical publication and communications world to deliver clear, nontechnical, engaging content. Important questions are being addressed, such as who writes the PLS and how? What is the right balance between visual elements, such as infographics and detailed text?

While progress is being made in producing digestible and engaging content, an often-overlooked principle is accessibility. Where should PLS be housed? How do we ensure PLS can be found by those who need them? How important is it that PLS be linked to the original research paper for context? Whose responsibility is it?

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Discoverability of PLS with a focus on biomedical research journals was investigated recently and presented at the 2019 European Meeting of The International Society for Medical Publication Professionals.1 The results showed that almost all journals publishing PLS made that content freely available. However, there was inconsistency in terminology, location, and other factors that could present challenges for lay audiences when searching for this content.

The British Journal of Dermatology has published PLS since 2014.2 The journal immediately recognized the importance of discoverability and deployed tools that remain valid today. Prominent links to PLS on the article’s web page are used to ensure viewability by and availability to those searching for PLS via external search engines. The PLS are made freely available to all browsers, and a patient-access program facilitates access to the full paper.

Enhancing content is a well-recognized driver of discoverability for research output. Studies conducted on Wiley Online Library have established that interactive, concise, easy-to-digest, enhanced formats help to drive audience engagement and increase the impact of publications. For example, the addition of a video component increases Altmetric attention scores almost 5 fold and full text views on the Wiley Online Library by more than 100%.3 At Wiley, discovery packages are readily available to support publication planning and benefit from early discussion with the target journal.4 These principles also apply to PLS.

Given the long experience of some journals and the data that support enhancing PLS to drive discoverability, why is it so hard to gain consistency in processes for publishing and hosting PLS?

There are considerations around efficient and effective peer-review processes. Peer review was designed to validate the quality, relevance, and significance of published research. Within that context, new processes are required for PLS to facilitate simultaneous review and to avoid duplication of effort. Importantly, guidance is required on the reviewer’s purpose and role in relation to the PLS. There are potential conflicts and areas of confusion in the language required in an effective PLS. What level of technical language is acceptable, and what requires explanation? Should brand names be included to help the lay person understand the therapy being evaluated? If so, would the reviewer’s brand perception impact his or her perception of the PLS? These potential perception challenges should be addressed through open communication and education within the author and peer reviewer community.

Ongoing education and discussion are required to develop the processes and guidance necessary to support the publication, hosting, and discovery of PLS. In the meantime, researchers seeking to publish research with PLS should consult early with the journal to plan for the inclusion of enhanced content and for simultaneous peer review of the PLS.

Author: Martine Docking, VP, Global Corporate Sales, Wiley

This article is also a guest post on MPIP’s blog.


  1. Fitzgibbon H, et al. Where are biomedical research plain-language summaries (PLS)? Poster presented at the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP) 2019 European Meeting; London, UK; January 22-23, 2019. Poster 20.
  2. Anstey A. Plain language summaries in the British Journal of Dermatology: connecting with patients (editorial). Br J Dermatol. 2014;170:1-3.
  3. John Wiley & Sons. Share your research with videos. 2020. Accessed August 11, 2020.
  4. Wiley Corporate Solutions. Article Discovery Package. Published 2020. Wiley. Accessed October 16, 2020.