Nature | Research Highlights: Social Selection

Petition calls for lay summaries in ecology journals

Simplified synopses of research papers could help to bridge the gap between scientists and the public.

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In a bid to make research papers more accessible to non-scientists, journals should require scientists to write lay summaries of their articles. That is the proposal put forward in a recent opinion piece1 and online petition that caught the attention of researchers on social media. Such summaries would clearly explain the importance and implications of the work, and drew support from some commenters online. Jiangxiao Qiu, an ecology PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison tweeted:

But Björn Brembs, a neuroscientist at the University of Regensburg in Germany, tweeted:

The commentary in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), written by ecologists Lauren Kuehne and Julian Olden at the University of Washington in Seattle, says that the summaries could serve as “building blocks for broad and transparent communication” between scientists and the public. The authors are also circulating the online petition in a call for major ecology and conservation journals to require such synopses.

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Olden said in an interview that the summaries are especially needed in ecology and conservation, because they would help to inform a wide audience — including journalists and policy-makers — about pressing environmental issues. So far, 100 people have signed the petition, according to Olden.

PNAS already requires such a summary, which it calls a Significance Statement, and papers in PLoS Biology come with a non-technical ‘Author Summary’. Still, Olden says, “lay summaries are the exception, not the rule in scientific journals.”

Donald Strong, editor-in-chief of the journal Ecology and an ecologist at the University of California, Davis, says that he supports the idea of lay summaries. He thinks that his journal will eventually require them, but implementing them will take work. “This is not a simple or straightforward project,” he says. He notes that many of the article titles in the latest issue of Ecology contain technical terms — such as nitrogen fixation — that would be challenging to explain briefly in general terms. “If a journal demands that this is done every time, some summaries will still be opaque, and the Twittersphere will ridicule those,” he says.

Brembs says that scientists already face too many demands and might not have the right training for communicating to a wide audience. “I don’t think lay summaries are a good use of a researcher’s time,” he says. And a few lines of text “is not the best solution to the problem of communicating the relevance of research”.

Aerin Jacob, an ecologist at the University of Victoria in Canada, signed the petition — and shared it on Twitter — partly because she remembers struggling to understand science articles as a student. She says that summaries could be helpful for researchers too. For example, a quick explanation could help an investigator to decide whether a paper behind a paywall is worth the investment. However, she agrees that some editorial guidance would be useful. “If journals do require it, I would hope that they would offer resources to help people who need it.”

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  1. Kuehne, L. & Olden, J. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 35853586 (2015)

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