NIHR makes plain English summaries a requirement of funding via @NIHRINVOLVE

Plain and simply good news from a citizen point of view. With thanks to INVOLVE and NIHR colleagues for making this happen,

Plain English summaries in National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) funded research.

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is committed to making sure that each research study it funds has a clear and concise plain English summary. It is important that this information explains the research as a whole and is easy to read and understand. From14 May 2014 a good quality plain English summary, submitted as part of the standard application form, will be a requirement of NIHR funding.

What makes a good quality plain English summary?

It is clear, easy to read and is as jargon free as possible. It provides an overview of the entire research study that readers can understand straight away.

Why is it important?

A plain English summary is used in the following ways:

reviewers use this summary to inform their review offunding applications

summaries of funded research are made publicly available on NIHR and other research websites to inform the public and researchers

If it is felt that a plain English summary is not clear andof a good quality then the researchers may be required to amend their summary prior to final funding approval.

Where to get further information?

Visit the NIHR ‘make it clear’ webpage to find out

Or contact the NIHR Research Design Service

Vote in the People’s Choice Award for best plain English summary of a science paper #A2Ucomp

I am delighted to announce that, as part of the Europe PubMed Central/British Library Access to Understanding competition, we are asking the public to vote in a People’s Choice award for the best summary of a scientific paper written for a public audience.

People's Choice flyer

The 10 best summaries out of a field of hundreds has already been selected by myself and the other judges, and assessed for their scientific accuracy. Now we want to know what you, the public make of them. Are they interesting? Are they easy to understand?  What did you like about them?  What tips might you give these and other people writing summaries.

Each summary needed to explain why the research was done, what was done and why it was important. Entrants could write about one of 10 articles, each covering fascinating cutting-edge science including combining drug therapies to treat cancer, brain scanning to better understand specific function, a new way to assess effectiveness of arthritis treatments, and an analysis of malaria resistance around the world.

The People’s Choice award is a really important new development for the Access to Understanding competition. We want to find out what people think of the summaries and how successfully the science has been communicated.

So, please get voting now by clicking here.

Votes need to be cast by 1200 GMT on 24 March 2014 an the award winner will be announced at the award ceremony that evening at The British Library (free tickets for this event can be booked on The British Library website (

Also please re-tweet, forward, blog or whatever your favoured mode of telling your friends is.

Thanks. Have a great weekend.

Pens and PCs to the ready: 2014 Access to Understanding science writing competition is launched

One of my highlights of last year was judging the ‘Access to Understanding’ science writing competition.  And I didn’t event win it!

Well, the good news is that it’s happening again and the 2014 competition was launched this morning.  The less good news perhaps – from the point of view of entrants anyway – is that I am a judge again. But, luckily, we have recruited a few more lay people to the judging panel as well.

The serious point about the competition is that it is about recognising the importance of good plain language summaries as a key tool in communicating science and that the writing of them is a skill to be celebrated.

If you click on the poster below it will take you to the competition website.  Closing date for entries is 10th December.

Access to Understanding 2013

Here’s the official written blurb.

“Access to Understanding is a successful international competition run by Europe PubMed Central, about to enter its second year, where entrants are invited to write a plain English summary (up to 800 words) of a research article. The competition seeks to increase public understanding of science, and to encourage researchers to consider public engagement and translation of complex cutting-edge contemporary research as an integral part of the research process. In essence, we want to raise awareness of the importance of bridging the gap between open access and broader understanding of the fruits of research.

The competition is open to all current biomedical and life sciences PhD students and post-doctoral researchers with a maximum of six years experience following completion of their first PhD, worldwide. The winner gets their entry published by eLife. For more information about the competition, please do get in touch, or see the competition details here.

Prizes will be presented by Professor Sir Mark Walport (Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government) at a prestigious awards ceremony at The British Library in London on 24 March 2014.

The winning entry will be published by eLife. The winner will also receive an iPad. Runners up will receive an iPad mini (2nd place) or a £100 Amazon voucher (3rd place) and, at the judges’ discretion, may also be published by eLife. All shortlisted entrants will have tickets reserved for them at the awards ceremony.”


The lay summary is dead, long live the lay summary (#A2UComp)

‘They can’t write for toffee.’ ‘They’ being scientists of course. But like most generalisations, this statement is utter tosh.

You only had to be at the ‘Access to Understanding’ awards (#A2UComp) at the British Library on Monday night to realise that. The lay summaries that I and my fellow judges had been asked to review were of a very high standard. The winner, Emma Pewsey, is to be commended for beating off such strong competition. Sharmila Nebhrajani (CEO at AMRC) has written an excellent AMRC blog today on the whole competition if you are interested in learning more.

I very much doubt that scientists are much worse than any other ‘professions’ when it comes to their writing skills. And, in terms of resonating with the intended audience, success is as much predicated by the mindset of their author as their ability with the pen.

When I was a Head of Communications there seemed no end of graduates rolling up for jobs who would be able to tell you who fronted what TV programme . But they couldn’t write a news release to save their life. It wasn’t their often poor grammar or punctuation that mattered. It was more their inability to identify the story or the most important facts to communicate to their audience.

If I am honest I think that if I pressed a switch tonight and every scientific paper instantly became freely available online and with a good lay summary it would not make much of a difference to public understanding.

That’s not to say that we should not do it. But I simply think we should be realistic. Not least because I sense that technology and consumer behaviour will take us to a different place entirely as they so often do. Even some speechwriters now start off by first thinking what their speech would look like if summarised in a tweet. Should we ask our scientists do the same and to use this as part of their paper title, for instance?’

In the meantime, if we are to reach a better place with the writing of lay summaries then our approach to them must be more consistent. I am delighted that INVOLVE has been working on some NIHR-wide guidance and tools that will see light of day shortly. But i personally would also like to see us incentivise good practice by, for instance, only releasing grant monies when a good lay summary is agreed. I have tried this on some senior researchers and they didn’t seem to think it was too barmy. Well, no barmier than anything else I’ve suggested.

It is interesting that scientists and writers share a common tool – the notebook. Their livelihoods both depend on it albeit in different ways. One to allow replication. The other to feed creativeness ( although this seems a little too simple a distinction). The investment in its completeness is a mark of professionalism.

And I think that for me is why the lay summary remains such an important component of how we communicate science. It is less about the product itself than the discipline and behaviours it encourages: clarity of thought, appreciation of one’s audience, belief and conviction in one’s ideas.

The lay summary is dead. Long live the lay summary.

Roll-up, roll-up, for the British Library ‘Access to Understanding’ awards event

Next week sees the awards ceremony for the first ever Access to Understanding Europe PMC science-writing competition.

You can still get tickets for the awards event  here  which will take place at the British Library on Monday 11th March from 6.30 to 8.30pm.

At the event, there will be a few words from each of the judging panel, followed by presentations to the winners and a networking reception with complimentary drinks and light refreshments. Judges will include some observations about what makes a good lay summary in their discussions and there will be an opportunity for audience questions.  Should be a good evening.

There were over 400 entries to the competition and I am really pleased that the competition got off to such a good start in its first year.

Writing competition open for entries – win an iPad and article in eLife #A2UComp

And if you already have one you can always re-gift it (to me)!  This is a new science writing competition for researchers and I shall be one of the judges I am delighted to say.
The ‘Access to Understanding’ writing competition for bioscience researchers has been launched by Europe PubMed Central and The British Library in recognition of the importance of enabling access to, and understanding of, scientific research.  The closing date is 11th January 2013 and further details including the entry criteria can be found by following the link above or clicking on the picture below.
Access to Understanding
The awards ceremony for Access to Understanding will be one of a series of events during The British Library’s ‘Inspiring Science‘ season held in March to coincide with Brain Awareness Week and National Science & Engineering Week celebrations.  If you check out the website over the coming weeks you will find details of other science-related events that may be of interest.
This also gives me an excuse to add some colour to the blog for a change other than my curious writing style of course.

TalkScience@BL is the hot event of the night – see you there.

Looking forward to the TalkScience@BL event at the British Library tonight even if I’ll have to leave a little early.

Tracey Brown from Sense about Science is a great speaker and it won’t be long before ITV will be doing ‘an audience with’ as opposed to ‘discussion with’ her, plus the Patients Participate! project partners – the British Library, UKOLN and Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) – are launching the findings of the feasibility study they have been doing on crowd-sourcing over the last seven months.

Don’t forget to check out Sense about Science’s excellent ‘Ask for Evidence’ campaign. Click the image below for more info.


Democratising research

So I thought you might be interested in my thoughts on innovation and public involvement that I shared with the audience at the PatientsParticipate! conference at the British Library on Friday afternoon.
The real star of the show thought was patient advocate, Graham Steele, who gave us an absorbing tour of social media and public involvement in research.
And, yes, I shamelessly stole the title of my blog from an article that has recently appeared in Nature about the James Lind Alliance approach to identifying treatment uncertainties.

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you this afternoon. I am conscious that you have been working hard all day and it is Friday afternoon no less. So, my aim is to make a few simple observations if I may from my perspective as CEO of a research charity – Ovarian Cancer Action – but also as Chair of INVOLVE. INVOLVE is the Government funded national advisory group on public involvement in research.
The first is – and I hope that given the audience you will agree with this – that science and scientists are switching on fast to the fact that the public and patients are important partners in research, innovation and its adoption. The drivers are many – from ensuring greater public accountability to improving communications – but I hope that whatever the starting point the endpoint is a mutual acknowledgement by all that the public have a role and valuable contribution to make, in delivering good science.
Only last week there was a clutch of news articles from a pharmaceutical industry perspective articulating their desire to forge a new contract with society by involving the public earlier and more meaningfully in the design of research and new interventions.
The public sector – NIHR in particular – is arguably ahead of the game in requiring public involvement as part of its funding awards. And this week I was visiting our Ovarian Cancer Research Centre where there is now active discussion about how to involve women more closely in the work that they do across the board from basic science to clinical trials.
But I think we would also agree that we are still only at the end of the beginning of this story of partnership.
So my second point is that one of the most exciting aspects of how the story does unfold is the role that the development of new technology and social media will play: in giving all partners greater opportunities to work together but also in developing new ways to making science more accessible .
I am sure you are all aware of the strong precedents in terms of the internet, mobile phone technology and texting to name but a few, for the way in which the interaction between the public and inventors has been vital in taking and improving upon innovation, making it relevant to the many not the few.
Similarly, the tools you have been talking about today are barely formed. So for those of you who consider themselves new technology or social media novices you should be heartened by the comment of an industry expert who said to me yesterday that ‘no one yet has a handle on how to best use these things.’ It really is up to us.
My third point is that we must not, however, forget first principles. So it is important that we define what true ‘connectivity’ if I can all it that, means for all partners in this context. And for me, the key word that must be part of that definition is ‘value’ – value in terms of what the public can expect to see as a result of participating but also in terms of what they are expected to contribute. Given that too often this value is defined without patients and the public even in the room I am pleased that we have avoided that mistake by beginning where we have today. We must also dismiss the notion that the value will be equal at all times.
The last point I wish to briefly make is very specifically about the power of the lay summary.
On my way here I couldn’t help think that there are many parallels with those classic anecdotes about patient leaflets – you know the ones designed by doctors, nurses, researchers and everyone else which stretch to pages and pages. Only for it to then be given to patients who distil it down to three paras which get to the heart of the matter and in an understandable way.
The lay summary is often not only written by the wrong person but written with the wrong person in mind and I think this project will have much value in perhaps challenging some of the notions of how these things are done and finding a new way of doing it.
But I do know from my own very short time in my current job how important the lay summary can be in making science cross many barriers, new and old, when it does work. As a way of bringing the story of the science alive it can be truly transformative. We must not lose this power as we begin on this particular story.

Science and the budget, peer review and a spot of crowd-sourcing

Tomorrow is Budget day.  Having just finished AMRC’s own budget and business plan for 2011-2012 all I can say is: George you know where I am if you want to crunch some last minute numbers?

The Financial Times is reporting today that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will announce a £100million cash injection for capital projects to ameliorate the effects on science of cut-backs announced by Pfizer and Novartis since the beginning of the year. 

Since the political message in the last few weeks has been about ‘reform’ I wonder whether we might also see some movement on the research regulation front.  Not a great deal since the word is it will take years rather than months to disassemble the current system before putting in back along the lines suggested by the Academy of Medical Sciences in its report earlier this year.  But something that suggests the Government is committed to speeding up the system and encouraging growth in the sector.  And if they don’t, then it will be a salutory lesson that given a choice between an octopus and myself to make predictions, always go for the octupus. 

Anyway, we shall be posting all the news from the budget here and on Becky’s fantastic policy blog – but visit here first please just so my stats are better than hers.

In other news, you may wish to look at AMRC’s submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry into peer review published today.  As I have said many times before, the UK has a good story to tell on the commitment of research charities to using peer review to allocate their research funding.  Other written evidence submitted to the inquiry can be viewed on the committee’s website.

Plus, I should make mention of the final AMRC/UK National Stem Cell Network public engagement meeting – this time in York on 29th March 2011.  The event will feature the screening of the award winning film ‘Indestructible’ which documents the declining health of a young American motor neurone disease sufferer, including his trip to China for a stem cell therapy.  The film will be followed by a question and answer session with a panel of local experts.

Finally, a soft launch of an exciting new project that AMRC, together with the British Library, UKOLN at the University of Bath, Sage Bionetworks and the Digital Curation Centre and funded by JISC, will be undertaking over the next few months to investigate the potential of crowd- sourced “lay summaries”, derived from UK PubMed Central content, to enable the citizen- patient to better understand research.  The project now has its very own blog which will be populated with a great deal more information very, very soon.

As CEO of a membership association I am used to crowd-surfing.  So this is a new one on me and all the more exciting because of it.