Form, function and the politics of lay summaries in health research

One of my favourite news stories from a while back is about the Chinese deciding to train and employ 10,000 science communicators to travel the country and spread the message.

I mean, that’s the way to do it, that’s what you call really putting your weight behind something isn’t it? It’s what one might term the Katie Melua school of science communication – y’know get those 9 million Russian bicycles out and all that.

Meanwhile, over in the West we continue fuss-arsing about things like lay summaries.

These are supposed to be simple and short summaries of a piece of science or about a clinical trial so that the average Katie Melua fan can understand it.

And heavens there is a lot of talk about lay summaries just now. Although, truth be told, there has always been a lot of talk about lay summaries. To the point of boredom. To the point of completely losing sight of their importance and potential value.

They have assumed almost talismanic status in discussions about public engagement to science, and possibly out of all proportion to their likely impact. It’s ‘The Closest Thing To Crazy.’

As a colleague said to me recently, everyone likes them and says they are important but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence to show if and how they are used by the intended audience.

One reason for the increasing chatter about lay summaries is that a number of the major research organisations – the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and the Health Research Authority (HRA) – look about to stiffen their resolve about what’s expected of researchers when putting pen to paper. NIHR’s approach is being informed and driven by some excellent work by INVOLVE.

Next week I am also presenting the People’s Choice prize at the Europe PubMed Central ‘Access to Understanding’ awards at the British Library. We had hundreds of fabulous entries and I am looking forward to seeing who comes top.

The problem when it comes to current thinking about lay summaries, is that everyone has become focused on the format rather than the audience and their needs. How many once successful tv or radio programmes, newspaper or indeed pop singers have gone to the wall because they no longer did ‘What it says on the tin?’ A lot! And Katie Melua is not one of them.

Lay summaries should be just one vestige of the way in which we should be training our scientists to be as good communicators as they are scientists. Otherwise they will be ‘Crawling up a Hill’ in their careers and we won’t be in ‘A Happy Place’ as a sector in twenty years time.

There have been some meetings about lay summaries where I have wondered whether ‘I am a Sailboat’ washed up on the shores of a strange land. Far far away from this world we inhabit which is being increasingly built on 140 characters. A land where there are very long conversations about how long or short a lay summary should be. Mmmmm. Is it 1000 or 500 or 350 or 250?

To which I can only respond by paraphrasing the famous tv correspondent who said, given 30 seconds, he could easily summarise the history of the Second World War and still be able to cut some of his news report.

Time to hold this debate to ransom and challenge its proponents to ‘Stand and Deliver’

PS: that last one is not a Katie Melua song by the way!

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