Last week I was sent a research application to look at. The proposal was complex.
I read the lay summary once.
I read it twice.
In fact, I read it three times.
I was still none the wiser.
I realised that all the jargon, terminology, clauses and sub-clauses in the scientific overview had been condensed into a tightly wound, barbed-wire and ultimately meaningless coil of words likely to wound rather than aid the reader. It was the verbal equivalent of one of those crusher machines you see in a scrap yard, picking up vast quantities of words and turning them into scrappage.
Later in the day I was watching one of my favourite TV programmes: Sky TV’s Portrait Artist of the Year 2017. There is something compelling about seeing artists interpret the face and form before them; each portraitist combining extraordinary technical skill and a unique eye to make the final product their own.
During this particular episode there was an interesting discussion about the difference between transposing a sitter’s ‘likeness’ onto canvas as opposed to interpreting their ‘character.’
What they were saying is that many portrait artists can paint an accurate likeness of someone but that the really good ones capture the person’s character as well. So much so that you and I, the viewer, are able to connect with the subject and learn something about them that helps you understand who they are.
Sometimes, when I am reading a lay summary, I can almost feel the frustration of the researcher behind it; their struggle to make it as accurate as possible, to not leave anything out or to chance from a scientific point of view, to fit it all in – to achieve that ‘likeness.’ It can be done. But it involves much pain for the writer. The final result will probably end up causing just as much pain for the reviewer.
But it is character that us ‘non-scientists’ are after. A short, simple, but not necessarily simplistic description of the work that conveys its meaning: what difference will it make, to whom and why?
Finally, a reminder that there’s plenty of articles and guidance on how to write lay summaries for the researcher or grant writer who is currently tortured by the prospect.