British Library

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

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.

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.”


‘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.

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.

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.