You are here

How to Review Plain Language Summaries

In recent years, there have been calls to make scholarly articles more accessible to non-specialist audiences. Research has always helped shape the public realm, empowering people across all sectors of society to make informed decisions. Academic or topic-specific jargon can hinder the general understanding and impact of such publications, which is where Plain Language Summaries (PLS) can be very helpful.

What are Plain Language Summaries (PLS)?

PLS sit after the academic abstract. They consist of a plain language title (up to 50 words maximum) and a clear summary of the article. The summary must use non-technical language that makes it understandable for a broad network of readers and be no longer than 300 words.

  • PLS are published as peer-reviewed additions to articles
  • PLS are written by the article’s authors and appear underneath the abstract
  • All abstracts and PLS are open access, so they are available online for anyone to read
  • A PLS can be disseminated across social media and shared with relevant organizations to increase awareness amongst those who are interested in the research topic
  • All PLS are peer-reviewed alongside the original article by a PLS Reviewer

What is a PLS Reviewer?

PLS reviewers are non-specialists who have relevant lived experience or an active interest in the topic of the paper. For example:

  • Academics
  • Patients
  • Patient Advocacy Groups
  • Caregivers
  • Early Career Researchers
  • Students
  • Engaged members of the public
  • Policymakers
  • Practitioners

What should a PLS reviewer be looking out for?

The PLS should be a true reflection of the research presented in the article. It should be written in an engaging and accessible way, without exaggeration. Merits and limitations should both be discussed. However, patronizing language should be avoided and the PLS should not just be a ‘dumbed down’ version of the study.

When authors are writing a PLS, we ask them to follow these guidelines:

  • Avoid jargon and use everyday terms to convey the key messages from the article. If technical terminology or abbreviations are used, the term should be explained when it is first introduced.
  • Define the ‘who, what, why, when, where and how?’ of the research. It may be useful to provide direct answers to the following questions:
    • Why was this study done?
    • What did the researchers do?
    • What did the researchers find?
    • What do the findings mean?
  • Use short, clear sentences; short paragraphs; and bullet points where relevant.
  • Use an active voice rather than a passive voice. For example: “we reported several side effects,” instead of “several side effects were reported by us.”
  • Use absolute numbers.
  • Use natural frequencies (e.g. 1 out of 10 people)
  • Use percentages – don’t expect the reader to do any calculations.
  • Avoid p-values – focus on describing practical outcomes instead.
  • Ensure that the conclusion and overall message is clear.
  • Address implications and guidance for action, if relevant.

When reviewing the PLS, reviewers are asked to read it through and provide feedback to the authors based on the above points.

Why is it important that PLS reviewers review PLS?

Because these are people who understand the potential audience – so if they don’t understand something in the PLS, it’s likely other readers won’t either.

PLS reviewers help authors and editors ensure the PLS is accessible and accurate, so that non-specialists understand the key points of the article.

How to submit a PLS review

Once someone becomes a PLS reviewer, they will be set up in the submission system with an account. This provides access to the assigned papers so a reviewer can add their feedback directly alongside the PLS.

After setting up an account, the PLS reviewer will receive a notification email with instructions on how to login and access the system.

Every journal has its own submission system, so reviewers will need to set up an account for each journal they are interested in providing PLS reviews.

I’ve signed up to become a PLS reviewer. What’s the process?

  • The Editor will email you an invite to review a PLS. Follow the links in the email to accept the invitation to review.
  • If you are not available to complete the review, let the Editor know as soon as possible so an alternative reviewer can be assigned.
  • Once you agree to review the content, you will receive an email with further instructions and a link to the manuscript. Once you have logged-in, you will have access to the peer review interface.
  • When reviewing the PLS, please remember to refer to the guidelines above. You should start your review with the header Plain Language Summary review, and focus your report on the PLS only.
  • Return any comments within seven days. If this isn’t possible, let the Editor know so an alternative PLS reviewer can be assigned.
  • When making recommendations, select ‘Accept’ if you feel no changes are needed, or ‘Minor Revision’ if changes are required.
  • Do NOT use ‘Major Revision’ or ‘Reject,’ as selecting these may skew the scientific review data.
  • If you do have major concerns, include these in the ‘Comments to the Editor’ section.