Turn a scientific abstract into a short summary

Practice honing a take home message and engage scientists from outside your own field.

#scicomm

Many journals require authors to submit a short summary of their article intended for the general public. Typically this is limited to 150 words or less, and is not intended to be as exhaustive or precise as the scientific abstract.

So, what is the point in making one? And why is it a good idea to produce one, whether the journal requires it or not?

Practice honing a ‘take home’ message

The best reason to engage in any scicomm for a general readership is that it makes you a better communicator all round. When communicating to a broad audience, you need to strip away anything that is unnecessary for your target audience.

For example, caveats and caution are vital in science, but for popular science you need to focus only on the information that is necessary for your reader/viewer/listener to understand the ‘take home’ message. This means not over-selling your research by removing all caveats and inflating your conclusions into overly simplistic prose. But, likewise, it also means not under-selling your work by focussing solely on these caveats.

This is never more true than when trying to remove jargon and narrow down your key conclusions into just a few sentences. Being able to hone your message for different target audiences is a skill and requires practice.

Engage journalists and scientists from outside your field

Lay summaries are not only useful to the general public. Having one ready to send to a friendly journalist or news editor will help drum up interest in your research among media outlets and reach other scientists from outside your own field of study.

Remember, most journalists and editors, even from science media outlets, may have no formal scientific training and may not immediately see the newsworthiness of a piece of research from the scientific article. Simply sending them your abstract, would be useless. Instead, provide them with a short, easy to understand summary of your research that prioritises the outcomes and headline messages.

Most editors have very little time to assess each story or lead that lands in their inbox, so you need to attract their attention quickly.

Make a summary out of an abstract

The good news is that you can use your existing abstract to prepare your summary. The first thing you need to change is the structure.

Let’s say that a standard abstract for a scientific article reporting on new research uses the following basic structure and is around 200 to 300 words:

  1. Context for the research
  2. A research question or knowledge gap to be addressed
  3. Aims and objectives of the study
  4. Methods summary and key results
  5. Key conclusions

In a popular science summary, the first trick is to invert the structure so that the main take home message (i.e. the conclusions) appears first. This should convey the main outcome and grab the readers attention. So, move your main conclusion and place it up top so it is the first thing the reader sees.

Next, you need to step back and explain what was done in the study to reach this conclusion. So, move any test referring to the methods and results under your conclusions.

Finally, you should provide the broad context that explains why this study was important, i.e. points 2 and/or 3 on the list above.

Once you have this basic structure, you then need to reduce the length and target the information and language to a broad readership. This doesn’t mean ‘dum down’. Rather, apply a harsh editorial eye and remove any text that is simply not needed. For example, the chances are that you won’t need too much info about the results i.e. basic observations or statistical treatment.

Remember, the summary should be accurate in the information it conveys but you don’t need to be as precise as you would be in the scientific abstract. The object here is to only communicate what is truly necessary to understand the outcome of the research and not the various results and steps that got you there. There is no need or room to document the ins and outs of the research.

Translate and engage

Finally, translate your text into something that anyone from any walk of life might understand. Watch out for any jargon. Remember, terms that you use all the time might mean something very different to someone from outside your field or with little to no scientific training. They could even mean the complete opposite.

For example, in climate science you should generally avoid terms like “uncertainty” or “error” without explaining what they mean. They often have negative consequences to the general public and could be misconstrued as “we made a mistake” or “we were wrong”. Similarly, “positive feedback” could mean “a good thing”.

Once you’re done send it to a colleague from another academic discipline, your friendly communications officer, or, even better, to your kids or someone with no formal scientific training. If they understand it or at least feel that they have understood it, then your job is done!

A caveat!

This basic technique should work in most cases. But depending on your study, your abstract might be way to complicated or technical to use as a basis for such a summary. Or you might find, that you just can’t rework the text, for whatever reason.

In this case, start with a clean page and write your key message in one tweet-length sentence. Try it multiple times until you find one that sticks. From here, follow the general structure outlined above, providing a basic summary of what you did and closing with the wider context and why this study is important.

You focus may shift to a different aspect of the study, which is OK. Remember, the summary is not intended for someone in your field so you need to identify what aspect of the study is most important or relevant for the general public to understand.

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