Scientists should be required to write lay summaries of their publications

Posted on April 21, 2015

Two scientists from the University of Washington in Seattle have come up with a simple, but revolutionary idea: that all scientific articles should be accompanied by lay summaries accessible to the interested non-scientist (http://www.pnas.org/content/112/12/3585).

I wish I’d thought of the idea, but I would take it further. Such summaries should not just be for the interested reader, and they should do more than provide simple explanations of what was done. They should explain to readers why it was done, and especially why the reader should be interested. This would be a great way of making science a more integral part of our culture.

Furthermore, the benefit would not just be to the lay reader. By having to write such summaries, scientists themselves would be forced to consider the meaning and value of their work in a way that they may not otherwise have done. In fact, it was during the course of explaining one of my own experiments to non-specialists that it suddenly hit me that there was a very different application possible; something that I hadn’t thought about when I started, and probably wouldn’t have thought about if I hadn’t had to explain myself in a comprehensible way to outsiders.

I’ll tell you about it one day. All I have to do is to write a lay summary.

ADDENDUM October 12th, 2016

A blog post (http://deevybee.blogspot.com.au/2016/10/on-incomprehensibility-of-much.html)  by highly respected Oxford neuropsychologist Professor Dorothy Bishop, FRS, suggest an addition to my post on lay summaries. Professor Bishop is concerned that research papers in specialist fields are often incomprehensible to those whose interdisciplinary work overlaps those fields. I agree, and propose a partial solution. It is that, in addition to writing lay summaries for non-scientists, scientists should also be required to write summaries that explain the significance of their findings in terms that scientists in related fields can comprehend.


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