Plain-language Summaries: How to write an eLife digest

We explain the process used to produce eLife digests, and share some advice to help authors write about their research in plain language.

This article is part of our “Plain-language summaries of research” series.

eLife digests explain the findings of eLife papers to a broader audience; they’re written by editors and writers working together with authors.

Since eLife first started publishing in 2012, most research papers in the journal have included a plain-language summary called an eLife digest. Each digest should briefly explain the background and significance of the paper in language that is accessible to people outside the field. People with all kinds of backgrounds read eLife digests, ranging from scientists and students to interested individuals who do not have a science degree.

The editors in eLife’s Features team work closely with the authors of selected research papers to prepare the eLife digests. To date, they have worked with thousands of authors and have shared what they’ve learnt about writing and editing for a broad audience in this article in our wider series on “Plain-language summaries of research”.

An eLife digest
Most research articles in eLife include an eLife digest. Image credit: Stuart RF King (CC BY 4.0).

If you are the corresponding author of a paper that is selected for a digest, the Features team will get in contact and ask you to read the instructions below and answer the four questions. An editor in the Features team will then use your answers to write the eLife digest, making edits as necessary to ensure that the style and language used are accessible for eLife’s broad audience. You will always be asked to check the digest before it is published. If the Features team has any further questions, they will include them as queries for you in the draft they send to you to check.

If your paper is not selected for an eLife digest, we hope that you will still consider using these instructions and questions to help you to write your own plain-language summary, which you can use in a number of ways (see suggestions below). We would also encourage the authors of scientific papers that are not published in eLife to do the same.

General instructions

There is more than one way to write a plain-language summary of a research paper. These instructions and questions are some that, based on our experience, can help researchers to write for a more general audience. They will be updated regularly based on experience and feedback.

  • First and foremost, think about how each and every word you use might be interpreted by someone who isn't a scientist, and choose words that will be understood by the widest group of readers. Avoid technical jargon as much as possible.
  • Be aware that jargon can include common words that are being used in a field-specific way (for example, “expression” in relation to genes; "process" in neuroanatomy; "expansion" in immunology).
  • If you must use a few specialist or technical terms, you should always define each at its first use in more everyday language.
  • Only use acronyms that are well known (such as DNA) or absolutely unavoidable (such as gene or protein names). Use no more than three acronyms in total.
  • Remember that, even if you explain it, every technical term or acronym used puts extra mental burden on the reader. To help with this, always use simple words instead of formal language whenever you have the choice, even if this means using a few short words instead of one long one (for example "new" instead of "novel"; "at the same time" rather than "simultaneously", “when and where” versus “spatiotemporally”).
  • Active sentences are more readable, and so use verbs instead of nouns as much as possible (as an example: rather than "The activation of Protein X by Enzyme Z mediates embryonic growth and maturation", try "Enzyme Z activates Protein X, which allows the embryo to grow and mature").
  • Keep your answers focused to the questions. All sentences should be shorter than 35 words and your answers should not exceed the suggested word limits.

Questions to consider

Authors of eLife papers selected for an eLife digest will be asked to answer the following questions. Your answers will provide most of the information that the Features team will need to write the digest. Other researchers can also answer these questions if they are interested in writing their own plain-language summary.

1. What background information would someone who is completely unfamiliar with your field need to know to understand the findings in your paper? (Suggested word limit: 150 words)

  • Include something that most readers will be able to relate to in the first sentence. Get gradually more specific in the following sentences.
  • Don’t try to explain the background to your entire field; instead consider which details a reader would need to know to understand the new findings, and then explain these facts as clearly and concisely as you can.
  • Make sure to provide simple definitions or explanations for all technical terms and acronyms.

2. What exact research question did you set out to answer and why? (Suggested word limit: 75 words)

  • Provide context by making it clear if this question was asking something completely new, or if you wanted to test or build upon previous findings.
  • Make sure that you explain why it was important to find an answer this question (why should people care whether you can answer this question or not?).

3. What are the most important findings of your paper? (Suggested word limit: 100 words)

  • Focus on findings highlighted in the title or abstract of your paper, and explain them clearly and completely.
  • If possible, describe your methodology with a sentence or two.
  • Always mention which species, type of organism or cells you have studied (for example, mutant mice, fruit flies, human kidney cells, or cancer cells).

4. Who might eventually benefit from the findings of your study, and what would need to be done before we could achieve these benefits? (Suggested word limit: 75 words)

  • Think beyond your immediate field of research, and explain how your findings could lead to a benefit for wider society (patients, the environment, and so on).
  • Avoid hype or exaggeration. For example, if your findings are about a fundamental process in living cells that could be relevant to understanding cancer, you should mention the link but be careful not to imply that the findings will imminently lead to new treatments.

After you have answered the questions, re-read the general instructions and specific tips under each question, and then edit your answers. If possible, ask someone from outside your field, such as friend with a non-scientific background, to read your answers and help you identify any answers that are unclear or lacking in detail.

Uses of plain-language summaries

Each eLife digest is published in a prominent position, immediately below the abstract of its research article, and some are republished on the social publishing platform, Medium. Below are some suggestions of other places where you might re-use your eLife digest, which would also be options for other plain-language summaries:

  • On your personal or laboratory website or blog
  • On your institution’s website
  • On social media (e.g. Facebook or Reddit)
  • Via designated websites such as Kudos or Atlas of Science

Other resources for writing plain-language summaries

Several other organizations also offer materials to help experts and writers to provide summaries of research in plain language, including: