14 May 2015
Journalists and NGO people generally do not have the time to read scientific papers and try to work out what they are saying. Yet many scientific papers are potentially of great interest and relevance to the public and concerned media – and should not be overlooked.
In contrast, scientific papers and discoveries that may work against public health and the environment are supported and publicized by corporate interests with the help of a massive PR budget.
Public interest scientists do not have access to PR companies and large budgets. But there is one thing that all scientists can do to ensure that their findings get out to the media and NGOs in an easily understood format.
We are asking all scientists publishing important papers to prepare a one-page Plain English Summary (PES) of their paper. Some scientists are already doing this, to great effect, but most are not.
Don’t worry if you don’t have many media contacts. NGOs often have them and can forward your materials to interested journalists.
Open access publication is a worthwhile investment as it is frustrating for cash-poor NGOs to try to comment on papers that are hidden behind a paywall.
Here is a suggested checklist of questions that you can answer in your PES. Please avoid technical terms, complex measurement units, and jargon – imagine that your reader is an intelligent and interested 11–13-year-old:
1. In your research, what question were you asking, and why is it important?
2. How did you go about answering the question?
Start your answer with “We” or “I” and say what you did in your study. Note details like:
- experimental type (e.g. rat feeding study with GM maize MON810; survey of farm workers in Sri Lanka; review of the scientific literature for rat feeding studies with GM crops);
- test substance (e.g. GM maize MON810; Roundup herbicide);
- number of groups;
- sample size;
- dose range expressed in simple terms, such as “doses below the range routinely found in contaminated tap water”;
- duration of exposure.
3. What did you find?
4. What are the implications of your study?
e.g. Should farmers or consumers be concerned? Should people try to eat organic for certain foods or crops? Does society need to take steps to protect certain types of wildlife from exposure to the test substance?
5. Where does your study stand in the context of other studies?
e.g. Is your study the only one to find this effect? Are there 20 others that found similar effects? If there are 20 others, how does your study add to those 20? If your study contradicts or qualifies other studies, what are the possible reasons for the differences?
6. What are the limitations of your study and what further research needs to be done?
e.g. If the study is in vitro, does it need to be repeated in vivo before certain conclusions can be drawn? Were the doses realistic? If the study was in an animal model, is that model considered to be applicable to humans? What questions still have to be answered?
If you have time and your paper is likely to be controversial, please prepare another 1-2-page document called “Answers to anticipated criticisms”. Put yourself in the shoes of those who will oppose your paper, imagine the arguments they will make, and answer them. This document should be circulated together with the pdf version of your paper and the PES.
Such a document is extremely valuable because it helps journalists and NGOs get a head start in countering the aggressive PR tactics of corporate interests and makes it more likely that they will cover your work in a fair manner.
Thank you for reading and we look forward to hearing about your papers when they appear!
Download a pdf version of "Request to all scientists publishing public interest scientific papers: The Plain English Summary"