Plain language summaries (PLS) are standalone, peer-reviewed journal articles written in nontechnical language, that provide an easy to understand and concise overview of manuscripts published in scientific journals.1 They are short, clear summaries of a manuscript.

It is a common misunderstanding that PLS, because they are written in accessible language or are graphically presented, are aimed directly at patients or patient advocates. In fact, research shows that patients and caregivers equate to only 20% of readers/users;2 the primary audience is healthcare professionals (HCPs). Nevertheless, patients are still very much at the heart of the rationale for the development of PLS and are the motivation for the desired HCP behavior change.

Some of the AXON medical team, who regularly counsel and support clients with the development of PLS, recently attended the European Meeting of the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP), which challenged some common thinking around PLS and confirmed some of the team’s knowledge and best practices. The insights from this meeting, coupled with the team’s expertise, sparked thoughts around what clients should be considering when planning a PLS publication. So, straight talking, what do our clients need to know?

Concise not comprehensive

Although the healthcare industry is renowned for taking a comprehensive approach to communicating data, PLS need to be just that…a summary.

“Clients may feel that every detail from a publication needs to be represented in the PLS, because they want to go above and beyond to ensure that they are complying with industry codes and best practices. However, as long as the key messages are there, and the PLS is linked to the original manuscript, an interested reader can go there for more detail. The PLS needs to be concise, not comprehensivethat is what the publication is for!” said Adam Beech, Associate Principal Medical Writer.

Additionally, PLS should be thought about early in the publication planning so that strategic placement and timings can be explored. Lastly, it is important to note that PLS can take many forms, from infographics or videos to simple text.

Know your audience

It is crucial to focus on the intended audience when preparing a PLS: treating physicians and other HCPs. In the modern world, HCPs are increasingly time-poor and faced with a deluge of data, with more and more papers being published all the time. So, PLS provide an opportunity for treating physicians and other HCPs to digest the results of a study in a quick yet clear way, and they also act as a gateway to the full manuscript if more information is needed.

“PLS may not be aimed at patients directly, but they have an indirect benefit by providing HCPs with improved and more digestible access to study results. The greater access HCPs have to these results, the more likely they will be able to act upon them to implement new treatments and utilize innovations for the patients who need them!” said Nicola Truss, Principal Medical Writer.

Follow the guidelines

The Good Publication Practice (GPP) 2022 update3 provides guidance on PLS and recommends that, where possible, they are published along with a journal article, and should be peer reviewed and indexed along with the publication. They should summarize the data in the manuscript so it can be easily interpreted and applied to clinical practice, where appropriate.

This means that from a practical perspective, we need to prepare PLS as part of the manuscript submission package. When target journals do not publish PLS, we need to be proactive and contact journals to ask how to approach this, for example, include them in the manuscript, signal the PLS in the cover letter, and request that even without publication they are shared for review,” said Rose-Marie Falconer, Associate Editorial Director.

How to provoke change?

The ultimate goal of healthcare communications should be to improve outcomes for patients and this remains at the heart of what we do. Making scientific data more accessible through clear and powerful PLS enables treating physicians and HCPs to more easily reference clinical findings that can impact healthcare practice, and ultimately the lives of patients, in a positive way. Are you utilizing PLS as part of your publications strategy?

  1. Plain Language Summaries. Available from: Accessed March 2022.
  2. Olivera J et al. Understanding the value of standalone plain language summaries of publications: findings from an online survey of readers. Presented at the 2023 European Meeting of the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals, London, UK. January 24–25, 2023.
  3. DeTora LM et al. Good Publication Practice (GPP) Guidelines for Company-Sponsored Biomedical Research: 2022 Update. Ann Intern Med 2022;175(9):1298–304. doi: 10.7326/M22-1460.