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How to write a plain English abstract

Authors: Mr Jonothan Earnshaw, BJS Academy Director, semi-retired Consultant Vascular Surgeon.

Authors are often asked to write a plain English abstract with the scientific manuscript, here’s how to do it. Listen to the podcast or read the article:

Scientists and surgeons in particular have their own language for communication. We use technical terms for investigations and procedures, shorthand and jargon for the procedures themselves, and have a way of writing that is heavily stylized. In short we make our published material incomprehensible to those outside our club consisting of other scientific surgeons.

For years we’ve got away with this because the only people that read our papers are like us. This has been changing gradually but the pace has accelerated as a result of the digital revolution, and in my opinion, also as a result of the COVID pandemic. Everyone listened avidly to the expert virologists talk about the COVID virus and it spread. The virologists communicated with us every day in a way we could understand. We are all expert virologists now! In the same way, access to material on the Internet and increasing awareness of health-related matters, and in some areas the difficulty in accessing medical services, has fuelled a thirst for information about medicine and surgery like never before. Added to that, the increasing availability of open access scientific material means there is more available for free. Why should our patients not have access to surgical science, after all many of them may have participated in the studies that have informed their care, and have every right to see and understand the results.

These arguments should provide encouragement for scientific surgeons to help non-medics to learn about surgical conditions and the results of our studies. The plain English abstract is the start of the process of opening up surgical research to anyone and everyone who is interested. Communicating the results of a scientific study by making the abstract comprehensible to everyone is a way of promoting and disseminating surgical knowledge and research.

Communication is largely about language but converting science into plain English is not as easy as it sounds. English is the language of much surgical research across the world. Yet many of the readers do not have English as a first language. So there are two problems: the language of science, and the language of geography. English is also a complex language full of slang, nuance and subtlety. All of this should be removed from a plain English abstract. The words should be short and simple; the sentences short and constructed in a logical sequence. Description, adjectives and nonessential words are forbidden. I usually advise that a plain English abstract should be comprehensible to the averagely educated 15-year-old.

It is possible to score writing for plain English. There are measures of plain English writing, the most famous is the Flesch score, developed by Rudolph Flesch in the 1940s, which analyses text and records a score between 1 and 100, where 100 is the highest readable score. Thus it is possible to mark your own work and to learn to write in a more understandable way. The best way is to practice. Further advice can be obtained from a website by the plain English campaign:

You can also get help from the article by Heidi Cramm and colleagues, which you will find as part of the course material, explaining best practice for what they term lay summaries.

The exercise you have been set as part of your Writing in Surgery course is to write a full paper formatted for BJS. The manuscript will include an abstract in plain English. Both the BJS and BJSopen journals have published a number of such abstracts in the past and we have provided examples within course material as a guide. 

This approach to writing in plain English has a more fundamental value. Imagine you are not a doctor or nurse have just been diagnosed with a serious illness. Where would you go to find more information: Google, Wikipedia? It’s actually very hard to find relevant up-to-date and sensible information about medical conditions from sites that you can trust. Many internet websites are more likely to try and sell you an expensive treatment for pancreatic cancer, than to explain the condition and how best to manage it. They are also likely to try and lead you to the fanciest and most expensive hospital for your treatment, rather than the hospital where you may receive the current best evidence-based care (which may of course not include active treatment).

So when you are working writing a plain English abstract, remember this could be the start of a revolution concerning access to medical and surgical information, because surely surgeon scientists are in the best position to provide information about surgical conditions and their management. It would help to try and write a plain English abstract for all scientific articles, and I would encourage you to do this as often as possible in future. Indeed trying to write the entire article so that interested lay people can understand them would be beneficial. This could be a new the start of new way of providing surgical information and research.

JJE May 2023.


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