More On Plain Language Summaries

For over a year now, AGU has been including the option of a Plain Language Summary with manuscript submissions to any of its journals. This can be about as long as a regular Abstract to your paper, but should be written so that those outside of space physics can understand it. From the AGU text requirements page, the definition goes like this:

“The plain language summary should be written for a broad audience. It should be free of jargon, acronyms, equations and any technical information that would be unknown to the general public. The purpose is to explain the study to the public. A good summary should state the general problem, what was done, and the result.”

This description should be ingrained in all of us, not just those submitting papers in the near future but also anyone reviewing a manuscript for JGR Space Physics or another AGU journal. Yes, if you are asked to review a paper and it has a Plain Language Summary, then please read it and comment on its quality. This should be considered as an essential part of the review process, just like assessing the Key Points and keywords that the authors have provided for the paper.

AGU now has more information about these Plain Language Summaries to help you write a good one. For me, this advice about creating a Plain Language Summary comes down to the final bullet point: take the time to do it right. This is not something that you should crank out during the GEMS submission process. That not only will just be an initial draft of what it could be but also won’t be vetted by your coauthors. Their name is on the paper too, and the Plain Language Summary is published with the paper, right below the official Abstract, so you should definitely include your coauthors in its creation. Please do not just change a few words from your regular Abstract, but instead write it from scratch and edit it to make it appealing to a nonspecialist audience.

Here is the nice graphic from that webpage, by @JoannaScience:


She did a cartoon for one of my Editors’ Vox articles. This graphic above pretty much sums up how space physics Abstracts are understood by non-space-physicists. Our niche of AGU has to work especially hard at communicating our work to the public; learning how to write a good Plain Language Summary is an excellent start.

AGU has put together a page with some really good Plain Language Summaries. Have a look to see the kind of summary that resonates.

For now, this paragraph is optional, and I have been told that roughly 20% of manuscript submissions include a Plain Language Summary. Writing a good Plain Language Summary, however, greatly increases the chances of your paper being highlighted by AGU in some way. AGU HQ staff read every Plain Language Summary for all accepted papers across all AGU journals. If they come across a good one. At 20%, this is about 5 summaries per day. When they come across a really good one, the paper will, at the very least, receive a social media highlight. They might work with the journal Editor that handled the paper to create an Editors’ Highlight for the paper. Or, it might even be the initial nugget of a Research Spotlight or Editors’ Vox article about the paper. The point is that the paper could be elevated to receive a highlight regardless of what the reviewers and editor thought about its highlight worthiness. If you write a good highlight, then your paper will have an increased chance of receiving special highlight attention from AGU.

While I have not seen stats on whether the various highlighting that AGU does for papers results in more citations, I have seen the stats on page views and full-text downloads, and the link is clear and extremely favorable. Traffic towards the paper is typically greatly enhanced with a highlight. So, it is in your best interest to spend some time on the Plain Language Summary.




One thought on “More On Plain Language Summaries

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s