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Plain Language Summaries for AGU journals

Summarizing Your Science

It’s important to be able to explain your scientific research and its relevance in short and simple terms. When submitting a manuscript to an AGU journal, you are asked to provide three types of summary: an Abstract, a Plain Language Summary, and Key Points.

While these elements are the shortest part of your article, they are in some ways the most important: they are often the first thing that people read when browsing journal content and influence whether they want to read more. Take time to prepare each of them before you are ready to submit your manuscript. 

  • The Abstract should introduce the topic, explain the gap in scientific knowledge that your study is addressing, briefly describe the methods or data used, and outline the key results and what's new about them. It should be written primarily for other scientists in your discipline but should also be accessible to readers outside of your subfield who may be interested in your results and conclusions. The Abstract should be a single paragraph of fewer than 250 words (for Geophysical Research Letters, under 150 words). 
  • The Plain Language Summary (PLS) should convey the same information as the Abstract but in a completely different language and tone. It should summarize your scientific study, its results, and their broader relevance without using jargon so that it is understandable by scientists from outside of your discipline, as well as science journalists and science educators. The PLS should be a single paragraph no more than 200 words long.
  • The Key Points highlight the main elements of your article. Each point should be a short, clear, self-standing statement containing no special characters or acronyms that is understandable by people both within and beyond your scientific field. You may provide up to three key points and each point must be 140 characters or less.

The information below gives more detail about Plain Language Summaries, discussing who they are for and how to effectively write one.

The value and uses of Plain Language Summaries

A well-written PLS is likely to draw more attention to your article. AGU journal articles with a PLS score better than those without one on all performance metrics – they have a higher average number of downloads, higher average number of citations, and higher average Altmetric scores.

The various audiences and potential uses for a PLS include:

  • Editors doing an initial assessment of your submitted manuscript to understand the topic area and select the most appropriate reviewers
  • Readers of the journal from a different subdiscipline
  • People involved in interdisciplinary research looking for points of connection
  • Readers who do not have fluent proficiency in English
  • People browsing articles on the website looking for something of interest
  • People new to the field, such as undergraduate students, looking for an accessible overview
  • Journalists looking for interesting new research to feature

PLS are not intended for the general public. The writing should be pitched at an undergraduate level of scientific understanding.

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Requirements for AGU Journals

A PLS is required for submissions to the following AGU journals:

  • AGU Advances
  • GeoHealth
  • Geophysical Research Letters
  • Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems (G-Cubed)
  • Journal of Advances in Modeling of Earth Systems (JAMES)
  • JGR: Biogeosciences
  • JGR: Earth Surface
  • JGR: Oceans
  • JGR: Planets
  • JGR: Solid Earth
  • Reviews of Geophysics
  • Space Weather

At present, adding a PLS is optional but strongly encouraged for submissions to all other AGU journals.

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How to Write an Effective Plain Language Summary

Creating a PLS from a scientific abstract may seem like a daunting task. Here are some helpful tips on language and structure.

  • Describe what was studied, what was learned, and why it matters
  • Write for an undergraduate level of scientific understanding
  • Define any terms specific to your scientific field
  • Avoid technical jargon
  • Be cautions of words that may have different meanings to non-scientists (e.g. skill, regime, signal, uncertainty, mean, etc.)
  • Explain all acronyms you use – and don’t use too many of them

We recommend that you structure your PLS with 4 key elements: topic overview, paper overview, findings summary, and key takeaways.

Topic Overview (1-3 sentences) – What does a non-specialist reader need to know about the topic to understand your paper? Explain the broad scientific topic to provide context for your study.

Paper Overview (1-3 sentences) – What did you set out to investigate? Give a brief overview of what you set out to do in the research and how you went about it.

Findings Summary (1-3 sentences) – What was the most significant result or conclusion in your paper? Describe your overall findings but don’t get caught up in explaining technical details.

Key Takeaways (1-2 sentences) – Why should a reader care about your findings? Explain the scientific importance or societal relevance of your study.

Once you’ve written it, test it out. Ask someone from outside your scientific discipline to read your PLS then explain your study back to you. If they can’t do it, the summary should be revised for clarity. Take time to get it right. Your PLS may generate wider notice for your paper than your abstract.

Further Resources

Here are some useful resources for writing in plain language for different purposes and audiences:

AGU Sharing Science A range of resources for effectively communicating your science in different ways to different audiences.

De-Jargonizer Paste your text or upload a file and this tool will analyze the amount of jargon in your writing.

“Don’t @ Me: What Happened When Climate Skeptics Misused My Work” An author’s perspective on the importance of making research accessible to non-experts.

Ambiguous Wording Rewritten Examples of ways to clarify ambiguous phrases in your PLS.

“If You Want to Explain Your Science to the Public, Here’s Some Advice” Advice for authors looking to share their research with the general public.

“Writing science in plain English” A video presentation on writing for an audience of non-specialists.

“Going public: Writing about research in everyday language” A report from the U.S. Department of Education on writing about research for non-specialists