The lay summary of a research proposal is often needed to secure grants and get wide public support and engagement, especially in health research.

I understand that the more a scientist understands her research, the more her ability to explain it to the public and to write an excellent lay summary. It should be easily readable, and should use everyday words instead of complex terms and scientific jargon.


Apart from structuring the whole summary, the word choice could be challenging, especially for non-native speakers who don't directly work or have sufficient contact with the public.

One could:

  • ask for help from relevant patient and public engagement (PPI) groups or native colleagues: they can even help revising the whole document, but I think scientists should improve their own public writing skills in the first place

  • look for synonyms in dictionaries: this could help, but general dictionaries don't tell which synonyms are understandable by the average people

  • read related articles in websites that provide health information to the public: this is potentially very useful for familiarisation with non-jargon language, but may be time-consuming.


  • Other than asking for help from others, what are (other) effective ways of finding out whether the words and phrases I use in a lay summary are appropriate to the public audience, and if not (which is more important), finding better alternatives?

  • Is there something like a "dictionary" to translate common or domain-specific jargon words/phrase to simple English (similar to 'academic word lists')?

3 Answers 3


Ways of finding out whether the words and phrases you use in a lay summary are appropriate to the public audience:

One approach is to put your text into something like simplewriter.


It highlights words which are not part of the most commonly used 1000 words in English.

That specific program is a little bit limited, more for an audience of children but there are similar text editors which can highlight complex or rare terms.

If you limit it to the 20000 most commonly used english words things should be readable by most laypersons.

  • 1
    This is not enough: there are many common words that have a common meaning for a layperson, but a very specific one in jargon; or are composed by simple words. From the top of my head, "profile", "contact", "sequence", and "secondary structure" look pretty harmless words; but have a very different meaning for a protein scientist.
    – Davidmh
    Feb 9, 2016 at 17:49
  • True but it's better than nothing for a foreign speaker trying to figure out which words are most likely to be unknown to a lay-reader.
    – Murphy
    Feb 10, 2016 at 10:20

Hand it in to some friend that isn't working on what you are doing, and learn about your mistakes from their feedback. In a few iterations, you will see a pattern, and hopefully, be able to correct it. For example, you may notice that you use "p-values" without explaining what they are.

Academics on a different field are a good target, since they are used to proofreading papers and specifically, looking for things that are introduced without explaining.

This will also help you not only with the vocabulary, but also the flow of your explanation. Even if a layperson understands a certain concept, it doesn't mean they are as familiar using it as you, and you may need to add more background or more careful explanations when using them.


Try to think about how you would explain what you want to do to a friend who may have a college education, but not in your field. This is roughly the level you should shoot for. If you have trouble evaluating whether what you wrote meets that standard, field test it: give what you have (or read it) to not just an imaginary friend, but to a real person, and let them comment on it.

I practice this in my writing intensive math courses with my students by letting them write a dialog. In a dialog, you write one person's statement and then have to turn around and wonder how someone else would perceive this. If that other person is a layperson, would they understand what the first speaker just wrote?

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