Breaking research

World-leading pharma collaborates call for plain language summaries of peer-reviewed medical journal articles


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Pharmaceutical and biotech companies who form the Open Pharma collaboration, have today announced the ever-pressing need for plain language summaries in peer-reviewed medical journal publications.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Current Medical Research & Opinion, Open Pharma’s recommendations come as an aim to make the medical publishing model “more open” and a “more accessible and inclusive environment”.

This, the authors state, would make engagement with medical research easier for all intended audiences from patients, patient advocates and caregivers, to healthcare professionals and policymakers.

“Scientific communities are now focused on driving the next step towards openness: accessibility. The broad range of stakeholders involved in medical research now puts the pharmaceutical industry in a unique position to make the medical publishing model more open,” explain the authors.

“Few medical research articles currently include plain language summaries. The pharmaceutical industry has an opportunity to improve everyone’s understanding of medical research by regularly developing plain language summaries of their articles.

“These summaries encourage discussions around medical research and aid fully informed and shared decision-making.”

Launched in 2016, Open Pharma brings together a group of pharmaceutical and biotech companies and other research funders, alongside healthcare professionals, regulators, patients, publishers and other stakeholders in healthcare.

Their drive is to take medical research from behind paywalls to becoming fully open access (free to read for everyone online) which they state will “improve transparency, advance medical science and, ultimately improve patient care”.

Today’s call for plain language summaries begins “the next step of openness”, and crucially whilst plain language summaries are “still in their infancy”, sets out what the recommendations call a “minimum standard” for future medical publication lay plain summaries to abide to.

The minimum standard recommends for all summaries to be in the style of an abstract, understandable and readable (in text only, rather than in videos or infographics), free of technical jargon, unbiased, non-promotional, and easily accessed.

Open Pharma states other minimum standards for summaries to include should be:

  • explicitly linked to the source publication and relevant clinical trial identifiers, with brief reference to the existing evidence
  • consistent with the same overall conclusions as the scientific publication abstract
  • developed alongside the main content of the manuscript, in line with the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors’ authorship criteria
  • ideally reviewed by a non-expert during development
  • fully peer reviewed alongside the main content
  • made available to read free of charge alongside the scientific publication abstract
  • tagged with appropriate metadata and keywords to improve discoverability in search
  • engines, directories, and indexes.

“Standard minimum approaches for developing and sharing index-friendly plain language summaries are needed to help ensure that these multi-stakeholder communication channels are compliant with pharmaceutical industry standards,” the authors state.

“This would also help frame plain language summaries as valid and effective forms of sharing research.

“Creating a minimum standard does not prevent graphically or digitally enhanced summaries but acts as universal foundation to further build upon; Open Pharma strongly encourages the additional development of enhanced summaries. Such a standard would define the minimum requirements for maximizing the transparency, accountability, accessibility, discoverability and inclusivity of medical journal publications.

“And, once these (minimum standards) have been met, we encourage researchers to also consider making and sharing infographics and video summaries to help people to understand their research even more.”