How readable are plain language summaries? A highlight from the 2021 European Meeting of ISMPP


Plain language summaries (PLS) are an important publication enhancement to help non-specialist readers connect with healthcare and science.

At the 2021 European Meeting of ISMPP, Porterhouse Medical Group’s Tony Ferrar and Emma Conran presented a poster entitled ‘How readable are plain language summaries?’ which examined the readability of PLS of medical articles. With the aim of understanding the extent to which readability varies by journal and therapy area, the authors selected four different scientific journals that publish on varied medical topics and include PLS for different target audiences, ranging from the public to non-specialist scientists.

Their data source included the journals PNAS, PLOS Medicine, Cochrane Reviews and eLife.

Articles were reviewed for relevance to medicine and categorised into therapy areas, and by using the Editor function of Microsoft Word, readability scores of PLS were recorded.

As a control for readability of articles aimed at the public, health articles under 600 words from the most accessed online UK newspapers were also analysed.1


Based on the Flesch Reading Ease score (0, most difficult; 100, easiest), newspaper articles (n=10) were significantly easier to read than PLS (n=136) (median score: 51.5 vs. 30.0; P<0.05). Median readabilities of the PLS were 14.6, 24.3, 37.2 and 39.8 for PNAS, PLOS Medicine, Cochrane Reviews and eLife, respectively. The therapy areas with the highest and lowest median readability scores were respiratory (43.9; n=3) and metabolism (2.3; n=2), respectively.


The authors concluded that although the PLS of medical articles can have disparate readability scores, they tend to be more difficult to read than newspaper articles. The differences in PLS readability are likely attributed to the audience journals aim to reach. Going forward collaborative efforts could be made to standardise PLS and ensure they are more easily understood.

Access the full poster, here:  How readable are plain language summaries? ISMPP EU 2021 poster. Or, to read more about the publications planning services offered by our expert global teams visit: Our Approach – Porterhouse Medical

References 1 Top 50 United Kingdom (UK) Newspapers. Available at: Accessed September 2020.