Lay it on the line

As I mentioned way back in 2008, I’m often called upon to write lay abstracts for my department’s grant applications and website, and – less often – for press releases and assorted other documents. This is still one of my favourite tasks, and I like to think that through frequent practice I’m somewhat adept at it by now.

Many of the funding agencies to which we apply provide us with a community reviewer’s comments on our application alongside the peer reviews. For the most part these volunteers (whose role in CIHR grant review is described here, although the job description will vary from agency to agency) provide anonymous feedback on the societal value of the research, but recently I’ve noticed a trend toward feedback on the quality of the lay abstract itself.

Examples of recent feedback include the following:

Lay Abstract Title: This is a good attempt at a lay title, but is still a bit too technical. What is the ultimate outcome of “characterising novel gene mutations”? If it is the development of new diagnostic tests and drug treatments, perhaps say “Finding new ways to detect and treat cancers of the ….” instead.


No lay title was provided but one is needed as the project title is far too technical. A possible title could be as simple as “Investigating a potential new therapy for [redacted]”.


This is a very good attempt at a lay abstract, as the overall tone is easy to follow and makes a complex topic fairly understandable. The opening is quite good, and provides the reader with objectives for the research. Watch the use of technical terms, such as “[redacted]” – there is no need to name the mutation. Refer to it as “a certain type of mutation in the gene” instead.


For the most part this is an excellent lay summary. I think it could have been written without mention of either the [redacted] protein or the [redacted] complex, which are beyond the understanding of most lay readers. With a few changes the discussion could be limited to [redacted] and ‘other related genes’. Even though this makes the content of the abstract less accurate, it provides enough detail to explain what you are doing without the intimidation factor of unknown abbreviations.


The explanation of what the study will do is well explained, but could still be expressed in even simpler terms. The outcomes at the end of the abstract are very good, and will resonate with the general public. Try and move even one step further out and explain why the research can impact the average person – longer survival rates; better quality of life; lower treatment (health care) costs, etc.

This is great. When we’re rushing to meet a deadline, I do get some feedback from the PIs in the form of edits to my drafts – edits that I take the time to pore over in great detail after the deadline, to understand what worked and what needs to be improved – but there isn’t time for anything more explicit and detailed than that, and my lay abstracts don’t tend to get as heavily edited as the more technical section drafts. Besides, a PI who’s an expert in the field is not ideally placed to critique my attempts at non-technical summaries. So I greatly appreciate the effort these anonymous volunteers put in to helping me improve my science-to-English translation skills!

Thank you, community reviewers! You do excellent and very important work!


About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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12 Responses to Lay it on the line

  1. I’ve *never* had reviewer comments on a lay abstract! Although, truth be told, I’ve rarely written CIHR grants. But we do have to provide lay abstracts for Genome Canada, CFI, Autism Speaks, and other agencies. Maybe mine are just perfect. 😉

    I’ve had some feedback from the regional genome centre (OGI) on one of our Genome Canada applications, which was useful, although simply stated something like “paragraph three is too technical” – which it was.

  2. Mike says:

    I’d like to add some lay comments on the subject of this blog.

    Too technical. Not enough cool train photos.

  3. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Richard: yeah, most agencies seem to use them only once grants are funded, to list on their website as an explanation of where all those tax / donor dollars are going, but others do factor non-expert opinions into their review process. It does seem to me that the CIHR is now using these reviews mostly to help PIs write better lay explanations in the future – for inclusion in that online list of funded grants – i.e. to benefit the interested public rather than to help allocate funding.

    Mike: the authors thank the reviewer for his comments and have provided a cool train photo as an additional Figure. However, “too technical” was not a sufficiently specific or informative comment to permit extensive revisions to this resubmission.

  4. Frank says:

    That does look useful. Can you extract a series of rules, or tips, from their comments?

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    “Acronyms and jargon: bad

    Long-term outcomes and trains: good”

  6. “The reviewers thank the author for her inclusion of supplementary figure #1. However, we feel this figure would be better suited for inclusion in a training grant.”

    I’m here all week, folks.

  7. “while the authors appreciate the second reviwer’s advice to resubmit as a training grant, we feel that he is on the wrong track”

  8. John the Plumber says:

    Has this layman got it right Cath?

    Neither the originators of the ‘high’ science, nor those who peer review it, are capable of presenting it in an understandable way, so they employ you, who must both understand the unpresentable, then present it understandably, in order to get funding from those who would otherwise find it incomprehensible – so your value to both science and laymen is inestimable.

    For layman read ‘average cretin’.

  9. John the Plumber says:

    Albert Einstein helped by Leopold Infeld put together a tiny book, The Evolution of Physics, In the simplest language – kind of:
    If you hold a brick in front of you, standing in an elevator, and drop it, it will land
    on your foot, but if the elevator is on the way down fast ……..

    IIn this fashion they give you Relativity and Quantum Physics – and for the next couple of hours or so you understand it all perfectly.

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