PubMed Health is a service from the US National Library of Medicine (NLM) aimed at the public. We have been involved in discussions with Hilda Bastian, who has recently taken up a post at NLM,because of the wish to include plain language summaries (PLSs) of Cochrane Reviews within the redesigned PubMed Health, which will become a website focused on clinical effectiveness research for lay and professional audiences. The necessary contractual agreements are now in place, and we anticipate that in the very near future NLM will be displaying PLSs to people searching for health content via search engines. This is a hugely exciting development and has the potential to increase greatly the number of people reading PLSs and also clicking through to the abstracts and full-textreviews.
All PLSs will be available on PubMed Health, without any editorial changes, except that where they comprise fewer than 30 words, there will also be a notice stating that there is no PLS for that review.This is to catch those reviews where the PLS states "Summary pending", and aims to prevent readers wasting time accessing empty content.
It is clearly in our interests, going forward, to ensure that Cochrane PLSs are of the highest possible quality. We intend that at the conclusion of the MECIR process we will facilitate a group of interested volunteers to draw up guidance for authors of PLSs, aimed at ensuring high quality.
In the meantime there are a few issues that we would like to raise:
1. It is imperative that PLSs are entirely consistent with the findings of the rest of the review. Reflecting on the audit of abstracts we conducted earlier this year and on some recent controversies in relation to press releases, it has become clear that this is not always the case currently. We would urge you in future to ensure that this consistency is checked thoroughly prior to publication. We are aware that previous guidance on writing PLSs might be interpreted as being at odds with this advice, but also are sure that you will understand why it is important for the messages from Cochrane Reviews to be internally consistent.
2. Some PLS titles are too long, far exceeding the Handbook’s recommended length, while others include multiple sentences. We recommend that an absolute maximum of 150 characters (approximately 25 words) should be implemented and that PLSs that havetitles that are longer than this should be amended. The rationale for requesting these changes now includes the extremely sub-optimal way that these summary titles will appear when presented on PubMed Health, but the same holds true for the presentationon The Cochrane Library and also for the proposed new consumer portal on the Collaboration's own site. We are content for CRGs to take the initiative and make the necessary changes, but Catherine and the CEU are also willing to propose changes on request. If you do decide to change the titles independently it would be very helpful if you could inform Catherine. We will be contacting review groups whose portfolios include such titles in the near future. Importantly, the titles of PLSs should themselves be in plain language. People should be able to understand what the summary is about and know thatif they click on a particular title, they will understand what follows. It is perhaps also a good opportunity to remind authors of PLSs that declarative titles are not supported, and are contrary to Handbook guidance.
3. We believe that the current guidance on overall word count for PLSs is unduly limited. We have feedback that readers value some background information on the question that is being addressed by the review, in addition to a description of the methods and results.Therefore we wish to discourage inappropriate curtailing of PLSs on grounds of word counts. For longer summaries we strongly encourage that the text is broken up intodigestible sections by paragraph breaks and headings as appropriate. We anticipate more detailed guidance on these and other matters will emerge from the MECIR work and also the planned follow up group specifically focussing on PLSs.
We hope that you will find this information useful, but please feel free to communicate via email with either of us if you have any questions or concerns.
Catherine McIlwain and David Tovey