Personal Stories - Lay Summaries

Emma Karoune - Making Palaeoecology More Accessible

Dr Emma Karoune is a Research Associate at The Alan Turing Institute and Historic England focusing on Open Science and Phytolith Research. She is currently leading a project concerning the FAIRification of phytolith data.

Find out more about her work from the links below:

We would like to thank Emma for answering our interview questions about her work with PalaeoSIG, the special interest group for palaeoecology at the British Ecological Society.

Comments are also made in this case study by Dr Althea Davies and Dr Jane Bunting, who are the Secretaries of the PalaeoSIG and the organisers of this project along with Dr Eileen Tisdall.

1. Why did you start your work on lay summaries?

I attended an online workshop that PalaeoSIG organised in spring 2020 about science writing and communication. This was run by Althea Davies (University St Andrews), Jane Bunting (University Hull) and Eileen Tisdall (University Stirling). This workshop aimed to train palaeoecologists to communicate their research more effectively with non-specialists. As part of the workshop, we were tasked to produce short, accessible summaries of articles that had been suggested as the most influential palaeoecological papers in a recent Palaeoecology special interest group survey and these would then be disseminated in a blog.

2. How did you get started?

During the workshop, we were put into pairs so that we could work collaboratively on writing our two lay summaries. My collaborator and I opted to work in Google docs so that we could start documents for the first draft of each lay summary separately but we could also then go on to collaborate in real-time to edit and discuss our writing using the built-in editing and commenting features.

Here is one of the lay summaries I wrote with my workshop partner Nick Loughlin - New evidence to assess the 5 reasons Elm almost disappeared.

Once the workshop was over, we were asked if anyone wanted to help with editing and publishing the lay summaries. Some of us then formed a group of copy editors and summary editors, again to work in pairs to finalise each lay summary every week for release on the project website. The aim was to release one lay summary a week for a whole year.

3. What impact do you think your lay summaries are making to your research/project/community?

Althea told me that the WordPress site has between c.80 and 530 views per month, depending on how many posts we have. As to what impact they’re having, she is not sure how to measure this. Althea commented that they didn’t set out to be an ‘influencer’ looking for a high hit rate, rather more of a support mechanism, point of connection and community resource for palaeoscientists working in various disciplines and sectors. For instance, providing an opportunity for blogs by Early Career Researchers who might be unsure about offering one to a ‘bigger’ organisation, like a journal.

4. What tools/software do you use most in your lay summaries?

The Palaeoecology special interest group used Google Drive to run the project as Google Docs were used to write collaboratively and Google Sheets were used to coordinate the lay summaries and the editing and publishing progress. This allowed us to work synchronously during the workshop and asynchronously over the whole time of the project.

The blog website uses WordPress. Althea said that she found uploading blogs quite straightforward and this probably reflects Jane’s initial setup choices as well as the simplicity of the WordPress format and templates.

5. Do you have any top tips for other people that might be interested in starting lay summaries?

Writing lay summaries is a different type of writing so you do have to learn how to do it. The workshop training helped everyone to improve their writing skills as we were given lectures by an expert scientific editor from a popular science news website. This helped me to think about the differences between academic writing and writing for lay audiences.

Also, you need to write to someone. Collaboration is the key to success as another pair of eyes helps to refine and improve your writing further.

6. Do you have any tips on things to avoid?

Don’t leave in any technical words - this might seem a very hard thing to achieve but there is always a way you can explain or describe them simply instead. If you do have to include a technical word, you should put a definition in brackets or a link to a website that explains the term simply such as Wikipedia.

7. Where do you see your lay summaries writing skills going in the future?

I have found these skills really useful for several reasons. I had to write a lay summary for a recent article I submitted so it helped me to think about how to change my writing style compared to the abstract.

I have also started a new job in the last year that was a project outside of my particular discipline and my first task was to edit lay summaries. This gave me a different perspective about how important they are for clear communication within projects for team members with different specialisms.