Pharma and Publishers Forum: an Open Pharma roundtable discussion on plain language summaries

Adeline Rosenberg

In the fourth and final post of our series of reports from the Open Pharma roundtable ‘Pharma and Publishers Forum’, we present the discussions on plain language summaries of peer-reviewed medical journal publications, with a view to exploring the accessibility and discoverability of plain language summaries with a broad audience, as well as best practice considerations.

Key talking points

Plain language summaries (PLS) of peer-reviewed medical journal publications have been a hot topic in discussions about the accessibility and discoverability of medical research information. There has been significant cross-industry research and thought leadership on PLS over the past year, including at conferences organized by the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals and the European Medical Writers Association. PLS are clearly an exciting field, but there remain challenges to be addressed. The roundtable discussions highlighted a need for continued value demonstration aided by a growing body of evidence, a desire for better understanding of publisher expectations and capabilities, and explorations of online discoverability of PLS and by whom, and ultimately a need for further guidance on best practices and quality assurance.

Challenges and solutions

Conveying value

During the roundtable discussions, we heard from both pharma and publishers that, despite the growing body of evidence, there is a continued need to convey the value of PLS to stakeholders. Demand for PLS may remain relatively low owing to a limited cross-industry understanding of their value and the potential they hold for increasing accessibility and discoverability to their broad readership, which may include but is not limited to patients. This may be a barrier for pharma companies in particular, in which multiple departments and divisions need to approve and ensure legal compliance of publications and communications activities. Continuing to perform research and thought leadership on PLS value and readership – and sharing these efforts at conferences and in the literature – may help to address this barrier.

Discoverability of PLS

A prevalent challenge when it comes to PLS is ensuring that they are discoverable and getting them into the hands of readers. A key driver of PLS discoverability is their location within a manuscript or publication. For example, text-based PLS that are fully incorporated into the main manuscript alongside the abstract (and hosted in front of the paywall in cases in which publications are not open access) can be indexed on PubMed. While not all readers of PLS may use PubMed as a tool for discoverability, it is one of the most widely used repositories among other researchers and professionals, who still represent a large proportion of the audience for PLS. The flip side of this is that PLS that are hosted in supplementary materials or on third-party content sites are less likely to be accessed and read unless explicitly distributed to readers through other means (e.g. social media).

A potential solution to the issue of discoverability could include a central repository dedicated to PLS. This could be driven or hosted by different stakeholders, such as authors, sponsoring institutions or publishers. It was raised during the roundtable that it might not be publishers’ responsibility to generate and host content for patients. However, it is important to bear in mind that PLS are not specifically for patients, but rather a broad audience that includes patients, as well as researchers and healthcare professionals, who are looking for accessible content. PLS could be particularly valuable for researchers and healthcare professionals who are from other specialties, are time-limited or have a different native language.

To reach a solution on the issue of discoverability, there are still many questions to resolve among industry professionals as to the scope and purpose of PLS. For example, there are varying opinions as to whether PLS should be considered scientific or commercial, indicating a possible mismatch in perceptions between pharma and publishers. Ultimately, the resolution of issues of discoverability may be aided by standardization and best practice guidance.

Best practice and consistent quality assurance  

The key challenge for PLS is standardizing the practice and defining quality. Standards help to ensure consistency and are a crucial component of quality assurance in any process or practice. Currently, there is limited consistency and standardization across publishers, and even across journal titles within the same publisher. PLS requirements and capabilities vary in word limits, formats, target audiences, hosting locations and even the terminology used to refer to PLS. There is also variety in the quality of PLS submitted to journals.

One of the most important tools in the publication quality toolkit is peer review, and this must also be applied to PLS for them to be considered credible and compliant. The introduction of best practice guidance – and many efforts at this are emerging from multiple stakeholders – is needed to help provide general agreement and alignment. However, it is important that any future guidelines or standards leave room for variety. To help aid the development of best practice, stakeholders (particularly submitting authors and sponsoring institutions) should share learnings as a collaborative effort to better the wider medical publishing landscape.

Publisher capabilities

For publishers, important barriers to PLS uptake are infrastructure and capabilities; introducing new elements of publications creates budget and time considerations, and not all journals have the resources to dedicate to this. An idea raised at the roundtable was the possibility of automating PLS processes. However, for a practice that is still gaining momentum and is at the beginning stages of gathering best practice consensus, it is likely too early to introduce automation. PLS carry significant implications for conveying medical information to a broad audience in a credible and compliant way, so it is crucial that they are done correctly.

Don’t miss our previous ‘Pharma and Publishers Forum’ roundtable posts on discoverabilityopen access, and data sharing!