Competition highlights the importance of communicating medical research in plain English

By Natalie Edelman
PhD student, Brighton and Sussex Medical School

Access to Understanding is an annual science-writing competition which brings academic medical research to a wider audience by asking entrants to summarise one of 12 scientific papers in plain English. At the awards ceremony on 27 March, PhD student Natalie Edelman was highly commended for her summary of a Marie Curie paper about why it is difficult to identify people who are caring for loved ones with a serious illness.

Natalie Edelman

As a rather long-in-the-tooth 42-year-old PhD student, I heard about the Access to Understanding competition not in the Student Union bar, but through my university email. My supervisor, Professor Jackie Cassell, persuaded me to enter after reading early drafts of a thesis I was working on.

For me and other researchers, structuring a narrative in a simple way is the biggest challenge. Academics can struggle to write in plain English as we often revert to our love of technical jargon. My own research examines how our broader experiences in the world can affect our sexual health and I was disappointed that none of the 12 papers on the list covered this topic. However, the paper chosen by Marie Curie on caring for loved ones with serious illness stood out for me, for rather different reasons.

Scale of the problem

Firstly the sheer scale of the problem grabbed me. As people live longer, an ageing population dependent on informal care means that this issue affects everyone on some level, and will affect more and more of us directly as time goes on. But the implications of this issue for the people involved also made me want to write about it.

It’s not always easy to keep the ‘human story’ at the foreground in health research, while also presenting a meticulous analysis of how different factors come to exist and relate to each other. I was struck by how well the paper had done this, not least because I was a carer for my father when I was a teenager and saw many aspects of my own experience reflected on the pages.

My approach

I’m deeply passionate about research. It is part of who I am and I found that writing about something that also resonated personally brought a different type of passion. Additionally, writing about a topic of which I had no academic experience was a great opportunity to concentrate on the process of writing clearly. I used good old-fashioned pen and paper to sketch out how the different issues were connected. I then picked out the salient points to try to draw the reader from the ‘back story’ towards a picture of the future – the ‘implications’ of the findings.

To be put forward for a prize was a tremendous confidence boost for me and I hope all the shortlisted summaries reach their public audiences. Research is always a political process – from what gets chosen as a research topic to what happens to the findings. Communicating research findings in plain English so that they can be understood by everyone – including people who are directly affected by the issues – is the first vital step in this process.

Read Natalie’s summary and the original Marie Curie research paper.