Could PubMed be a viable route to discovering plain language summaries?


Caroline Shepherda, Gemma Fisherb, Jolanta Beinarovicac and Jason Gardnera
Click here to see Plain Language Summary


Plain language summaries (PLS) are intended to widen the accessibility of published research findings in a non-technical language.1,2 The stakeholders of PLS are time-poor specialists, non-specialist healthcare professionals, as well as patients, carers and journalists.

PLS are often published on journal websites linked to the original articles: however, they are difficult to locate because they are not found by regular search engines.3

PubMed is a database used by researchers and healthcare providers to access biomedical publications. Publishers, or in some instances, authors, add and index a PubMed entry for each article following the XML guide. We identified three meta-tags used to index publications that are written in non-technical language:

  • Summary for patients is a document type that summarises a single article in non-technical language. The summaries are intended for patients or the lay public to explain, in non-technical terms, the scientific or medical findings reported in the full article that is accessible through the publisher’s website. PubMed records of original publications that have corresponding summaries for patients have been accessible using the tag ‘hassummaryforpatientsin’ since 2003.

  • Plain language summary is an enhancement that was added to PubMed in February 2019. In some cases, the full text of PLS is provided by the publisher and appears below the abstract of an original article in the PubMed record. PLS can be retrieved through an untagged search on PubMed.

Patient education handout is a summary intended for patients or the lay public to explain a procedure or condition or summarise or comment on articles that report scientific or medical findings. These summaries are designed for physicians to share with patients or to assist physicians in talking to patients. PubMed introduced patient education handouts in 2002, and to date, it is the only publication type on PubMed written for a consumer audience. Currently, there are no unique Medical Subject Heading (MeSH) terms or tags for patient education handouts.


On 28 August 2019, searches were conducted in PubMed using tagging terms ‘hassummaryforpatientsin’ or ‘patient education handout’ or ‘plain-language-summary’ for articles from 1 January 2018. The route to the tagged lay material was mapped for each of the three tagging terms. From the search results returned, documents identified from the three meta-tags were categorised as either PLS linked to a journal article or standalone patient information. We collated the information on which journals were indexing these documents using the meta-tags.


The user journey into discovering non-technical summaries using different meta-tags on PubMed:


Most PLS were found using 'plain language summary'. A considerable number of PLS (N=116) were found searching for patient education handout.


Patient information


Different journals have non-overlapping preferences in PLS tagging.


Patient information


It is difficult to compare the popularity of the three meta-tags. The 'patient education handout' and 'hassummaryforpatientsin' tags have been in existence for more than 16 years, whereas 'plain language summary' was only introduced to PubMed in early 2019.


  • Three document tags are available in PubMed for lay materials, with little overlap between the journals using them to index PLS linked to journal articles.

  • Few of the journals publishing PLS with original articles are using the plain language summaries meta-tags which was added for indexing early in 2019.

  • PLS are extremely difficult for the lay public to locate, but with enhancement and search engine optimisation, PubMed has the potential to provide a direct route to PLS.


In order to establish PubMed as a repository for PLS that can be found using regular search engines, we recommend:

  • Creating a new search engine, PLS PubMed, a specific full-text PLS record in PubMed, that exclusively houses PLS records, is user-friendly for the lay public to search for PLS on their specified topic and can be found from common search engines, such as Google;

  • Promoting the ‘plain language summary’ tag to publishers submitting articles to PubMed;

  • Promoting and educating on the PLS feature in PubMed to the scientific community.

The proposed layperson-friendly route of finding a PLS:

Acknowledgements and disclosures

The authors gratefully acknowledge Elaine Wilson (McCann Health) for early initiation of the project and Kate Majewski (NIH) for guidance and information on PubMed meta-tags and review of this poster.

All authors participated in the research. The abstract was prepared by Caroline Shepherd, Gemma Fisher and Jason Gardner. The poster was prepared by Caroline Shepherd, Jolanta Beinarovica and Jason Gardner. All authors provided feedback and final approval for the poster.

Poster presented at the ISMPP European Meeting, London, UK, 21–22 January 2020.