A great summary is like a good story that stops people in their tracks. Let’s see how you can write one for maximum impact!

Endre Szvetnik
Jul 26 · 6 min read

First things first — the audience

Do you know who reads you on Sparrho? It’s scientists like you, but from other fields, laypeople, interested in research and even potential employers. Meaning, most of them are not experts in your field. So, keep their level of understanding in mind!

OK, have you got a recipe?

Well, yes! Let’s think of your summary as a science story. Research says we relate to information better if it’s presented as a story. Science is often about a sea of data… but if you find a story among them, you’ll be on your way to rockstar status among your readers.

And how do I craft a story?

Well, let’s consider this. A good story has:

  • a central character, but in science it doesn’t have to be a human. Rather, it can be the virus, gene, signalling pathway or gravitational waves we are investigating or have learned more about
  • a bit of drama and a plot — how did you or are going about trying to discover a solution to the problem?
  • a what now? — an explanation of how the research or discovery will bring a practical benefit to humanity or how it will advance the field
  • and a structure —We at Sparrho like a ‘question and answer’ session between you and your reader that gradually takes us deeper into the story helping understand the discovery. It works best with about 8 paragraphs and an optional, lighter ‘campfire story’ at the bottom.

We’ll explain all this using an example below.

Right, take me to the example!

Fine! We will dissect a summary by Flavia Oliveira, who started out as a biomedical scientist and found a position in scientific publishing. Flavia put together a pinboard about an intriguing discovery: how a compound in chillies can slow down lung cancer. Let’s have a look!

The title

Chillies could slow down metastasis in lung cancer

A good title shouts about the discovery and it also makes us care. How? It mentions the problem (lung cancer) and an interesting solution (chillies slow down metastasis). Imagine trying to sell a newspaper in the street.
Aim for 6–8 words

The summary paragraph/Pinboard overview

Scientists have found that the progression of lung cancer could be slowed down with the help of a compound that is found in the pungent pepper.

OK, so people got interested. Don’t let them go away, this is your chance to draw your reader into the story. Summarise the discovery but don’t get lost in the detail. Imagine you’re pitching your story to a picky editor.
Aim for about 320 characters.

In 10 seconds… why?

In 10 seconds? Capsaicin, a natural compound found in chilli peppers, is not only responsible for the spicy sensation on the palate but as researchers have found, it can suppress metastasis of lung cancer, raising hope for novel therapies.

OK, you got them hooked. Now set up the story with a bit more detail. Mention the most significant part of the discovery and the science underpinning it — notice the compound’s name is first mentioned here.
Aim for max 200 characters.

Going in deep — What’s the discovery?

That’s hot news! What exactly did they find out?Experiments revealed that capsaicin suppresses cancer cells’ ability to spread to other parts of the body. It appears to do this by silencing a protein called tyrosine-protein kinase, also known as Src. Src is a proto-oncogene, which means “potentially cancer generating when malfunctioning”. It plays a role in a signalling pathway that controls a number of cellular processes - including cell migration - that helps cancer spread.

Now you can dive right in. What exactly was the discovery or what are you trying to find out? Here you can mention the processes that were studied but remember your audience. Don’t assume they have the same level of understanding as you. Introduce notions gently explaining with a half-sentence here and there what they mean — like Flavia did with Src.
Aim for max 450 characters.

How did they do it?

And how did they find it? They added capsaicin to lab cultures of lung cancer cells and found that it inhibited cancer cell invasion, the first step of metastasis. Further experiments with mice showed that animals who were fed capsaicin had fewer metastatic cancer cells compared to mice that didn’t take the compound.

Here you can develop the plot with a story within a story. What method did the researchers use? How did they prove/disprove their initial idea? Was there a trial involved? Who took part?
Aim for max 450 characters.

What’s the science? Any other applications?

OK, but what about other cancers? Similar experiments with breast cancer cells have been conducted before. By adding capsaicin to cell cultures, the tumour cells began dividing much more slowly. Moreover, they died in large numbers! As for the surviving cancer cells, they lost the ability to move quickly which reduced their ability to spread. Other studies have achieved promising results when they tested the effects of capsaicin in gut tumours, prostate cancer cells and even a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The next few paragraphs give you a bit more freedom. You can carry on describing the science — for example, your field — underpinning the discovery. In this case, Flavia mentioned that the compound could be effective against other cancers, not just lung cancer. Which is nice to learn!
Aim for max 450 characters.

What can we expect in the future/How does this advance the field?

And when is it going to become a drug? Not so fast! Although capsaicin can enhance the response to chemotherapy, the picture is nuanced. This is because, under certain conditions, capsaicin can be linked to skin cancer, where it acts as a carcinogen while other studies suggest that diets rich in capsaicin might be associated with stomach cancer.

OK, we’ve heard about an exciting discovery in detail, but now it’s time to zoom out. Your audience wants to hear your expert opinion. What now? How did this discovery improve our understanding of the subject? When will it find a practical application to benefit humanity? Close your summary with a forward-looking paragraph or two.

Flavia answers here the question on everybody’s mind: when will this discovery be turned into a drug? This could be a great closing paragraph. But as an honest scientist, she cannot avoid mentioning a complication on the way:

Wait, then how can it be useful? Well, researchers are working on ways to counteract the negative side of capsaicin. For example, they tested similar compounds, such as capsiate and capsiconiate and found that the first was also able to block the cancerous cells’ ability to metastasise in lung cancer. Other researchers discovered that using 6-gingerol, a compound found in ginger and capsaicin reduced the occurrence of lung cancer in cancer-prone mice down to 20%.

Great, having covered it, she can close the summary with a high-level forward looking statement about the role of capsaicin in cancer therapy.
Aim for max 350 characters per paragraph.

So, chillies could be our new weapon in cancer therapy? Well, the recent experiments have also shown that capsaicin has the ability to make lung cancer cells vulnerable to chemotherapeutic agents, so one day capsaicin could be used in combination with chemotherapy to treat a variety of lung cancers.

Campfire story

And finally, this is totally optional! Some Curators like to mention quirky or interesting details — stuff that doesn’t quite fit into the expert summary above. This is something that a storyteller would share with their audience sitting by the campfire. Fancy trying your hand at it?

How researchers got on the hot trails of chilliesThe researchers were inspired to study capsaicin because observational studies in the past have shown that countries such as Thailand and India, where diets traditionally consist of spicy foods, have a lower incidence of lung cancer (although the picture is balanced with research about stomach cancer).According to the latest statistics from the World Health Organization, the 12 countries with the highest cancer incidence rates come from Oceania, Europe and North America.For example, the rate is 352 per 100,000 people in the US and 319 in the UK compared to 158 in Thailand and 89 India. Australia came out on top with 468 per 100,000 people.

And that’s it. Thanks for reading through it! Now, that you’re trained up, we’re looking forward to your ace pinboard summaries.

Sparrho.com

Sparrho combines human + artificial intelligence to democratise science. Follow us to stay updated with our latest, exclusive content.

Endre Szvetnik

Written by

I’m Senior Editor at Sparrho.com working with researchers to tell their stories to the wider public

Sparrho.com

Sparrho combines human + artificial intelligence to democratise science. Follow us to stay updated with our latest, exclusive content.

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