March 19, 2015
Stephen I. Katz M.D. Ph.D.
Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D.

Dear Colleagues:

A key part of the NIH mission is to communicate research results in ways that scientists and non-scientists alike can understand and appreciate. The NIAMS, like all of the federal government, is committed to using clear language in our communications, regardless of the topic and the target audience. Some people have the misconception that plain language appears unprofessional or is less accurate. On the contrary, it tells your audience exactly what they need to know without using unnecessary scientific or technical jargon. Most of us already do this when talking to patients who may not have the same scientific knowledge as we do, or to colleagues outside of our area of expertise.

Although we use plain language principles when speaking, many researchers struggle to find simple ways of describing their research in writing. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has made plain language a priority, and offers materials that can help scientists within and outside of government communicate more clearly. Government resources include a toolkit for making written material clear and effective, as well as a rich set of examples of how technically complex scientific writing can be translated into clearer language without sacrificing accuracy.

Although many tips for clear language are aimed at interacting with the public or an educated lay audience, these points are good to keep in mind when presenting to or writing for peers, as well:

  • Focus on the most essential point or points. Remember the acronym SOCO, which means “single overriding communication objective.” Do not bury what is important in overly detailed background information. More detail is not necessarily better.
  • When preparing to share your work, consider how you would explain your research to non-experts or lay audiences. This will help you focus on core themes and your most important take-away messages.
  • Choose common terms over technical ones. If you must use certain technical terms, be sure to define them.
  • Use active voice instead of passive voice whenever possible.
  • Ask for help. If your institution has a public information or communications staff, get to know them. Public information officers can help you translate your scientific findings into language that is better understood and appreciated by the lay public.

As part of our mission to communicate research results clearly, the NIAMS describes complex scientific advances through our Spotlights on Research and Research Briefs. The NIH Director’s Blog is another great example of accessible and engaging science communications.

We encourage you to take advantage of the tools available and to make similar adjustments in your writing. The NIH has many plain language resources available, including free, online training, as well as a toolbox that can help you improve your plain language writing skills.


Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
National Institutes of Health

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