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Public significance statements and translational abstracts: Student writing practice

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I have been doing a bit of digging into the research databases, and I came across a Journal of Eating Disorders article with a 112-word “Plain English summary” (Alberga et al., 2018). I love this so much I can hardly stand it.

Steven Pinker (2014) wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Why academics’ writing stinks.” Pinker does not pull any punches in his assessment. Let’s face it. Some academic writing is virtually unreadable. Other academic writing is actually unreadable.

Part of the problem is one of audience. If a researcher is writing for other researchers in their very specific corner of the research world, of course they are going to use jargon and make assumptions about what their readers know. That, though, is problematic for the rest of us.

I have spent my career translating psychological science as an instructor and, more recently, as an author. This is what teaching is all about: translation. If we are teaching in our particular subdiscipline, translation is usually not difficult. If we are teaching Intro Psych, though, we have to translate research writing that is miles away from our subdiscipline. This is what makes Intro Psych the most difficult course in the psychology curriculum to teach. I know instructors who do not cover, for example, biopsychology or sensation and perception in their Intro Psych courses because they do not understand the topics themselves.

Additionally, some of our students have learned through reading academic writing to write in a similarly incomprehensible style. Sometimes I feel like students initially wrote their papers in plain English, and then they threw a thesaurus at it to make their writing sound more academic. We have certainly gone wrong somewhere if ‘academic’ has come to mean ‘incomprehensible.’

I appreciate the steps some journals have taken to encourage or require article authors to tell readers why their research is important. In the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s journal Teaching of Psychology, for example, the abstract ends with a “Teaching Implications” section. Many other journals now require a “Public Significance Statement” or a “Translational Abstract” (what the Journal of Eating Disorders calls a “plain English summary”). I have read my share of public significance statements. I confess that sometimes it is difficult—impossible even—to see the significance of the research to the general public in the statements. I suspect it is because the authors themselves do not see any public significance. That is probably truer for (some areas of) basic research than it is for any area of applied research. Translational abstracts, in contrast, are traditional abstracts rewritten for a lay audience. APA’s page on “Guidance for translational abstracts and public significance statements” (APA, 2018) is worth a read.

An assignment where students write both translational abstracts and public significance statements for existing journal articles gives students some excellent writing practice. In both cases, students have to understand the study they are writing about, translate it for a general audience, and explain why the study matters. And maybe—just maybe—as this generation of college students become researchers and then journal editors, in a couple generations plain English academic writing will be the norm. This is just one of several windmills I am tilting at these days.  

The following is a possible writing assignment. While it can be assigned after covering research methods, it may work better later in the course. For example, after covering development, provide students with a list of articles related to development that they can choose from. While curating a list of articles means more work for you up front, students will struggle less to find article abstracts that they can understand, and your scoring of their assignments will be easier since you will have a working knowledge of all of the articles students could choose from.

  1. Read the American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) “Guidance for translational abstracts and public significance statements.”
  2. Chose a journal article from this list of Beth Morling’s student-friendly psychology research articles (or give students a list of articles).
  3. In your paper:
    1. Copy/paste the article’s citation.
    2. Copy/paste the article’s abstract.
    3. Write your own translational abstract for the article. (The scoring rubric for this section will be based on APA’s “Guidance for translational abstracts and public significance statements.”)
    4. Write your own public significance statement. (The scoring rubric for this section will be based on APA’s “Guidance for translational abstracts and public significance statements.”)



Alberga, A. S., Withnell, S. J., & von Ranson, K. M. (2018). Fitspiration and thinspiration: A comparison across three social networking sites. Journal of Eating Disorders, 6(1), 39.

APA. (2018, June). Guidance for translational abstracts and public significance statements.

Pinker, S. (2014). Why academics’ writing stinks. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 61(5).





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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.