Paper Plain: Making Medical Research Papers Approachable to Healthcare Consumers with Natural Language Processing

Tal August, Lucy Lu Wang, Jonathan Bragg, Marti A. Hearst, Andrew Head, and Kyle Lo

When seeking information not covered in patient-friendly documents, healthcare consumers may turn to the research literature. Reading medical papers, however, can be a challenging experience. To improve access to medical papers, we explore four features enabled by natural language processing: definitions of unfamiliar terms, in-situ plain language section summaries, a collection of key questions that guides readers to answering passages, and plain language summaries of those passages. We embody these features into a prototype system, Paper Plain. We evaluate Paper Plain, finding that participants who used the prototype system had an easier time reading research papers without a loss in paper comprehension compared to those who used a typical PDF reader. Altogether, the study results suggest that guiding readers to relevant passages and providing plain language summaries alongside the original paper content can make reading medical papers easier and give readers more confidence to approach these papers.