Writing effective summaries of your OPC funded projects

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) posts brief online summaries of funded research projects upon their completion, and provides links to the full research results posted on the organizations’ websites.

Because the OPC website is aimed at, and used by, the general public, the summaries must be written in an accessible, clear and understandable way.  This guide is meant to assist organizations in ensuring they submit project summaries that are both accurate and suited to the OPC website. 

General Format

All project summaries should follow the same general format:

  • Title of Project
  • Name of funded organization(s)
  • Year of publication/posting
  • Project leader(s’) name(s) and title(s)
  • 2-6 paragraph summary of project  (250 words max)
  • Links to project and related documents
  • Contact information for organization(s)

Tips for writing a project summary

  • The title of the project and/or report, the organization’s and project leader’s full names, and the date of publication are mentioned up-front, so do not repeat this information throughout the summary
  • Avoid using acronyms. If you do use them, make sure to spell out what the acronym stands for on first usage. Never assume everyone will understand the acronym, no matter how common you think it is.
  • Use consistent third-person voice and present tense throughout when summarising the project and its findings
    • “The researchers” (not “we”, “I” or “us”)
    • “The findings” or “the report” (not “our findings”, or “my report”)
    • “The purpose of the research is to show…” (not  “was to show”)
    • “The authors provide an illustration…” (not “provided an illustration”)
  • Past tense may be used to describe actions that actually took place in the past and have ended
    • “The researchers tracked…”
    • “The surveys were conducted over a 4-month period”

Strive to write simply, clearly, and in an active voice where possible, so that the summary can be understood by the general public. The length will depend on the project; a less- complex project may require just two or three paragraphs of description, while a more complex project, or one that spans multiple years, may take up to six paragraphs.  Nevertheless, we ask that the text of the summaries not exceed more than 250 words in total.

  • Aim for an active, present  voice wherever possible
    • “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is active and present, and better than “The lazy dog was jumped over by the quick brown fox”
    • “The team investigated how members access information” is active and better than “The question of how members accessed information was investigated by the team”, which is past and passive

Paragraph 1

The first paragraph is very important and should summarize what the project is about. This paragraph may need to contain background information as well, if the topic of research is not well-known, or difficult to understand.

If the topic is relatively clear, little or no background is needed.  As required, however, a second or third sentence in the paragraph can then elaborate on the topic

If the topic contains references to technical terms or ideas that the general public will not recognize—for example “An Examination of How FACTA Erodes Canadians’ Privacy”—then an explanation is warranted (for example, FACTA, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, is an American tax reform law that requires all non-U.S. financial institutions, including Canadian banks, to review their records to determine if any accounts are owned by “U.S. persons”).

Paragraph 2

The second paragraph expands logically upon the first; it can add greater detail, where appropriate, and answer new questions.  Where was the project conducted, across what demographics, and how big was the sample or the audience?  What problems did the project leaders encounter, if any? For what reasons was the project undertaken?

Subsequent paragraphs

Third, fourth and fifth paragraphs may be needed to round out the story. They should include information about outcomes, or elaborate on separate or difficult issues.  For instance, are there any startling research findings that deserve highlighting?  In the case of knowledge translation projects, are there unique challenges that should be underlined?  A good way to conclude is by suggesting the possible implications for Canadians’ privacy rights, and/or referring to recommendations that resulted from the project.

One of the most important things to remember is to write in simple, clear terms, so that as many readers as possible understand the essence of the project. Anyone interested in more details can follow-up on the organizations’ own websites, where more complex writing used in the course of the project will deliver nuance to readers.

In short, use simple, easy to understand language and avoid jargon, overly-complicated words, or terms only someone working in the same field as you might understand.

Keeping it Simple - Some Examples:

This is better… …than this!
…discussion of why it may be difficult to implement …discussion of the attendant technical, legal and policy challenges
…best ways to do this under current laws …best practices marking the legitimate parameters
…will encourage organizations to do it …will enhance compliance
…recommends looking into why and how people’s privacy attitudes are influenced …includes recommendations for future research into a number of variables that influence privacy attitudes
…looks at the problem in a Canadian context …situates all the available data 
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