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Video abstracts, the latest trend in scientific publishing

Will "publish or perish" soon include "video or vanish"?

By JACOB BERKOWITZ | FEB 06 2013
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In the fall of 2010, Barry Sanders and colleagues worked intensely to finesse the lighting, angles and timing of their cutting-edge research in their laboratory at the University of Calgary Institute for Quantum Information Science. They were in pursuit of something revolutionary: a workable qubit – the quantum equivalent of a classical computer bit – the anticipated building block of quantum computers.

Finally, in January 2011 they shared the exciting results of their painstaking work with the world. On YouTube.


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Video abstracts for beginners

Advice on how to make your first (or next) video abstract.

That’s where, along with videos of preteens clutching stuffies and singing along to Justin Bieber, and of cats getting into boxes, you can watch the video abstract of Dr. Sanders’ co-authored New Journal of Physics article, “Dangling-bond charge qubit on a silicon surface.”

The video takes viewers into the stainless steel-and-wires maze of a quantum physics lab and includes clever animations that bring qubits to life. “In four minutes of watching the video you can figure out what the paper’s about without reading a page,” asserts Dr. Sanders, the institute’s director.

Welcome to the new world of the video abstract of scholarly articles. The intersection of the academic journal article, the Internet and point-and-shoot digital video cameras has given birth to one of the first major innovations to the scholarly article in the past century: peer-to-peer video summaries, three to five minutes long, of academic papers.

Yet, for all this academic video innovation, it’s still unclear whether the publish-or-perish adage will evolve to include “video or vanish.” Will video abstracts find their place in Internet history as a niche academic novelty? Or does the future of writing a journal article include hitting the “record” button?

There aren’t any official industry statistics, but at least a dozen academic publishers with a collective portfolio of hundreds of journals, on topics from urology to quantum physics, already give authors the opportunity to post a video abstract along with their print article. These video summaries – the first may have been a Cell Press video posted on May 21, 2009 (see video below), that’s garnered more than 11,000 views – are the latest offspring of the same converging technological forces that have spawned online-only journals and the push for open-access academic publishing.


“Video abstracts grew out of the realization that the Internet allows us to communicate with each other in ways that were never before possible,” says John Kuemmerle, online editor of the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. “It allows us to personalize our papers in ways that were never before possible.”

He makes this pitch to prospective authors on the journal’s YouTube channel, an outlet that features more than 350 video abstracts. With publishers and journals fighting for article citations and high impact, these video abstracts are a longed-for multimedia marketing tool to entice readers – and, more importantly, a growing number of viewers.

“We see younger researchers using video abstracts to scan literature quickly,” explains Cameron Macdonald, executive director of the Ottawa-based publisher Canadian Science Publishing (formerly NRC Research Press). The press has launched a video abstract option for authors who are publishing in its 15 journals. “We hope that the videos serve to extend the reach of the research article, making it more discoverable,” says Mr. Macdonald.

The trend reflects an increasingly video-driven Internet. YouTube is now the second-most used web search engine, after Google.  And, this past December, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins became the latest publisher to offer an iPad application that allows people to toggle back and forth between the video abstract and the article.

Yet for Barry Sanders and others like him in the physical and health sciences, video abstracts are less about pitch and more about product. They’re a natural outgrowth of video and the way it allows scientists to share complex information visually.

“One of the real revolutions in the reporting of science has been YouTube,” contends Harvard University chemist George Whitesides, in an online video about the new role of video in scientific communication.

If you go back 20 years, “you had to be able to describe your science in words, or tables, or in plots, in two-dimensions on a piece of paper,” says Dr. Whitesides. “With videos, you can now describe dynamic phenomena which are simply too complicated, too complex, too unusual, too full of information to do in words and two-dimensional pictures.”

Dr. Sanders, a Canadian pioneer and proponent of video abstracts, says it was this new frontier of scientific visualization of quantum physics that spurred him to encourage the New Journal of Physics to launch its video abstracts in the spring of 2011. The open-access, online-only journal jumped at the opportunity. The journal “has always strived to take advantage of the online medium by discarding barriers that are traditionally associated with print,” says Tim Smith, its senior publisher.

It seems that both authors and readers are adapting to the little screen. About 10 percent of the New Journal of Physics authors include a video abstract; the journal’s 118 video abstracts (as of January 2013) had racked up more than 69,000 views, all told. And, based on the journal’s tracking of article downloads, Dr. Smith says he’s confident the video abstracts are playing a significant role in driving readers to the full-text article.

Not all journals have been as welcoming of the video camera’s gaze. “I’m involved with other journals,” comments Dr. Sanders, “where if you want to change anything you get bogged down in years of discussion in committees.”

With many scholarly journals, these discussions have revolved around how the new video kid-on-the-block fits into the tradition of peer review. Publishers and journal editors that have embraced YouTube often address this concern by judging the video abstract only on the video’s technical quality issues, with the scholarly refereeing reserved for the print article.

Similarly, in these early-adapter days of video abstracts, a gaping video divide has opened between the physical sciences and the social sciences and humanities. There’s hardly a sociologist or English professor to be found summarizing her work on YouTube. After the website of the Wiley-Blackwell journal History Compass trumpeted the headline “Third video abstract posted!” in February 2011 (see video below), the initiative went dark.

“I’m terribly disappointed that it didn’t get more traction. I think the potential for the genre is immense,” says Felice Lifshitz, the journal’s editor and a professor in women’s studies and religious studies at the University of Alberta.

“The effort never stopped.  All authors who publish in History Compass are automatically offered the opportunity to post a video abstract of the essay. But after a few pioneers, no one has wanted to take the plunge.”

Nonetheless, with thousands of examples worldwide, video abstracts have emerged as their own YouTube genre. As represented by the first two demonstration videos on the Canadian Science Publishers website, it has two technical sub-genres, reflecting the mix of marketing and academic communication forces fuelling video abstracts.

The first video demo highlights a study by York University associate professor Jennifer Kuk on how Canadians estimate serving sizes from the Canada Food Guide. It’s a two-minute, professionally produced, news-style clip that would fit seamlessly on a TV newscast. The video is comparable to Cell Press video abstracts, which numbered more than 250 at the end of 2012. These pioneering efforts were launched three years earlier to bolster Elsevier’s flagship journals and are among the slickest online – the scientific abstract equivalent of music videos.

Yet it’s the second demonstration video on the Canadian site that captures the look and feel of most video abstracts, and it remains the most accessible type for those who want to try making one themselves. It’s a do-it-yourself, Skype-like video shot in the professor’s office, the back lighting creating an incandescent halo around her head. She reads quickly, summarizing the details of the paper, staring at the camera, at times looking like a deer caught in headlights.

Even though this particular video could act as a demo of technical errors to avoid (back lighting and reading a text), its focus on a personalized, unpolished, several minute-long story is the wave of the future, according to many proponents. It’s the form used by mathematician Paul Young in the video abstract of his article “Explicit computation of Gross-Stark units over real quadratic fields” in the Journal of Number Theory.

In the video, Dr. Young sits ocean-side, with a lapping wave soundtrack. It is extremely simple and has been viewed 469 times, a decent number and far more viewers than he would expect at a conference session.

“I made the decision not to write down any formulas at all,” writes Dr. Young from the College of Charleston, in South Carolina. “This forced me to reconsider our work and ask myself, ‘How can I convey what we have accomplished in words only, with no formulas or diagrams?’ More than once a colleague has remarked, upon viewing the video abstract, ‘Now I see what it is you’ve been up to.’”

It’s this chance to rethink one’s research results in another format that advocates say is the immediate benefit of creating a video abstract.

“Any way that you think about a complicated problem along a different vector, whether it’s writing for the public, talking on YouTube, teaching [first-year students] or writing a [scientific] paper, each one is somehow a different intellectual process. And putting those all together, I think, helps enormously in understanding subjects,” says Dr. Whitesides of Harvard.

He now has all his students prepare three-minute, abstract-style oral summaries of their latest research. It’s an assignment similar to the University of British Columbia’s new Three-Minute Thesis competition or the compact Pecha Kucha presentations, which limit explanatory slide shows to 20 images at 20 seconds each. In each initiative, the concise approach is responding to the web’s double-edge sword – information overload and the power of brief audio-visual content.

As students research and look for articles on their iPads and laptops, and as academic journals increasingly move online, publishers are betting that many more scholars will opt to finish off their articles, not with a period but with a smile at the camera.

“I believe the video concept is here to stay,” says online editor Dr. Kuemmerle. “The members of our readership are increasingly comprised of digital natives and a growing group of digital immigrants. It is a way for interested learners to interact with journal content in a social media environment.”

Jacob Berkowitz is a Canadian science journalist whose latest book is The Stardust Revolution: The New Story of Our Origin in the Stars (Prometheus Books, 2012).

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  1. Rowland Lorimer / February 6, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    It’s good to see that science journals are embracing video. The nature of representation has a fundamental influence on the nature of knowledge. The Canadian Journal of Communication has been experimenting with video abstracts. One of the goals of the Canadian Scholarly Journal Consortium, which I am in the process of setting up in partnership with CALJ and other journals and researchers, is to encourage use of new media and measure the impact on usage. citation, and so forth.

  2. OMICS Group / March 12, 2013 at 2:27 am

    yes, in my opinion its a good option to see the journals in video, but it should be in the way of formal representation, so that everyone can consider that as a representation rather than marketing, so that researchers can do what they required.

  3. Karen McKee / April 9, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    I’m pleased to see journals experimenting with video and more authors trying out video abstracts. Journals will soon be embedding video methods, animations, and other visually rich media into online articles. Those authors who already have such skills will be ahead of the curve.

    I began creating short videos of my research a few years ago and now host a blog where I provide tips and tutorials for other scientists interested in using video to explain their science.

    http://thescientistvideographer.com/wordpress

  4. Ryan / October 18, 2014 at 9:00 am

    You can now also view video abstracts from across numerous disciplines at http://www.WeShareScience.org. This “pinterest” style site also lets you search within the audio content of the videos to find research that links to your interests.

  5. David Rosen / September 13, 2015 at 12:24 am

    The remarkable thing is that while scientists are beginning to use video abstracts to enhance communication in various ways, the basic approach to the written publication remains mired in practices that are very much in need of updating. Effective use of digital technology would vastly improve communication. For example, figures are often busy and confusing, requiring a bit of a hunt to determine the identities of various components. Imagine the positive impact of integrating elements digitally. For example, results can be seamlessly connected to methods. Similarly for figures and text. The video abstract is certainly a valuable enhancement. It would however be especially valuable if it were to serve as an impetus to more fundamental expansions into the digital realm such as some of those mentioned here as well as many more that the ever-inventive scientific community will doubtless envision and develop.

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