Friday, April 19, 2013

Coming Soon to a Journal Near You: Video Abstracts

Some of you may be familiar with a new trend at some science journals: video abstracts in which the authors explain their findings on camera, sometimes enhanced with animations or other visually-rich media. A few journals routinely accept and publish video abstracts prepared by authors. Two of these are the New Journal of Physics and Cell, and you can see examples of their video abstracts by going to their websites.

These video abstracts are typically short (3-5 minutes) and often published on a video-sharing site such as YouTube, rather than on the journal website. By providing video summaries on such accessible and popular video-sharing sites, authors make their work widely available. Anyone can access these media without having a subscription or paying a fee.

In addition to the above journals, several other journals are currently "experimenting" with video abstracts. This movement reflects the overall trend in multimedia communication of information on the internet, in combination with the availability of digital devices and software for creating and sharing video.

What are the advantages for an author? By using video, authors can explain their work in a way that they are not able to do in print, such as showing footage of their laboratory setups or methods, field sites, and/or study organisms. The authors are able to provide a more personal explanation of their findings and put them into a broader perspective. By posting a video on the internet, the author can raise the visibility of themselves and their research because search engines rank video high in comparison to text-only descriptions (especially if it's the only video out there on the topic). People searching for information on a topic will be more likely to find their video abstract, and the video will lead viewers to the technical paper. Also, if the video is published on YouTube, the authors are free to embed their video abstract on their own websites, something they often cannot do with their journal publication because of copyright restrictions.

What are the advantages for the reader? Video can provide a richer, more interactive experience for a reader. For non-specialist readers, a video in which the authors explain their work in everyday language  would provide greater insight, spark their curiosity about the topic, and possibly encourage them to learn more about it. For example, as a scientist, I'm interested in keeping up with major discoveries in other fields. Although I'm not likely to read a technical paper about the Higgs boson, I would watch a video that explains what's been discovered and what it means.

Are video abstracts just a fad or will it become a common practice at science journals? Hard to say.

Some video abstracts are well-done:

Others are pretty awful:

Some science disciplines (physics) seem to be getting on the multimedia bandwagon faster than others. Whatever the future of video abstracts, we are clearly in a learning phase. Many of my colleagues have never even heard of video abstracts and expressed no interest in doing one, even if offered the opportunity. Students seemed to be more receptive to the idea, and I suspect this is because they are more technically-savy and accustomed to watching YouTube videos than most of their professors.

If video abstracts become standard practice, authors will need to either develop some skills at creating such videos or will need access to multimedia specialists who can help them. My guess is that most authors will end up paying someone, either at their institution or a free-lancer, to produce a video abstract. Possibly some journals will offer the service at a price. It will be interesting to see how this practice evolves.

For more on the video revolution in science communication, see this video:

Image Credit: modified photograph from USAID

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