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

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Myths About Giving Presentations: Never Apologize for a Bad Slide

We've all heard or read advice about how to give presentations, or more specifically, how not to screw up in front of your peers. It's sometimes worthwhile, however, to revisit sage advice to see if it is really germane or if it needs some clarification or modification.

One recommendation I often hear is, "Never apologize for a bad slide." Yet many of my colleagues seem not to have ever heard this one. They continue to put up slides with long tables filled with data in font so small that it's impossible to read even from the front row. These presenters apologize for the busy slide, then say that they just want to point out one or two data points and that the audience should just ignore the rest.

Well then why not just create a slide with those one or two important data points in large font? It's easy enough in PowerPoint. The audience will be able to read the values and can concentrate on them. Better yet, add a graphic or photo that emphasizes the relevance of those data to the point you are trying to make. See the following example.

Much more effective than a dense table. So why do people persist in presenting bad slides? Part of the reason is sheer laziness. They cut and paste the table, graph, or diagram from one of their papers (or someone else's paper). They think that to do anything else requires more time and effort (which is usually not true). The other reason is that they collected all those other data and so must show it....right? Wrong. The audience will be aware of the effort you went to to get to that key data point. Showing extraneous data has the opposite effect of annoying, rather than enlightening your audience.

Showing a slide that is impossible to read or understand is also insulting to the audience. It sends a clear message that you don't care about them. And if you apologize, it means that you are well aware of the poor quality of the slide but didn't care enough about the audience to fix it.

The advice about never apologizing for a bad slide suggests that it's OK to use bad slides as long as you don't acknowledge it. Actually, most of us realize that this advice means never use a bad slide. No slide is better than a bad slide. However, it's easy for novices to misinterpret this advice....which is why I bring it up. I should mention here that using tables and complicated graphs or diagrams in posters is OK (because the viewer has the time to digest them and likely wants to see the data), but you should still design them well so that your point is clearly made.

I would amend this recommendation to be, "You should never HAVE to apologize for a bad slide. If, while practicing your presentation, you find yourself saying, "Now, I realize you can't see the data on this slide, but I just want you to focus on this number...", delete that slide and create a new one. Your audience will thank you.