Video abstracts, the latest trend in scientific publishing
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.
Video abstracts for beginners
Advice on how to make your first (or next) video abstract.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
“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
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).
Video abstracts, the latest trend in scientific publishing | University Affairs