A number of leading scientific journals now allow researchers to publish video–abstracts alongside their peer–reviewed articles. Many of these video–abstracts are produced as an afterthought to the research process, either internally at the university or by external media companies, a choice that creates a trade–off between the scientific validity of the content and the appropriate use of the affordances of the medium.
This article argues in order for video to reach a level of scientific validity comparable to text, an integration of video into the research process itself is a precondition. Boundary spanners, who float between the rigorous work of scientists and the language of moving images, can transform the use of video from a communication technology to a new immutable mobile at the very heart of the scientific process itself.
State of the Arts of Video Abstracts
Digitization is a recent keyword at universities all around the world. This worldwide transformation from analogue, single-location, to digital, globally accessible data enables videos to play a number of roles in the scientific process; These roles include ‘show and tell’, tutorials, teaching scientific knowledge, process documentation, visual argumentation, or visualizations of the invisible and fast dissemination of results. As part of this general turn towards the video from the academic community, there are also a growing number of video abstracts accompanying peer-reviewed (written) articles from scientific journals (e.g. Taylor & Francis; Nature; Elsevier’s). Video abstracts are typically a summarizing add-on to the written article.
This new form of video abstracts is seen as highly promising and potentially disruptive to current academic routines: ‘Scholarly videos are just one example of the new tools the research community is using to communicate with each other […]. Albeit, historically speaking, scholarly videos are not quite such ‘new tools’ as one might think.
In the production of video abstracts, this apparently widespread lack of knowledge about the historical roots of the use of moving images in science is commonly perceivable when researchers discuss the potential of videos. For example, Harvard University chemist George Whitesides referred to the changes between now and the last twenty years in an interview by Berkowitz in 2013: ‘You had to be able to describe your science in words, or tables, or in plots, in two-dimensions on a piece of paper. [...] 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’. A similar consideration was voiced a few years earlier, namely in 1893, by Ludwig Mach [translated from German by the Author]: ‘It would not be an ungrateful task to capture, e.g. the sprouting of a forest mushroom or the turning of a sunflower over a day in such a series of recordings. The growth etc. could very beautifully be studied in this fashion’. But for sure, video production takes time and has to be learned just as we need to learn writing or reading.
So while film has been frequently used in science since a very long time, two recent technological disruptions altered the complicated status of this old relationship. In addition to the radical change of distribution via broad–band internet and user created video streaming platforms, the camera technology itself also went through a major transformation. Never before was the technical handling so simple and satisfying; cameras today are more affordable, light weight and ‘full-automatic’ than ever before, including the ubiquitous smartphone cameras. As a result, ‘do-it-yourself’ videos are increasingly common in society at large, including also in science.
This article will therefore first examine the procedural conditions for video production present in the current academic context, then discuss how those conditions influence the scientific validity of the product and conclude by describing a pathway towards deeper integration of video into science in a co-design set-up.