How to Prepare a Graphical Abstract for a Scientific Paper

Some scientific journals are asking authors to prepare a graphical abstract to be submitted along with the manuscript. Graphical abstracts can help attract readers to your papers. In my opinion, it is worth the time and effort to craft them. In this video tutorial, I talk about the benefits of graphical abstracts to the author and briefly show how to prepare one. This and other writing tutorials are posted on my other YouTube channel.

The Pixar Storytelling Formula

Pixar films tell great stories. Toy Story. Finding Nemo. WALL-E. Up. These and other films have together grossed $ billions and won many awards. For example, WALL-E, one of my favorites, earned $533 million at the box office and several awards, including an Academy Award for best animated feature. How do they do it? Pixar story artist, Emma Coats, says that every Pixar film follows the same narrative formula, which involves six sentences (#4 in a list of 22 storytelling tips). Pixar’s formula seems to be derived from one developed by Kenn Adams, teacher and author, who posted his version (with eight steps) on his blog, Back to the Story Spine.

This is how it works. Each sentence begins with a few words followed by a blank space to be filled in by the storyteller. You can use six steps or eight:

  1. Once upon a time, there was …
  2. Every day …
  3. One day …
  4. Because of that …
  5. Because of that …
  6. Because of that …
  7. Until finally …
  8. Ever since then …

Those of us in science wishing to be better communicators, especially with video, can adapt this narrative formula to tell our science stories.

For example, we might want to tell a story about a research project to show students how scientists work. Here’s one story designed with the eight-step formula:

  1. Once upon a time, there was … a scientist who was interested in how coastal forests called mangroves managed to avoid submergence by rising sea level.
  2. Every day … the scientist read journal articles that said mangrove forests keep pace with sea-level rise mainly by accumulating mineral sediment carried by rivers, tides, and currents.
  3. One day … the scientist collected cores from beneath several mangrove forests in the Caribbean Region and found mostly organic deposits called peat.
  4. Because of that … the scientist wondered if plant matter (dead leaves and roots) might build up enough to help some mangrove forests adjust to changing sea level.
  5. Because of that … the scientist, along with colleagues, conducted a 3-year experiment on a mangrove island in Belize to see if a change in production of plant matter could alter vertical movement of the soil surface.
  6. Because of that … the scientist showed that production and accumulation of mangrove roots were mainly responsible for upward expansion of the soil surface.
  7. Until finally … the scientist was able to report that Caribbean mangroves adjust to rising sea level through biological controls on change in soil elevation.
  8. Ever since then … scientists have had a better understanding of how loss of mangroves may affect vulnerability of tropical coastlines to sea-level rise.

That’s the story of how one of my research projects came about and how it turned out. I published that paper in 2007:

McKee, K.L., D.R. Cahoon, and I.C. Feller. 2007. Caribbean mangroves adjust to rising sea level through biotic controls on change in soil elevation. Global Ecology and Biogeography 16: 545-556.

My formula-guided story illustrates how scientists make observations that lead to new hypotheses, experiments, and a more refined understanding of an ecosystem—suitable for an audience of science students. But I could have told other stories—for example, the challenges I experienced conducting research in a remote, waterlogged, bug-ridden habitat.

The Pixar formula is similar to an older storyline called “The Hero’s Journey”, which I’ve described before. The nine-step Hero’s Journey features a protagonist who encounters a catalytic event, which propels her to take action and to eventually achieve a goal. The Pixar formula is a bit more generic and has several steps, but also involves a conflict and a resolution. Even briefer is the ABT (and, but, therefore) model promoted by Randy Olson.

Take your pick. All of these narrative formulas can aid scientists in telling stories that people can understand and remember. If you want to make a video about a science topic but are having difficulty coming up with a story, give one of these formulas a try.

Predatory Science Journals Adopt a New Tactic: Video

I suppose it was just a matter of time before predatory science publishers latched onto the idea that adding video to their offerings would bring in more money.

Predatory journals, in case you are unfamiliar with the term, are journals, typically lacking in legitimate editorial services or rigorous standards, that will publish your paper—for a fee. If you are a scientist who has published in reputable journals, you’ve likely received one or more invitations from a predatory journal. Some researchers have responded by conducting sting operations—submitting papers containing scientific gobbledygook and fictitious authors—to expose their shady practices.

Now, predatory publishers are offering to post a video for fees ranging from $1,500 to $4,200, according to reporter Tom Spears of the Ottawa Citizen. Spears, known for his hilarious spoofs of predatory publishing, has now produced a video featuring “Dr. Yosemite Sam” that has been submitted to several journals. Despite its suspicious title (Re-Examining the Genetic Bottleneck: Atavistic Regression in Acquired Traits Affects the Outcome for Many Subspecies at the Allelic Level) and cartoon-character author, several journals are apparently considering it for publication or have already posted it. Two have accepted Dr. Yosemite Sam as an editor.

You can read Spear’s article in the Ottawa Citizen here and watch his video below.

Predatory journals turn to video–like this one–for bigger profits

Fishing by Wolves

A group of scientists just published a paper in the journal Mammalian Biology that describes wolves catching and eating freshwater fish. The researchers had put tracking collars on wolves, which showed that one group of wolves was spending an unusual amount of time in one spot. They set up cameras to see why the wolves were staying in one location and not moving as much as other groups. The cameras showed that the wolves were catching fish in a particular spot along a stream. That video was included in the online article. You can see it here.

I’ve talked before about using video to document wildlife, which could be used to augment a journal article. In this case, the video showed the reader exactly how the wolves were catching fish and supported the authors’ verbal description of this behavior.

Video Recording with a Webcam: How to Use a Script and Keep Your Eyes on the Camera

In the last post, I talked about the issue of keeping your eyes on the camera (or appearing to do so) while recording a video, especially if you have a lot of points to make. The best option that allows you to constantly look at the camera while delivering your lines is a teleprompter. However, most people don’t have a teleprompter or know how to use one (I’m working on a new tutorial to show how to use a teleprompter).

So, I decided to investigate a simpler approach, which is to sit in front of a computer and record myself speaking to the camera–with a script. There are a few tricks to making this work, which I’ve summarized in the video provided below: