A recent paper published in the Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication by Scott Spicer attempts to get at this question. I’ve been waiting for someone to conduct just such an analysis.
Most scientists hope that their scholarly publications will be read and cited by others. The more citations, the greater the purported impact on the field of study. At least, that’s the thinking of people who use such metrics to gauge a scientist’s impact. Often, however, a paper does not begin to accrue citations for a couple of years after publication—mainly due to the lag time between the cited and citing publications.
In the meantime, your paper could be making an impact on colleagues and students who read, download, discuss, and share it. That can only happen, however, if your paper gets noticed early and is readily discoverable by those seeking information on your paper’s topic. Higher visibility may lead to a wider readership and potentially more citations. Although other factors play into whether a paper is cited or not, it definitely will not be cited if people are not aware of it.
One way to make a scholarly article more visible online is to create a visual or video abstract, which essentially acts like an advertisement leading people to the technical paper. For those of you who are unfamiliar with what a video abstract is, Scott provides a definition:
“a video presentation corresponding to a specific science research article, which typically communicates the background of a study, methods used, study results and potential implications through the use of images, audio, video clips, and text.”
So basically, a video abstract is a summary of a paper but instead of text, audio-visual media are used to deliver the information.
What are the Potential Benefits of a Video Abstract?
Video abstracts may have a number of benefits for the author and for the journal. Greater visibility for the paper and the authors is usually the reason journals have implemented this approach and why authors bother to make video abstracts. Authors who produce video abstracts also find that the video-development process helps them in their research by giving them a new perspective or by raising new questions. I’ve personally found this to be the case. A third benefit is that video abstracts can be claimed as a project deliverable or a way to meet the “broader impacts” criterion required by some funding agencies (e.g., the U.S. National Science Foundation)—thus enhancing a PI’s ability to acquire grant funding.
Do Video Abstracts Affect Usage of an Article?
I’ve suggested previously in this blog that video abstracts (and other visual media) can help to raise the visibility of a scholarly article. There are few data, however, to support or refute the claim that a video abstract will influence use of the corresponding article, evidenced by more views, downloads, and perhaps citations. Scott’s study provides a review of the use of video abstracts by science journals and uses one journal—New Journal of Physics (NJP)—to address two questions:
- Are views of a video abstract on a mass communication platform (YouTube) similar to views on the journal’s platform?
- Is there a relationship between views of a video abstract and views/downloads of the corresponding scholarly article?
The results showed a positive correlation between video abstract views on NJP’s YouTube channel and those on the journal’s website (r = 0.56, p < 0.001, n = 56) as well as a positive correlation between video views and article readership activity (views/downloads) (YouTube: r = 0.49, p < 0.001, n = 56; NJP platform: r = 0.76, p < 0.001, n = 56). Although there was a positive correlation between the two variables in all cases, it was not possible to say with certainty which factor was the cause and which the effect.
Most of the video abstract views occurred on the NJP website (51,476 total views) compared to YouTube (8,715 views), which likely means that the majority of users of video abstracts were scientists and students. I find the >50,000 video views of 56 video abstracts on the NJP website to be pretty impressive; it showed that a lot of people were interested enough to watch them (but I wonder how this compares to views of the text abstract—did people look at both text and video abstracts or did they mostly view the video?) Also, the additional views on the YouTube channel suggested that the video abstracts were reaching an audience that might otherwise not be aware of the research.
The article was unable to determine if posting video abstracts to YouTube raises the impact of a scholarly article. For example, although only 5% of papers published in NJP had a video abstract, a higher percentage (36%) of the 25 top articles (based on reader usage) had an associated video abstract. This result could be due to an effect of video abstracts on article visibility or could simply reflect the greater likelihood of an author of a top-ranked article to produce a video abstract. Popular authors may be more creative or may have a larger budget to support video production compared to other authors.
Are Video Abstracts Worthwhile?
In the end, we are still left with uncertainty about the effect of video abstracts on article visibility and its overall impact. I’m not disappointed, however. That effect, in my view, is not the most important motivation for creating a video abstract. I’ve found that video/visual abstracts allow me to present complex topics in ways that are not possible with text (or with static images) alone. Personally, the use of audio-visual media has allowed me to combine science information in new and interesting ways, which I find personally fun and satisfying.
Some physical and biological phenomena can only be fully appreciated by watching it; video provides an opportunity for a scientist to share their observations directly with a reader/viewer. Methods involving difficult or complicated protocols or instruments may not be accurately repeated without a video to show exactly how the technique is done. By producing a video showing the methods, a scientist can better ensure that other scientists can replicate their study (and hopefully confirm their findings) (see opinion piece by JoVE CEO, Moshe Pritsker).
In other words, video abstracts allow the author a greater flexibility in presenting scientific information and the reader an opportunity to explore a topic in a way they cannot with a text-based article.
Although authors are often concerned about citations, these only track impact of a paper on the scientific field. Citations cannot gauge the broader impact of a study on society and public understanding of science, which is also important. Freely accessible video abstracts are discoverable by search engines and thus reach far beyond the scientific peers of the author—to inform colleagues in other fields as well as important end-users of the information (e.g., resource managers, health-care workers, and the general public).
A video abstract can count as an information product separate from the article and may be an acceptable deliverable for a research project. As I mentioned above, such informative and accessible communications are not only appreciated by funding agencies (NSF), they can be used to document a PI’s past contributions to broader science communication in grant proposals.
For students and young scientists just starting out, video abstracts can serve to show off communication skills to potential employers as well as to raise their visibility within a scientific field and beyond.
Are Video Abstracts Credible?
In closing, I would like to address a common criticism of video abstracts—and that is that they are substandard versions of a peer-reviewed article. I have colleagues who question the usefulness or credibility of such videos because they are not peer reviewed. Others say that a video cannot possibly present scientific information in the same rigorous way that a text-based article can. I often get some variation of these comments during talks about science communication. Here is how I address these critics:
First of all, video abstracts are not meant to duplicate or replace scholarly articles. They are designed to augment and enhance the understanding of a technical article and to raise its online visibility. People usually read the text abstract to determine whether to download and read the full paper; that excerpt simply provides a preview of what the reader will find. The same is true of a video abstract, except that it provides content in the form of images and sounds that are not necessarily found in the text article.
Second, video abstracts usually are based on information that has already been peer-reviewed and do not necessarily need to undergo a second peer-review (although it is advisable to have the video reviewed for accuracy and other features specific to audio-visual media). In addition, there are videos and video abstracts that are peer-reviewed (see JoVE). Videos produced by government science agencies also typically go through some type of review, usually quite rigorous. For example, most of the science videos I’ve published were put through an extensive peer and policy review by the science agency I worked for before they were released to the public.
In summary, video abstracts serve a specific purpose and can be as credible as a text-based abstract.
Even so, video abstracts are still a relatively new feature in the scientific publishing world. Understanding how they affect visibility and impact of a scholarly article will require more time and research.
The bottom line for me is that video abstracts are a creative and useful way to add value to my research products.
JLSCMedia. 2014. Exploring video abstracts in science journals: an overview and case study. YouTube video: http://youtu.be/7t1pLfedLRY
Pritsker, M. 2013. The Scientist. News and Opinion. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/38082/title/Opinion–Video-Saved-the-Scientific-Publication/
Spicer, S. (2014). Exploring Video Abstracts in Science Journals: An Overview and Case Study. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication 2(2):eP1110. http://dx.doi.org/10.7710/2162-3309.1110