n the fall of 2010, Barry Sanders and colleagues worked intensely
to 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
Finally, in January 2011 they shared the exciting results of their
painstaking work with the world. On You Tube.
That’s where, along with videos of preteens clutching stuffies
and 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 institute’s director.
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 papers.
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, 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.
“Video abstracts grew out of the realization that the Internet allows 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 You Tube
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
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
You Tube,” contends Harvard University chemist George Whitesides, in
an online video about the new role of video in scientific communication.