We queried a half-dozen aficionados of video abstracts
for advice on how to make a video shoot worthy of the
red carpet. This is what they told us.
Keep it simple. Don’t get stymied by thinking you
need animations, clever edits and shots of your
research site – all of which will, admittedly, make your
video more dynamic. A laptop with a built-in camera
and a quiet space are all you require to create a video
that will garner viewers on You Tube. “Something
is better than nothing,” notes University of Calgary
physicist Barry Sanders.
Short is sweet. Less is more in this three-to-five-minute genre.
Follow the guidelines. Each publisher or journal that
accepts video abstracts has technical guidelines
posted online that specify file formats and other key
Ask for help. Talk to colleagues and to your
university’s communications department before
making the video – someone with experience may
be willing to help. “I was lucky to have had a grad
student who had some training as a TV cameraman,”
says physicist Achim Kempf of his video abstract
experience at the University of Waterloo.
Tell a story. “Avoid a recitation of facts,” advises
online-journal editor Tim Smith. Convey your own
interest and excitement in your research by using
simple language to share the motivation and key
findings of the journal article.
Sound and lights. These are the two key technical
quality issues. Use a lapel microphone, ideally, or else
a very quiet room. Ensure that lights are facing the
speaker and avoid backlighting, which happens when
you situate the interview subject against a window.
Be yourself. “Don’t over-rehearse,” instructs John
Kuemmerle, a veteran of the video abstract. The
medium’s power is the way it allows you to personally
connect with colleagues, old and new.
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 session.
“I made the decision not to write down any formulas at all,” writes
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 abstract.
“Any way that you think about a complicated problem along a different vector, whether it’s writing for the public, talking on You Tube, 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 media
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).