Step aside Neil deGrasse Tyson: Making videos related to science is no longer the purview of professionals. These days, any scientist can make and post videos online with little cost and much potentially to gain.
Online science video comes in several forms, each with a different intended audience. Video journals have sprung up. Some scientists post raw video data from the laboratory or field, and others want to use the power of YouTube and other free online video platforms to reach broader audiences.
Think about the one point you are trying to get across and the best way to show that visually.
More researchers than ever are posting video online, say video professionals, whether their audience is scientific colleagues or the broader public. “I've noticed a huge change in how scientists think about video,” says Melanie Gonick, a video producer with the press office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. “More and more, researchers want to do video. They realize it's an easy platform to get their message out.” Why? Because harnessing the power of video can yield satisfaction and sometimes outright fame. Here are three ways you can use online video to share and promote your science and some tips on how to do it effectively.
Sharing data in video form
Karen McKee, a retired plant ecologist, has published videos and an e-book on effective science videography techniques, targeted at scientists. Here, she shows how a few simple tips, inexpensive accessories, and a third-party app can allow you to make near-professional-quality videos using an iPhone.
The first step is to record the phenomena with a camera or phone. Editing or adding sound is generally next, but it depends on the audience. If your goal is to publish the video as part of the publication, many journals have guidelines for video files.
“You should always shoot at highest resolution,” says Luc Girod, a graduate student studying photogrammetry at the University of Oslo. That way, you can compress the video to be viewed at a smaller resolution to adhere to a journal’s submission requirements or for posting on a website like YouTube or Vimeo.
Geographer Timothy James of Swansea University in the United Kingdom says that video files he submitted as part of a manuscript describing how a massive glacier disintegrated may have made the difference in getting the paper published in Nature Geoscience last year. “The video is what really gives the paper that exciting edge; the data source was new,” he says. James created the movie using simple-to-use software to stitch together still photographs taken at a regular interval.
Some science teachers are creating what they call “direct measurement videos”—visually annotated videos students can pause and scroll through, allowing measurements that would be impossible in real time.
“Our philosophy is to give the students the data in the video. Let them do the analysis,” says Peter Bohacek, a science teacher at Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights, Minnesota. As part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation, he and his colleagues have posted ample resources on how to make such videos and use them for teaching.
Illustrating laboratory methods
For many scientists, especially young ones, some of the hardest tasks in science are procedural: being able to follow the steps described in a published paper to replicate its results. It’s made worse by the fact that the instructions found in research papers are often inadequate, says Rachel Schecter, a graduate student at MIT. “A lot of the tips that made the difference on whether an assay worked or not was something someone directly showed me,” she says, “and they are certainly not contained in a paragraph-long methods section.”
Two online resources for video lab and field methodologies are BenchFly, a website where scientists can share such videos for free, and the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE), a peer-reviewed video journal. “Showing someone visually how to do a technique in the lab is a 1000-year-old technique in pedagogy,” says Alan Marnett, the founder and CEO of BenchFly. And yet, using video to augment written methodologies “is a way to update how scientists are trained.” To make such videos, Marnett says, “you don't need to be formal or super-produced.”
In making such videos, Marnett says, “think about the one point you are trying to get across and the best way to show that visually. A colleague can film you, or you can use a tripod. Hit record and then walk the person through the technique. Some people are apprehensive about putting a face on camera, but you don't have to. And if the protocol is longer than a minute, think about breaking up the video into several different ones.” Free and easy-to-use video editing tools like iMovie can allow you to remove background noise or record a voice-over to play during the demonstration. “Don't let perfectionism hold you back,” says Schecter, who has filmed six videos and posted them on BenchFly.
JoVE publications include a title and summary, the methodology, and a conclusion. Founded in 2006, JoVE has posted more than 4000 videos, indexed on PubMed. Submissions to JoVE are typically text methodologies; if the technique is accepted for publication, the subscription-only journal will arrange for a videographer to spend a few hours at the lab shooting footage.
Making such videos can even save you time, Schecter says. She wants to help when people ask for guidance on techniques at her lab, but stopping what she's doing for a one-on-one demo can distract her from her own experiments. “Recording it once and directing people to that is a workable middle ground,” she says.
Reaching broader audiences
The allure of YouTube is powerful: Thousands of people have taken video-making hobbies and made a living earning real money from the ads on the site. Some scientists have seen videos they have posted to YouTube go viral.
Making a YouTube video that gains a significant audience isn't easy, however. About 300 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute, so there’s a lot of competition; most videos get few views. In the contest for attention, scientists who lack training in making effective videos start at a marked disadvantage.
But that doesn't stop some from trying. Most universities have one or more videographers on staff to help scientists create videos. Other researchers set off on their own. University of Miami ocean researcher Patrick Rynne says he makes videos “to inspire people that don't attend scientific meetings.” The 46 videos Rynne has posted, on a YouTube channel called Waterlust, explore all things water, from the science of the Coriolis effect to cool shots of kiteboarding. “With a GoPro camera, iPhone, and a MacBook Pro you can make just about anything,” he says. “It's a really good creative outlet to balance my scientific work. Making a film, my brain feels much more balanced out.”
To create short videos with broad appeal, Marnett suggests following what he calls “the Rule of One.” “Each video should have one educated audience, one take away, one call to action, and be no longer than one minute,” he says. Audio quality is important in Web video, he says; viewers will tolerate mediocre shots but find bad sound jarring. Clip-on microphones costing less than $80 can provide very good sound quality with a smart phone.
Gonick, the MIT videographer, suggests starting videos with a “stunning opening image, the most stimulating shot you got. If that doesn't capture them, they're not going to be into the video anyway.” Regardless of the video’s length, she suggests getting the main point out right away. “People tend to bury the lede,” she says.
Other scientists who have made videos and posted them online have reaped much greater rewards. The Periodic Table of Videos, a series on the chemistry of the elements, has been viewed 86 million times on YouTube. Last year Martyn Poliakoff, a chemist of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom and the star of the series, was knighted by the queen, with special mention in the citation for his online role as “a key ambassador for the UK scientific community.”
With videos as with scientific publications, though, few have such a big impact. Still, smaller rewards can be gratifying—as when Schecter received an e-mail from a scientist in Japan, thanking her for her BenchFly postings. “It’s very cool to think that someone that lives across the world is less frustrated because I uploaded a video,” she says.