The Future of Science Videos

By Jef Akst The Future of Science Videos © Richard Newstead / Getty Images The use of video in scientific research is anything but new. In fact, the very first “motion picture” was shot as part of an experiment aimed at determining if horses ever have all four feet off the ground simultaneously while galloping. On June 11, 1878, using 12 cameras placed 50 centimeters apart and trip wires to be triggered as the

Jef Akst
Aug 1, 2009

The Future of Science Videos

© Richard Newstead / Getty Images

The use of video in scientific research is anything but new. In fact, the very first “motion picture” was shot as part of an experiment aimed at determining if horses ever have all four feet off the ground simultaneously while galloping. On June 11, 1878, using 12 cameras placed 50 centimeters apart and trip wires to be triggered as the horse galloped by, photographer Eadweard Muybridge created the world’s first film, and in doing so, proved that indeed all four of the horse’s hooves were airborne in midstride of a gallop.

“Film emerged out of scientific research,” says David Kirby, a lecturer of science communication at the University of Manchester. “The use of film in scientific research is as old as film itself.”

More recently, scientists have embraced the use of video as a communication tool, and that trend...

To that end, this year we hosted the first The Scientist Video Awards. Submissions flooded in, ranging from wordless scenes of molecules in motion to scientists presenting detailed walkthroughs of complex methodology. We narrowed the finalists to five videos in the categories of Individual (supported by funding from an individual or single research grant) and Institutional (funding from a corporation or research institution). Here, we present the finalists and winners in each category, along with an analysis by our expert panel of judges about what makes each one work.

From facilitating the reproduction of methodology and replication of results to effectively and efficiently explaining the research findings and their implications, science videos provide a mechanism to enhance science communication among researchers and to audiences outside the scientific community.

Two recent publishing innovations aim to tap the potential of scientific film. The Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) is a peer-reviewed video journal founded in October 2006 by Moshe Pritsker, who says he sees video as the ideal solution to the “bottleneck problem” of reproducibility. “Experiments typically involve many complex details that are very difficult to describe in text,” says Pritsker. “To effectively transfer knowledge within the scientific world, you have to show it.”

Now in its third year of operation, JoVE publishes about 20 new video articles per month, nearly double the monthly publication rate of 2008. The journal’s traffic increased nearly 3-fold from 26,000 video views per month in March of 2008 to 70,000 in March of 2009. (JoVE became a closed-access journal in April, meaning that a paid subscription is required to view the videos, but according to Pritsker, this has not significantly affected its traffic, which remained steady at 69,000 views in June.)

The other innovation is SciVee, a scientific video-sharing Web site, and The Scientist’s partner in the video awards. Video can be useful not only in communicating published research, says CEO Marc Friedmann, but also in communicating research that’s still in progress. While “pubcasts” supplement published text, “postercasts” function as updates of ongoing research. SciVee, now nearly 2 years old, hosts 2,000 videos, which receive 150,000 page views per month, according to Friedmann. Still, he says, “we’d like to see it move much faster.”

Sanford agrees. “For some people it’s just not a natural way of thinking,” she says. One solution, she suggests, is to offer basic training on how to make a useful video. “That would be a great help in accelerating the growth of video in the laboratory,” Kirby concedes, but it’s not likely that universities will be able to provide such services.

Another option is to recruit outside help for the actual production of the video. To this end, JoVE established a “videographer network,” contracting professionals around the globe to help scientists create videos. “In this way, we take care of the technical part of the video publication,” Pritsker says. (The cost to enlist JoVE’s help is $1,500.)

Alternatively, scientists can purchase a video camera for as little as $150–$250 and a basic video-editing program for under $100 to create their own laboratory movies. To capture fast-action experiments, high-speed cameras are available from a number of companies, and while they cost tens of thousands of dollars to purchase, companies such as ElectroRent Corporation and Motion Engineering Company, Inc. supply the same quality equipment for daily ($100–$500), weekly ($1,300–$5,000) or monthly ($2,300–$10,000) rentals.

For scientists studying microscopic subjects, computer animation is popular—but expensive. A single license of the program Maya, employed by Pixar Animation Studios to create full-length children’s movies, costs around $6,000 and requires years of training, says Gaël McGill of Harvard Medical School. The scientists-turned-animators at his company, Digizyme, create animations for people in the academic community, research institutes, and biotech and pharma companies, but cost is still an issue—any commissioned animation will cost thousands per minute of film.

However you feel about the utility of video in science, the medium is not likely to disappear. Young scientists have grown up in a society in which video learning is commonplace in the classroom, and YouTube is bringing in millions of viewers each day, Sanford says. Over time, video is “going to become a more regular part of how we do [science].” “We don’t believe the traditional ways are going to go away,” Friedmann adds. “We just believe they can be enhanced by the addition of video.”