Science, Labs, and Videotape

Scientific publishing – the tripod created by the intersection of profit-making, knowledge transfer, and archival needs – has been in the process of toppling for some time. Long ruled by paper and the compression imposed by print, with its word limits and limited access, the publishing industry is catching up with the explosion of bandwidth and gadgets of the 21st century. Formal journals are entering the digital space, and new formats for increasingly visual and interactive science communication are emerging, with video in particular complementing the show-and-tell nature of science. Is Berkeley embracing this change – and what kinds of experiences have campus researchers had with video publishing?

Former Berkeley student and LBL Post-Baccalaureate Fellow Helen Tran is filmed by Jeff Piccinini for the Zuckermann group’s JoVE video.
Credit: Ronald Zuckermann

For the scientist seeking to enter the realm of videography, there are a number of platforms available, with varying degrees of impact and structure. The YouTube-like DNATube is an informal sharing site for videos explaining basic biological phenomena. Science magazine’s video portal is a repository of supplementary videos for articles published in Science, sprinkled with other offerings like webinars and podcasts. SciVee, a joint project of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), the National Science Foundation, and the UC San Diego Supercomputer Center, allows affiliated journals to publish ‘synchronized video abstracts’ on its site. While traditional journals like Journal of the American Chemical Society or Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provide peer-review and editorial functions, SciVee offers its platform for simultaneous viewing of the original paper, the authors’ video, and additional figures or slides [see image of SciVee PubCast]. Finally, the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) touts itself as the ‘first scientific video journal’, with in-house peer-review and tightly integrated pairs of videos and articles, the latter often consisting of an abbreviated ‘protocol’ as opposed to the traditional sections of background, methods, results, and discussion.

For Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory staff scientist Ronald Zuckermann, the credibility of JoVE as a peer-reviewed journal figured into his choice to publish. His group’s video on the synthesis of peptoid polymers for new nanomaterials appeared in November 2011 and, according to Zuckermann, has already received positive feedback. “I think that students very much enjoy the medium of video, and it is important to provide content that they will be interested in consuming. As we think about ways for our work to make an impact, having a video that really explains one’s core methodologies is a very important component,” he says. Additionally, as director of the Biological Nanostructures Facility at LBL, Zuckermann is keen to use video as a vehicle to reach a broad viewership: “Since our method is quite simple and easy to learn from a video, we think this is a great medium to interest people from other fields (especially students and post-docs) who might otherwise assume that peptoid synthesis, in our case, is too difficult to learn.”

Bioengineering professor David Rempel also cites increased visibility for his ergonomics research as one of the benefits of publishing in JoVE.  With many funding agencies now mandating public availability of research findings, Rempel finds outlets like JoVE useful in fulfilling these requirements; he has also posted videos of his projects on YouTube.

For one recent bioengineering graduate, publishing in the then-nascent JoVE was a chance not only to expand his publication record, but also to elaborate on a complicated experimental protocol. The 2007 video from Kyle Kurpinski and his advisor, bioengineering professor Song Li, has been viewed over 17,000 times. In place of the usual series of still microscopy images, they chose video to document their method of applying forces to stem cells using a bioreactor; the immediate benefit was a quick-and-ready training guide for other members in the group, plus a way to reach the field at large to enable replication of their work. While Kurpinski, now the managing director of the Berkeley/UCSF Translational Medicine Master’s Program, calls publishing in JoVE a “great experience”, he laments the fact that the journal, which was briefly open access until 2009, is now subscription-based. Though UC Berkeley has an institutional subscription to JoVE, “students in the Li lab don’t even access [our] work through JoVE anymore; they go straight to the original video files on the lab computer, because it is much easier to access,” says Kurpinski. “I think that publishing in JoVE was great in many ways, but I was really disappointed when they moved away from true open access.”

Economic considerations prompted JoVE to change its business model, and the cost of publishing (whether in video or print) continues to be central to the open access publishing debate (see “Access granted” in BSR Spring 2011). Videography and production make up some of this cost at JoVE: its staff script, film, and professionally edit video articles, services that the journal values at $6,000 per article. By contrast, publishing in open access journals through PLoS can set authors back between $1,350 and $2,900 per article (JoVE does now offer open access options and a discount for author-produced videos). Cost – and the fact that not all studies are amenable to video publishing – may explain the slow takeoff of JoVE. Though both were launched in 2006, PLoS One has become the world’s largest peer-reviewed journal, while JoVE reached the milestone of 1,500 articles in January 2012; only seven of those articles were from groups at Berkeley (by comparison, UCSF had 36, Harvard 47, and UC Irvine 55). Impact factor continues to influence publishing choices, with a methods video perhaps appearing as a less glamorous option. Indeed, many of the Berkeley authors who have published in JoVE describe their submissions as secondary to traditional journal articles, or as protocol pieces that they cite in more fleshed-out papers.

It seems that video publishing still has some hurdles to cross, and it is hardly the du jour choice for Berkeley scientists. With increasing international collaboration and more involved experimental setups, however, showing rather than telling may become more commonplace; video may also aid in speeding up replication and keeping scientific fraud in check (for an example, see this recent article in The Scientist. Perhaps the future will give us a “Science Skype” portal for realtime check-ins with ongoing experiments. Until then, YouTube will remain the top source for groundbreaking science videos – or at least cute cat videos.

Amanda Alvarez is a graduate student in vision science.

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