Puzzling over video abstracts

Writing a post about »video abstracts« could have been so easy. Find out the definition of a »video abstract« and watch some »typical« ones. Seek studies which have investigated their impact. Read the paper of a science sociologist reflecting on the benefits of video abstracts to science and society. And, finally, google the top ten video abstracts of the last years. Doing all of this with the idea in mind, that video abstracts might boost scientific communication between peers as well as science communication between science and society to a new level.
 
However, things are more complicated. There is no consensus on an apparent standard whatsoever, not among scientists, not among communicators, not among publishers. Video abstracts vary wildly in virtually any applicable criterion. Some of their advocates stress the intrinsic value of click numbers, others talk about indispensable »media literacy« or anticipate the potential of videos to convey a deeper understanding of complex matters. And: video abstracts, in general, aren’t fun to watch, not even for specifically interested and therefore intrinsically motivated scientists.
 
There should have been enough time for some standards to develop. In 2013 the Canadian science journalist Jacob Berkowitz noted: »The first (video abstract) may have been a Cell Press video posted on May 21, 2009, that’s garnered more than 11,000 views.« (Watch it here.)
 
But the last relevant paper about video abstracts is from 2014 (hopefully I didn’t miss one). Doing a case study, Scott Spicer at the Walter Library at the University of Minnesota found out that they work: video abstracts help a paper to be perceived by more people. Today, Spicer is still the guy cited everywhere since there’s nothing more recent about the subject.
 
Except for a conference contribution from 2017 by Margret Plank, Attila Dávid Molnár and Paloma Marín-Arraiza, written with the aim »to show how scientists can effectively record video abstracts for their papers on their own, … and how important it is to extend Media Literacy Education by programs for scientists.« Without sound data, but fully plausible arguments, they state that »sharing scientific results via audiovisual media has become an important part of scientific communication«. Videos »have the potential to make the knowledge gained from scientific communication more useful, by providing a deeper understanding of the experiential aspects of the corresponding contributions published as text.«
 
While Wikipedia defines: »A video abstract is the motion picture equivalent of a written abstract« and meant to »help draw attention« to the associated paper, »increasing its readership«, Plank et al. expect much more benefit from the format. They agree that a video abstract »is directly linked with a single scientific paper that has been accepted and published in a scientific journal«. But according to them, video abstracts are »not just an audiovisual representation of a traditional text abstract, but a representation of the study as a whole. In three to five minutes, the viewer should be provided with an accurate overview of the background and methods of the study.« (This reminds of Jove, the successful »Journal of Visualized Experiments«, which publishes »peer-reviewed scientific video protocols« to support the understanding of experimental procedures. If Jove videos can be considered video abstracts, then the first one of its kind must have been produced not in 2009, but in 2006, when Jove was founded.)
 
Apart from academic reflections, »fun« seems to be part of the video abstract story, too. Look for example at How dog brains process speech (Andics et al., Science, 2016). Dogs (and cats, probably) add to popularity: This clip has 446.000 clicks on YouTube. On the CellPress channel you find Personalized Nutrition (Cell, November 19, 2015 (Vol. 163, Issue 5) with 119.291 views. Or watch the scientist actors at Deconstructing climate misinformation to identify reasoning errors with 45.478 video downloads. The latter article is also accompanied by Altmetrics Data: probably thanks to the accompanying video it was mentioned in 4 blogs and 10 news outlets. Additionally, 585 tweeters and some redditors were counted. (All numbers in this paragraph from March 13, 2019.)
 
Obviously, this ramble through an unknown landscape leaves many questions unanswered. Does it add to scientific advance, if peers can watch a video abstract instead of reading the text abstract? Does it add to the relevance of a paper if an accompanying video abstract raises its visibility? Shouldn’t funny videos better be named »popular science web videos« instead of »video abstracts«, to avoid confusion between science communication and scientific communication?
 
And finally: Does a decade of little progress in developing the format really indicate a success story? After all, TED lectures might be dubbed abstracts, too, and were an overwhelming success in the meantime.

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