Video Essays #2 | Why are scientific video essays so rare?


When I first became interested in video essays I noticed there were very few science-based video essays on YouTube, especially from academics or scientists. I wanted to figure out why. I started with two underlying questions: Do other academic fields use video essays? And can video essays can be used appropriately in science?

For me, the answer to both questions was yes. Many academics use video, usually in film or media studies. There are also video-based journals; InTransition is a film-studies journal, and Audiovisual Thinking ranges from activism to teaching to machinima (films created entirely inside video game graphics engines). New projects are branching out into other academic areas too. REFRAME, by the University of Sussex, hosts blogs, video, and mixed-media projects from the sprawling and hard-to-define field of “digital humanities”.  A few textbooks also discuss ways to use video, including video essays, in qualitative research (a family of research methods used in humanities and social sciences). This all suggests video essays in academia are acceptable, and well-used in other academic fields.

But are video essays less appropriate in science than in other topics?  Scientific publications sometimes include a video abstract, a short summary of what the research project intended to do and the main findings. Although there aren’t many published studies on whether including a video abstracts encourages more people to view a paper, a case study of the New Journal of Physics found that proportionally more of the 100 most-read papers used a video abstract than papers in the journal as a whole. However, this can’t show that video abstracts cause a wider readership- perhaps the authors were more likely to create videos for papers they expected to have greater appeal.

I don’t think video abstracts are the only potential form of science video though. I thought of;

  • History of science- how a particular topic has been understood over time.
  • Biographies- the stories of and influences behind specific scientists or scientific movements.
  • Reviews- focused analyses of what multiple studies on the same question have said.

These ideas might not apply to every branch of science, but they show that more options are available. So, if other academic fields do use video essays, and scientists do use video, why don’t scientists use video essays?

1) Are fewer scientists on YouTube (and video sharing platforms in general?).

I hope people don’t stop at this answer because there are plenty of science-based videos on YouTube, and the success of science in YouTube has been discussed everywhere from mainstream media to Harvard. Science Twitter discusses video fairly often, usually in a supportive way, and often champions the value of YouTube for sci-comm. Admittedly, this is a biased sample, as scientists who use Twitter are more likely to use other online media than scientists who don’t use Twitter.

Based on the number of science videos on YouTube, scientists aren’t avoiding video entirely. Instead, they seem to use a narrower range of styles;  a minority of videos are from large general-audience channels, but most scientists make their videos for themselves or for other scientists.

2) Are scientists unfamiliar with video essays and the skills needed to make them? Would they view themselves as unable to make video essays?

While I can’t speak for all scientists here, and there aren’t any studies on this exact question, previous research on learning technology shows that many scientists and researchers find moving to new technical systems very difficult. Tech-wary researchers may be put off by video, assuming it is out of their comfort zone. But video abstracts have been adopted, and logically there isn’t much difference between creating a video abstract and a basic video essay.

Also, this could be a chicken-and-egg problem: if science video essays don’t exist, they can’t inspire people to make more. If a scientist develops an idea which could be expressed in a video essay but can’t find anything similar to learn from, they may conclude that the video essay idea won’t work and choose another approach instead.

3) Video essays are mostly about analysing media. Is the media produced by science (journal articles and books) less suitable for video-based analysis?

On the surface, research papers seem more difficult to base a video essay on than films or art. However, an important part of scientific research is presenting research at conferences, and even when presenters use visual accompaniments like graphs and slides, most presenting is a verbal explanation of their research process and its meaning.  This is one of the key skills required for video essays. Also, video essays on literature and books are available, which shows that written media can be explained in video-essay form.

Although a graph or a publication isn’t as visually interesting as a film clip, it still tells a story which can be analysed just like any other. Research papers can be understood as a form of narrative: often, the story is the researchers finding a question which others have overlooked and developing a way to find that missing knowledge. They have their accepted rules and conventions, which can be followed and broken just like in other media.

While I don’t think people should blindly run with science=narrative, and how strongly they influence each other can be debated, research suggests that using narratives to communicate science helps people understand it. (Post #3 will talk about this in more detail). Based on what we know so far, ruling out the media produced by science doesn’t make sense.

4) Are scientists and researchers less likely to use video essays or multimedia approaches to explain their work, because they see no benefits to using them?

Unfortunately, this might be the closest answer. Although the hosts of popular scientific channels receive praise for their work, this doesn’t mean that other scientists will reap benefits.

For researchers, one reason is that publishing conventions move slowly. While film canon is based on reviews and success, science canon is decided by the DOI (Digital Object Identifier). A DOI is like a digital version of a barcode: a code which uniquely identifies one piece of work and aims to keep track of that piece of work across the internet. Content which doesn’t have a DOI usually can’t be cited, so it can’t be used as part of new research. While traditional publications like books and research papers are easily assigned a DOI, new media is often ignored. This prevents new research from using ideas generated by non-traditional media.

However, projects like FigShare and The Winnower (which has now unfortunately ceased) are starting to change this. Both sites let researchers assign DOIs to other media, including videos, webinars, science-based blog posts, and even Reddit posts from scientists, which allows those works to be used in new research.

Another issue for researchers and academic scientists is dealing with what universities value. Despite societal impact being one of the tick-boxes for funding research, and despite universities promoting the value of science communication and outreach, scientists who try to communicate in new ways are not always encouraged or supported.

One aspect of this is the “Sagan Effect”; the belief that as a scientist’s public presence increases, their research quality decreases. The name comes from Carl Sagan being denied tenure at Harvard despite his success in both research and lecturing. His rejection was partly because of his work explaining science on TV; critics argued that his outreach work, which popularised others’ ideas, made him less of a “true” scientist.

A further message that emerged was that public engagement was done by those who were ‘not good enough’ for an academic career…
(Royal Society, 2006)

While Sagan’s denial happened in 1968, the Sagan Effect still exists. A 2006 Royal Society report interviewed scientists and engineers about science outreach (explaining science to non-scientists, such as by writing for magazines and newspapers, or appearing on TV or other media). Some of the interviewees believed that scientists who focused on outreach work did so because they were “not good enough” for full academic careers. 20% of interviewees believed that scientists who did public outreach were seen as less successful than those who did not; others called outreach work “light and fluffy”.  A 2013 paper on the Sagan Effect found that senior academics were often supported if they attempted to do outreach, but junior academics were often discouraged, or even blocked from career progression because of their outreach work.

Current research suggests that scientists are simultaneously encouraged to communicate science to the public and discouraged from it. Even if a scientist wanted to do outreach work, and even if they thought a video essay was a good method, they would need to weigh up the potential risks. The scientist may find that ten times as many people see their video than their papers (a plus for science outreach), but if the video can’t be cited, then the scientist can’t receive credit for it or use it in their career. If the scientist’s colleagues or superiors applied the Sagan effect, using that alternate method of communication could even be detrimental to their career.


For now, it looks like there are two main reasons why video essays are rare in science. Firstly, the research process hasn’t caught up to new ways of demonstrating knowledge, which excludes newer media from the established path to success and so gives scientists fewer reasons to take part. Secondly, the conflict between what universities say about communicating with non-scientists and their actual response to people who carry out outreach work can block academics (especially younger ones) from trying out new forms of communication.

The first problem is already being worked on, and I think that as people look more deeply into publishing reform and improving how research is published and publicised, people will develop more ways to let new media into the process. For the second problem, I’m less optimistic, though I hope that the success of online science communicators may show universities the error of their ways, and that people who publicise science can be advocates for change.

In the next post, I’ll talk about using video essays in science outreach, and what the benefits and risks of using a video essay to communicate science might be.

References / Futher Reading  (all papers are freely-available):

Moving Image Archive:

Frame Cinema Journal:

Royal Society. Factors affecting science communication: a survey of scientists and engineers. 2006 (The Royal Society, London). Available from:

Martinez-Conde, S (2016). Has Contemporary Academia Outgrown the Carl Sagan Effect? Journal of Neuroscience. 36(7), 2077-2082. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0086-16.2016

Peters, H.P (2013). Gap between science and media revisited: scientists as public communicators. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 110(Suppl 3), 14102–14109 doi:10.1073/pnas.1212745110

Bubela, T et al (2009). Science Communication Reconsidered. Nature Biotechnology. 27(6), 514-518. Available from:

Spicer, S., (2014). Exploring Video Abstracts in Science Journals: An Overview and Case Study. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication. 2(2), p.eP1110. DOI:

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