why researchers should produce videos

Second guest post in a series of three by Dr Graham McElearney, Senior Learning Technologist, Technology Enhanced Learning Team in CiCS

Many of the reasons that you might want to think about getting yourself and your work published and visible online stem from the arguments to get involved in public engagement more generally (discussed in my previous post, ‘The Power of Public Engagement’).  This post will explore the benefits of using digital media within public engagement, as well as the emergent field of digital scholarship.

Over the last few years, the University has been improving how we share the fantastic work we do via our digital presence.  In a nutshell, this is our ongoing portfolio of digital media that we publish using outward facing channels such as iTunes U, YouTube, and our own website.

Some of the people who have the greatest contributions to make to this digital engagement are PhD students and early career researchers, as video content can also be used as a vital tool within the research process, either to attract collaborators or equally importantly, potential funders.

“Good quality video materials are fantastic for engaging the public with our work, but it is a mistake to think this is their only function. Videos have great potential at multiple stages of the research cycle, as a component of attractive funding bids right through to dynamic and engaging teaching.” (Dr Victoria Williamson, VC Fellow in the Department of Music).

What’s in it for you

Producing digital media online can enable you to communicate with your audience in a time and place that suits them. They don’t have to come to you, and you don’t have to be online at the same time. If you want to connect with people remotely by doing a webinar, you can normally record these too, so that people can access them later. This also means that you can have a truly global audience, as they are not constrained by travel or by time zones.  As shown in Fig 1 below, access to the our University’s iTunes U site clearly shows that we have a truly global audience for this “channel’, with more than 70% of our visitors coming from outside of the UK.


Figure 1 – Visitors to the University’s iTunes U site, broken down by country

For those interested in pursuing a career in the media, getting involved in creating videos as a researcher will give you some important experience. You can take the time now to experiment with some different ideas, learn some of the core skills involved in producing videos, and try and gain some experience in talking to the camera, which can be somewhat daunting at first but getting started yourself is a truly valuable experience:

“Over the last couple of years I’ve been asked to feature in several filmed features and interviews about my research, which have provided great publicity for my work. My prior experience of making my own short science films for research and teaching purposes really helped with this – I had already developed my confidence on screen and worked out how to articulate my ideas in an engaging, understandable way.” (Dr Nicola Hemmings from Animal and Plant Sciences).

For postgraduate students and early career researchers, producing online videos are also a good way of helping to build up your CV.  According to a blog post by Patrick Dunleavy, Professor of Political Science at LSE, non-traditional short-form publications including online videos, blog articles etc. are a great way of adding substance to one’s CV in the early stage of one’s career, in the absence of many formal citations.

All these skills will stand you in good stead if you get an opportunity to pitch your idea to a producer or broadcaster, at events like the DocFest pitching session held yearly here in Sheffield. Have a go and see for yourself that getting involved in producing videos can also be fun:

“Filming the short on my history of the hairdresser work was not only great fun, but I learned a lot. As academics, when we’re engrossed in our research we can begin to assume others will (or should!) be just as interested in our subject. When I’ve worked with radio producers, too, I’ve been surprised at what does — and what doesn’t — capture their imagination.” (VC Fellow Dr Sean Williams, who has recently been selected by the BBC as one of their New Generation Thinkers.)

If you are running an event, or contributing to an event being run by the University, such as the Festival of The Mind (FOTM), or the Mobile University, it is quite possible that you can have your event recorded and put online for you. Again this means you will be able to reach audiences unable to attend the event itself.  Sometimes these achieve impressive numbers, such as the 2014 FOTM Sounds of the Cosmos recording that has been downloaded and/or streamed over 50,000 times through iTunes U, enabling thousands of people to engage with this stunning one off event.

Videos can enhance research dissemination

There is a role for videos within the more conventional spheres of research dissemination. There has been a steady increase in the use of short video abstracts now being submitted to accompany more traditional papers. A good example is the New Journal of Physics, from the Institute of Physics Publishing (IOP), who began publishing these in 2011, and now list over 300 such abstracts. The IOP offer specific editorial guidelines on producing video abstracts for their journal, and also offer a page of really useful tips on how to get the best out of your video.

Video can liberate researchers from some of the constraints of conventional publishing. There are no limits to the number of high quality colour illustrations that can be presented in a video, and by using the power of visualization, it enables researchers to explain things in ways that were previously impossible. This of itself means that, for example, experimental apparatus and techniques can be explained in a couple of minutes of video that would otherwise take hundreds of words. Researchers can present with better clarity, and their colleagues and peers can engage with their work much more quickly than reading the whole paper. Some journals have even gone further, and are heavily based around the use of video content. The leading example of this is the Journal of Visualised Experiments (JoVE), who describe themselves as “the world’s first peer reviewed scientific video journal. Established in 2006, JoVE is devoted to publishing experiments in a visual format to increase productivity and reproducibility of scientific research.”  While these journals may not yet be recognised for impact as other more established journals, this is likely to change.

Another important feature of publishing video abstracts, is that a transcript can be created, which can be added and indexed along with other important metadata, and this can help more people to discover the work. This can bring obvious benefits of itself, and it’s been recently noticed by Guillame Wright, a publisher at the Institute of Physics, that, “we are also seeing an emerging trend that papers with videos may have a citation advantage. We are tracking this with interest,” although he added that it is still early days. The advantages of video publication have certainly been noted by big players in academic publishing such as SAGE, Elsevier and McGraw Hill.

It’s not as hard as you think

An immediate attraction of using digital technologies to promote your work is the fact that they are now so accessible. Equipment to record audio and video is now a fraction of the cost it was ten years ago, and many of us are walking around HD cameras in our pockets in the form of our smartphones or digital tablets. There is an accompanying range of easy to use editing software packages available now too, which are vital for you to assemble your story. At Sheffield you will also have access to fantastic camera equipment, editing facilities and the essential expertise of the Creative Media Team to help you along the way.


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