As scientists, we record our findings in perpetuity in PDFs— literally simulations of pieces of paper. It’s time to be more dynamic and invoke a proliferation of media types. We don’t need to get rid of the notion of a paper or stop using a PDF as the version of record. But we do need to complement them with something less static. What follows is an approach I recently took using video.
The final sentence of my latest paper (preprint) steers the reader to a video that stands in place of a Conclusion section. And I’m guessing this video is a much more compelling Conclusion than any possible combination of words.
Here’s the gist of the final paragraph (paraphrased to avoid jargon):
Our simulation was made possible by tuning against measurements from a new instrument. This observation-informed simulation depicts instabilities as they evolve throughout the day. It is best appreciated as an animation (doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4306935).
The link goes to a copy of the video below:
The video outlines my paper in under 90 seconds
The video makes sense even if you haven’t read the paper. In this case, the video has the same goal as a movie trailer of encouraging you to check out the complete story. (Unlike a movie trailer I include spoilers; they’re right there in the top left corner.)
If you have read the paper, then the video recaps much of what you’ve read. Many details in the video exist in figures in the paper. But the video is far from redundant. In the paper, I had space for snapshots of the temperature field only every 2 hours. With the video, I can show fields every minute. Better yet, the video presents the same information in a different way, which helps with retention.
By summarising without being redundant, I’m having my cake and eating it too.
Avoid writing a Conclusion
Most science writing guides will advise against a mere summary in the Conclusion section. But by this stage of the paper, it’s hard to say something profound that hasn’t already been said in the Abstract, Introduction, or Discussion. You could make the standard call for more research, but I’d prefer you didn’t.
One way to avoid this potential repetition is to forgo the Conclusion completely. (Here’s one science writing book advocating this exact solution.) And yet I’ve always included a Conclusion in my own papers. Without them, the endings would feel abrupt. It can be hard to find a natural end point, especially within a long, multi-part Discussion.
My new paper is the exception: no Conclusion. Instead, I started with the mindset that the video is the Conclusion, and then organised the Discussion around that.
The right amount of detail
At less than 90 seconds long, the video necessarily leaves out many of the findings in the paper. I’m okay with that. I’d rather tell one part of the story and have people watch from start to finish. I don’t want to weave in all the results and end up with a 20-minute video. You wouldn’t watch a movie trailer that’s 20 minutes long.
The average trailer comes in under two minutes. Based on that, my 90-second video seems like a good length. (The first draft of the video, with the same material squeezed into 60 seconds, was too frenetic.)
Another measure of length is what else the reader could do in the time it takes to watch the video: read 400 words, give or take. That’s comparable to the word counts of Conclusion sections in my previous papers; another a good sign that I have the right amount of detail.
No special skills, but some effort required
I have next to no experience with movie editing. I’m not even sure what software to use, let alone how to use it. What I do have experience in, like every scientist, is making plots. And that’s all the video really is. It’s an animation of the same set of two-dimensional plots.
Okay, that’s not quite true. The plots need context and commentary. Otherwise the video wouldn’t be a standalone story, let alone a Conclusion. That’s why I added annotations in the top left corner and the static introductory slides. (For reference, I glued together the slides and added the cross-fades using Python tools. This is elaborate for a one-off video but, like I said, I know little about video editing.)
Helping people find my work
The final benefit of using a movie is reaching a wider audience. And I’m not referring to non-scientists. I’m mostly talking about scientists in my subfield who would go and read the paper.
If you’re like me, you’ll use more than Google Scholar for searching scientific papers. Sometimes an image search is more effective. Other times, a video search works well. If I run a Google Scholar search for “stratified shear instabilities”, my paper turns up on the third page of results. The same search term in YouTube? Top result. (Of course, these positions continually change, but you get the point.)
A few years back I found a three-minute video summarising a paper on a topic closely related to my work. If it weren’t for the video, I might never have found the paper, or at least I wouldn’t have been as eager to read it. As of writing, this nine-year-old video has more than 500 000 views. (It’s a far more captivating video than mine). The associated paper has 69 citations. Pessimistically, that’s a poor view-to-citation ratio. Optimistically, that’s a huge number of people who have been exposed to results from a specific paper.