Bridging the gap with video

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Siân Harris considers the use of video in scholarly communications today and the challenges and opportunities for the future.

Nobody involved in communicating research over recent years can have failed to notice that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted how academic conferences and seminars are delivered. 

The pandemic, of course, meant that almost overnight the number of online conferences and webinars ballooned. They meant that more researchers at different career stages and from more places could join events live. But they also meant that there was an explosion in the quantity of video recordings of events. And these videos have the potential to add an important new dimension to scholarly communications.

This has been the topic of ongoing research at US research non-profit Ithaka S+R, as Dylan Ruediger, senior analyst observed:

‘Video can provide an opportunity to distribute presentations to more people, to people who aren't able to be in the room or even in the country where those presentations are being given. This would greatly facilitate scholars’ ability to keep up with their field.’ However, he added that, despite interest in the space, the use of video is research is not yet well established.

This is where new video companies come in. One such company is Cadmore Media, which provides a video platform that can be integrated within publishing services platforms or as a standalone service for publishers.

‘We identified that most scholarly societies, associations and publishers do have the ability to invest in video infrastructure and yet they can clearly benefit from making video part of their scholarly ecosystem. We provide technology that allows scholarly associations to integrate video into whatever scholarly work they are doing. Our goal is to treat video and audio assets with the same kind of respect and scholarly apparatus and infrastructure that we do for books and journals,’ explained Jessica Lawrence-Hurt, chief marketing officer of Cadmore Media.

‘With 2020, we had some of our clients saying ‘we have these scientific technical events that involve vast amounts of content; can you help us?’’ she continued. ‘When we were getting started, one of the big challenges which educating people on why they should do video. A lot of people are entrenched in their books and journals workflows. That changed dramatically in the last two years. I think, if the pandemic hadn't happened, we would still be doing a lot of that education. 

The use of video in research is not just about conferences and webinars. Some video journals have been around for some years, probably most well known is JoVE, which launched in 2006 for visualising experiments. And some journals publish video abstracts and lay summaries, as well as interviews with authors to accompany journal articles and press releases.

Demonstrating skills

Some subject areas particularly lend themselves to video. Medicine and related topics were early adopters because of the benefit is being able to demonstrate techniques. Engineering content is similarly popular.

And there is enthusiasm from researchers about the potential of video in research too. As Uwalaka Onyekachi, an agricultural entomologist and principal research officer with the National Horticultural Research Institute of Nigeria observed: ‘It is high time this comes into effect. Apart from giving credibility to our research work, it'd make adoptability and understanding of the details simple and easy.’

His point about improving understanding of details also highlights the role of using video not just for explaining research but also the importance of video for education and professional development.

Jonathan Ferencz is responsible for one such endeavour. He is assistant editor of the Journal of Prosthetic Dentistry in the US. Over recent years this journal has observed the need for continuing professional development for recently qualified dentists in the field of prosthetic dentistry. He noted that dentists can graduate with large amounts of debt and start on quite modest salaries, leaving a challenge for this ongoing education. ‘Our dentist who graduates today knows that he needs education but he can't afford to attend a meeting, he doesn't buy textbooks, he doesn't belong to academies or subscribe to journals.’

Ferencz also noted a disconnect between the academic researchers who tend to read a journal like his and the practising dentists and others who need to put the research into practice. As with medicine, dentistry lends itself well to video.

‘The millennial dentist, if they have a patient Monday morning where they have to do a procedure that they're not very familiar with, they want to actually learn it from home after their kids have gone to sleep.’

He likens it to going onto YouTube if your dishwasher is broken to see how to fix it. However, there is a difference: ‘You have no idea whether the guy who's showing you how to fix your dishwasher is actually showing you techniques and procedures that are approved by the manufacturer.’

Bearing these factors in mind, the Journal of Prosthetic Dentistry began to create continuing dental education in the form of 30- to 60-minute videos. ‘We use the ‘over-the-shoulder’ view; I’m treating the patient but you’re looking over my shoulder,’ he explained. ‘Most people try to narrate the video as they actually do the procedure but that doesn't work because you don’t want to say things in front of the patient. We have the presenter create the video with no narration, then the narration is done separately and a skilled technical person takes the image of the speaker and puts it on the screen in various places so you really feel like he's talking to you.’

Finding what you need

There is much excitement about the potential of video in research, education and professional development and the overlaps between them. However, there are also challenges. One of these is discoverability.

Part of this comes with indexing. Ferencz and colleagues aid this for videos by publishing a two-page abstract of each video in the print and online versions of the journal, which are then listed in PubMed.

Another aspect of discoverability is having digital object identifiers (DOIs). As Ruediger explained, ‘with the various startups working in this space, one of the one of the services they’re offering is the capacity to create a permanent home for videos, assign them DOIs to enhance the metadata and make them more discoverable and more usable. There’s potential here to incorporate this kind of material as one of many outputs of scholarship in a more formalised way.

Discoverability can be a particular challenge for the output of conferences. Often today they can be spread across societies’ websites and YouTube channels.

‘Those things are very difficult to organise for discovery,’ observed Ruediger. ‘One approach is to build platforms where this material can be aggregated so you have a Netflix-type platform for conference material from across a wide range of disciplines. That would provide some of that centralised discovery and a clear place for people to start searching for material.’

And discovery goes beyond the complete video, he continued: ‘There are some questions about how people consume video. Often when I’m watching videos on YouTube I’m not watching from start to finish but trying to figure out where the part that I actually care about is. Maybe we also need better discovery inside of videos to help guide people to the pieces they want to see.’

Having a transcript can help enormously with this discovery within a video, commented Lawrence-Hurt: ‘If the transcript goes along with the video, then any terms that are mentioned within the video can be part of the search. I think this is the number one thing to help really improving true discoverability and it allows you to kind of read the video like a journal article.  

Cadmore’s platform integrates with a US-based transcription partner called 3 Play Media. ‘People can just press a button and request a transcript and a person has actually reviewed it, so it's gonna be quite good quality and also if there's a particular vocabulary. Artificial intelligence (AI) solutions have also come a long way, just in a few years, and they’re only going to continue to get better although they do need to have a person review them.’

Related to transcriptions is the potential to include text in other languages. ‘Most places that do transcriptions also do translations. We have clients who offer the video content in a couple of different languages. I’m not seeing it as much yet, but it's only a matter of time,’ she added.

Ensuring quality of content and delivery

Beyond finding content, another challenge for video is quality and there seems to still be a mixed picture regarding peer review.

‘The level of peer review on a lot of this content is certainly less rigorous than what would happen in a journal article. Some scholars we’ve been talking to have voiced concerns that they use conferences as a way to workshop ideas and as part of the process of elaborating a hypothesis or articulating an idea. By locking them in place you might hamper people’s ability to use them as part of an iterative process and discourage people from being creative or staking out innovative claims that they might then need to hedge or refine in order to get them through peer review,’ commented Ruediger.

The systems for peer review are perhaps better established for video within more traditional journal setups. Ferencz explained that the videos on his journal are all peer reviewed by a working group made up of people across different aspects of his sector. ‘If there are clinical procedures, you need these people to have a look at and say ‘everything that's being described here is accurate, it’s good quality education, it doesn't deviate from the standard-of-care and it conforms to the intended use by the manufacturer’.’

Lawrence-Hurt has similar observations: ‘For journals, it’s much more part of the workflow. The video goes along with the paper. Often a video would be part of the supplementary material that would all go through the review process. None of the organisations that we work with want random stuff out there. If it’s scholarly, it needs to have been gone through a review process in some capacity. The stakes are too high not to.’

Another aspect of quality is the video presentation and production. And this can be a barrier to creating videos.

‘There's still the perception that video is hard. It simply doesn’t have the history behind it and the ease of with which people talk about the book and journal workflows. It’s still new for a lot of people, although everyone is more comfortable doing it than they were two years ago. It doesn’t have to be like ABC or NBC or Netflix or something. It can just be a fairly simple setup. The goal is conveying the content,’ she explained.

She had some advice for any researchers or organisations contemplating doing videos: ‘Just dabble, try a few things, learn from each other, see what works.’ 

Tied up with confidence is motivation. ‘We haven't seen much potential yet in the humanities. A lot of this has to do with who is in the field, their desire to create video and whether there is the demand from their students.’

Considering bandwidth constraints

Video has potential to increase access but it also raises some new challenges. As Ravi Murugesan, an associate for the NGO INASP, which provides training in research writing to early-career researchers in low- and middle-income countries through its AuthorAID project, observed: ‘Videos and video-enabled communication are seemingly ubiquitous in online education. However, these are data intensive, for example, a one-hour Zoom meeting takes up 500 MB to 1 GB of data. According to a study by VPN provider Surfshark, many developing countries rank low in ‘digital quality of life’, which include aspects such as ‘internet affordability’ and ‘internet quality’. At the same time, there is much demand for video-based forms of education and communication. Further, the experiences of individuals within a country can vary greatly, with some having excellent access to the internet and others facing cost or quality challenges. It is a difficult balancing act for education providers, and perhaps the best approach would be to provide both videos and video alternatives such as transcripts, and of course this is also the right thing to do from an accessibility perspective.’

Permissions and risks

Another potential issue to consider with video is around permissions and ownership. As Ruediger observed, ‘societies hosting these things have a certain ownership over the content but scholars may have intellectual ownership over their intellectual property; should they be compensated for if videos are sold to a commercial aggregator? And, if they want to rescind permission for something to be streamed or be catalogued in a permanent way, how’s that going to work?’ He pointed to issues at a recent art conference where inclusion of artwork in slides was covered by fair use but sharing the videos more widely and potentially packaging in a commercial product required a different level of scrutiny.

He added that the transition to sharing conference and webinar videos in a more permanent and accessible way also poses some challenges for the freedom of academic discussions. If discussions are taken out of the context of a discussion with peers in a room then it can open up issues with culture wars or how sensitive information is used.

Developments over the past two years in particular have firmly established video as part of the scholarly communication puzzle but that does not mean that business models are resolved, according to Ruediger. ‘The value isn’t really well established because the market isn’t very clear yet. Most of the startups building aggregated platforms are oriented towards the idea that libraries will be buying licences and it will facilitate scholars having access to that material. Our national survey on streaming doesn’t really suggest that’s a sure thing. We know that libraries pretty overwhelmingly make decisions about streaming content based on their instructional value. They expect to spend more money on streaming but it’s not clear that they’re really orienting that growth in their budgets towards research products; when we asked them about their interest in things like recorded conference content it was very modest amount of interest.’

However, Lawrence-Hurt is optimistic: ‘I think that there’s a lot of opportunities for monetisation. The only line item in library budgets that is growing is in media. That’s where you’re seeing the opportunity for new media products. As today’s students move into research, as early-career researchers become tenured professors, we’re going to see it becoming much more part of the standard workflow for both education and research. We're going to look back at these conversations of ‘should we do video? what is the value in video?’ and laugh because it's going be so taken for granted.’