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Are Science Movies Useful?

There is an interesting discussion on [edit: Richard’s blog on] Nature Network about the usefulness of science videos, like those published in JoVE, where methods and protocols are performed in front of the cameras and intentionally designed to be educational.

If you are a cell biologist, learning a new-to-you (but standard in the field) technique while studying at a Big Research University in the western world, it is likely that there will be several other cell biologists in your building who can guide you through the process better than a movie can, step-by-step, answering your questions, watching you try to do it yourself and correcting your errors.

But that is a rare and exceptional situation.

This will not happen at a small school, a community college, a small start-up company, or a high school.

This will not happen if you are the first and only cell biologist in your country somewhere in the developing world.

This will not happen if the technique you are interested in is not that common (either very old-fashioned or very new-fangled) – perhaps there are 2-3 people in the world who know how to do it and they just happen not to be in your building at your beck and call (if someone gets me an IACUC approval, I’d make movies of how to remove a bird pineal, severe optic nerves, remove ovaries…a dying skillset).

A well-produced movie, the kind that Moshe and Nikita and guys make, is much, much better than trying to read between the lines of Materials and Methods sections of papers that you know omit the key details (or the pedestrian stuff that “everybody knows how to do”, if everybody means “people at Ivy Leagues”). Having such a movie can help you “get” the new technique much faster and save some money – and if you are in a small school in a developing world, you cannot afford to have the experiment fail 50 times before you figure out what key piece of information about the method was omitted from the paper.

Also, think from a historians’ perspective – I would love it if there was JoVE in the 18th and 19th centuries so we could see with our own eyes how the scientists at that time performed the Classical Experiments we all hear about in textbooks, but have no idea how they were really done.

What do you think?


  1. #1 Tim
    July 12, 2008

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m in the online world (I have a PhD in Materials Science but now am at an internet company, go figure). There are so many opportunities to capture one’s knowledge onto a video and diseminate it. Even in a corporate environment it makes perfect sense to keep from people from asking me over and over how to do something. I think there are two main reasons why people are hesitant to distribute their knowledge:

    1) They think that to share their knowledge reduces their valuee. For example, I had to go to a big name university to learn how to use a fibbity widget. If I then give it away, I’ve lowered the ‘barrier to entry’.

    2) People are embarassed to see and hear themselves recorded.



  2. #2 Eva
    July 13, 2008

    Tiny minor gripe – not about the videos : “There is an interesting discussion on Nature Network” when in fact it’s a discussion on a *blog* (Richard’s) on Nature Network. I got worked up about the generalisation of NN-blog discussions being likened to *all* of NN last week and I guess it’s still lingering. (If there was a discussion on your blog, people would say “on Bora’s blog” not “on ScienceBlogs” unless it was taken over by multiple bloggers.)

    Anyway. Videos. Yeah, cell culture (from the example) I actually don’t really see how if you’re in a facility with incubators and tissue culture hoods there’d be nobody to show how to do the work. Does it really happen that someone just buys this stuff and starts cell culture without ever having done it before? Smaller techniques I can understand – I’ve had to learn a gazillion things from almost-scratch – but anything that requires big equipment and a special room can’t be learned from video, I think.

  3. #3 Coturnix
    July 13, 2008

    Point taken – post edited.

    I was mainly thinking in terms of techniques that one can set up at any place (with no need for big infrastructure) by ordering equipment, instruments, reagents, etc. no matter who you are and where you are. How to put an electrode into a neuron of a free-moving lobster? I want to see that in a movie as no amount of text will be able to explain it. Less of a recipe-following protocols, more of the kinds of things that are hard to describe using just language.

  4. #4 Coturnix
    July 13, 2008

    Another important area where movies would be great is in the field of animal behavior – how to score behaviors. Papers, even those that describe behaviors in all the gory details, are usually not enough. Which means that every researcher has his/her own criteria and definitions in scoring behaviors. A half-hearted behavior, or an interrupted behavior – do you score it or not? A movie would help standardize the techniques.

  5. #5 James
    July 13, 2008

    I agree it very much.

  6. #6 Mary
    July 13, 2008

    I totally agree–well, ok, full disclosure: we do science movies for a living :)

    Ours are about how to use the software in our field. Because nobody RTFM, we all know that. And because software is such a moving target. Usually the documentation (when it exists) is not as current as the site. I could show you many sites where the documentation comes from their initial paper several years ago. Many software changes since.

    We know a lot of people watch these movies every month. I don’t have any idea how to compare that with a paper or the documentation….hmmm….if anyone is planning a software launch, we could set up a site to test that. Maybe get some grant money. That might be a fun experiment :)

    Oh, I also wanted to stress that the geographical range of viewers is huge.

  7. #7 bill
    July 13, 2008

    I actually don’t really see how if you’re in a facility with incubators and tissue culture hoods there’d be nobody to show how to do the work.

    What if they suck? What if you don’t speak each others’ languages well (but the video does, or has subtitles)? And you can only ask a person to show you stuff so many times before they get crabby, but a video never loses patience.

    Even for “recipe” stuff, think how many little tricks never make it into a written protocol. When loading an agarose gel, pre-dispense dye and sample onto parafilm; when labeling microtubes, lay them out in a fan shape in groups of about ten on the desk for easy access; when cutting a band out of a gel, slice all the way to the side then switch the UV off, it’s faster and makes it easy to get your chunk out. See: if you haven’t actually done those things, my descriptions are only going to confuse, but one look at a video and you’d have it.

    (Unnecessary disclaimer: I’m a big fan of video protocols.)

  8. #8 AntiquatedTory
    July 13, 2008

    I’m a tech writer and we’ve been moving more and more to screencasts for demonstrating our product’s functionality. It’s much simpler than textual descriptions and you don’t have such an issue with the Eng reading comp level of listeners–not if you speak clearly and keep the language as simple as possible.
    For scientific work, I’d expect you’d have the added advantage of not needing to redo your movies every 6 months when the technology is updated.

  9. #9 Deepak
    July 13, 2008

    My disclaimer: I am part of the Bioscreencast gang.

    Like AntiquatedTory, I firmly believe that for certain types of information (in our case, software and web services), video is a powerful medium. If you package video with code, additional text documentation, etc, you have a pretty compelling medium that all can use (at various levels of understanding).

    I also believe that the quality of tools will play a role. Sticking to screencasting, the quality of software, ease of use, support for chapters, annotation, etc will only make the medium more useful over time

  10. #10 Moshe Pritsker
    July 13, 2008

    From the personal experience, even at Big Reserch Universities, it is not so easy to get help in the traditional “show me how” way. There are many reasons: people are busy, competition, differences between what is available and what is needed, lack of information on who does what, etc…

  11. #11 rpg
    July 13, 2008

    I’m with Eva. You see, I can’t imagine not being taught cell culture by a real, live person. I can’t imagine not doing it that way with my next student.

    “Here’s a video. Away you go”.

    Sorry. Doesn’t work for me (and if there’s no one around to show you how, then please, please go on a workshop. You can’t beat that real interaction).

  12. #12 scicurious
    July 13, 2008

    I think that videos particularly for scoring animal behaviors would be incredibly valuable, especially in my field. We were having a discussion just the other day on that.

    I would love instructional videos for some of my techniques, even aside from the animal behavior scoring. A lot of graduate students set up new techniques in their labs as part of their graduate work, and we could be spared weeks or even months of frustration and tears if we knew there was an instructional video on something like in vivo microdialysis and HPLC techniques. There’s nothing like being taught by a real human who can help you troubleshoot, but when you’re the only person in your lab, department, and school who does was you do, even the least bit of guidace would be amazing.

  13. #13 Jake
    July 13, 2008

    I’ve watched a video on Jove recently and it’s been very helpful in trying to get our lab to replicate the results of the video author. Especially with complex procedures, there are a lot of little things that just don’t end up in the materials and methods section or are too confusing on paper.

  14. #14 bill
    July 14, 2008

    Why are scientists always so eager to look for ways something will fail? I guess it’s because you have to think that way about your experiments…

  15. #15 Coturnix
    July 14, 2008

    Once Chris developed and refined the flow-through culture setup, he suddenly and quickly got called and sent to Afghanistan. He did not have time to show me how to use the setup in his absence, so he wrote good notes. I could never get the thing to work until he came back and showed me! Gah! I wish he could have filmed himself before going – it is those little things that he did not think about when writing the protocol down that made all the difference. Those were second-nature to him, but a novel way of thinking to me.

  16. #16 rpg
    July 14, 2008

    Why are scientists always so eager to look for ways something will fail


    Is pointing out that one idea out of many seems a bit suss now “eager” to find ways of failing?

  17. #17 Moshe Pritsker
    July 14, 2008

    Hey Scicurious,
    Here is a video-article on scoring animal behavior, as you asked :-)

  18. #18 Moshe Pritsker
    July 14, 2008

    Correction to my comment above – here is the correct link to the
    video-article on animal behavior

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