Pacific Standard keeps a watchful eye on the academic press, both for social science-oriented story ideas and because our major benefactor is SAGE Publications, a big player in the journal world. A lot of that observation focuses on weighty issues, like the future of open access or peer review’s feet of clay.
Then there’s JoVE, the Journal of Visualized Experiments, which bills itself as the “first scientific video journal.” They also describe themselves, in somewhat more Ivory Tower-y terms, as “the first and only PubMed/MEDLINE-indexed, peer-reviewed journal devoted to publishing scientific research in a video format.”
What this means in practice is that the experimental portions of technical scientific papers, instead of being laid out in a couple of dense paragraphs, is videotaped and moves from a necessary if clumsy part of the narrative to center stage. Science is developing wonderful ways to visualize data, but rarely process. Sure, there are a few things you might stumble across on YouTube, and SciVee posts various journal-related videos, but those are clearly sideshows to the heavy lifting in print.
Let’s say you were studying how creatures learn, and you wanted to do a paper on training honeybees to stick out their tongues when their antennae touch something. You could, of course, prepare a lovely academic paper, titled, say, “Tactile Conditioning and Movement Analysis of Antennal Sampling Strategies in Honey Bees (Apis mellifera L.),” as Samir Mujagić and his three co-authors at Germany’s Bielefeld University did.
In a release on the paper (or should we called it a "taper"?) co-author and cyber-biologist Volker Dürr, whose lab was the experiment's home, explained the rationale for the work: "We work with honey bees because they are an important model system for behavioral biology and neurobiology. They can be trained. If you can train an insect to respond to a certain stimulus, then you can ask the bees questions in the form of 'Is A like B? If so, stick your tongue out.'"
But rather than immediately run to a leading journal in their field to publish the results, the authors made a beeline for JoVE to present their methods. That journal both presented their words (online), and hosted a 10:14 video that demonstrated preparing the bees, conditioning their tactile responses, and then recording their movements and analyzing that data. Believe me, unless you’re a real devotee of the kinematics of fine-scale antennal sampling patterns, it makes much more compelling viewing than reading. That’s actually more true on JoVE, where much of the written material is in the form of numbered points so you can read along to the video.
Of course, after prefacing by saying we at PS look at weighty matters, I chose a quirky example to illustrate JoVE’s approach. JoVE’s intentions, however, are absolutely serious. To set the scene, here’s Alice Bonasio at Mendeley:
As science advances, processes and tools also become more complex. Procedures and techniques such as growing stem cells are tremendously complicated and difficult to accurately follow with just a set of written instructions, and visiting labs in person can be a very expensive alternative beyond the resources of many researchers. This challenge of poor experiment reproducibility is what JoVE tries to address, claiming that traditional written and static picture-based print journals are no longer sufficient to accurately convey the intricacies of modern research. Translating findings from the bench to clinical therapies rely on the rapid transfer of knowledge within the research community.
Reproducibility—remember Kayt Sukel’s piece “Replicate This” in February?—is a bugaboo across the sciences. JoVE won’t make the problem go away, but it might make it less frequent, as Josh Fischman discussed in a nice article for The Chronicle of Higher Education last October:
While many scientists believe that the video approach will ease the replication problem, it isn’t clear that visuals will make the issue go away. [Bayer HealthCare’s Khusru] Asadullah, author of the Nature Reviews report, believes—along with other researchers—that the primary culprit is the predilection of scientists for publishing positive results and omitting negative ones. So scientists reading JoVE may follow a method faithfully but still be unpleasantly surprised when the results differ from their expectations.
[Aaron] Kolski-Andreaco, the content director of JoVE, agrees that the video journal is not going to mean an end to irreproducible results. “We aren’t claiming to solve this problem,” he notes in an email, “but rather contribute to making methods more reproducible from lab to lab.”
JoVE has been around since 2006, and as of today has an archive of 2,410 articles. Since last year its profile has been rising as it adds more disciplines—chemistry, behavioral sciences, and environmental sciences so far this year alone--and branches out from its origins in biology.
We’ll be watching. Literally.