The Role of Webvideos in Science and Research Communication

Report on a special science communication session at the 15th Annual STS Conference in Graz, Austria, May 9-10, 2016

By Joachim Allgaier and Andrea Geipel

These days it seems obvious that the availability of new online media has changed the infrastructure of information. This also affects science and research practice and communication, especially the relationship between science and society.
However, the use of social online media for scientific practice and science communication and its impact on public perceptions of science, technology and medicine is still underexplored. Here it is particularly the web video format that we think has a lot of potential for research and science communication purposes. Web video platforms, such as YouTube or Vimeo, are immensely popular among users worldwide and they are also used for communicating and obtaining information about science and research.
There are a few pioneering articles, such as those from Welbourne and Grant or Morcillo, Czurda and Robertson-von Trotha or the more user and bottom-up oriented research by Jaspal, Turner and Nerlich and  Harris,Kelly & Wyatt. However,beyond these, very little solid information is available so far on web videos and science and technology studies and communication.

Building on a previous focus session on ‘Science and Technology Studies and “New” Media’ at the 14th Annual STS Conference in Graz in 2015, organized by Matthias Wieser and Joachim Allgaier, we decided to devote the following session at the 15th Annual STS Conference in Graz 2016 entirely to the topic ‘Webvideos in Science and Research Communication’.
We were particularly interested in the impact of web videos on the public communication of science, research and technology. Another aim was to bring together perspectives from empirical (science) communication research, science and technology studies, and perspectives from the humanities and other disciplines as well as perspectives from filmmakers, artists, videographers and other practitioners.

In the previous session in 2015 we already had two very stimulating presentations on the role of web videos that we could build upon: John Hondros problematized the internet as a video distribution technology by applying an assemblage theory analysis, and Andreas Bischof and Göde Both examined the role of YouTube videos as scientific currency in robotics research and autonomous driving research communities.

Assisted Reproductive Technologies 

The double session in 2016 began with a presentation by Eszter Nádasi on representations of Assisted Reproductive Technologies on YouTube. She has examined a range of YouTube videos on several infertility treatments and laid out how these treatments were presented in her sample. Apart from the metadata of the videos, the content creators, performers, target audiences, visual elements and the depicted environments were analysed as well.

Earth science 

The second presentation from filmmaker and digital artist Isaac Kerlow was titled: Earth Science Short Films that Engage Mainstream Audiences. He vividly shared his experiences and expertise as a science communication practitioner making web videos for various audiences for the Earth Observatory of Singapore. Readers can get an idea of the breadth of his work by checking some samples on his website, for instance Banda Aceh Tsunamis, a documentary feature that explores the impact that tsunamis have had throughout history.

Peter Kastberg then presented some Communicative Potentials of an Animated Webvideo as a Vehicle for Communicating Science to Lay Audiences. Some of these reflections have also already been published in various outlets that can be found on his website.

Reading Nietzsche

The first presentation of the second part - "Nietzsche’s One Way Ticket to Webvideo?" - was a contribution that amalgamated perspectives from arts and humanities.
In the form of an experimental video presentation Mersolis Schöne and Joel Szonn gave an experience report on their emerging web video project of research on the topic of “reading Nietzsche”.
The presentation reflected the progress of this approach, i.e. the work with film-based research investigating questions about the conditions of thought and insight. In this context, it was important that film is the medium and tool of research too, moreover, it stimulated transdisciplinary communication.
The experimental part of the presentation showed that there are clear limits to the integration of such methods in the form of a film collage in the present conference setting. One important question that was raised was how and if philosophy can be visualised and how important language is for the humanities.

Classifying online videos

Alicia de Lara, Núria Saladié, José Alberto García and Gema Revuelta were next with a presentation entitled Proposed Typology of the Scientific Video Online. Their research in progress follows three aims: Firstly; to establish a proposed typology of online video formats that allow classification and study. Secondly; to provide a method for classifying online videos about science in a technological and media context. And thirdly; to define general features of online videos about science. In order to do so they have qualitatively and quantitatively analysed 300 web videos about climate change and proposed a preliminary typology how to classify them.

Video as a tool for science communication

The last presentation Online Video as a Science Communication Tool was by Maria del Carmen Erviti and Erik Stengler. They had interviewed the producers of five major UK-based YouTube science communication channels and used the interview data to explore the purposes and potential of the video channels for science communication.
The study suggests that running a professional online science communication web video channel to its full potential is not a trivial matter and requires a substantial amount of dedication and person-hours, as well as a thorough understanding of the possibilities and challenges that are opened up by this format.
The main difference to conventional mass media is the vast potential that online video offers for direct interactions with various audiences, which opens up the potentially vast societal impact of the web video format for science communication.

This report shows that not only the web video format has a lot of potential for science communication (even though it also comes with some challenges), but also that the empirical study of web videos and web video platforms can be a fruitful area of research at the interface of science and society.
Luckily this topic seems to get more attention these days. For instance, science journalist Thilo Körkel and biologist and filmmaker Kerstin Hoppenhaus have just edited and published a free ebook on science web videos ‘Web Video Wissenschaft’ in German. It also has an interview in English with Cassie Williams who is Digital Manager of the successful Ri Science Video Channel of the Royal Institution.

The web video format has much to offer for science communication and some web video science channels do already receive an enormous amount of attention. We think that now is the time that science communication and STS researchers and other scholars should also devote their attention and critical thinking to this important and growing internet format and come up with innovative and fruitful ways of analysing and making sense of the role of web videos and web video platforms as popular two way interfaces between science and society.

A beginning has just been made.

Joachim Allgaier is a sociologist and media researcher and deputy director of the Institute of Science, Technology and Society Studies at Alpen-Adria-Universität in Klagenfurt, Austria.

Andrea Geipel is a PhD candidate working on science communication on YouTube in the Digital/Media/Lab at the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS) which is part of the Technical University of Munich, Germany.

Conference Photo by Maria Schrammel AKA @SchrammelM | posted on Twitter
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Science communication on YouTube: Factors that affect channel and video popularity