A REFLECTION ON THE USE OF VIDEOS IN COMMUNICATING ECOLOGY
By Charlotte Alster, Erin Cubley, and Courtney Larson
Scientists often say that they want to get their message out there. But where is “out there”? Who are the people that will receive the message? It’s easy to say that your audience is the general public. Maybe you feel that most people would benefit from understanding more about climate change, nutrient cycling, or habitat loss. Although putting a video up on YouTube makes it accessible to everyone with an internet connection, how many people will ever come across your video? How many will actually watch it, or will watch more than the first ten seconds?
To learn more about how science videos can reach an interested audience, we recently spoke to two ecologists who have experience communicating science through videos: Francesca Cotrufo, a professor of soil ecology in the department of Soil and Crop Sciences and senior scientist at the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at Colorado State University, and Brian Woodward, the lead of the Fort Collins node of the NASA DEVELOP program (see recent EcoPress article on NASA DEVELOP). Cotrufo has recently been involved in several different types of projects translating her science into videos–from videos on research methods to collaborations with Nature’s YouTube channel. Woodward is involved more specifically with coordinating six remote sensing and geospatial science projects per year in which each project team makes a video summarizing their work. From these interviews we gained some real insights on what to consider when making a science video:
- Is a video the right choice to communicate your work? Before you begin it is worthwhile to consider whether a video is the best medium to communicate your research. Although both scientists we interviewed were enthusiastic about videos as a science communication tool, they were also thoughtful about what the role of videos should be. Woodward cautioned that not all projects are easily communicated in this format, stating “the first thing you need to ask yourself is, ‘is a video going to be the best use of our time?’… Is there an audience out there to watch this video?”
- Be mindful of who your video will actually reach. The audiences for their videos varies, but neither Woodward nor Cotrufo said their audience was “the general public.” Cotrufo recently published an article in JoVE (the Journal of Visualized Experiments), a peer-reviewed scientific video journal in which the main purpose is to illustrate a novel lab method for other researchers. “When people see how you’re doing something rather than reading how you did it, it should make it clearer,” Cotrufo said. For a paper published in Nature Geoscience, Cotrufo worked directly with the journal to create a video about the research. She confessed that she is not quite sure who the audience is for this video, but added, “it’s the first time that my mom understood what I am doing!”
Videos about the NASA DEVELOP projects are primarily used to communicate project objectives, methods, and results with current and future project partners, said Woodward. Partners include federal and state agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the Colorado State Forest Service, as well as non-governmental organizations including Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies and the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch. Projects are designed to address a specific concern from a partner organization, but “the majority of the people that are going to be looking at these projects don’t necessarily have a great understanding of remote sensing science or geospatial sciences… [the videos] take a complex topic and make it communicable,” explained Woodward. Thus these videos are tailored to a very different audience than JoVE or Nature viewers.
- Consider the format. Each of the different videos we discussed in our interviews had different styles depending on the target audience. Cotrufo’s JoVE video as well as her teaching videos mainly focus on lab footage since the purpose is “to visualize and clarify different methods.” This format is great for teaching since students and researchers “can go back and see methods again” before starting their own experiments, said Cotrufo.Other projects, such as the NASA DEVELOP videos and Cotrufo’s Nature video, use a combination of field footage, photographs, maps, short interviews, simple cartoon graphics, and scientific figures. The combination of all of these components have the potential to engage viewers with varying interests and keeps the video moving quickly.Another option is to use a “gimmick” to engage viewers, for example by creating a video using only cartoons, dance, or a song to relay your research. This can be tricky as you do not want to distract from your actual message, but done correctly can potentially have a large impact and reach several different audiences. Videos created for the annual Dance Your Ph.D. contest are good examples.
- Think about logistics. As most ecologists are not expert video producers, running into unexpected problems is common. In addition to expected unknowns such as weather or other technical difficulties, Woodward warned that for most videos you need to get media waivers for everyone talking on the video, as well as licenses for music and video clips. Getting these waivers and agreements are sometimes easy, but can be time-consuming or near-impossible to procure – for example, licenses for popular music.
- Avoid oversimplification. One challenge in communicating science in general, but particularly in videos, is the balance of making the research accessible to your audience, but also maintaining scientific rigor. Cotrufo cautioned against the risk of “banalization” of the research. At the same time, one strategy can be to leave out some of the details of the methods. Woodward says that in the NASA DEVELOP videos they try to “focus more on results, less on methodology”; interested viewers can refer to reports and scientific papers that contain more methodological details.In our own attempt to make a video about a current research project in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), we struggled to simplify the message without omitting important details. We ended up over-simplifying the story a bit, perhaps because we didn’t define our audience specifically enough. We could have thought about reaching RMNP visitors or CSU undergraduate ecology students rather than an amorphous “public,” and add more details relevant to those specific groups. These groups may have a real need or appreciation for the information we wanted to convey.
- Have fun! Creating videos about your ecological research is not only educational for your viewers, but can also be personally fulfilling. It is a great opportunity to practice simplifying your message and perhaps an enjoyable break from conventional academic writing. When asked why she decided to publish in JoVe, Cotrufo stressed that “it was an active decision. I thought it [would be] fun. I’d never done it before.” As videos become an increasingly popular medium to communicate your work in a world bursting with social media and popular science, it doesn’t hurt to have fun in the process!