Friday, March 16, 2012

Sharing Research Over YouTube: Good Idea?

Wired Science posted an article today* about ongoing dissertation (doctoral) research in developing gesture based systems for guiding aircraft. Wired created their article in great part from an MIT news release from 2 days ago. Content issues aside (subject for another day) there are fascinating cultural issues inherent to these releases.

The PhD candidate conducting much of the research (Yale Song) posted a YouTube video describing his work (all these secondary links can be reached from the primary Wired article). What I find interesting is the manner he chose to go public - that he chose to Really Go Public via YouTube. Traditionally, academic doctoral research focuses dissemination on conferences and journals for other academics.

There are good reasons for this tradition. First, the details of computing and engineering doctoral research are often highly technical and most easily understood by one's academic peers. As it should be: obtaining a PhD is supposed to involve breaking new ground and exploring innovation. Meeting this expectation means you have to delve deep deep deep. If you are a researcher, you no doubt have experienced the rapid glazing over of eyes when you start to explain nuances of your work to a lay audience. Even a well educated lay audience. It takes skill and practice (lots of practice) to share cutting edge technical research with those inside your field, let alone those outside your field. Not for the faint of heart.

Second, the academic reward system values publications at journals and conferences, in some cases books, but almost never public media. Again, this makes sense: it is from peers who are well versed in your subject matter that you can receive informed critique, feedback and support. A strong argument can be made that traditional media is often ill equipped to deal with cutting edge technical research. I'm sure you don't need me to show you recent examples of mangled and inaccurate reporting of scientific research in the popular media.

However, we know that people engage with audio - visual information more readily than they do with text alone. (Academics may be the exception - we DO love to read :)  It seems only natural that we find ways to take advantage of non-traditional dissemination venues for research - doesn't it? 

Thus, I was both delighted, surprised, yet not surprised to see a doctoral student online very clearly explaining his work. Part of me wonders: why is he doing it? I can't imagine he gains any official value added for his CV (aka "resume"). Another part of me concludes: it is only natural for the current generation of up and coming researchers to break out and add YouTube videos to their professional portfolio. Video can be an incredibly effective communication medium.

Yet another part of me suggests: Researchers shouldn't have to confine themselves to traditional dissemination outlets and/or wait until they are well established to share their work with the greater public. Should they? There are so many potential benefits of intelligently sharing cutting edge research with the greater public.  Why aren't more people doing it?

*Wired Science article


  1. I've thought about this a bit, and it seems like a paper is still one of the highest bandwidth ways of communicating a scientific idea.

    Papers could be augmented with "live" or dynamic content (the Executable Paper concept, for example) that links directly back to data sets and experiments used to produce charts, figures, and tables in the paper.

    At least one academic security conference in the past has encouraged youtube videos explaining or demo'ing the system to be submitted along with the paper; the program committee was not required to view the video nor did they officially evaluate it -- but it was extra information that could help *show* the system or concept in action, in case it was hard to believe from the paper content.

    I know other research groups who have done youtube videos or podcasts from time to time.

    Might the main reasons you don't see more of it be (1) they don't "count" as publications or (2) most graduate students really aren't trained to be effective A/V presenters to mix it all together. (2) is kind of a weak reason, especially with the quality of most available software and the ability to write even a minimal script. (1) doesn't work in the case that your stuff is newsworthy enough to get big press -- and that counts toward your job evaluations as an academic.

    1. Likewise, I have been thinking about your observations. I'm curious about a few things related to how much of a dent these videos made at the conference you refer to. Did you attend the conference?

      If you were there, what was your sense of the impact? Were attendees watching the videos, discussing them, referring to them?

      In a related vein, do you have a sense of whether or not the committee and/or reviewers watched them?

  2. I attended, but the videos were not part of the presentations (modulo the fact that I didn't attend all the talks...they may have indeed had some multimedia demo).

    My sense is that the PC for the most part did not look at the extra material, and that authors (mostly) did not choose to submit such extra material --- understandable, since not knowing how it might be evaluating could increase the chances that it has a negative reflection on the paper.

  3. It seems then, that the suggestion to create those videos might well have been counterproductive. If the people suggesting them do not look at them what message does that send?

    Creating videos takes work. If someone went to the trouble to create a video, will they likely ever do one again? I would guess not.

    It seems a shame to come up with such an interesting, creative idea and then not to run with it.