Peer reviewed videos: the way forwards for methods papers?

Last year I published my first ‘paper’ with JoVE – the Journal of Visualized Experiments. JoVE are a video journal, that I had heard about from a collaborator – who suggested that our MRI-targeted prostate slicing method ‘PEOPLE’ might be a good fit. It sounded like a great idea!

I’m happy to report that there’s no twist coming in this blog – the experience was great, and I’d recommend them to others too!

Seal of Approval by Jaco Haasbroek | Perfect Fit Phone Case Threadless
Image source:

With JoVE, you submit an abstract & basic written paper of your method (or whatever research you’d like to publish as a video). The written submission is peer reviewed, edited as necessary, and once the reviewers are happy, you begin to plan a filming day. There are a few options here – I chose to go with the more expensive option of having JoVE arrange the script, filming & editing for me, rather than having to do it myself. The benefit here is you get to work with professionals, who know how to get the right shots, the right lighting, and edit everything in such a way that other scientists can see everything they need to see clearly, and learn the method so that they can carry it out themselves.

This was of particular benefit to me, as a (very!) amateur YouTuber with Cancer Research Demystified – I wanted to learn how the professionals do it!

Our videographer was Graham from Working with him was a brilliant experience – he was an ex-researcher himself, and had extensive experience both carrying out and filming science. He made the day fun, quick and easy – if you ever need someone to film an academic video for you I highly recommend his company!

Filming day itself wouldn’t have been possible without the rest of our research team helping out (in particular Hayley and Aiman – thank you!) and of course a very generous prostate cancer patient, who was undergoing radical prostatectomy, kindly agreeing to take part in our research.

After a short wait we received a first draft of our video which we were really happy with – we had the opportunity to make a round of edits (there weren’t many), and then before long the video was up on JoVE’s website, as well as Pubmed and all the usual places you’d read scientific research in paper form!

Personally, I think videos make a whole lot more sense than written papers for sharing methodologies. I’ve used JoVE videos for training myself – notably for learning to build tissue microarrays (TMAs), and without those videos I’m not sure I could have learned this skill at all – as our resident experts had left the lab! A paper just wouldn’t be able to clearly explain how to use that equipment. With JoVE, there’s always a PDF that goes alongside the paper too, so once you’ve watched and understood the practical side, you have the written protocol to hand while you’re in the lab. The best of both worlds.

I’ve always been a fan of simple solutions (I’m a bit of a broken record on this) – and JoVE is a perfectly simple solution to providing training that will show you how to do something rather than just tell you.

Once caveat – it’s not cheap. But your fellow scientist who want to learn your methods will thank you – you’re doing the rest of us a favour! Of course, there’s always YouTube for a free (ish) alternative. But in my view, the added layers of peer review and professional production are worth the extra cost.

Here’s our JoVe video & PDF publication – enjoy!

And no, this blog was not sponsored by anyone – I’m just a fan & paying customer!

‘Opportunity’ v ‘extra work’ –perspectives of a new PI.

Last week I spotted two tweets about opportunities. One said something along the lines of ‘stop telling PhD students you are giving us opportunities when really you’re dumping extra work on us’ and another implied ‘opportunity’ in a euphemism for unpaid labour.

I have to admit, both of these lead me to take a good hard look in the mirror!

Genuine opportunities for early career researchers are something I have always considered to be critically important in academia. Because of this, over the last few years I have consciously tried to offer PhD, MSc and BSc students what I saw as ‘opportunities’, in particular the chance to get their names on my papers.

This is something that is really important to me. I wasn’t lucky enough to get my name on other people’s papers when I was a student (except for one review!) and I would have killed for the chance to run a few PCRs or analyse some data to get an authorship. For me, this didn’t happen until I was 3+ years post PhD, at which point I had enough of my own first author papers that a co-authorship was less of a boost to my CV than it would have been earlier on.

As an undergrad or postgrad, if you’re hoping to become a PI one day, you already know that publications are key. But without the resources, funding, political sway or niche expertise that a more experienced researcher might have, you’re somewhat reliant upon others going out of their way to include you. Or at least that’s how I felt when it was me.

This is the reason I have made sure to include the students around me over the last few years, and as far as I was concerned – it was working! Recently three of my project students have gotten their names on two papers each, as well as a couple of the nearby PhD students getting their names on almost everything I publish. I must admit I’ve been giving myself a pat on the back for this… Sharing my modest success and building the CVs of the talented future PIs around me had felt like a privilege, and a rewarding endeavour.

But was I really just exploiting them?

Let's Get Together To Talk About This Exciting New "Opportunity" - Dr. Evil  Air Quotes | Meme Generator

Looking back, some of those students probably had no interest in building their CV towards a career in academia, and could probably take or leave the ‘opportunity’ to get their name on a paper. They of course each told me that they really wanted the authorships and were really grateful for them. But that’s exactly what I would have said too, regardless of how I felt – maybe they were just being polite!

With one student in particular, I remember getting a sense that perhaps they weren’t that interested in the ‘opportunity’ I had offered. It was someone I knew well, and I was comfortable being candid with them about this. I recall saying directly that there was no pressure to take it on, that I was happy to do it myself and the only reason I was offering it to them was to give them a chance at authorship. They insisted that they were keen to be involved, and went ahead and did the work, which amounted to a full figure and prominent authorship in the resulting paper. It was only afterwards that they admitted they actually had no interest in that particular topic, it was just extra work, and they had only done it as a favour for me.

I won’t lie, it felt like a bit of a gut punch. My ‘good deed’ had been perceived as unpaid labour.

Outside of academia, unpaid labour can be a huge problem, particularly now that social media has become so key in growing people’s businesses & careers. Stories of professional photographers or bakers getting asked to do weddings in exchange for Instagram posts, or artists being asked to create commissions for nothing but the offer of ‘great exposure’ are rampant, with some notable and entertaining examples on the ‘choosing beggars’ subreddit if you want a laugh:

Could this be the case with students in academia? Is authorship payment enough, or should we only offer to get students involved if we can actually pay them cold hard cash for the experiments they run or analyse? This would certainly vastly reduce the frequency with which I could give students authorships on my papers, as funds are generally not available to pay them with.

Is it enough to frankly say to a student ‘I have no funding to pay you to run X experiment, and you don’t have to do it, but if you do, I will put your name on the paper’, or does that run the risk of them going along with it out of politeness, as happened to me recently?

If I were to stop offering these ‘opportunities’, would keen students who want to be PIs one day end up missing out? Students who would have been just as excited as me to get their name on a paper?

How do we determine whether we’re offering someone an opportunity or purely exploiting them?

I wish I had the answer to this, but as with many other things in my first year of being a member of faculty – I have no idea.

Discussion, comments & advice welcome as always!