For academics, it’s tough to be seen, even by your peers. With over 7000 papers published every day, who has the time to read every new paper in their field?
Of course, you know that your research can make a positive impact on the world. But how do you get the public, policy-makers and funders to even notice it, let alone convince them they should care?
It doesn’t help that your work is hidden behind walls of inaccessibility. Whether it’s a paywall or wall of toxic jargon-monoxide, for the non-expert, these are tough barriers to overcome to access your work and to learn something new.
So how can summaries help?
For an academic audience, a summary is a way to more quickly sort through the cluttered highway of daily publications to find what matters to them. For a lay audience, a summary is like a lens that reveals the story hidden behind the wall of jargon and complexity.
There are several types of summaries: written, video or graphical.
But do they work? Do they aid comprehension and perceived understanding? Are they enjoyable to read or view?
Well, research on the effectiveness of video, graphical and written summaries is pretty scarce.
As communication and design experts, we believe in the power of video and graphical abstracts to tear down the walls of inaccessibility to scientific evidence. But as scientists first and foremost, we’re scrupulously on the look out for research which tests our hypothesis.
So we were excited to read a study by researchers at Rockefeller University, who set out to compare the effectiveness of video, graphical, and written abstracts as well as plain language summaries.
Video abstracts vs. graphical abstracts vs. plain language summaries vs. abstracts
The researchers took two papers in similar fields from a Nature publication, and crafted four different summaries for each:
They recruited 538 participants from different careers, either science, science-related, or non-science. They first asked them about how they prefer to learn about scientific research, then randomly showed each participant one type of summary before quizzing their comprehension and asking them questions about their experience.
The key research question: which summary is best for comprehension, perceived understanding, enjoyment and for receiving science updates?
What did they find?
Firstly, before the test, most people said they prefer to learn with written summaries or research papers themselves.
So the main result was a surprise:
Video abstracts had the highest scores for comprehension, perceived understanding, enjoyment, and desired updates.
Let’s dive into the specifics.
The results of the comprehension quiz showed that, in general, video abstracts came out on top, with plain-language summaries close behind.
An exception was among those in science-related careers, who found plain-language summaries best for comprehension.
Further, comprehension was not drastically different across all summary and career types. This means people are able to get the main takeaways of the paper no matter what type of summary they are shown.
So while video summaries were best for comprehension, any summary, is better than no summary.
Perceived understanding and desire for updates
Similar to comprehension, video abstracts ranked best for how participants perceived their own understanding after watching, closely followed by plain-language summaries.
Participants also preferred these two summary types as means to get updates on new research.
These results were independent of the participants’ careers, so there’s a clear preference here.
You guessed it, video abstracts and plain language summaries were, again, the winners here.
But, there were some differences between careers.
Scientists and non-scientists enjoyed video abstracts the most, while people with science-related careers enjoyed video abstracts and plain language summaries equally.
Take-away: from an enjoyment perspective, video abstracts are the best choice to appeal to the largest audience.
But which type was enjoyed the least?
Published abstracts and graphical abstracts were enjoyed the least by all career types.
An exception was among non-scientists. As you might expect, they enjoyed published written abstracts the least.
Why did graphical abstracts perform so poorly?
Graphical abstracts performed poorly in all measures: comprehension, perceived understanding, enjoyment and a desire for updates.
We can’t argue with the numbers.
But what makes these bite-sized graphics so unappealing?
We believe that the style of graphical abstract has a big impact. You see, like any of the summary types, you can make a graphical abstract in so many ways: clear or unclear, eye-catching or dull, fun or boring, hard to understand or easy, etcetera.
Here’s what the two graphical abstracts in the study looked like (created following the guidelines set by Cell):
It’s clear, this is a graphical abstract aimed at experts. You would need to be very familiar with the topic, or have already read the paper to understand it. So like putting the cart before the horse, it’s not a surprise that this kind of graphical abstract is ineffective as a summary.
What’s more, even scientists rated this kind of graphical abstract poorly. So why is this kind of graphical abstract so persistent? Some journals may have stricter guidelines than others on how exactly researchers should design a graphical abstract. But if it’s not effective, we need an alternative.
According to the researchers, participants in this study often commented on the graphical abstracts saying that they wished they had words or even a small description to go with the image.
So consider the alternative style of graphical abstract, below. Do you think this would be more comprehensible, understandable and enjoyable?
Our director, Dr Tullio Rossi, created this style of graphical abstract back in 2016 because he felt that the more traditional diagram-style graphical abstracts were not effective, especially with a lay audience, because it lacked context and explanations. If you are interested in learning more about the different flavours of graphical abstracts check out this blog.
Video abstracts engage a new audience
Asking the participants in advance about their preferred means of learning about new research allowed the researchers to understand how perceptions may have changed after reading or viewing the summaries.
Firstly, as you might expect, participants who prefer reading original research papers, also tend to score the written abstracts higher. Conversely, those who did not prefer reading research papers scored written abstracts lower. No surprise here.
But this was not the case for videos. There was no correlation between prior preference for videos and the understanding or enjoyment of video abstracts in the study. So participants enjoyed and understood the videos regardless of how they felt about video summaries beforehand. A big tick for video abstracts.
Further still, although not a statistically significant result, there was a slight negative correlation between video preference and understanding. This means, people who did not prefer video abstracts initially, still understood the research much better after watching the video abstracts. Another big tick for video abstracts.
This study gives us a wealth of new knowledge, considering it’s the first of its kind.
So here’s what we learnt:
Video abstracts are an effective and enjoyable way to summarise your research
All researchers should consider creating video abstracts, or at a minimum, writing plain language summaries of their research
The classic diagram-style graphical abstract targeted at experts is not effective or enjoyable
This blog is based on the research of Kate Bredbenner and Sanford M. Simon
Lab of Cellular Biophysics, Rockefeller University, New York, New York, United States of America