Science Communication on Youtube, Part #1: A Missed Opportunity?

While looking up different viewpoints for my last post on the definition of science communication, I noticed something unexpected;

I’m interested in science communication, and love to learn more about it.
I also spend a lot of time on YouTube, including on educational channels.
However, I’ve never used YouTube for finding out about scicomm specifically.

I didn’t know if it was just something I had overlooked, or if there was a reason for this. So I decided to investigate where YouTube stands on scicomm- whether its popular with science communicators, and whether science communication videos and channels are popular with Youtube users.

Method

My first tactic was to go with the obvious; to search for “science communication” on YouTube and see what kind of channels and videos come up. As this is a likely approach for someone who has just heard the term “science communication” and wants to explore it, this seemed a sensible place to start.

I looked at the 5 most relevant channels and videos according to YouTube’s search algorithm, then the 5 highest viewed channels and videos. The results can also be found in infographic form here, and each of the images is a clickable link to the video/channel.

Videos


The most successful section in my opinion was the 5 most relevant videos.

Two of the 5 were from the same channel- Did Someone Say Science?- a channel I’d never watched before but was really impressed by. Science Communication; It’s No Joke! explains why scicomm is important using famous historical science such as the discovery of penicillin as reference points. “Top 5 Science Communication Moments in Films” is interesting because of the film references and uses a format that promises an easy, entertaining watch.


The other three videos covered different angles; Alan Alda’s talk “The Art of Science Communication” didn’t explain what science communication was but gave a strong example of a passionate science communicator. “Four Questions About Science Communication” featured a lot of accessible information and examples of what science communication experts try to achieve.

Finally, “The five treasures of science communication” is a showcase of projects from MSc Science Communication students which demonstrates how scientific thinking can be shown in real-life projects and creative ideas. This one was also useful because the audience was members of the public, who were interested and wanted to take part in the projects.

The 5 most popular videos were a little disappointing, as two of the 5 videos weren’t actually about science communication at all (one being on Cell Communication, and one being a trailer for a Communications degree).

Of the 3 remaining videos, an average youtube viewer would probably watch Xiangjun Shi’s “Why Do I Study Physics?” first. . The hand-drawn animated video is really clever, as Shi manages to explain exactly why they find physics so fascinating, and the beauty present in finding out about the world more deeply.

“A Conversation About Communicating Science” will also attract attention because it includes Neil deGrasse Tyson, while the PBS news story on Alan Alda’s Flame Challenge shows why science communication is important for both children and adults.

Channels

When it gets to channels, the results aren’t as accessible. Two of the 5 most popular channels- GiovediScienza and CRS4– are Italian: GiovediScienza overdubs the talks with an English voiceover, and while the content looked informative I found the overdub voice quite hard to listen to.CRS4 is simply filmed lectures- the camera being far enough away to view the powerpoint slides means the presenters come through very quietly, and stops the content holding your attention as much as it could have.

Gregory Mack is a physics professor who posts filmed lectures as well. His videos are short, clear and more engaging than the CRS4 videos, so they could do with more promotion.

Did Someone Say Science, makers of the most popular video, are also the 4th most popular channel. Completing the set, SciCommStudios offers scientific art and data for science communicators to use. Their website actually looks really useful for science communicators, but their YouTube channel doesn’t reflect that too well.

Finally, on to the 5 most relevant channels. The biggest channel in this section is the Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia, a collection of talks from the National Academy of Sciences. These videos are a useful resource for academics, but the titling and length of the videos is likely to discourage laypeople from diving into any of the playlists on this channel.

The rest is, unfortunately, kind of a ghost town. The two most relevant,both called ScienceCommunication, are promotional channels for Laurentian University and the University of Otago respectively.

The Laurentian University channel is fairly sporadic, but does have some really informative videos. The Otago channel, on the other hand, has 10 videos and hasn’t been updated for over 4 years. The other two relevant channels also have not been active for a least five years, and have only a handful of videos.

I would guess that because all these channels started just after YouTube formed, and before people worked out how to do scicomm on social media, they lost motivation or ideas for engaging people with scicomm so stopped making videos.

That’s really disappointing, as I figured YouTube would be a fairly lively discussion centre for scicomm. However, I’m optimistic: we’ve seen other educational channels like CrashCourse, and TED talks make it big. New channels like Did Someone Say Science? show that scicomm in the form of entertaining videos is possible, and I’m hoping that the next time I track these results there will be some growth.

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