YouTube at the Bench

As a graduate student at Princeton University, Moshe Pritsker tried in vain to grow a culture of embryonic stem cells from instructions laid out in the methods section of a journal article. A colleague with more bench experience tried and also failed. Finally, Pritsker flew to Edinburgh to visit the lab where the paper originated to witness the procedure in person. He learned that the cells and solutions simply had to be handled in a particular fashion. It was a small detail that the written procedure didn’t capture. “Does one have to travel so far to learn these intricacies?” he recalls thinking on the flight home. “This seems medieval.”

Problems of replication in science have gotten a lot of attention lately. It’s a difficult problem. But for this one aspect of the problem—the challenge of providing precise and complete instructions for complicated and subtle procedures—a 21st century solution is at hand: Just train the camera on the bench to demonstrate how the experiment is done, Pritsker says. Video cameras—including those in smartphones, laptops, and tablets—are handy, inexpensive, ubiquitous, and easy to use. Video is better than text because some of the subtleties that must be employed in order to make a complex experiment work cannot easily be recorded on paper. Even a meticulous written record can be hard for the reader to visualize and reproduce. “There are so many cracks to fall through,” Pritsker says. “Instead of curing cancer and saving the world, graduate students and postdocs spend months reinventing the wheel.”

In 2006, Pritsker launched the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE), a peer-reviewed journal that publishes written protocols accompanied by video demonstrations. Protocols are JoVE’s business; it is not, the journal’s Instructions for Authors section says, a results-based journal. The focus is on experimental life sciences, but all are welcome; recently, the journal added an applied physics category.

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