YouTube is entertaining, but can it be used to promote science?

27 04 2016

In my daily life, I have probably spent too much time watching YouTube videos for fun. But YouTube also helps me in my research work. For example, when I wanted to learn a new statistical method in SPSS, I searched in YouTube and found many teaching materials showing me how to do it with examples. Without YouTube or similar online tools, I probably had to go to my supervisors or colleagues for help. I am glad that more and more academics have supported ‘open science’ and shared research articles, data, methods, tools and teaching materials online with free access. There has been an increasing amount of literature regarding research 2.0 and the use of social media tools such as Twitter, blogs and academic social networking sites in the last few years. However, very little attention has been paid to academics’ use of YouTube and video-sharing services for research purposes.

Established in 2005, YouTube has grown to become the largest and most highly visited online video-sharing service with over 1 billion users, localised in over 70 countries (YouTube 2016). Many academic institutions have adopted YouTube to publish teaching materials, such as lectures and presentation videos (Young 2008). Educational videos on YouTube have been used inside and outside classrooms (Tan and Pearce 2012). As for my own teaching expeirence, I have frequently used YouTube videos in tutorials to help illustrate key points and stimulate discussions, although I have never posted videos on YouTube. YouTube has provided new opportunities for innovative research methods as political scientists could now collect data analysing YouTube videos during a period of certain social movement events.

There are different benefits for active contribution and passive viewing of social media contents. Active distribution of research updates on social media could invite wider participation and timely feedback to improve research work and promote one’s profile. Whilst passive viewers are not free-riders because they provided a valuable service by acting as an audience to help strengthen the rewards that motivate others to participate in more active ways (Antin and Cheshire 2010). YouTube viewers facilitate the viewing record and ranking by voting “like” or “dislike” which could encourage the creators of the videos to improve and produce again (Biel 2009). Additionally, viewers can share and embed the videos on Facebook or their other social media accounts which help publicise the videos to wider audience.

I was interested in knowing whether and to what extent other academics used YouTube videos. For my PhD research, I conducted a survey with UK academics and included the questions about YouTube in the questionnaires. The vast majority of respondents (85%) regarded YouTube videos as “not at all important” or “not very important” as information sources for their research, but almost half of them (48%) reported having watched videos on YouTube in their research work. YouTube videos were proved to be indeed popular for entertainment as 87% of academics reported having watched YouTube videos for leisure purposes. Not surprisingly, only 8% of respondents reported having posted videos on YouTube in their research work and 10% reported having posted videos for leisure purposes. There were notable differences in attitudes and behaviour across academic disciplines and also in terms of academics’ age and experience. Academics in the Humanities and Social Sciences were more likely to watch YouTube in their research work and regard YouTube videos as important as dissemination means than those in the hard sciences. The research impact of Humanities and Social Sciences often requires direct engagement of wider publics to enhance their learning and well-being or to influence policy making which might have motivated individual academic and research centres to start use YouTube for public engagement. The dominant view that the majority of lay public members are not able to understand scientific research outputs can influence academics’ science communication practice (Bucchi 2004). Many Scientists might see it as too difficult to make videos to disseminate research outputs that can be easily understandable to the general public.

I also found that junior and younger academics were more likely to have positive attitudes towards YouTube and more likely to use YouTube for research and for leisure. Age being inversely associated to internet and other new media use is consistent to previous studies. In line to the findings from studies by Shema et al. (2012) and (Procter et al. 2010) that the use of new technology is more easily accepted by men, this study found that men were more likely to post videos on YouTube for leisure than women.

Mobile devices have offered users easy access to watch and share videos. This study found that academic smartphone users were more likely to post videos on YouTube for leisure purposes, but not for research purposes. Educational and research-related videos often require more advanced technology than simple video recording by a smartphone. It would require good technical skills and sufficient time to make good quality videos which could be the obstacles for busy academics. Academics with teaching duties were more likely to share videos in their research work and this could be because they were more comfortable with YouTube and new technology such as podcast having used videos and recording devices in their teaching work. Academics seemed to be influenced by their colleagues’ recommendations to actively create videos on YouTube. This suggests a strong social network influence for a person to adopt new technology. Social media trainings were also important in helping improve academics’ skills and confidence in creating and sharing videos. Institutions would need to develop good training courses if they intend to encourage their staff to be active YouTubers.

The study of YouTube has been written as a paper and will be published as a book chapter as Zhu, Y. (forthcoming) ‘Academics’ active and passive use of YouTube for research and leisure’ in Antonella Esposito (ed.) Research 2.0 and the Impact of Digital Technologies on Scholarly Inquiry. IGI Global.

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Bucchi, M. (2004). Science in Society: An Introduction to Social Studies of Science. London and New York: Routledge.
Procter, R., Williams, R., Stewart, J., Poschen, M., Snee, H., Voss, A. & Asgari-Targhi, M. (2010). Adoption and use of Web 2.0 in scholarly communications. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 368(1926).
Shema, H., Bar-Ilan, J. & Thelwall, M. (2012). Research blogs and the discussion of scholarly information. Plos One, 7(5), e35869.
Tan, E. & Pearce, N. (2012). Open education videos in the classroom: exploring the opportunities and barriers to the use of YouTube in teaching introductory sociology. Research in Learning Technology, 19.
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YouTube. (2016). Statistics [Online]. Available: [Accessed 12 April 2016].