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The fertilisation of a fish egg – an afterthought

One of the most difficult challenges in creating video that conveys scientific and scholarly knowledge is to get the right mix between image and text. Interestingly enough, scientific text and scientific film share the same pitfalls when it comes to understanding their content and images.

Academic disciplines influence not only how we talk about research and knowledge, they also frame how we make sense of images. Academic disciplines affect their disciples as they learn the technical language and the arguments of their trade. In the end, and amongst themselves, they speak a sort of tribal language that outsiders do not easily understand . There are some who call this language “Academese”.

A similar process seems to occur when you observe scientists handling images in their argumentation. Each discipline has its own approach to using images, be it as proof, as an explanation of research, or as deduction, to name just a few.

It is important to note that this seems to happen instinctively. Within disciplines it also makes sense: when you learn a specific academic approach, you usually first learn concepts and the necessary language or patterns associated with them. Because science is complex, the specialised language may then function as a shortcut to help expedite processes and discussion.

However, with the spread of scientific and scholarly communication, we need to take into account that not everyone who encounters these shortcuts will understand them . Scientists and researchers often argue that they do not want to simplify their thoughts in order to reach a larger audience. But this is a misunderstanding: we do not need to simplify thoughts, we need to aim for clear language. This is a challenge that requires some work, on both the language and the image levels.

The following story happened more than two decades ago, when video technology still was more analogue than digital. A scientist studying fish, a so-called ichthyologist, wanted to produce a voice-over for a video. In this video he had documented his research, showing the fertilization of a fish egg. He sent the text for his voice-over to the video studio. The editor assumed that all in all the film would be about seven to ten minutes. He looked forward to seeing the images. When the scientist arrived, the editor was surprised to see that the video recording consisted solely of one take. Shot through the ocular of a microscope, you saw a small fish egg hanging in the top right corner during the whole length of the material. It did not seem to move. So the editor asked: where is the fertilization? The ichthyologist told him to go to minute fifteen. And there, the trained eye could detect a very tiny twitch in the upper right corner. After that, the fish egg was fertilized.

The story illustrates that if you are a researcher, your discipline tends to influence how you visualize the world and read its images. If you want to translate academic thoughts into images, however, you need to consider that not everyone views pictures in the same way. Telling a story needs explanation and elaboration – also on the image level.

In the end this comes down to the question of how you address your audience. Stephen Pinker’s (2014) account of “classic style” for scholarly/academic writers is helpful in this regard. Pinker suggests:

The writer and reader are equals and the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation [quote source]

This attitude is also very helpful when you write for video – just replace “reader” by “viewer”.

Pinker also talks about a few pitfalls that do not only concern well-written texts, but also visual communication:

Pitfall 1: the curse of knowledge
The “curse of knowledge” is the unconscious preconception that once we have learned something, we forget how we learned it – and assume that everybody else knows what we now know. An example on the image level are graphs with several complex layers. Often, they are introduced as proof of a certain fact and since – from our own perspective – we are accustomed to reading them quickly, we saturate these graphs with as much information as we can cram into the image. The curse of knowledge lets us forget that others might lack our training and we might need to lead their gaze by explaining one point after another.

Pitfall 2: Implicit argumentation instead of showing evidence
Implicit argumentation instead of showing evidence. Logic is a wondrous tool. However, it has many different variants. Just because you can show something, that does not make it evident. In audio-visual media, it is often a good idea to introduce your theory with a case that assists the audience in understanding your context.

Pitfall 3: Human working memory can only hold so many items at the same time.
Three might be a good measure – especially in the audio-visual world, when your audience might not want to go back and forth in your video to understand your argumentation. So again: do not overcrowd your images or slides in your video abstract. Also remember that many people now tend to watch videos on small screens; which means that three bullet points and adequate typography are needed for them to understand your written points.


Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century . New York, NY: Penguin.


University of Basel