Friday, February 17, 2017

Introducing Slideboards, a tool for scientific communication

Given the information overload we all deal with, I think it’s pretty safe to say that scientific communication is more important than ever these days. The problem is that we’re still mostly using the same format we’ve been using for ages, namely the paper. And the bottom line is that people just don’t read them. The problem, deep down, is that papers serve two not entirely overlapping purposes: one is to tell people what you learned, and the other is to document precisely how you learned it. This is particularly problematic when trying to understand work outside your particular subdomain—all the details make it hard to focus on the bigger picture.

How do we normally solve the problem of giving a big-picture version of what your paper is about? Personally, I feel like the 5-10 minute short talk like you hear at a conference, when done well, accomplishes this nicely. So our first foray into communicating our science more efficiently was to make slidecasts, which are short videos consisting of slides and a voiceover narration—basically, an online version of the short conference talk. I think these are generally pretty effective, and I’ve gotten generally positive feedback on them, usually along the lines of “We should make these, too” (more on that later). One person I sent a slidecast to, though, had an interesting response. He said that he liked it, but that it was “Too slow, I want to get though the slides faster” and that “I want to know the answer to particular details, but I can’t get them.” Hmm. How do you make something simultaneously faster and include more information? So after a fair amount of thinking, we took a cue from the web. If you need to renew your driver’s license, do you download the entire operational manual of the DMV? No, you go to the website and get the overview. And if you have some special case scenario, like your boat-car needs a special game-and-fisheries license or something? Just look at the FAQ. Which got me thinking: maybe this is the solution for the “faster, but more content” crowd is looking for. Have a slidecast that one can flip through quickly, then a FAQ on the side that answer those “supplementary figure” questions that people often have during a short talk.

So we made exactly this! (And by we, I mean my awesome technician Rohit, who coded the whole thing from scratch.) We call them Slideboards, and you can check out our first fully-featured “Slideboard” here. I think it pretty much realizes our initial concept. Feel free to post a question and I will try and answer it!

Of course, it’s nice for us to make slidecasts and now Slideboards, but this always raises the question: how do we get others to make them, too? This brings me back to the feedback we got our slidecasts, which was “We should make these”, after which approximately zero people ever actually make one. Why not? Well, after having made a few of these myself, the answer is that it’s a lot of work—you really have to have a fully written out script, and it usually requires at least a couple takes, which all adds up to the better part of a day. (Of course, the fact that the work itself probably took two to four years never seems to enter into this calculus, but whatever.) Which is why we really wanted to make an authoring tool that would make the task of creating a Slideboard as simple as possible. Problem is, it’s hard. The reason why is simple, which is that making content just plain takes time, as anyone who’s made endless graphical abstracts and bullet points and the such can relate to. So we thought to ourselves, what is the content that pretty much everyone already has on their work? We thought two things: a slide deck for a talk on the work, and the PDF of the preprint or other written version that has various figures and supplementary figures. Our authoring tool leverages these to allow you to make a Slideboard quickly and easily. Basically, upload the slides to make the slideshow part and type in captions for the slides to provide some narration, then make questions and answers through a quick interface that allows you to drag and select images from the PDF to quickly insert into your answers. Here’s a very short video showing how to do it:

And that’s it! If you have some slides and Also, the viewer interface allows you audience to ask you questions, which you can then choose to answer if it seems appropriate (not that there are any dumb questions or anything, but… ;) ). We’ve tried to make the whole process as painless as possible, and hope to see your work soon!

Still, in a world with a steady stream of new ways to reformat and share your scientific work, why use this one? We believe that our approach provides a simple, rapidly digestible format that simultaneously provides a lot of information. Meanwhile, we’ve provided an authoring tool that makes it as easy as possible to develop Slideboards of your own.

And what can you do with Slideboards? Our primary goal so far has been to make a format for sharing scientific papers, and you can easily share links to either the entire Slideboard or a specific slide or question; you just edit the URL like this:

(More convenient URL generating buttons coming soon!) We think there are plenty more possibilities, however, including outreach to young students just getting interested in science, and probably many others we haven’t thought of. Anyway, give it a try, and just let us know if you have any questions, happy to help!


  1. Great concept! I just tried uploading a pdf to test it out and everything seemed to work but there was a recurring "DNE" error that kept popping up when the uploading was taking place. Just a small bug to be made aware of.

    1. Thanks for the heads up Dylan. I'm looking into the error and will let you know soon as I push up a fix!

  2. Am thinking of using the slideboard platform for an upcoming bioinformatics deep learning tutorial. Most stoked about the embedded questions - too often i get stuck on trivial issues when going through other tutorials on the web, this seems like the solution!