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A case for papercasts

When considering the challenges facing scientific publishing, Acer VanWallendael suggests that journals should produce audio versions of the papers they publish.

Like many of my generation, I am hooked on podcasts. Whether I’m doing lab work, chores, or commuting, I am more than happy to portion off a piece of my brain to learn about something new, or drift into some immersive fiction. There are some excellent podcasts available that discuss new science, but I’ve always been frustrated that there is no similar option for a full audio version of papers. Over the past few years I have investigated options for “papercasts”, and I have learned about how the audio format could help both readers and scientific publishers.

My quest started simply and, I admit, naively. Could I feed the body of a paper into text-to-speech software and just listen to the output? The answer is decidedly “no”. The mispronunciations I could get used to (I somehow made it through a whole paper that called mRNA “myr-nah” about fifty times) but listening to a 30-row table of numbers read to you verbatim is a recipe for utter madness.

I next attempted my own papercast for a graduate Evolution class I taught. Students read one classic and one contemporary paper a week and discussed them in class. While the class kept up admirably, one of the final papers was the original “Red Queen Hypothesis” paper. While fundamental, it is quite long and dense. I recorded myself reading the paper and offered the audio to students as an mp3 alternative to the PDF. When I surveyed the students afterwards, around 45% found the audio option helpful, 45% said it was about the same as the PDF, and just 10% thought it was less helpful. I counted this as a rousing success, as almost half my students understood the material better just by changing the format of its delivery.

Since then, I have struggled to decide on the best ways to deal with some of the challenges of the format. A major challenge in the format will always be the lack of figures. My solution for this was to provide an “alt-text” version of each figure, where I described the contents and trend in the figure rather than simply reading the caption. This is a potential source of bias, as the power of images and figures in papers is that they may be interpreted differently by different readers. Still, this is probably the best option for the medium, and sighted readers have the option to turn to the PDF to check the figures if they have questions.

To record a paper, I read in 10 minute chunks using a cheap USB microphone into an audio recording program (such as QuickTime Player). Reading in chunks allowed me to easily stop and redo sections if I made an error, and were relatively easy to stitch together afterward in editing software (such as iMovie). I posted the audio on SoundCloud, which is currently free and easy to set up, although a podcasting app might work better at scale. The final recording was 79m long for a ~9,300 word paper. With stops and starts, the whole process took me about 4 hours.

While I originally recorded a papercast to help my students, other benefits of the format quickly became apparent. Visually-impaired readers rely heavily on screen readers and text-to-speech translators, so they face my momentary frustration with “myr-nah” every single day. Similarly, people with dyslexia may face particular challenges from the formatting of scientific articles. As the institution of science begins to take steps to include the historically excluded, papercasts could be an excellent way to benefit these scientists and students. As traditional gatekeepers of success and failure in scientific practice, journals must take on a role in improving scientific accessibility where they can.

Scientific publishing is facing several simultaneous crises that challenge existing norms in science and raise questions about the future of both non-profit and for-profit journals. There is no simple solution to all of the issues, but I believe that the production of audio versions of published papers by journals would be a step in the right direction. This is one of the reasons why, along with my recently published article in PLOS Biology, “Host genotype controls ecology in the leaf fungal microbiome”, I recorded an audio version of the text.

For-profit scientific journals are among the most lucrative businesses by margin, and some commentators have noted that most of that profit arises from the labor of the same people that are paying the business to publish. The profit windfall has also spurred a rise in predatory publishers, which take many forms but share weak or perfunctory peer review. At their worst, even reputable journals can act as toll-collectors, taking increasingly higher publishing fees or article access fees in return for managing a road that has gotten ever-cheaper to maintain as papers move online. Top journals justify their costs by helping to publicize papers and through services they provide to the community (e.g., the excellent Nature podcast). Still, for the many scientists without million-dollar grants, $11,000 is an exorbitant fee to charge to make a paper open-access, and few institutions worldwide can afford subscription costs for paywalled papers. I personally believe that costs should come down, but if the toll must be high, then the road should be as smooth as glass.

Producing papercasts for journal articles would be a straightforward process that integrates well with standard publishing practices. Fiction publishers have produced text and audio versions of the same work for years, although Digital Rights Management has historically been a challenge in that industry. I think that selective journals should hire voice actors to read papers as a service to authors and the scientific community. A voice actor with experience could record a papercast in around three hours. At a median actor rate of ~$37 per hour, each paper could be recorded for less than 1% of the cost of publishing an open-access article in Nature. The audio could be posted alongside the paper PDF and hosted on podcasting services.

The scientific world is changing quickly, and this change will be accelerated if the U.S. follows some European counterparts in requiring open access for research funded by federal dollars. Providing audio versions of papers can help with accessibility, and will offer a way for journals to distinguish themselves by providing additional services to authors and the community. Further, publishing papercasts will ensure that I can finally read for journal club and bake cookies for journal club at the same time, and we must never underestimate the power of good cookies at journal club.

About the author

Photograph of the author

Acer VanWallendael is a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University in the USA studying plant evolutionary responses to biotic and abiotic stress. ORCID: 0000-0002-3900-2818 @acer_aceae

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