I had a conversation with a senior colleague recently who doesn’t really read blogs, though he said he did look in on the Oikos Blog occasionally. He was very surprised when I told him how large the readership for Oikos Blog was.
I suspect that many academics who don’t follow blogs have a mental image of their readership as being rather small. If you don’t read blogs, you naturally assume that most other people don’t either. At least not people like you–probably some academics think of blogs as mostly just by and for non-academics. And even if you’re aware that some blogs have many academic readers, you might still think that they don’t reach as large an audience as scientific journals, or you might be unsure how to compare their respective audience sizes. So I thought I’d throw out the total number of views (syndicated and non-syndicated) that some of my most popular posts on Oikos Blog received, and compare those numbers to the viewing statistics for journal articles.
I recognize that I’m shamelessly tooting my own horn here. I try not to do that very much, but I’ve been giving in to temptation lately. I promise I’ll stop after this (seriously). In my own defense, my aim here is not primarily own-horn-tooting. My aim is to present some data on readership of blog posts, measured on a scale that “journal-centric” ecologists will hopefully find relevant and interesting.
I wrote for the Oikos Blog for about 15 months. Here’s a list of my five most popular posts and the number of views they got through 2 July 2012:
- Zombie ideas in ecology: 2995
- Frequentist vs. Bayesian statistics: 2662
- Why “The Spandrels of San Marco” isn’t a good paper: 2354
- How I almost quit science: 1940
- Why ecologists should refight the “null model wars”: 1241
Note that these numbers are a lower bound, because they don’t include views by people who went to the journal homepage and then scrolled down. More broadly, out of 341 posts I did during my time at the Oikos blog, something like 100 of them were viewed at least 500 times.
Here are some numbers for journal articles by way of comparison:
PLoS ONE is the world’s most popular open access journal. And whatever you think of PLoS ONE’s stated policy to publish anything that’s technically sound, its impact factor is close to 5, which is comparable to or higher than that of many leading ecology journals like Ecology, American Naturalist, Journal of Ecology, Journal of Animal Ecology, and Oikos.* PLoS ONE provides data on how often each article has been read, including both online reads of the html version, and downloads of the pdf version. My most popular post would rank in the top 4% of the 727 PLoS ONE “ecology”** articles published from May 1, 2011 – July 2, 2012, and my top five posts would all be in the top 30%.
If you want a comparison with a more selective journal, PLoS Biology is highly selective and high impact (impact factor in the teens, if memory serves).* It publishes some ecology and evolution, but mostly publishes in other, much larger fields of biology like biomedicine. It’s also open access. My most-viewed post would rank 93rd out of 162 PLoS Biology articles in all fields published from May 1, 2011 – July 2, 2012. All of my top five posts would outrank at least a handful of PLoS Biology articles published during the same period.
I wish leading specialist ecology journals published similar data, but they don’t. For what it’s worth, I doubt the overall picture would change hugely.
Note that my top posts are all lengthy, substantive posts. You may be wondering about the time investment required to produce such posts. I don’t actually do such posts all that often. Most weeks I spend just an hour or two blogging, enough time to crank out a few short posts. A lengthy, substantive post takes me several hours, maybe a day. So substantive posts don’t take a trivial amount of time, but they take much less time than it takes to write a paper. So from a readership-per-time-investment perspective, lengthy, substantive posts can do much better than journal articles. My substantive posts also attract many more comments (often 20 or more) than the vast majority of PLoS ONE or PLoS Biology articles.
Now of course, those posts didn’t attract readers all by themselves. It took me months, and many posts, to build an audience on the Oikos Blog. And I’m sure my ability to build an audience on the Oikos Blog also reflected the fact that I’m an established researcher with the credibility that comes with having published in leading journals, sat on an editorial board, etc. On the other hand, isn’t that similar to what happens with journal articles? Surely much of the audience for an article by any well-known ecologist reflects not just the content of that particular article, but the “audience” that that ecologist has developed over many years of publishing papers, sitting on editorial boards, etc.
I’ll note as well that blog posts are free as well as open access. In contrast, it costs authors money to publish in PLoS ONE or PLoS Biology. (Just to be clear, I do not think that blog posts can or should substitute for peer-reviewed papers! I’m just sayin’…)
I think these numbers are food for thought, especially for those of you who don’t blog. Not everyone can be a good blogger, any more than everyone can be good at anything that requires some ability, effort, and practice. But I’m sure numerous ecologists who don’t blog could do it well and attract substantial readerships if they chose to do so. It need not even take away time from writing papers. Indeed, I’ve started treating some of my substantive posts as first drafts of papers I plan to write. I have one paper in press that was an expansion of a blog post, and another in review. Neither is a paper I would’ve written had I not been blogging, and neither has slowed my progress on any other paper. So rather than taking time away from writing papers in order to write lengthy blog posts, what I’m doing is getting more out of the time I spend writing papers by turning some of my first drafts into lengthy blog posts.
Of course, in making these points on a blog, I’m preaching to the converted.
*Yes, I know impact factors are a highly questionable way to compare journals. I’m going for something very quick and dirty here, just to make the point that PLoS ONE and PLoS Biology are comparators worth taking seriously.
**A category that actually includes many articles in evolution, genetics, paleontology, environmental science, and other fields, because many PLoS ONE articles are classified under multiple categories.