Readership of papers vs. blog posts

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:

  1. Zombie ideas in ecology: 2995
  2. Frequentist vs. Bayesian statistics: 2662
  3. Why “The Spandrels of San Marco” isn’t a good paper: 2354
  4. How I almost quit science: 1940
  5. 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 EcologyAmerican 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.

13 thoughts on “Readership of papers vs. blog posts

  1. Two factor that may contribute to the difference: First, for a lot of readers, PDF downloads are a one-time deal; but if I really like a blog post, and cite/link to it several times, I’ll probably clock in a page-view every time I link to it or otherwise return to it. Second, even at PLoS, no-one hangs around a journal article’s unique page to leave comments and watch for responses to said comments.

    • I agree on both counts.

      Re: blog pageview stats vs. article download/view stats: If WordPress provided data on unique visitors, I’d have looked at it too, as a way of better understanding the pageview stats. Even allowing for repeated views by the same people, though, I’d still guess (and I admit it’s purely a guess) that my most popular posts draw respectable numbers of readers compared to PLoS ONE papers, and aren’t streets removed from PLoS Biology papers. One could also argue that there’s something to be said for repeat views, even if repeat views are something people mostly do with blog posts rather than journal articles. Although I’ve been known to repeatedly download the same journal article–I download it once, then can’t find it or delete it, so download it again when I need it again… 🙂

      Re: comments on blog posts vs. journal articles, yup. Which is why I doubt there will ever be any such thing as “post-publication peer review”, not in any systematic way, unless scientists are somehow forced to do it (e.g., IIRC, I believe PeerJ members will have a fairly minimal obligation to do post-publication peer review).

  2. Very interesting topic. I wonder if any academic departments or funding agencies count number of blog posts or size of readership when evaluating applicants. If blog posts can indeed have the impact of published articles, then they ought to do so.

    • “I wonder if any academic departments or funding agencies count number of blog posts or size of readership when evaluating applicants”

      Probably not formally. But then again, I don’t know of any department or funding agency that formally requires reporting of how often you’ve been cited, or your h-index, or article-level metrics for your papers, or etc. But people do often report those sorts of stats, because they think evaluators will give those stats some weight. So in practice it all comes down to what department heads, grant reviewers, etc. will consider. I have heard of one person who listed their blog in the “broader impact” section of an NSF grant application and reviewers didn’t like it. In the long run, I think things will change, but I don’t know how long the “long run” is or if its arrival can be accelerated in any way.

      My next merit review isn’t for another year. I plan to include my blogging stats. So ask me again in a year and I’ll tell you what my dept. head thinks of blogging. 😉

      • Hmm, I’m surprised that the reviewers did not like the blog of the person that you mentioned. Do you remember if they just ignored it or if they specifically listed it as a problem? The problem may be that the majority of grant are not familiar with the concept of blogging.

      • Don’t know, it’s secondhand information. I suspect that blogging just wasn’t what they were looking for in terms of “broader impacts.” NSF is infamously unclear on what “broader impacts” are supposed to be…

      • My department head described it as an unusual but “international-class” scholarly contribution on my performance review form. But of course, my performance review covers everything I do, and I highly doubt that my blogging made any difference to the merit-based raise for which I was recommended. But my head of department knows I do it and appreciates it enough to formally acknowledge it, which I think is all one can reasonably ask, I think.

        It’s possible an anecdotal incident helped him appreciate the blog a bit more than he might have otherwise. He told me that a little while back he was in South Africa, and a South African colleague of his, unprompted, said to him “Do you read Dynamic Ecology? It’s great!” 🙂

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  4. Hi Jeremy,

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter here.

    At SeaMonster, the more popular posts by Emmett and I get roughly the same number of visits (a few thousand) and our most popular posts have gotten several tens of thousands of hits. They also get cited in journal articles, picked up, linked to (and plagiarized) by the MSM, etc. So I very much agree with your main point: as a form of science communication – blogging can easily match journal articles in terms of the number of eyeballs it reaches, with, as you said, much less effort.

    I doubt most of my journal pubs have been read more than a few hundred times (if that!). And they take hundreds of hours to write and years to see published. For a typical blog post, Ill often write and publish it within hours of thinking of it.

    Long established science blogs like and get very impressive readership; easily upwards of 10,000+ a day.

    An anecdote to illustrate your boarder point about impact: I had lunch yesterday with my pals Allen Hurlbert and Craig McClain (of Deep Sea News fame) and after dispensing with all the departmental gossip, we starting talking NOT about a journal article but about your blog and some of the posts that really got us thinking recently! Such as the great rant about macho-stats.

    As I think you know, Iv’e long admired your science, but from my perspective, your impact on and recognition in the field of ecology, has been greatly enhanced by your blogging. I suspect most people know about you, how you think, what you think about various theories (zombie ideas!), etc, not from reading your papers, but by reading your blog. I agree, not everyone can or should do this. But in your case, it has paid off and you have already had a huge positive impact on ecology. So thanks and keep it up!!!


    • Thanks very much for your comments, John, they’re very kind. I really appreciate them coming from someone who’s such a successful blogger himself, and who is aiming for (and reaching) a much broader and larger audience than I do.

      You are certainly right that blogging has done a lot for my name recognition. I realize it most at the ESA–It’s only since I’ve started blogging that I’ve ever had strangers introduce themselves to me at meetings. It’s kind of a strange feeling–very flattering, obviously, but a little strange. Not that I was an unknown before, but it’s different now. I once did a post about networking at scientific meetings where I referred to a hypothetical “Dr. Famous”. It’s a little weird to think that, at least in some folks’ eyes, *I’m* Dr. Famous. 😉

      The attention and positive feedback gives me the confidence that I’m using my time well. I’m tenured, and I’m very conscious of what a rare privilege that is and how fortunate I am to have it. I’m increasingly coming to see the blog as one of the best ways I can make use of that privilege.

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