Reader feedback: what audience are we aiming for?

Of all the feedback we got from our recent readership survey, one very thoughtful and unusual comment (meaning, unlike any other comment) really jumped out at me. Here it is in full:

Sometimes I have the impression you are writing only to the top ecologists class. Not every one had the opportunity to have a Peter Morin as a supervisor or to study in Harvard (as Brian). Here in the third world things a much different. We sometimes think we are doing good science. Then, after reading some of your posts, we realize our hypothesis are disconnected from theory, out of date, or are not even true hypothesis. It seems, sometimes, that you are writing only to those that publish their work in top journals like eco lett. To tell you the truth, I have even considering given up as a “scientist” after reading some of your posts. I had the felling that everything I was doing was not science. Anyway, I am not asking you to take it easy in your posts. I really like the way you write. Maybe this is just a consequence of you being a top scientist, surrounded by top scientists – it’s your world.

A big thank you to whoever provided this comment. You’re absolutely right that this blog is aimed at what is, in a global sense, a very narrow audience: developed world professional ecologists (especially academics) and their graduate students. And you’re absolutely right that I write for that audience because that’s my world. It’s the only audience I know well enough to write for, the only audience to which I think I have something to say that’s worth reading. As much as I like to think of myself as a “fox”, as someone who reads and thinks about a broad range of things in the course of his professional life, in many respects my professional horizons are exceedingly narrow. There are vast swaths of ecology that I rarely, if ever write about on this blog. Whole subfields (landscape ecology or ecosystem ecology, for instance). Applied, conservation, or restoration ecology. And yes, ecology done by ecologists not employed in developed countries.

Which says something about me, not about all those things I don’t write about. Just because I don’t write about something doesn’t mean it’s not worth writing about, or that I’m not aware of it. This blog really is just the stuff I personally happen to be interested in, nothing more. It’s just me thinking out loud, about stuff that I think might be of interest to my rather narrow audience. (And I think much the same goes for Meg, Brian, and Chris) So yes, if you’re reading this blog, do keep in mind the audience I’m writing for.

8 thoughts on “Reader feedback: what audience are we aiming for?

  1. I’d like to add that this blog, indeed aiming at top level ecologists (i.e. absolutely NOT me), makes me become a better one (I’m doing a PhD). I’ve learnt a lot about various topics during the last six months thanks to this blog and, though I will never become a top scientist, I am already a better one now and, consequently, I could be a better researcher (if I choose to carry on in academics). So, Jeremy (as well as Brian, Meg and Chris), just know that you’re also pulling up basic scientists to a higher level: that’s an achievement πŸ™‚
    At least, you make it feel that way, which is good enough for me πŸ˜‰

    • Agreed. Part of the reason I started reading this blog (and a few others, but this one is the most interesting so far) was that I wanted to get a better sense of what some of the people at the top of of the field are thinking and talking about, and what I should keep in mind as I make my way through my career (which of course is at the very earliest stages, right now). I’m just an undergraduate with aspirations of greatness but it’s really helpful to me to be able to listen in on (and even participate in, a little!) discussions being had by Real Scientists.

  2. I really empathize with the original comment, and yes, I have experienced a few “WeΒ΄re not worthy” moments while reading some science blogs (this one included πŸ™‚ ). But I see it more as a glass half-full situation: I can get first-hand insight on what the top scientists are deeming important, and how they operate. This must be one of the best aspects of scientific blogging: any scientist, at any career level, can follow the modus operandi of leading researchers, and learn from that. If you have insider information on how top level research is made, then it is easier to try and do it yourself, too.

    Another thing I really do appreciate, which keeps me getting back here, is being able to read in-depth, authoritative posts such as the zombie ideas series. Through them, I can get an up-to-date expert opinion on some aspect of ecological theory, supported by “curated” references, and quickly get to know the state of the art, the current issues, and where discussions are heading on that particular field. On topics where I don’t have the necessary background, getting there by myself while wading the oceans of modern scientific literature would be a herculean task.

    Having open, accessible, dynamic content like this as a starting point to educate oneself beats any review paper, by very, very far. Actually, maybe that would be a good blog post…does the “static” review paper still has a place in a scientific blogging world*?

    All in all, keep the bar raised, and thank you for keeping us on our toes!

    * Other than raising journal impact factors (smirk).

    • Thanks for the very kind comments.

      Re: in-depth blog posts as an efficient way to get to know some topic, yes, they certainly can be. Andrew Gelman talks about this as well–about how blog posts are like papers with all the boring, inessential bits removed, leaving only the interesting, important bits. Whether they “beat” review papers (or textbooks, or taking a course, or reading a bunch of research papers from the primary literature) I think depends on the purpose of your reading. As you say, if you’re looking for a starting point or a “roadmap” for understanding current thinking on some topic, blog posts often are exactly what you want. But if you’re looking for something else, blog posts may well not be what you’re looking for. For instance, sometimes you want a short, “curated” list of key references. But sometimes you want a comprehensive list (for instance, to evaluate whether the “curated” list you read on some blog was really a representative list!). Sometimes you want an overview of a topic. But sometimes (such as after you’ve read the overview!) you want to dig into technical details. Etc.

      So yeah, I’d say the “static” review paper absolutely still has an important (indeed, increasingly important) role to play. The fact that review papers raise journal impact factors is a symptom of the importance of their role. We can’t all read everything, so we need summaries–like review papers.

      By the way, in an upcoming post I’ll be talking about a review paper I just read. So perhaps one role of “static” review papers is to provide fodder for blog posts! πŸ˜‰ (just kidding)

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