Reader survey results

Responses to our reader survey have slowed to a trickle, so as promised, here are the results. Thanks very much to everyone who responded. We’ve gotten 199 responses so far, which is more than I expected, so that’s great. Of course, it’s not a random sample of our readership. In particular, I’m sure our most avid readers were most likely to complete the survey. But it is very useful information nonetheless.

The first question I asked was about gender. I considered not bothering to ask this question at all, because I thought I knew about what the answer would be. Boy was I wrong! Respondents were 77% male, 23% female (no one identified as transgender). That’s a much stronger male bias than I expected. Especially since our readers skew young (see next question), and younger demographics in ecology are less male-biased (indeed, many graduate programs in ecology, including mine, are 50/50 or even slightly female-biased). I don’t see why men would be particularly inclined to complete the survey, so I assume the 77/23 split is a reasonable estimate of the gender mix of our most regular readers. Nor do I see why male ecologists would be particularly likely to read this (or any) blog, so I guess that 77/23 split reflects the gender mix of the population of “ecologists who read blogs”? Or maybe not: is it possible our content is more interesting to male than female readers for some reason? Do men just like blogs, or this particular, blog, more than women do? Brian speculates that our readership may be largely comprised of population, community, and theoretical ecologists, and wonders if those subfields are more male-biased than others. I’d welcome comments on the gender balance result.

As expected, grad students comprise the single largest proportion of readers, but not as big a proportion as I’d expected (40%, with the vast majority being PhD students). I thought it might be over half grad students. Postdocs are the next biggest group, and a bigger group than I’d have guessed (27%). Faculty was the third biggest occupation (19%), and though we didn’t ask I’m guessing those faculty are mostly younger faculty. Only very small fractions of readers are undergrads, professional ecologists outside academia, or others. These results have inspired me to do more posts in future specifically aimed at postdocs and grad students looking to become postdocs.

51% of respondents were from the US, 9% were Canadian, 5% were from the UK, 5% from Brazil, 3% from Australia/New Zealand, 20% from non-UK Europe, and 8% from elsewhere. All of those numbers are close to the numbers of pageviews coming from each location (51% US, 11% Canada, 5.5% UK, 3.2% Brazil…), so our survey respondents were geographically representative of our readership, and readers in different places likely are about equally avid.

The next question was about how people find out about new posts. 44% subscribe to our RSS feed, which is actually a bit higher than the proportion of our pageviews that come from RSS. 25% subscribe to our emails. 18% just visit the homepage (which is how I follow blogs myself–good to know I’m not the only one who still does this!) Only 7% follow our Twitter feed and only 4% follow us via WordPress. Hardly anyone mainly hears about new posts any other way. I asked this question in part because I wanted to estimate the absolute size of our readership. We know how many people follow us via our email feed, Twitter feed, and the WordPress following system. So I was hoping to reason as follows: if X% of survey respondents say they follow us via our email feed (or Twitter, or WordPress), and we assume that X% of all readers do the same, then our total number of email (or Twitter, or WordPress) followers represents X% of all our readers. But alas, I think that would be a dubious calculation, since the relative number of respondents who said they followed us via email vs. Twitter vs. WordPress didn’t at all match the actual proportion of people who follow us in those three ways (we actually have 59 WordPress followers, 107 email followers, and 284 Twitter followers). So if I did the calculation, I’d get three very different answers depending on which data I used, with no way to tell which estimate was best.

As you’d expect, the large majority of respondents were avid readers, reading most (63%) or all (13%) of the posts. 22% read some of the posts. Only two respondents read hardly any posts–and one says that he plans to become a regular reader! πŸ™‚

As expected, the vast majority of respondents (95%) read other blogs besides this one. It’s my strong impression that people either read a fair number of blogs, or they don’t read any. Big as our audience is, I regularly remind myself that there are many ecologists out there who don’t read this blog, probably wouldn’t even consider it (because reading blogs just isn’t something they do), and quite possibly aren’t even aware we exist. And for the 5% who only read this blog: flattered as we are to be the sole object of your blog-reading attention, there are other good blogs out there you should check out! πŸ˜‰

Only 32% of respondents have ever commented. I’m surprised it’s even that high, because substantial fraction of our comments come from just a handful of regular commenters.

The follow-up question on why people don’t comment was interesting. 48% said they don’t comment when they don’t feel like they have anything to add. Which is totally fair enough–nobody wants comments just for the sake of comments, which leads to threads filled with comments like “I agree!”. I guess I’d just say, don’t to be too quick to assume that you don’t have anything to add. A lot of our best threads involve commenters who all basically agree–but who illustrate their agreement with their own experiences, related links that they’ve found but others haven’t, etc. 24% said they weren’t sure why the didn’t comment or had never really thought about it. 21% said “other”, but unfortunately only a few respondents who chose this option actually filled in a reason. A couple of people said they had no time. One said he approaches blogs in “reading mode”, not “writing mode”. One said (with a smile) it’s his policy not to write things on the internet. One said that it was too difficult because English wasn’t his first language. One person said he’s working his way up to commenting soon. πŸ™‚ I was reassured that only 7% of people don’t comment because they don’t want to get into an argument or are afraid of being criticized. Our comment threads can be pretty vigorous and we like it that way–although we’re also aware that that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But you can’t please everyone, and based on this and other responses I don’t see much reason to try to modify the sorts of comment threads we have.

56% of respondents have shared at least one post via social media or email. That’s higher than I expected. I wonder what fraction of those folks have only ever shared one or two posts, and what fraction share posts regularly.

61% of respondents like our substantive discussions, commentaries, and critiques the best, while 24% don’t have a favorite type of post. The rank order there doesn’t surprise me, but the quantitative values do. I didn’t realize so many people are so fond of the really meaty, substantive posts as distinct from all the other posts. Guess that’s motivation, if motivation was needed, to keep doing as many really substantive posts as we can! All of us here really wish we could do more such posts, it’s just hard to carve out the time. No other type of post was the favorite of more than a tiny fraction of respondents. That kind of surprised me, I thought the “advice” posts would be quite popular since they’re aimed at grad students and we have so many grad student readers. I can only assume that grad students already get more advice than they can stomach, and would much rather read about statistical machismo and zombie ideas. πŸ™‚

We have a mandate for change, in that only 11% of respondents don’t want to see us try anything new. But what sort of change is unclear. The most popular options (and respondents could pick more than one) were invited guest posts (51%) and Faculty of 1000-style commentaries on newly-published papers (49%). I think we will try some invited guest posts. That’s a good way to increase our frequency of really substantive posts. And my sense is that there are lots of ecologists out there who, while they don’t want to blog themselves, have one or two “bloggable” ideas that they’d like to publish, especially for a big, engaged audience like Dynamic Ecology’s. As for Faculty of 1000-style posts, those are the sorts of posts Chris was planning to write when he first joined, but I think he’s finding it difficult to carve out the time. I tend not to be very highly motivated to write such posts myself. That’s for several reasons. In part it’s because when I wrote those sorts of posts at the Oikos Blog, they were my least-popular type of post. In part it’s because I don’t usually have anything really super-interesting to say about most recently-published papers, and I can’t be bothered to write such posts if I can’t “add value” via my own commentary (I wouldn’t see myself as adding much value merely by my choice of what papers to highlight). And in part it’s because I feel like there are lots of other places people can go for commentary on recently-published papers–Faculty of 1000, other ecology blogs like The EEB and Flow, journal blogs, your own journal club, etc. So Chris, it’s up to you–the people have spoken and they want to see your Faculty of 1000-style posts! πŸ™‚ None of the other options garnered more than 30% support. I was glad to see that the two options that would be the most work for us–live online chats and podcasts–got low support (10% and 21%, respectively). Can’t really see chats or podcasts happening, given that low level of interest.

In terms of other feedback and suggestions, the most common was basically “Dynamic Ecology is great, keep doing what you’re doing!”, for which thanks very much! It never ceases to amaze me that there’s a sizable audience that basically wants to read “Whatever Jeremy Fox (and now Meg, Brian, and Chris) happens to be thinking about.”

A couple of folks said that they like having a sense of what leading ecologists are thinking. Which is very flattering (I’m still getting used to the idea that anyone thinks of me that way), and also a little worrisome, since what I (or Meg, or Brian, or Chris) think is a very small and quite possibly unrepresentative sample of what “leading ecologists” think! Indeed, Brian and I both quite consciously use this blog as a way to try to change the “state of play” in the field. Believe me, when I attack zombie ideas, or Brian attacks “statistical machismo”, we’re not just giving voice to what all leading ecologists think (though we’re not just speaking for ourselves, either)!

A few folks, mostly based in smaller or more out-of-the-way places, said they liked the blog as a way of staying connected to the rest of the field because they find it difficult to attend big meetings. Relatedly, a few said they liked it as a source of opinions and ideas different than those they’d ordinarily encounter on a day-to-day basis.

One person wanted the longer posts broken up, but someone else wanted to see fewer, longer posts, so those two votes cancel out. πŸ˜‰ We actually have thought a fair bit about the optimal posting frequency, which is one motivation for the Friday linkfest posts–have one post with lots of short items, rather than a bunch of separate short posts.

One commenter suggested that Meg, Brian, Chris, and I try to stay out of each other’s comment threads, as a way of encouraging diversity of ideas. Will have to mull that over–could be hard to implement because we all can’t wait to read each other’s posts and comment on them! That’s part of the fun of a group blog for us.

I was reassured that only two folks suggested that the my posts, and/or the comment threads, be made more welcoming and less “aggressive”. I’ve already written about my point of view on this and don’t have much to add, save to say that this issue is always on my radar. As I’ve said in the past, I know I’m not always good about conducting debate in the most productive ways. I hope I’m not too bad at it, and I’m trying to get better.

One undergrad suggested that the posts be pitched at a lower level, while recognizing that this could be difficult to implement as this blog is aimed primarily at professionals and graduate students.

There was one great comment on how this blog seems to be aimed at the “top of the class” and how that affects how the blog is perceived by those who don’t see themselves as part of that class. I’m going to do a whole separate post on this, because this was a really insightful piece of feedback.

But perhaps the best feedback we got was this:

FODE in Portuguese is the “F word”. Perhaps you could consider changing the acronym πŸ˜‰

Will do! πŸ™‚

20 thoughts on “Reader survey results

  1. On the gender balance thing, I think it reflects more the male bias and male-centric culture of the internet community in general. There’s an ongoing debate in the blogosphere and in the major online fora as to what is to be done about the fact that the online commenting culture in general is often shockingly misogynistic. I in no way mean to imply that this blog in particular is misogynistic, but I think that it might suffer a spillover effect from the internet community in general. It would be really interesting to see some statistics on how the gender bias here stacks up against the gender bias in the general blogosphere. I would not be surprised if this blog has less of a gap than the average.

    • Good point. You could be right, as you say we don’t have the data to tell. I guess I always figured that academic ecologists and their grad students are a sufficiently non-random sample of the wider population of blog readers that their characteristics, rather than those of blog readers in general, ought to determine the makeup of our readership. But the survey results suggest I was wrong to think that.

      In various other venues I’ve made efforts to reach out to potential readers who don’t read us because they have a negative view of blogs in general–as venues for self-promotion or uninformed arguments or whatever. I’ve always thought of those efforts as directed primarily at older potential readers, who established their reading and work habits before blogs really took off. But perhaps we should also think about how to reach out to female readers? I hope that bringing Meg on board is a step in the right direction on that score, though I’m not so naive as to think “Hey, a female writes for us now, female readers will now come flocking!”

  2. I had the same thought as Brian about gender balance based on sub-discipline of ecology, and I think Gabriel makes a good point, too. The Internet is still quite dude-heavy. I, myself, wouldn’t have started reading this blog directly; I was pulled into reading blogs by a couple very good blogs by women scientists who frequently blogged about women in the sciences. Now I read a wide range of blogs. I would be curious to know about the gender break-down by geographic area and if it differs much from region to region.

    Regarding how people discover new posts: I’ll freely admit that while I follow this blog on Twitter, I almost never use it to discover new posts; I use an RSS feed. So I didn’t check the “Twitter” box on the survey.

    “A couple of folks said that they like having a sense of what leading ecologists are thinking. Which is very flattering … and also a little worrisome”

    Don’t worry! Your readers read other blogs, too: “the vast majority of respondents (95%) read other blogs besides this one.” A quick daily skim of the ecology blog-o-sphere is one way of keeping up with leading thoughts, but the responsibility doesn’t fall on any one blog!

    • Thanks Margaret. I do have what political pollsters call the “cross tabs”–that is, I could figure out if, say, US readers have a different gender breakdown than those from other areas. I haven’t looked at that yet because that would be work. πŸ˜‰

      Yes, based on the survey, I suspect many of our Twitter followers are like you–they follow the blog primarily via RSS.

      Re: our readers reading other blogs, I don’t know if they’re reading other ecology blogs, though I’m sure many of them are.

    • I think it’s interesting that I had a similar experience to Margaret, in terms of getting drawn into reading blogs by reading very good blogs by women who wrote about being a women in the sciences. Female Science Professor is really the reason I started reading blogs.

  3. In my department, the graduate students are probably ~60% female? I’d guess? But of the students that blog, they are *all* male. A collection of us students pass around links and discuss blog posts/etc on google+ and it is predominantly male, with a couple females occasionally chiming in. It could be because the blog-focused students tend to be the tech-oriented students tend to be male, but that still doesn’t answer the question, does it?

    • Thanks for the comments. I think your suggestion is a proximate answer, if not an ultimate one. That is, it changes the question from “Why were our survey respondents so heavily male?” to “Why are men so much more inclined to read/write/discuss blogs?” or even “Why are technology geeks mostly men?”

      You could be right that that last question is ultimately the right one to ask. Which would surprise me. I’m by NO means a technology geek myself, indeed in many ways I’m a Luddite. I only reluctantly own an *extremely* primitive cell phone, I don’t own a tablet, I still buy CDs, I’m not on Facebook, I don’t play video games, my computer runs Windows, I know essentially no programming…Yes, I blog. But that’s laughably easy–a bag of hammers could set up a WordPress blog, as witnessed by the fact that a Luddite like me set one up. And because I’ve never thought of blogging as a techno-geek thing to do, it never occurred to me that there could be a perception of blogging as a techno-geek thing to do, or that that perception could skew the gender mix of the readership.

  4. The gender imbalance could also reflect a bias in people’s tendency to skip the gender question. I don’t think you mentioned what proportion of gender responses were void.

  5. Well, as a youngish, female Faculty member at a US R1 university, my sense is that the field of ecology is still pretty male dominated. I feel somewhat like the commenter from the developing country — like I am on the periphery to some extent. This is why I do not comment on this blog (though I think it is great) and I am guessing this one reason other women do not comment much, also.

    • Hi Kay – I’m not entirely clear if you’re talking about your impressions of ecology as a field or this blog? As a field you are absolutely right that numerically (and hence every other way) the upper ranks are still too male dominated and that probably permeates through everything (although ecology is way better than my former field of computer software). Statistically I believe graduate school in ecology is now slightly >50% female so there may be some hope.

      To the extent you are referring to the blog, are there specific factors or behaviors that make you feel marginalized. Or are there things that could change that would make you feel more included?

  6. Not sure if it applies here, but I noticed that discussion forums, whether subject specific or idle off-topic threads on subject fora, seem to be skewed towards female participation while blog comments lean towards male. Yes, I visit many discussion forums, why do you ask πŸ˜‰

  7. Brain,

    Thanks for writing. I mean the field overall, not the blog (although to some extent it reflects the field). I was thinking about all of this given the comment from the developing-country commenter and was surprised to find that I felt the same. In our department we have more female grad students than male but only 25% of Faculty are female. It is going to take a long time for this to change, it seems (leaky pipe and all). I was kind of thinking about the ESA meetings, for example. The bigwigs mostly seem to be male…that reflects the culture of our discipline to some extent…I guess I am observing more than really complaining…

    • There’s no doubt ecology has lots of room for improvement. As I briefly mentioned before, I spent 10 years in the software business which is about 90% male. And even as a male I didn’t like it/it felt wrong. And in my more limited experiences in very female heavy contexts, the feeling of outsider is hard to escape and while not terrible, very chronic.So I think I have some sense of where you are coming from and describing it as relating to the 3rd world ecologist does not seem at all a stretch to me – the best description I have for the feeling is travelling in a different country.

      I suppose I am fast becoming part of the imbalance (male and rising in age and seniority). Other than the obvious but very multi-faceted problem of fixing the leaky pipeline, I am eager to hear other things that can help. In my current position I have been hanging out with a lot of social scientists and they are much more open in talking about such things which is refreshing – I think scientists are not often as good at acknowledging such “intangibles”. All of which is to say thanks for bringing this up!

    • Thanks Meg, somehow didn’t notice this comment when you first made it. Those data are surprising, and rather worrying, in light of our survey results. Suggests that it really is something about this blog in particular, rather than blogs in general…

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