Dynamic Ecology year in review

Happy New Year! Now seems as good a time as any for some reflections on our blogging year, and a look forward to the next one.

Attention conservation notice: long, navel-gazing post ahead, with comments from Meg, Brian, and I.

From Jeremy:

Dynamic Ecology’s audience continues to grow, though our growth rate is slowing. We got about 740,000 pageviews this year from about 349,100 unique visitors, both up on last year. Thanks very much to all of you for reading. We don’t ever set out to chase traffic, so when we get it it means a lot.

Early last year I asked why we rarely have good arguments in the comments any more. Now we have the answer: our commentariat is shrinking. We got about 3,417 comments this year, way down from last year and only a bit more than 2-3 years ago when our readership was substantially smaller. This seems to have been the year when we finally started to fall prey to a widely-noted, internet-wide trend: blog comment sections are dying. Our comment section is still great–but not quite as great as it used to be. So an extra big thank-you to everyone who commented this year. We hope to hear even more from you in 2017. Even though realistically we probably can’t expect to.

In reflecting on my own blogging this year, I’m most proud of my post documenting the ~50:50 gender balance of recent ecology faculty hiring, and showing via poll data that this balance is surprising to most ecologists, who expected substantial male bias. It took me almost three days of work to compile the data–and it was time well spent. I think those data are very good news, they represent real progress. I hope they’ll be widely shared and that they’ll help inform future conversations about equity issues in hiring.

My post telling everyone to chill out about Jingmai O’Connor’s criticisms of bloggers was memorable for me because it was something I almost never attempt: a timely intervention into a developing social media firestorm. I like to think it had some modest positive effect. But of course, it’s of even less lasting value than the average blog post. Can’t see myself ever making a habit of that sort of post. I had a lot of fun with the mock syllabus for “ECO 607: Ecology is f*cked“. 🙂 I liked doing my series of instructional posts on mathematical constraints in ecology (starts here), and they seemed to go over well with readers. I’m sorry it kind of petered out when my teaching load picked up. I want to try and get back to it in 2017. Finally, I’m glad I wrote what I did about how junior ecologists shouldn’t be afraid to disagree with senior ones, even though I’d say it’s only an average post and even though I knew it wouldn’t go over well with everyone (which is fair enough). Over time, as our audience has grown and I’ve become better at anticipating reader reactions to posts, I’ve found myself hesitating to say things that I’m sure some readers won’t like, out of fear of getting viral blowback on social media. Disagreement in the comments I’m fine with, because I can engage with it. It feels manageable, and also like a learning opportunity. Viral social media blowback would not feel that way to me, and Twitter in particular is a lousy medium for productive disagreement. So I had to work up a bit of nerve to write that post. Same for the one on gender balance of recent hires–I made Meg and Brian read the draft before I had the guts to post that one. You can argue amongst yourselves whether it’s reasonable for me to have worried about viral social media blowback on either of those posts; I could see arguing it various ways. All I can tell you is that it’s a worry I had. In 2017 I’m resolving to try to work up the nerve a bit more often. Not setting out to upset some people, of course; I never do that. Just trying not to self-censor something that I think is worth saying and that I’ve tried to say thoughtfully. I’m really glad to be blogging with Meg and Brian; chatting with them behind the scenes really helps me think through things and improves my own judgement about what to post.

My personal favorite posts from others include Meg’s amazing, brave, and helpful post on her life as a scientist with an anxiety disorder, and Brian’s post on why ecology is hard (to which I really enjoyed replying; I learn so much from my disagreements with Brian). My friend Greg Crowther’s very personal guest post on the teaching position that slipped through his fingers was my favorite guest post of the year. Andrew Kleinhesselink and Peter Adler’s guest post on whether basic ecological research ever leads to headline-generating discoveries really made me think and got a great comment thread going. And I have a soft spot for Greg Dwyer’s provocative argument that trying to understand ecological data without mechanistic models is “a waste of time”. Reminded me of 2012 me, back when I was still good at deliberate provocation. 🙂 (the key is to have a provocative point that’s also a good point)

Of course, our personal favorites aren’t always the most popular posts. The most-read posts we published this year were:

  1. The 5 pivotal paragraphs in a paper (by Brian; I now refer back to this routinely when writing my own papers.)
  2. Life as an anxious scientist (Meg; linked to above)
  3. Ten commandments for good data management (Brian of course, who is amazing at listicle-form advice)
  4. Fun ways of deciding authorship order (Meg; I think this may be our most popular “just for fun” post ever)
  5. The big mistake almost every scientific poster makes (me; it never ceases to amaze me when advice I consider boringly familiar goes viral…)
  6. Formatting a CV for a faculty job application (Meg)
  7. How to write a good introduction section, and tell if yours is bad (me)
  8. Serial bullies: an academic failing and the need for crowd-sourced truth-telling (Brian)
  9. Good enough (Meg)
  10. Last and corresponding authorship practices in ecology, part 1 (Meg)

The clear message of this list is that in 2017 readers want to see many more posts from Brian and Meg! 🙂

In terms of “blogging resolutions” for the coming year, my main one is to continue to use the blog to help me write my book. I’m still thinking about how best to do that.

A few additional thoughts from Brian:

This has been my least active blogging year since we started. But that is just a sign of too many other things going on. I remain very much a believer in blogging as an important way of connecting specialized subsets of individuals dispersed across the globe

As I’ve said before the main reason I blog is the conversations and dialogue. If our comments section were ever to die, I would stop blogging. There is little doubt that for many people Twitter has become an alternative place to comment. I find this unfortunate. Twitter seems a good place to meet people and get pointers to interesting material (or as the EiC of Global Ecology and Biogeography to advertise our content: follow @GEB_macro if you want great macroecology/biogeography papers!). But as some of DE’s posts have had major twitter commentary, I remain unimpressed with the ability to have thoughtful, balanced, nuanced and informative conversation on Twitter. It has a hit and run feel to me.  I’m smart enough to know that opposed though I may be,  that I cannot reverse this trend. Thus the decline in comments is slightly worrisome, but I still find the conversations in the comment sections to be among the most elevated and worthwhile of almost anywhere on the internet. In many ways I think Twitter has absorbed the briefer comments and the deeper comments have remained. So that day of quitting is not coming soon!

I wish Jeremy good luck with trying to blog to help write a book. I had the same goal three years ago, and have failed to leverage blogging (and my writing is proceeding slowly, although I have now arranged a good chunk of time to write). Jeremy is visionary about blogging though so I’m hoping he will succeed so I can copy him. I have increasingly found blogging a good place to think out loud though (and again that benefit largely derives from the comment sections). I know Meg has commented on this before. I haven’t taught new courses this year, so I didn’t have my near annual fall musing on how to teach my upcoming class (community ecology and field natural history) but I certainly find it a good way to think about teaching. Other examples of thinking out loud posts range from fundamental ecological concepts like biodiversity (and pizza) to the problems academia has with serial bullies. I also think out loud about my journal editor role – the piece on handling correspondences (which was prompted by a piece at EEB & Flow) led directly to an overhaul of policy at GEB. And although neither post was written consciously to help with my book, I can see connections post hoc to this piece on what defines science (counting) and mechanisms in macroecology (inspired by a conference). I still have a few soapbox posts where I expound on my long held opinions with a hope to influence the ecological conversation at least a tiny bit (i.e. the opposite of thinking out loud) such as my posts on multicausality and impact factors. A first for me this year was to assign some of my blog posts as required reading assignments from time to time  (in place of primary literature in graduate classes). My series on data wrangling was even written in advance because I knew I wanted to cover that material in a class and didn’t know of a good resource to assign. I haven’t gotten back my fall student course evaluations yet, so we’ll see how it was received but my sense is that they went well.

So as you can see, blogging definitely has the potential to be synergistic with the other responsibilities of an academic job from teaching, to thinking and writing, to journal editing. I’m hoping to be a little more active this year than last. And as always, I have great gratitude for our readers and especially our commentors as that is what makes the experience rewarding.

And a few more from Meg:

I haven’t run the numbers, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this was also my least active year since we started blogging. (Thanks for keeping things rolling, Jeremy!) That was to be expected for me, though, given that I had a baby last January. My goal for this year is to once again write, on average, one post a week. I have lots of posts in mind, many of which are ones on topics where I’m looking for feedback. So, I’ll echo Jeremy and Brian’s comments that I hope we continue to have active, thoughtful discussions in the comment sections!

More generally, I find blogging incredibly valuable both because it allows me to speak about issues that I think are important, and because it helps me think through things (related to research, teaching, and all sorts of other things). In the new year, I have plans for both types of posts, and I’m hoping to be able to carve out time to work on them soon! I also have plans to work on a manuscript that originally started out as a blog post, which will be a first for me. I’m looking forward to it!

I’d say more, but the baby just woke up from his nap, so I’ll end there. Happy New Year to all our readers! We’re so glad you’re here.

26 thoughts on “Dynamic Ecology year in review

  1. Thank you Meg, Brian and Jeremy for all these thought provoking blogs. I am one of those passive (but regular) reader’s of your posts, but I hope to participate this year.
    Have a wonderful year ahead.

  2. Well done and many thanks for taking the time to regularly write all these thoughtful and provocative posts. I’m one of those 349,100 unique lurkers who regularly reads and often files away the many good reads on the blog, but seldom chime in with my own $0.02. With a 1:200 ratio of comments to page views and a 1:100 ratio of comments to unique visitors, I’d suggest that you’re doing fine, and that quality trumps sheer volume. How many spurious comments do you have to discard in your site moderation? I suspect very few.

    I doubt your decline in the volume of comments predicts anything dire for the site’s ecology. Maybe it’s year to year variation, maybe it’s a decline to a plateau from a peak, or maybe it reflects the competition on one’s time from other good ecoscience blogs. (There might be some population biology parallels to science blog dynamics.) For at least for this particular visitor, I either read this blog and its neighbors when I’m encroaching on my “shut up and write time,” or more commonly, on the small screen of my phone when I have a few minutes of downtime. The small screen is fine for reading, but is a terrible platform to write from.

    A thought for continued dynamism: Share the load by broadening your contribution base with more guest posts. This is not a criticism of the work of you three stalwarts, but a selfish concern that over time, competition for your time or blog burnout might curtail your writings (and my reading enjoyment). With three stalwarts at Dynamic Ecology, the risk of productivity declines or extinction is less than that for neighboring islands where the population of good reads is supported by solo writers, such as over at the Lab and Field or a certain squirrel hunter in New Brunswick. Contrast that with the Scholarly Kitchen, where 25 or more regular contributors share the load, as not to wear down individual writers. In particular, how about targeting some of those thoughtful, quiet early career scientists who you might have heard or perhaps sought you out at a conference to discuss an idea? Like your island neighbors, you’ve developed this blog to the point that a good thought piece here would be much more widely read and could be more influential than most journal articles. (Again, kudos and thanks for going to the trouble these several years). A moment in the limelight could be a good boost for post docs or PhD students, in addition to the benefit of providing new content that you didn’t have to write yourselves.

    • Thanks very much for the thoughtful feedback.

      “How many spurious comments do you have to discard in your site moderation? I suspect very few. ”

      Very few. The WordPress spam filter is great, hardly any spam gets through. And we only have to block or delete a bit less than 1 out of 1000 comments for being personal attacks or otherwise totally inappropriate.

      “The small screen is fine for reading, but is a terrible platform to write from. ”

      Good point. I’m sure that’s one reason commenting is declining, on our blog and others.

      “Share the load by broadening your contribution base with more guest posts.”

      We try, and will continue to do so. We probably invite at least twice as many guest posts as we publish. Many invited guest posters enthusiastically agree to write something for us–and then never actually do. People just have other priorities, so “write that post for Dynamic Ecology” never rises to the top of their to-do list. To a good first approximation, anyone who wants to blog enough to write even a single blog post already has their own blog or their own regular guest blogging gig. The exceptions turn out to mostly fall into two categories: personal friends of ours, and the small (and declining) number of people who comment here regularly but don’t have their own blogs. We also get very occasional unsolicited offers to write guest posts, but we have a policy of declining those. We don’t want people to start thinking of Dynamic Ecology as a journal.

      • Interesting point that you don’t want people thinking of Dynamic Ecology as a journal. It’s not, yet in some ways it and its kin are their own breed of journals, or at least science journalism. To me the main value of blogs such as yours is that they go beyond what journals can offer, with the informal, thoughtful essays on topical topics or whatever piques the interests of the hosts. While there’s some direct overlap with the commentary or letters to the editor sections of journals, there’s a dexterity to the science blogs that the formal journals can never match. It’s interesting to see big ideas expressed in blogs becoming cited in introductions of journal articles, although I can’t recall if that was discussed here, or maybe over at the Small Pond or Squirrel sighting grounds. Ecology blogging has matured to the point that it’s hard to keep track of the good ones.

        “… anyone who wants to blog enough to write even a single blog post already has their own blog or their own regular guest blogging gig.”

        Maybe not. Some friends and I discussed starting one in our niche (applied pollution ecology), but decided that to form a vibrant writing/reading/commenting community we needed good posts at least weekly and doubted that we had the diversity or commitment to sustain it. So instead we just flagged down the tender and ordered another round. So you might find that even the occasional commenter on a topic near and dear might be good for a post.

        Sounds like finding good guest writers is akin to finding good reviewers, with many more invites than writers. As with finding reviewers, broadening the invitation list beyond friends (who are probably established “names”? to target the early career types can pay off beyond the immediate submission.

        Thanks and best wishes for 2017.

      • To clarify, we don’t want anyone to feel free to send draft blog posts or ideas for posts for our consideration. The way anyone is welcome to submit a ms to a journal.

    • Yes – interesting point about how the increasing fraction of readers on smart phones affects the ability to comment. I’ve tried once or twice just to keep current on the comment thread on my own posts and it is very close to prohibitive.

  3. Looking forward to another great year of insightful blog posts! I read the comments on every post and it’s one of my favourite parts of the blog. While number of posts might be decreasing, in my view the average quality of the discussion is as good as ever.

    • Glad to hear you feel the quality of the discussion remains high.

      While I agree with Jeremy that a lot of people just read the post and skip the comments, I do think a number of people who don’t comment find the comments to be of high value and read them through (as do I of course). When I assigned the blog posts to my classes this year, I encouraged students to read the comments. A majority didn’t, but several who did commented on how enlightening they found them.

      There is probably a pyramid: X people read post, fraction of X read comments, fraction of fraction of X post comments. I’d be curious to know what that first fraction is but I know of no way to measure it (aside from a self-reporting poll).

      • “There is probably a pyramid: X people read post, fraction of X read comments, fraction of fraction of X post comments. I’d be curious to know what that first fraction is but I know of no way to measure it (aside from a self-reporting poll).”

        I’m sure this is right. And we have some crude data on it from old reader surveys. As I recall, a majority of survey respondents (who themselves probably are disproportionately comprised of our most avid readers) read the comments on at least some posts that they read. But only a minority read the comments on all the posts they read. And of course, only a minority ever comment, and only a minority of that minority ever comment more than once or twice.

      • I sometimes comment without reading previous comments — especially if there are a lot of them. But maybe that happens infrequently enough to matter to your pyramid fractions.

  4. I really enjoy most of the posts and would like to comment more but am often pipped at the post by more ‘agile’ and able ecologists. Like Jeremy I took up blogging to stimulate my book writing (hopefully working) and also wish that I had more commentators. I think that Brian is right, that Twitter has taken over that role – which is OK in some ways, but less satisfying to the blogger. I think that you should take comfort in the number of readers, tweets and likes. Keep up teh good work.

    • Possibly pedantic point: I don’t think it’s quite right to say people are commenting on Twitter instead of here. If Twitter shut down tomorrow I don’t think the folks who retweet our posts would start commenting here instead. Maybe a few would, but not many.

      • I’m not sure I agree. I think the numerical decline in comments is largely attributable to Twitter (no way to prove it though). However, what I concluded is that those switches have largely pulled comments of the form “Nice post” to Twitter with the more substantive comments staying behind. Which makes me much less worried.

      • @Brian:

        Hmm…My recollection is that we never used to get a lot of “nice post” comments. I think the drop in commenting that we’ve seen over the past year is too big to be accounted for by just losing the “nice post” comments to Twitter. It would be straightforward to check, of course, but also a decent amount of work if you were going to do it right.

  5. I rarely comment but always read the comments so I hope they don’t die off too much. Its one of the highlights when a good debate starts with plenty of links to follow. And personally I have learnt a lot by following various debates on here. Part of my lack of comments comes down to the reading on the phone problem mentioned above. I don’t think I have ever commented when I’ve been on my phone. Having said that it seems like you three have had less time to spend on the blog this year. Do you think that less time to spend replying in the comments could play a part in less debate? Id have thought so but maybe not. Anyway thanks for a good year of procrastination material 😉

    • I think all three of us have been as good about replying to comments on our own posts as ever. Meg has started waiting a bit and then replying to several comments at once rather than replying immediately as comments arrive, but I doubt that has too much effect on whether people comment. I think it’s mostly that Brian and Meg haven’t had time to post as much this year. Their posts tend to get good comment threads going more often than mine. Look for our commenting numbers to pick up a bit if Meg hits her #52posts goal. 🙂

  6. Regarding comments – do you also use Facebook for Dynamic Ecology? I usually share my blog posts on Facebook (not a valid comparison, it’s a small blog with few readers, but still), and get many more comments there than on the blog itself. I think that in this sense Facebook is better than Twitter, as it is easier to have a longer and thoughtful discussion, but still not as good as a blog, especially because the discussion gets lost in the sands of time after a few days.

  7. I suspect that if the “like” button was not restricted to other WordPress accounts you would get feedback of the “nice post” variety there.

    Happy New Year to all.

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