Reader survey results!

Thank you so much to everyone who completed our reader survey! It’s very helpful to us to know what readers think of Dynamic Ecology and to receive so much thoughtful feedback. Below is a (long) summary of the results, with some commentary.

tl;dr: The overall feedback was very positive, but compared to our previous survey there’s definitely more of a sense that the blog could use some freshening up.

We got 396 responses. Not a random sample from any well-defined population, obviously. But probably pretty representative of our regular and semi-regular readers. Skipped questions were rare and randomly distributed, with a couple of easily-interpretable exceptions noted below.

Respondents are mostly grad students (32%), postdocs (26%), or faculty (26%). About 8% are non-academic scientists, the rest are in other categories. The vast majority of the grad student respondents are PhD students, for reasons that we speculated about in the comments in our previous survey. These results aren’t too different from our last survey.

About 58% of respondents are men, 42% women, 1 non-binary respondent. That’s only slightly less male-skewed than our previous survey, which surprises me a bit. Back then, we had reason to think that our readership was trending towards gender balance from a very male-skewed starting point. That trend has slowed or stalled, apparently.

Half of the respondents are from the US. About 10% are from Canada, 7% from the UK, 20% from non-UK Europe, the rest from elsewhere. That matches where our pageviews come from, which means that respondents are geographically representative of our readership as a whole.

85% of respondents have been reading us for at least a year. That’s up from our last survey, consistent with our traffic growth ceasing. Half the respondents have been reading us for at least 3 years (including those who started reading me back when I was at Oikos Blog).

The respondents are mostly regular readers, as you’d expect. Few read all our posts, but 54% read most of them, and 35% read some of them.

63% of respondents read as many or more posts than they used to, 25% read fewer than they used to. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect for this question, but that 25% number seems eye-openingly high to me.

Respondents vary widely in how often they read the comments. About 1/3 read the comments on most or all of the posts they read, 44% read the comments on some of the posts they read, about 1/4 rarely or never read the comments. Compared to our previous survey, this suggests that readership of our comments is increasing, which is the opposite of what I expected.

Respondents vary in their favorite types of posts, but some types are clearly more popular than others. Respondents had the opportunity to pick up to three favorite types of posts from a list. 60% picked critical discussions of technical topics as a favorite. That’s broadly in line with past surveys and not a surprise. Those are the sort of posts I first built an audience with back when I was at Oikos Blog. 51% picked advice posts as a favorite. Next most popular are discussions of non-technical topics, introductions to technical topics, and personal stories (all chosen by ~40-48% of respondents). Then linkfests and posts on gender & equity issues (both chosen by ~25-30% of respondents). No other post type was chosen as a favorite by more than 9% of respondents, and only a few percent said they have no favorites.

 About 22% of respondents have one or more types of post they dislike. That’s an extrapolation; a substantial minority of respondents skipped this question, presumably not realizing that “there’s no type of post I dislike” was among the possible answers. I assume that everyone who skipped this question doesn’t dislike any of our post types.

No post type is disliked by more than about 6% percent of respondents. Again, that’s an extrapolation, for reasons described in the previous paragraph. Every single post type is disliked by at least two people. Even “anything by Jeremy”, “anything by Meghan”, and “anything by Brian”.

Respondents vary in why they read us, but there are some common threads. This question asked respondents to classify each of numerous possible reasons for reading Dynamic Ecology as very, somewhat, or not important to them. 86% cited enjoyment as a very important reason for reading Dynamic Ecology. The next most popular reason for reading, chosen by 71% of respondents as an important reason, was exposure to new information and ideas. Next most popular were (in descending order) “for the advice”, “challenges my preconceptions”, “like hearing about the experiences of others”, “a way of taking a mental break without feeling like I’m wasting time”, “teaches me the unwritten rules”, and “get to read what senior ecologists really think.” All were chosen as very important by ~30-37% of respondents and somewhat important by another ~30-45%. Then “helps me do things right, avoid mistakes”, which was somewhat important to almost half the respondents but very important to only a small minority. Bringing up the rear are several reasons for reading that were unimportant to a large majority of respondents: “I feel like I should” (aside: I’m glad this one wasn’t popular, but am sad that almost 1/3 cited it as somewhat or very important), “substitute for lab meetings/seminars”, “recommended to me”, “other people read it”, and “have to read it for a class”.

12% think we’ve gotten better over time, 3% think we’ve gotten worse, 32% see no change, 53% aren’t sure or say our quality fluctuates. In retrospect, I wish I’d presented “not sure” and “it fluctuates” as separate options. Those numbers are down substantially from our last reader survey, when 31% said we’d gotten better over time, 30% said we’d stayed the same, 36% said not sure/can’t tell, and only 1% said we’d gotten worse.

The majority of respondents with an opinion think our comment threads are as good as they’ve ever been. 30% think the comments have gotten better or stayed the same over time, and 59% aren’t sure or rarely read the comments. None of the various reasons offered for thinking that the comments have gotten worse was chosen by more than 8% of respondents, and in total only 11% of respondents chose at least one of them. Personally, I’d say the comments have gotten worse over the past year or two because we’re getting substantially fewer comments than we used to.

About 61% of respondents agree with at least one of several possible criticisms or suggestions for improvement, but they vary in which ones they agree with. That 61% is an extrapolation, because a substantial minority of respondents skipped this question. That was your only option if you didn’t agree with any of the listed criticisms/suggestions. All of the other numbers in this paragraph are extrapolations too. 30% of respondents think we need new voices because the range of views on offer is too predictable or narrow. 23% wish Brian and Meghan posted more. (Aside: So do Brian, Meghan, and I! But we’re all already doing the best we can…). 11% think we’ve gotten too safe, that we used to be more critical and entertaining. None of the other options got agreement from more than 10% of respondents. I was reassured that only 8% of respondents think we’ve gotten stale, posting too often on the same old topics.

The written feedback was very positive overall, with a lot of thoughtful feedback. An especially big thank you to everyone who took the time to provide written feedback. It resists easy summary, so I’ll just highlight a few points:

  • There were some really, really nice compliments. Brian, Meghan, and I are tremendously flattered and humbled that so many people think so highly of Dynamic Ecology and have found it so valuable.
  • I didn’t realize that, when we switched to only showing teasers for our posts on the blog homepage, that those teasers would be the only thing that would show up in our email subscriptions. I can see where this would be annoying to those of you who preferred the full text email subscriptions. Sorry about that!
  • One respondent was sufficiently annoyed by my post announcing that I was going on leave and unavailable for reviews to stop reading for months! I hadn’t realized that any readers would find that post bothersome. My bad, I won’t clutter up the blog with those sorts of posts again.
  • Please don’t feel bad if you don’t comment, and no apologies needed if you don’t. The vast majority of readers don’t. But of course we’d love it if you did, and it’s never too late to start! 🙂 Even if it’s an old post–that’s why we leave the threads open. We see comments on old posts and we’re as likely to reply to them as we are to comments on new posts.
  • Several of the concrete suggestions for improvement were contradicted by other concrete suggestions. Thereby illustrating that you can’t please everyone. I say this not to dismiss or belittle the suggestions, all of which were thoughtful, but just to illustrate the challenge of acting on those suggestions.
  • Probably the most popular suggestion for improvement was for us to find a way to add new voices, whether via more guest posts or by expanding the team to include someone with a different background/perspective than Meghan, Brian, and I (someone younger, someone from outside N. America, someone from a different subfield of ecology…).
  • We did get one piece of very negative feedback about me specifically: that my posts are too deliberately-provocative and that my replies to comments are overly defensive, with the effect of driving away any commenters or other readers who might disagree with me.

The message I took away from the survey

Overall, I think the survey supports my own sense of the state of the blog: that it continues to do very well, but that it could use a bit of freshening up. I have a few ideas for experiments we can try in order to drum up more guest posts.* And the survey results have given me the kick in the butt I needed to sit down and write a few meaty posts I’ve long been meaning to write. And in light of that one bit of very negative feedback, I think I’ll retry an experiment I’ve tried once in the past: not replying to comments immediately, and noting in the post that I won’t be replying immediately. I might do this on all posts, or maybe just on posts that are likely to prove controversial. I won’t stop replying to comments entirely, of course. Many commenters appreciate receiving replies, and based on the experience of other blogs I’m sure that if I stopped replying to comments on my posts, my posts would eventually stop receiving comments. And I don’t want to wait too long to reply, since the conversation on our posts is most active on the first day and usually peters out entirely in 48 hours. If I wait too long to comment, I won’t be contributing to the conversation so much as giving myself the last word. But perhaps by staying out of the threads for the first few hours I can allow the conversation to take on a momentum of its own, and better signal that disagreement with the post is indeed welcome. And hopefully by only replying after the conversation has been going for a little while, I can write more thoughtful replies that better advance the conversation. Meghan already replies to comments in “batch mode” at the end of the day the post goes up, so I’m just following her example (though I believe she uses “batch mode” for different reasons; I’m not entirely sure.)

It’s not quite our 5th birthday yet (that’s next month), but here’s to trying to make our next five years even better than our first five! 🙂

As always, comments, criticism, and feedback are welcome. I’m going to stay out of the thread for the first few hours.

*As I’ve noted in the past, we actually invite many more guest posts than we publish. Everyone is busy, and so folks who agree to write guest posts for us often don’t follow through.

 

 

7 thoughts on “Reader survey results!

  1. I like the multi-post articles because they keep me coming back over the course of the week, particularly to see how the comments evolve. I’d love to see a theme or “special issue” that would run over a few weeks and potentially have some outside contributors that would talk about different aspects on a specific topic.

    • I really like this idea. I think it is a very promising way to discuss and synthesize big ideas in ecology. For me, the most unique feature of Dynamic Ecology is the synthesis of general ideas and formation of big pictures in ecology. This is something I can hardly get from anywhere else. For example, I keep coming back to blog posts like the five roads to generality and introduction to partition in ecology and evolution. Having some special issues on one or two big ideas would be very beneficial to readers.

  2. As I read the comment about multi-post, I forgot to add this on the additional comment: I find cross-referencing in each of the articles very valuable as I found useful comments even from the posts in 2012. I think as citing good old papers is still useful, citing good old posts make the blog coherent and progressive in ideas. The down-side is I am getting drowned in the issue so much as I clicked through all the links referred in the posts so that I distracted from the original post. I don’t know if this is a bad thing or not in the readership.

  3. Me responding to comments in batches isn’t really a strategic thing — it’s just how I tend to work. I remember hearing something about people who switch a lot between different things during the day vs. people who tend to do a big chunk of one thing, then move on to another, then another. (I can’t find the piece, but one type wasn’t “better” than the other — it was just describing two extremes of how people tend to do things.) I’m in the latter group in terms of how I tend to work, which explains why I often end up commenting all at once.

  4. All the other blogs I read have fewer comments too. I don’t think it’s you guys or the community, so much as it is technology.

    If I’m at my computer and have something to add (like now) I’ll type out a comment. If I read on my phone, I find commenting is a huge hassle so no comment unless I’m really fired up and know I can be succinct. I’m not terribly accurate typing on a phone, sometimes the interface with commenting on your phone is clunky (in general–can’t remember if that’s a WordPress issue, or Discus, or other commenting platforms), or I’m reading while waiting for my coffee/etc. and then when it’s ready I move on.

    • Yes, the move to smartphones is one big reason for the decline of commenting. Also possibly one factor limiting readership. How many people want to scroll through long blog posts on their phones?

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