By Paige Jarreau
Dr. Paige Jarreau is a science communication researcher and freelance science writer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In 2016, she undertook a large-scale survey of science blog readers, which was crowd-funded and supported partially by PLOS. Below she describes the results of a custom readership survey she conducted for the PLOS Blogs Network.
Earlier this year, I helped the PLOS Blogs network conduct a survey of its readers. A total of 996 readers of the more than 20 different blogs hosted by PLOS responded to the online survey.
So who are PLOS Blogs readers? What are their favorite types of blog posts? What are their motivations to read science blogs? And how do they feel about using blogs to share scientific research? Let’s delve into some answers.
Who reads PLOS Blogs?
This data suggests that the typical reader of PLOS Blogs is a highly educated science user. In fact, 64% of all survey respondents indicate that they are researchers by occupation. If you are a scientific researcher reading this blog post, you are in good company. Other than researchers, 28% of those who responded to the PLOS Blogs readership survey indicate they are graduate students (with multiple selections possible, e.g. they could be graduate students and researchers), 10% indicate they are clinicians or health providers, 15% indicate they are citizen scientists and 13% indicate they are science writers.
Given this science-savvy sample readership, the PLOS Blogs reader survey presented a valuable opportunity to discern how researchers are sharing their work with each other using traditional scholarly communications and newer avenues, e.g. social media and pre-print servers.
Where do blogs fit in with with readers’ science media diets?
Science blog readers tend to be active online science information seekers. In the survey of PLOSBLOGS’ readers, 83% of all respondents indicate that they often or very often actively seek out science-related information online. Only 7.4% of respondents indicate that they sometimes do this, while less than 2% indicate they rarely or never do this.
When asked to rank their top sources of science-related information, 63% of PLOS Blogs readers ranked academic journals within their top three. PLOS Blogs readers thus tend to be sophisticated users of scientific information. Nearly 37% of PLOS Blogs readers ranked online news media, 35% ranked scientific organization or government websites, 27% ranked Twitter and 20% ranked blogs within their top three sources of science-related information. Less prominent sources were books, Wikipedia, Facebook, print news media, podcasts, radio and television (<1% ranked television).
PLOS Blogs readers are fairly regular social media content creators, a trend that doesn’t necessarily hold among a broader science blog reading audience. Nearly 50% of PLOS Blogs readers post science-related content to social media at least once a week, and less than 15% almost never post such content to social media. For comparison, in a larger survey of science blog readers, a majority of respondents (56%) reported almost never or never posting science-related content to social media.
How do you like your science blog?
The PLOS Blogs readership survey prompted respondents to rate their favorite types of blog posts. Of all readers, 23% selected expert commentaries on current scientific issues as the type of post they find of utmost interest, while 20% selected in-depth analyses of single research papers and 18% selected basic explanatory science posts. Other popular blog post types were science communication research updates and advice, posts about issues facing the scientific community, and academic or career advice posts.
PLOS Blogs readers’ favorite types of blog posts hint at their primary motivations to read these science blogs in the first place. These driving motivations include to keep up with current events in science and to keep up with scientific research. Like other science blog readers, PLOS blogs readers also use these blogs to find information they can’t find elsewhere in traditional media, and as educational tools. On the other hand, social and emotional support rank relatively low among readers’ motivations to use PLOS Blogs.
Using blogs to publish science
One of the questions that PLOS was interested in exploring with this survey, with regards to its blog readers, was how researchers feel about using blogs to share scientific research either before or after publication in a peer-reviewed journal. PLOS Blogs readers enjoy reading blog posts that cover single research papers in depth, but when it comes to sharing their own research, do they prefer to use blogs or more traditional mediums for sharing research outputs?
A majority of PLOS Blogs readers, or 65%, indicate that they have published research before in a peer-reviewed journal. However, only 11% of these respondents often or always promote their research papers via blogs. Research conferences, ResearchGate and Twitter are more popular avenues for promoting one’s own research papers among PLOS Blogs readers. Roughly 57% of those who have published research indicate often or always using research conferences to promote their papers, while 47% indicate often or always using ResearchGate to do so, and 33% indicate often or always using Twitter to do so. Facebook, Academia.edu, LinkedIn and Google+ are less popular options for sharing research papers among PLOS Blogs readers.
The interesting thing is that even among researchers reading PLOS Blogs who use blogs themselves to share their research outputs, sharing full research reports prior to formal publication in a peer-reviewed journal is still relatively rare.
Only 56 respondents, or 8.6% of all respondents, have ever posted a draft of a research paper on a blog before they sought formal publication for the paper, although 47% of those who haven’t done this indicate that they would do it if they had access to a blog venue for the purpose. On the other hand, 162 respondents, or 25% of all respondents, have posted a draft of a research paper on a blog following acceptance for publication, and 60% of those who haven’t done this indicate that they would do it if they had access to a blog venue for this purpose.
Why the relative reservation to post a draft of a research paper on a blog prior to formal publication?
A large number of respondents attributed their reservation to do this to a fear of getting scooped, and because it isn’t always clear whether a given journal will reject a manuscript that has been posted to a blog as a “prior publication.” Others indicated they are nervous about posting non-peer-reviewed findings or an an “unverified hypothesis on the internet” because they would likely “lose control of it.” And many others indicated that while they might like to do this, they didn’t think their co-authors would consent to it. Others indicated that they didn’t know they could do this, or that they don’t have a venue to do so.
Researchers indicate being more likely to post a research paper on a blog following acceptance for publication. One reader said, “I like to share my work with the widest possible audience, once it has been accepted by my peers.” Reservations to post a research paper on a blog following acceptance for publication included largely fear of breaking journal copyright rules. Others thought it would be useful to their (blog) audience to post the full manuscript, but they would write a blog post summarizing the main points of the published research. Others said they didn’t realize they could do this, or they didn’t have a blog venue to do so.
This lukewarm reception to preprints – showing openness along with hesitation and confusion on the part of researchers — comes as institutional funders, societies and scientific publishers have begun a public discussion of the potential benefits and problems involved with various forms of pre-publication peer review.
In summary, PLOS Blogs readers are active users of scientific information. In fact, according to the survey data, a majority are active researchers. They tend to consume scientific information from primary sources as well as news media and blogs. A majority are satisfied with the PLOS Blogs they have read, and are most interested in expert commentaries on current scientific issues, in-depth analyses of single research papers and basic explanatory science posts.
Dr. Paige Jarreau is a science communication researcher and freelance science writer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She blogs at fromthelabbench.com and you can find her on Twitter @fromthelabbench.
Featured image credit: quapan
Editor’s note: PLOS thanks the 1000+ of our readers who took the time to complete the survey upon which this post is based. And we thank Dr. Paige Jarreau for her work in survey design and analysis. Any responses, questions or suggestions can be left as comments after this post, or in a private email to firstname.lastname@example.org. — Victoria Costello, PLOS Senior Social Media & Community Editor.