A difference by orders of magnitude- The Impact of Archaeology/Anthropology blogging

Posted on June 24, 2013


A difference by orderS of magnitude is the title of the this post and I really can not stress enough that order of magnitude is plural. A session is being organized for the next SAA conference on blogging and archaeology. You can check out the website and get involved. I am not sure what I will present but leading up to next years conference I will be posting some thoughts on the topic. To start this off a quote from John Hawks

  I have little patience for the risk-averse culture of academics.

The bottom line is: People need to decide if they want to be heard, or if they want to be validated. I have long been an associate editor at PLoS ONE, and once I edited a paper that received a lot of critical commentary. That journal has a policy of open comment threads on papers, so I told disgruntled scientists to please write comments. The comments appear right with the article when anybody reads it, they appear immediately without any delay, and they can form a coherent exchange of views with authors of the article and other skeptical readers.

Some of the scientists didn’t want to submit comments, they wanted to have formal letters brought through the editorial review process. “Why?” I wrote, when you could have your comments up immediately and read by anyone who is reading the research in the first place? If you want to make an impact, I wrote, you should put your ideas up there right now.

They replied, “How would you feel if someone published something wrong about Neandertals? Wouldn’t you want to publish a formal reply?”

I wrote: “In that case, I would probably get a blog.”

What is the difference between being heard and being validated? It’s whether you are contributing to the solution or to the hindsight.

Excellent thoughts by John in my opinion.

Lets take a look at the viewer numbers of traditional, “validated”, methods of publishing verse a method to be heard, blogging. Not every publisher puts out numbers on most read articles or number of downloads etc. but luckily Taylor & Francis does have a section for most read articles in their Journals. Taking a look at World Archaeology’s most read articles (since 25 June, 2011, includes both PDF downloads and full-text HTML views) we see some very interesting numbers. One, 3 of the top 5 most read articles are Open Access (cough, OA is the way to go, cough) and the top article has only had 1199 views (June 24th) since it was published 2.5 years ago (2 years of keeping track of metrics). The number 20 most read article has had 393 view, so we are looking at a long tail model. This is a publication that has been ongoing since 1969 and with thousands of articles but its best article has only got 1200 views in 2 years.

Let us use John Hawks as an example of the reach of blogging. While Google Reader still works we can look at the number of Google Reader subscribers his blog has. He actually has change RSS feeds but his old one had 21,000+ people subscribed to it but his new one only has 652. First, 21,000 ($%%$*$*&, mind blown) and second, every day he reaches (with his new smaller feed) more people than 15 of the top 20 articles in World Archaeology have in the last two years. That includes some people who may not check their RSS feed everyday AND EXCLUDES everyone who has an RSS reader with someone other than Google. Before his old RSS feed went defunct John Hawks had orderS of magnitude greater reach with his blog than 40 years of publications from some of the best archaeologists in the world, on his RSS feed alone.

John Hawks rss feed John Hawks old rss

Mind blown? No? How about we take this a little further. Lets compare all of the American Anthropology Association publications (20+ journals and 250,000 articles) against the blog AWOL (ancient world online). Edward Liebow gave me, about a year ago, the stats for the number of article views for all the AAA journals for 2007, which was 702,000. AWOL run by Chuck Jones has just reached 1.5 million page views– up from 1,133,ooo on Jan 1st 2013. On that pace he is looking to match the number of article views of all of the AAA publications. Yes, those numbers are 5 years old but one person with a free blogging platform is getting comparable views as 250,000 articles written by the best anthropologists in the world in the last 70 years. Edit- Ed and Joslyn from AAA has been kind enough to share the AAA numbers for 2012 and those numbers are up to 2.8 million. A warm congrats to the AAA and its increased readership since 2007, a 400% increase is not easy. 

When you run the numbers, AAA journal articles are only averaging 3 views a year (maybe more since 2007, edit- average 12 views in 2012) while AWOL on average puts out 3 posts a day to 5800 followers on Feedburner alone. It is important to remember that RSS feeds, Feedburner, etc. don’t count in Chuck’s view stats. He is actually sending out 3.6 MILLION views of his posts on Feedburner a year. OK not OrderS of magnitude greater in numbers, YET, and there is no guarantee all of those posts are viewed so it might only be 2 million views or a million (as if only a million views is not enough). However, the AAA has full-time staff dedicated to their publications and spend millions a year on publications and AWOL is run for free. If we count Chucks time as a cost that might raise the costs of AWOL to several thousand $, MAYBE (I do not know how much time Chuck spends on AWOL or what he would charge for that time if he could). That is orderS of magnitudes difference in cost, several million vs. 1000s maybe 10000s IF you put a price on volunteer time. Though if we are counting volunteer time I shudder to think the costs of writing and peer reviewing  hundreds of articles each year for AAA publications. Could it be 10s of thousands (if that) vs, 100s of millions?

The bottom line is: People need to decide if they want to be heard, or if they want to be validated.

To which I would add- People need to decide if they want to spend millions of dollars when one person with a website can do the same for free?

Are you contributing to the solution or to the hindsight?

EDIT- for those of you on a RSS feed here is a good comment left on this post and my response:

Nice play with numbers, and and agree that blogs can easily reach a much wider audience than academic journals. But you do ignore quite a few important issues: (i) The readerships (and also the writing itself) of academic journals and blogs are very different. Would you, for example, also compare newspaper articles with books? Looking at the readership numbers, books would loose. (ii) You ignore the thousands of printed copies of those journals in your stats. (iii) One of the important things for schientific publications is that they remain available because they have been printed and distributed to hundreds of libraries, and/or the publishers have set up a system of (hopefully) permanently storing everything that was published in digital form. People will be able to go back to your published articles long after you’re dead to refer to your work or to see where you’ve been wrong. Science is made of everything that has contributed to it, not just of the most recent texts. Your (and my) blog posts will likely be gone if we close our accounts.

Being heard is nice, but it is not everything.

My response

First thanks for the well thought out comment. For another post on blogging, but a disadvantage of reach is that anyone (think aliens did it) can get that reach and comments can be sub-par on blogs.

So all your points are aspects I have been thinking about. However, the post was already getting pretty long so I am going to tackle them in more depth in the future. Just a quick response though-

i. are they? I would point you to some excellent blogs that are very technical in their writing and would have similar audiences as journal articles- blogs are diverse and no one size fits all.

ii. didn’t ignore. recent studies have shown that the vast majority of University Journal articles are accessed online. (will get you citation for that)

iii. being recorded and backed up constantly- here is this blog on the internet archive- http://web.archive.org/web/*/https://dougsarchaeology.wordpress.com/ everything on the internet is being recorded and backed up, even if you don’t want it to be.

I have been on library committees and research publications are removed from circulation all the time. If they are lucky they are sent to be sold at a second hand book store- majority get turned into pulp, dirty little secret of university libraries. Most journals are now being stored in off campus storage facilities. Digital, even blogs, have as good of chance of survival as many hardcopy publications. Moreover, it’s only a matter of time before they all go digital as well.

I hope you stick around for the longer versions of these points. Cheers.