The Science Reader: A Crowd-Sourced Profile

By Carl Zimmer | March 17, 2010 3:17 pm

How times have changed. Used to be, if I wanted to figure out what people were reading, I’d ask a few friends. This week, I got replies from 761 people.

On Monday I asked you to help me get a better sense of the science reader–how the science reader gets a science fix, what the science reader values, and what the science reader expects from the future. Thanks to everyone who responded–both directly to the survey questions and indirectly in the comments. Not surprisingly, commenters revealed to me some shortcomings of the survey itself–most glaringly, leaving podcasts, radio, and public libraries off the list of venues where you get your science fix. Despite these shortcomings, I still ended up thinking the survey was very useful. The picture it paints is pretty clear, and, in some ways, surprising.

And, of course, you generously donated your time and thoughts. I am no professional market analyst, but I’ve had a delightful time poring over the survey, as well as the comments of those who did not feel satisfied by the choices I offered. It wrecked a number of assumptions I had carried into the survey, and makes me think differently about where science writing is headed from here.

Here’s what I see in the results. (If you want to make your own interpretations in the comment thread, you can download the raw numbers in the survey report (pdf).)

First off, it’s clear that most of you no longer get science from print newspapers.

My first question was, “Where do you get your science fix, and how often?” I offered some formats; the choices for each ranged from avidly down to never. Of those who responded, 58% said they rarely or never read newspapers in print. A grand total of 17 of you–2%–said you read them avidly, and 7% said you read them occasionally. The rest said you read science in print newspapers only occasionally (22%).

Print magazines fared (somewhat) better in the survey. 31% responded rarely or never. 55% said you read science in newspapers occasionally or frequently.

News web sites and blogs scored big. 27% read news sites avidly for science, and 40% read them frequently. Only 1% said never.

Blogs did even better, with 50% responding with avidly and 36% frequently.

This does not mean that you love all things digital. Few of you get your science fix on TV more than occasionally; 23% said you never do so. I can’t report on podcasts, radio, and audio books, because I left them off the survey [d’oh!].

But the biggest surprise to me was ebooks. I assumed you were already riding the ebook wave. Nope. 64% of you said you never read them. Less than 2% said you read them avidly.

By contrast, you love old-fashioned paper books. Only 9% of you said you never bought science books.  67% of you said you bought three or more a year. About half of you subscribe to one or more print magazines for science.

I then asked about your digital habits in particular.

Most of you (67%) still use a computer for your digital fix. Only 15% use an Iphone. Only 5% use a Kindle–about the same number of you who are waiting for an Ipad to change the laws of physics.

You also proved to have a lot of stamina while reading on line. 62% of you said you click through long features to get to the end.

Ebooks have not yet cast their spell on you. 59% of you said you buy no ebooks a year because you’re waiting for them to get better; 19% said you don’t buy them because you just don’t like ebooks.

I rephrased the questions, asking about how you felt about ebooks: 70% of you said that ebooks were an interesting concept but not yet worth buying an ereader for. Another 7% said you can’t stand them. Only 3% of you have abandoned old books for the ebook future we’ve all been hearing about.

The last few questions of the survey dealt with getting stuff for free versus paying. And here’s where things got  interesting in a glass-half-empty-or-half-full kind of way. 40% of you said you would no longer pay for reading about science, because you can get so much for free. Only 20% of you said you’d pay to get past paywalls.

Then I described a couple possible pieces of science writing. In one case, I described an anthology of articles nicely designed in an ebook. Only 18% of you said you would not be willing to pay for that. 29% of you said you’d pay $10. 68% of you said you’d pay a price $4 or higher.

I also asked how much you’d pay for a hybrid article, with a short summary for free and an in-depth version for a payment. 63% of you said you would be willing to pay for such an article. 21% were willing to pay a buck, and 7% would pay two bucks, the highest price I put on the question.

The science reader that emerges from this survey is very comfortable online, getting a science fix from blogs and news sites. (And judging from the comments, a fair number listen to podcasts and radio, too.) But the science reader also reads a lot of books. Books made of paper, that is, not electronic ink. That pattern may change if e-readers get better, but probably not anytime soon.

The typical science reader will not be dropping a lot of money to get past paywalls. Some readers won’t pay anything online at all, but an appreciable fraction will pay for ebooks and individual articles–if they’re interesting.

It goes without saying that this survey is utterly unscientific and downright peculiar. But if it does reflect broader trends, it means that there are opportunities for small-scale, money-making experiments in new kinds of digital genres–including ones carried out by individual writers.

The comments are well worth checking out. A couple readers challenged my approach as being hopelessly twentieth-century, demonstrating my unwillingness to accept that information is too cheap to meter now. I’ve been skeptical about the alternatives, but Morgan Wirthlin made a passionate argument to turn away from ebooks and follow the lead of musicians:

I think you should consider taking your next microcosm (an /excellent/ book, by the way) and trying this model. Maybe you offer 2,000 copies of the “signature edition” on your website, which is just the normal book with your personal signature inside the cover, priced at maybe 10% above list price. Then offer 500 “subscriber editions,” which include a personalized memo and a big poster of one Carl Buell’s excellent illustrations to this hypothetical book. Finally, 50 extra special $100 “Zimmerfan editions” are sent to your most diehard readers ahead of the publication date, and include the poster, a hand-written letter of thanks, a polaroid you took, and a fossil (or even just a cool rock) you found outside. Etc., etc. It may sound ridiculous, but these are the sorts of things that people crave in the digital age. I can absolutely guarantee that you would sell out of all of these editions, and part of the reason is that your readers absolutely /want/ to support *you,* but they don’t want to feel cheated paying for something that they know they could get for free. An ‘art object’ with a personalized, cottage-industry touch is something that you cannot get for free.

And Scott Sigler, who started a novel-writing career by podcasting each chapter of his manuscripts, had this to say in my skepticism about podcasts:

Carl, podcasts DO generate revenue via advertising. I run an ad on most podcasts at, and on my archived audiobooks (the back list) I have up at It took several years to generate a large enough audience, but now that I have it, I give away content for free and make money with advertising. This is nothing new — same model radio and TV have used for decades.

It’s all about the eyeballs (or earballs, whatever). If you create solid, free science podcast content, and that content resonates with an audience allowing you to consistently generate large numbers, you can earn revenue with advertising. Yes, you can still drive traffic to a site, and urge your listeners to buy print products, but the podcast itself becomes the primary revenue generator.

I’m inspired to go off to do some scheming. Meanwhile, what do you think of these results?


Comments (31)

  1. “First off, it’s clear that most of you no longer get science from print newspapers.”

    Does this take into account those who don’t get their science online, hence would have never seen this survey, but do get their science through print newspapers?

  2. Michael–This certainly is not a randomly chosen population. You have to read my blog to participate. But it’s a population I’m interested in.

  3. NewEnglandBob

    I like what Scott Sigler said:

    It’s all about the eyeballs (or earballs, whatever). If you create solid, free science podcast content, and that content resonates with an audience allowing you to consistently generate large numbers, you can earn revenue with advertising. Yes, you can still drive traffic to a site, and urge your listeners to buy print products, but the podcast itself becomes the primary revenue generator.

  4. In re the e-books questions: I would jump on the e-books bandwagon very happily, but the initial investment is too much. I’d *love* to have a Kindle or the Sony or some similar device, but right now that extra $250 will go first towards paying bills then to purchasing a netbook.

    I can’t and won’t read a long book sitting at my computer, so e-books on my computer just don’t cut it.

    The question about pay-per-article–I chose $1 simply because it’s a nice round number, is what I pay for my music clips, and is on the “no pain, and I can indulge lots” end of the pay spectrum.

    I read my local newspaper online.

  5. Laurie

    Morgan Wirthlin’s suggestion is fabulous! Thank you for the inspiration.

    I find it interesting that people will pay to get their science news online, and will pay to get a complete article just from reading bullet points. I would be so frustrated by the bullet-point ploy that I’d never visit the site again.

    Thanks for the survey and the results!

  6. George

    On the eBook item. My issue is that you get locked into an eBook. I want general purpose HW that allows me to read any published eBook material. I do not like the Amazon model etc.

    Without the competition, meaning I can get eBook material anywhere and read it on any reader, prices will remain too high.

  7. Darren Garrison

    “I’d *love* to have a Kindle or the Sony or some similar device, but right now that extra $250 will go first towards paying bills then to purchasing a netbook.”

    Ebook readers are available for well below $250, and many models well below $200. The Jetbook Light can be bought on Newegg for $129.99– and it is scheduled to be one of their “shell shocker” one-day deals this Saturday– there is a chance it will break the $100 barrier.

    Many or most people seem to have the impression that there are only 3 or 4 ereaders on the market, with the format invented by Amazon. Neither of which are true. There are dozens of models available now, over a large price range a conciderable size range.

    As for myself, I still prefer paper for technical works with lots of charts and illustrations. But for fiction reading, or books with very few illustrations? I find deadtree editions to be a waste of paper and shelf space, and deal with them only resentfully.

    (FWIW, Parasite Rex and Microcosm are available as ebooks at

  8. Darren Garrison

    Addendum– I meant to mention the excellent resources of Mobileread:

  9. Scott

    Carl: Why did you ask only about the paper versions of newspapers and magazines? How many get their digital science fix from the online versions of these publications or their web sites? The survey asked about devices used but not about sources.



    [CZ: Scott–I did ask. See “news web sites” under question #1. Lots of people are indeed reading science at those places.]

  10. Kevin C.

    I’m glad you found the links helpful, CZ.

    I’m glad Morgan Wirthlin and Scott Sigler followed up with more detail on the type of ideas I was talking about, as I did not have the time to.

    I completely agree with you that the value of good writing is not zero, but value and price are very distinct concepts. (For example, value of breathable air: Vital to life!, price of breathable air: Free!) Because the cost of distributing information is low, business models that distribute good writing for free and make their money elsewhere are favored. There are a lot of possible elsewheres, including advertising, lecture fees, special edition “art objects”, consulting fees, etc. Anything that is made more valuable by your writing or association with your writing is a potential thing to sell. This is a major disruption currently making its way through our economy, so people are still working out what models work in the new environment.

    Some other partially thought out ideas that occurs to me:
    * Something like models or stuffed animals of the parasites, carnivorous plants etc that you discuss.
    * Poster size versions of illustrations that go with your books.

    Gotta go. I wish you the best of luck in finding ways to support your writing!

    [CZ: Thanks for coming back, Kevin. I am struck by the phrase, “best of luck in finding ways to support your writing!” It sounds unsettlingly like, “best of luck in finding ways to support your jazz flute playing!”…or ceramics, or poetry, or community theater.]

  11. Scientific survey or not, this was a really compelling look at the blog readers-who-like-Carl-Zimmer-and-science-journalism-in-general population.

    I actually think stepping this up would be amazing: get all (ok, most) of the top science blogs to partake in an annual “who are our readers?” survey. Questions are standardized and use the same technology (e.g. Google Docs). Each blog does the survey for its audience, and asks readers only to complete the survey for their favorite science blog. After a week, all of the data is combined into one master document… And I think you see where this is going.

    What do you think?

    [CZ: This is interesting…although it might be hard to get a bunch of bloggers to settle on one set of questions.]

  12. Fascinating to see the results. I’m a science communicator/writer who’s been a stay-at-home mum for most of the last year, and was starting to think about what kinds of stuff I really wanted to get back into. ‘Cause, if you don’t *really* want to get back into it, you don’t get past the “baby has taken all my energy” hump. The question though was how to make it financially worth doing, even on the smallest scale. It’s interesting to see what an online population of savvy science readers is looking for. Glad you asked!

  13. chezjake

    A word of caution regarding podcasting or audiobooks on any expository science subjects. I personally feel I would have a very difficult time listening for any significant period of time (more than maybe 10 minutes) without any visual aids. I love audiobooks of fiction, but I much prefer to see (and be able to re-read or refer back to) my science.

    Otherwise, thanks for doing the survey and sharing the results with us. I guess I’m not as alone in my habits as I thought I was.

  14. Ginger Yellow

    I missed the original survey (sorry), but I’d like to jump on the podcast bandwagon. While I get my science fix from a wide range of sources (including your books and blog, of course) podcasts make up a very large proportion of my regular dose. I subscribe to Science, Nature (I was star struck to meet one of the hosts at a friend’s birthday party a while back), Science Friday, the Guardian’s Science Weekly, The Naked Scientist, Astronomy Cast, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Little Atoms. There’s probably a few more I’ve forgotten.

    I’m not in a position to comment on the financial viability of ad/sponsorship supported podcasts, but certainly several of the science ones do carry them.

  15. Jeff Chamberlain

    About ebooks: I have a Kindle. I like it. However, I’ve noticed that many of the books on my “wish list” — including many science books — are not published for the Kindle. So might it be that some of the “low numbers” for ebook science reading are influenced by limited source material?

  16. 62% of you said you click through long features to get to the end.

    I knew I’d forgotten to comment on something. I didn’t answer this question because neither answer (if there were more than 2, I don’t remember them) applied to me. I’ll usually read long features, if they keep my interest, unless I have to click through to do so. If there isn’t a single-page (usually ‘printable’) option for the whole article, I almost never bother.

  17. Scott

    Next time I’ll read before commenting.

  18. David

    I Personally love podcasts for science information, Every day i get up read the science news pages online… Bbcnews science and guardian online science. As well as my science blogs and then while I am at work i listen to science podcasts. The podcasts are great for work and tbh i would be probably more willing to pay a subscription fee for science podcasts than any other medium other than paper back books.

  19. HP

    Another data point: It’s not true that I no longer get my science fix from newspapers. I never got my science fix from newspapers. For every Carl Zimmer or David Dobbs, there are dozens of warmed-over press releases and overhyped tripe from mendacious hacks. And that was as true in the 1970s and 80s as it is today. You have to realize that you are one of the rare exceptions in science journalism.

    In the pre-Internet age, I was an avid reader of magazines like NatGeo, Smithsonian, Natural History. I remember picking up Natural History, turning immediately to Steven J. Gould, and only then flipping through to read the rest of the magazine. (And does anyone else remember when Neil DeGrasse Tyson wrote the stargazing column at the back of NH? “Readers in the Midwest will be able to see Venus in the southeastern sky, in the constellation of Leo.” Who knew that he would assume the mantle of Sagan and Gould?) As a teen, I had my own subscription to Omni — remember that mixed bag? (Thank goodness my parents never saw the name Guccioni on the masthead.)

    And TV: Tuesday night was Nova Night in my house. When I was 15, I could do a killer Carl Sagan impression. Me and Dad bonded over Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man. And I’ll never forget seeing little James Burke hack up a dead cow with a Scottish claymore by way of demonstrating simple tools (lever and inclined plane), and somehow tying it into the hydrogen bomb.

    So, the web is the primary way I get my science today, but I never stopped reading science in newspapers, because I never started.

  20. John Monfries

    I missed the survey – sorry.

    But the majority of respondents seem broadly to reflect my pattern of reading.

    I’m surprised though that noone mentions that to keep up with the astonishing pace of developments, you just have to access blogs. The print media just can’t keep up and anyway, most newspapers simply cannot report science properly. The complexity demanded by science seems to be beyond them, and of course when any controversy erupts, they have to present “both sides”, even when one side is correct, and the other is patently idiotic.

    All the same, like others I still prefer to read old-style books if it comes to reading a longer outline of interesting science topics. (eg Water’s Edge). And I fairly regularly buy science magazines.

    In all, reading about science has become an overwhelming addiction, with few side-effects beyond greater knowledge.

  21. Carl, sorry I missed the poll, but I like the point of the questions. One thing I would point out is that people today feel entitled to free content on the Internet. It’s not even a question of science information, people have come to expect all entertainment to be basically free. I find that you have to work much harder on the web to get people to part with their cash than in person.

    I believe this is why books are still so popular; people read a sample online or in a bookstore and say, “okay, that seems interesting, I’ll take it”. Convert that content to an e-book or online content and suddenly there’s nothing tangible that they’re buying. It’s all ether, shouldn’t that be free.

    The exception to this seems to be purchasing music online, but I would argue that this is an entirely different sensory experience… it’s always been ether but people no longer get big glossy LP covers so they’re happier with a cheaper version of song in the ether that never wears out than a CD they have to find somewhere to put.

    I still purchase numerous science books each year but I buy them Online via Amazon 95% of the time. I might browse a book at B&N but I’ll check my iPhone for the online price before committing to a purchase in the store. Is this honest, sure, the information is readily available to everyone. Can a brick and mortar store compete with the pricing of a wholesale warehouse operation, absolutely not.

    People want to feel that the money they pay for a book or other object has intrinsic value. I can resell a book I’ve read at my neighborhood used bookstore. It’s worth a little less than 1/4 the purchase price in most cases. That’s a great deal if you can use that money to purchase other books at 1/2 price. It retains value. What value do we place solely on information? Where is the value-added component? Online sellers have to offer something tangible to keep people’s pocket books open. If they can get something similar for free they will.

  22. I’ll be reading digital the second that I can rotate skeletal reconstructions of long-extinct animals and archaeological sites, trigger animations that highlight and explain concepts that require pages to do so via straightforward text. Water’s Edge with rotational fins / limbs? Scrubbable jaw animations and that funky dolphin energy-rebounding fiber suit you describe? I’ll buy it.
    But then… I’m biased.

  23. gruebait

    “First off, it’s clear that most of you no longer get science from print newspapers.”

    – Any sciencey articles in the paper would always be what I read first, but
    the fact that there is so little science in newspapers these days actually contributes to why I buy them less often.

  24. Daniel J. Andrews

    I’m not a fan of podcasts myself. It seems like an inefficient use of time. I can spend an hour listening to them, or I can get the same information from transcripts in 10 minutes. Unfortunately, too many podcasts don’t come with transcripts so if something is particularly good/recommended I have to find a player that can speed it up two to three times normal so I don’t get too antsy waiting for the revelations. If I don’t have to listen to work related material my first choice is to be in silence (no radio, no music, certainly no podcasts or tv).

    Never really did read newspapers to get science material though. Instead I would take a full day about once a month and go to the library and read their science magazines (NG, Canuck Geographic, Astronomy and S&T, Discover, birding magazines, etc etc).

    Essentially my attitude is let me read it (print and web), not hear it. I make exceptions though for anything done by Sir David Attenborough. :)

  25. outeast

    What davidmaas said: there’s just so much you *could* do with a digital ‘book’ (which I guess would be much more than a ebook – call it a ‘book plus’) that would make it far better than anything in dead tree format. The ideal would be something that combines reading (or listening, for those that prefer that) with visual stimuli and (for nonfic) access to source data.

    Thinking about this makes me wonder if books form the right frame of reference for thinking about the medium. Everyone hates that so many ebooks are in proprietory formats, and that’s fair enough when ultimately the content is just the same as we can pass on to our grandchildren when it’s in dead-tree format. But a ‘book plus’ such as the kind of thing davidmaas envisages would not be so directly comparable with a paper book – it would be something new. People buy DVDs even when all they get for the money is a two-hour brainfart, after all. I do myself. But the value of a ‘book plus’ Water’s Edge, or Parasite Rex (my enduring fave), or Soul Made Flesh… it just wouldn’t compare.

    Regarding the ‘everything free’ objection… I don’t think the culture of getting everything free online is going to last; advertising support is already showing cracks (the latest data I saw – on Gizmodo? – was pretty bleak) and it bears endless repeating that *someone, somewhere has to pick up the tab for content.* Free blogging and suchlike won’t go away, of course, but good book-length writing (and even well-researched article-length writing) needs professionals, and professionals need to be paid. Not to mention the costs of research…

    Wirthlin’s suggestion is fun, and I’d likely go for such special editions, but ultimately a scheme like that can’t be enough of a volume driver to be the game-changer that’s needed. It’d be a good PR exercise, a buzz driver, but more than that? Not really. Just look at the numbers of sales involved…

  26. George

    As example, take a basic book. Dawkins Greatest Show on Earth. Find a general eBook release? eBook prices are all over the map $9 – $30 in all sorts for formats. The hardcover is $19.

    If you get the Amazon version you are locked to Kindle. Maybe not too bad right now. But in a year or two say you want a different eReader. But wait your copy of Greatest Show on Earth is still locked up on the Kindle.

    This is mess. The hard copy version is on my library shelf forever, but not very portable.

    Without printing and lower distribution costs, the pricing should be less than 50% of paper copies more like 33%. The format should be general so anyone can make and sell an eReader. I store the backup in my personal private library.

    When this gets worked out, eReaders could become viable – save a tree and so on.

  27. outeast


    Without printing and lower distribution costs, the pricing should be less than 50% of paper copies more like 33%.

    I used to believe this too. It’s based on a massive misapprehension of where the costs in publishing really lie, though – printing and distribution make up a surprisingly small part of the cost. Very many of the costs involved in making a dead-tree book also apply to ebooks; with the added practical concern that the ebook market is tiiiiny.

  28. I have to believe that pretty much everything is going to start transitioning to digital.

  29. tl;dr… just kidding. It was fantastic.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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