Carl Zimmer's Science Reader Survey

By Aimee Whitcroft 18/03/2010 2


In a fit of market-research madness, Carl Zimmer (one of my favourite science writers)  assembled a little survey looking into people’s science reading habits.

carl zimmer
The man himself: Carl Zimmer

In essence, it asked how people get their ‘science fix’, where they get it from, and how they feel about paying for it.

Now, it must be said – and it’s admitted to cheerfully by Zimmer himself – that he is not a market research professional.  Having been one of those myself for a while, I can as cheerfully concur.  But despite some glaring omissions,  the results of his survey are nonetheless interesting.

I’m going to paraphrase – I’d suggest you read his take on the matter, and I’ve embedded the results themselves below.  Also, there were some fantastic comments left by people as well, covering issues that had been left out of the survey itself.

Where do they get their fix?

Perhaps unsurprisingly,  people generally get their science fix from news websites and blogs.  Indeed, very few go to print newspapers anymore for that type of content, and only slightly more go to magazines (his descriptions of said formats are hilarious).  Now, given that those answering the survey were readers (primarily) of his blog, this may of course have skewed results slightly, but given the quality and paucity of science coverage in most print media these days, I can still believe that people go to the ‘net.  Of course, the picture might be also have been a little different if things like ‘podcasts’, ‘radio’ and ‘libraries’ had been included :)

Computers were the favoured device over iPhones, eBook readers and so forth.  To be honest, the thought of reading long science stories (which people were, generally, perfectly happy to do) on an iPhone screen gives the horrors.  The only way it might work would be if it could be downloaded in some sort of eBook format (for Stanza, for example), but certainly not simply as a webpage!  As for why eBooks weren’t that popular, see the next section…

Paper books vs ebooks

People really, really preferred paper books to ebooks.  In fact, some 41% of people bought 5 or more science books a year!  eBooks, on the other hand, are not so much unpopular as simply immature –  70% felt they were an interesting concept but not yet worth it (something which I wholeheartedly agree).

In terms of magazines, people tended to not to subscribe to any at all, or only 1 or 2.

Will people pay?

Finally, he looked at people’s willingness to give over their hard-earned coin to read about science.  And, fairly resoundingly, the answer was no.  Why?  Because there’s so much great, free stuff out there, of course.  He also trialled a couple of different ideas, and found that there is actually a little bit of willingness to pay for the right content, although it wouldn’t be much…

All in all, the results of the survey were interesting, and it’s tempted me to try running one of my own at some point!  There’s definitely some other information I’d love to get my sticky little fingers on…


2 Responses to “Carl Zimmer's Science Reader Survey”

  • Scooped again :-) I seem to be getting that a lot lately!

    I agree there will be a (possibly strong) bias to the responses. He’s sampling his WWW blog followers, which may not say that much about his print (only or mainly) readers. Also his print readers are probably less likely to be science writers/bloggers. (I’d have surveyed who those responding are too. Not that I’ve ever done market research…)

    I would have asked if people purchased occasional copies of science magazines individually as I suspect many people only buy copies when the articles grab their attention or they are travelling.

    I think ebooks have a “waiting in the wings” state for many (me too). It’ll be interesting to see if the iPad or gadgets move it forward. There are some very interesting possibilities once people break out of the traditional model for a book and the touch screen may make a difference. I posted a video from Penguin with some of their ideas a little while back on my blog.

    For multi-page articles on the WWW, I usually click the “print” option to get it without the adverts in one document. Can’t stand reading in tiny blocks of text. (Can’t imagine reading a longer text on an iPhone either!)

    It’s funny how readers said “no” to paying, but generally thought an e-book was worth the higher amounts offered.

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