Who Reads Palaeontologia Electronica Anyway?

P. David Polly
Department of Anatomy
Queen Mary & Westfield COllege
London E1 4NS
United Kingdom

One way that electronic publication differs from traditional print media is that readership can be directly measured. The success of most journals is measured by two criteria: circulation numbers and citation indices. Circulation refers to the total number of individual journals printed and sold, while citation indices record the number of times articles from the journal are cited in scholarly publications. Both are very indirect measures of the number of people who actually read the journal though. A large percentage of any journal's circulation - often the majority - is accounted for by libraries. As many librarians will attest, once an issue is placed in the stacks it may never again move from its dusty shelf, or it may be devoured by thousands of researchers and students hungry in their quest for the latest published opinion. However, since most of these students/researchers will not publish papers citing the articles they read, many influential papers are never be recorded in any citation index. Both criteria grossly underestimate the popularity of a journal and may wildly misrepresent readership demographics. Electronic publications, at least those that use the Internet for distribution, can be surveyed more directly. Instead of using circulation as a proxy, the number of actual "reads" can be counted using Internet server logs. This measure isn't foolproof since the data recorded are the identities of computers, each of which may have as many users as a library's journal copy has readers. Yet the log index is "closer to the people" than print circulation. Moreover, an electronic publication can be cited just like any other, so Palaeontologia Electronica (PE) articles will eventually appear in the citation index along with their paper cousins.

Judging from our own logs (Table 1, see also PE Statistics), Palaeontologia Electronica's Volume 1, Issue 1 has been a smashing success. Between its release at the end of January and the release of Issue 2 on 1 August there were more than 100,000 accesses (a figure that includes text pages, images, animations, and printable files) to our sites by more than 3000 readers from more than 60 countries. While most visitors were from the United States (45%), Canada (16%), the United Kingdom (9%), Switzerland (6%) or Germany (4%), countries as far flung as Botswana, Estonia, Malaysia, Trinidad, and South Africa checked in. Within the United States, 75% of the readers were from educational institutions and 16% from commercial interests (including home Internet providers), but less than 1% from governmental organizations. Time-based parsing of the log data shows that this response was not the result of any novelty or ‘hype" that may have accompanied the Issue 1 release date. Our readership has been more-or-less constant through the five month period shown in the table with about 20,000 "hits" each month. Most readers (about 50%) use our main site at Texas A&M. While interest was fairly evenly spread among the articles and features of the first issue, the animated movies that illustrated the Monks and Young (1998) paper did received a disproportionate amount of attention.

Of course, even Internet access logs are not perfect mirrors of journal use. Of our six mirror sites - Texas A&M University, Carleton University, ETH Zürich, the Universidad de València, the University of Oklahoma, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography - only the first four could provide us with access logs. The problem of equating computers to people has already been mentioned. Some of our biggest clients are proxy servers (that fetch Internet pages for lots of people) for America Online and southeast Asia, each of which may represent hundreds of readers. In addition, some computers provide no information at all about themselves and so are not recorded in this summary. Nevertheless, the 3000+ known readers of PE are similar to the subscription numbers of our established print peers like the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Palaeontology, and the Journal of Paleontology.

And that's after only the first issue!