Newsletters have been around forever, but their popularity has significantly increased in the past few years, also thanks to platforms such as Ghost, Medium, and Substack. Which of course also includes science newsletters.
Failure of advertising as a revenue model
The most important driver of this trend is probably the realization that advertising is a poor revenue model for content published on the web, including blogs. Even more so for science content, which seldom draws a lot of traffic but rather typically caters to small, fragmented communities. This trend is only aggravated by the development of targeted advertising platforms and technologies, which don't respect the users' privacy and in turn led to legislation such as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), implemented in the European Union in May 2018.
Failure of Twitter and social media
A direct consequence of this rat race around advertising revenue and user privacy, made worse by a pandemic that dramatically changed how we interact online, is that social media are seeing the biggest changes in more than 10 years. Twitter changed ownership 12 months ago and is no longer the place to communicate science, including finding out about new publications, science events, or science blog posts. One side effect of this development is that altmetrics have stopped being useful. Scientists have dramatically reduced their use of Twitter or have moved to other social media platforms. And the visibility of posts on the platform formerly known as Twitter is now determined mainly by algorithmic feeds rather than their users. Facebook/Meta and Reddit have similar issues, and this is related to private organizations owning and controlling most popular social media platforms.
Newsletters as an alternative
Newsletters provide an interesting alternative to advertising and "traditional" social media. They are particularly promising for science blogs, as they can be easily combined with blogging platforms. Either as a single platform as with Ghost (used by this blog), Substack, or Medium, or integrated with the blogging platform, as several science blogs participating in Rogue Scholar are doing.
Newsletters can provide a revenue source that is more sustainable than advertising, and they reach users directly rather than depending on social media which currently are undergoing major changes.
The problems with newsletters
Newsletters are not without problems. The biggest challenge I see is that they make it very easy to lock content behind a paywall. Which does not align well with the overall trend toward Open Access and scholarly content that is free to read and reuse.
Another challenge is that email is not always the best medium for scholarly communication. Email is fine for occasional newsletters, but doesn't really scale well. There are good reasons we have RSS readers and social media, and depending on newsletters only feels like a regression to how we communicated in the early 1990s.
Newsletters are an evolving format that can nicely integrate with science blogs. For science blogs, it is important that the content remains free to read and reuse (ideally using a CC-BC license), and that the content remains also available via RSS feed and web page. This approach aligns with the Principles of Open Scholarly Infrastructure:
Revenue based on services, not data – data related to the running of the research enterprise should be a community property. Appropriate revenue sources might include value-added services, consulting, API Service Level Agreements or membership fees.
Front Matter is offering two newsletters:
- The Front Matter newsletter distributes the blog posts of this blog, which currently focus on the Rogue Scholar science blog service and related topics. Recommended for all bloggers participating in the Rogue Scholar service. You can subscribe here.
- The Syldavia Gazette newsletter publishes summaries of interesting science blog posts found on the web, including an automated weekly digest of new blog posts archived in the Rogue Scholar science blog archive over the past seven days. You can subscribe here.
Over the last two days I have reorganized the Front Matter newsletters into one technical newsletter (Front Matter) and one journalistic newsletter (Syldavia Gazette). In the process, I had to move the existing subscriptions around. Please unsubscribe if you now receive a Front Matter newsletter you no longer wish to receive.
The new format of the Syldavia Gazette newsletter (including the weekly Rogue Scholar digest) poses an interesting problem best described in the movie Ghostbusters:
Rogue Scholar automatically archives all blog posts of participating science blogs. If the Syldavia Gazette publishes digests of Rogue Scholar blog posts, this could lead to an interesting loop. The solution was to implement a new feature in Rogue Scholar to only archive some blog posts using a filter. This of course is also useful for other use cases discussed several times where only some posts should be included in Rogue Scholar, archived, and assigned a DOI.
Vidal Valero, M. (2023). Thousands of scientists are cutting back on Twitter, seeding angst and uncertainty. Nature, 620(7974), 482–484. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-023-02554-0
Bilder, G., Lin, J., & Neylon, C. (2020). The Principles of Open Scholarly Infrastructure. https://doi.org/10.24343/C34W2H
Fenner, M. (2023). The Rogue Scholar weekly newsletter launches on Wednesday. https://doi.org/10.53731/9cdnt-2k006