Is email bad for science?

Scientists are addicted to email.

It’s difficult to dispute that statement, but is email good or bad for science?

Superficially, it is easy to make the case that email is good for science. Email allows scientists all over the world to rapidly communicate with each other in ways that simply were not possible prior to the email era. In that way, email is an enabler of collaboration and data sharing. Email is also a far more concrete and even documentable method of communication compared to talking on the phone. Thus, in theory email should provide a basis for avoiding misunderstanding.

So, ha, email is good for science…right?

Not so fast.

What is the case that email is bad for science?

Low signal-to-noise ratio. In science we often talk about signal-to-noise ratio. One problem with email is that this ratio is very low. Most emails, even setting aside spam for the moment, are noise and few are signals that we want or need to read. However, while our spam filters may do a reasonably good job sieving out spam, there is no filter for what I call “noise” emails.

How much time every day do scientists waste on this noise? Per week? Per year? I hate to even make a back of the napkin calculation.

Volume. After a certain time in science, particularly if one writes a blog, the shear amount of email that one receives becomes mind-boggling. On a bad week, I can receive almost 1,000 spam emails alone. It is not unusual for me to receive 1,000 “noise” emails as well. Then I probably receive on a busy week about 1,000 emails a week that are “signal”. These are the emails sent from real people that serve the positive benefit of email. They contain questions, data, invitations, ideas, reminders, requests, job inquires, and so forth. So even the volume of “real” emails is at times incredibly high. Of course only a subset of these “real” emails are deserving of attention.

Obligation bombs. One downside of email for faculty is that it is too easy a venue for people to make demands of us. Such demands may be requests to be on committees or attend meetings. These emails are easy for folks to send out to many recipients asking them for a chunk of precious time. Such requests would be far more difficult for someone to make by phone or in person.

Artificial sense of urgency. It is too easy for scientists to let their email distract them. Email programs are easily set to check for new email at regular intervals and give a little notice that “you’ve got mail”….however, when set to do this, email can be very distracting and I find it wiser to not do this, particularly as most email is noise. On the other hand, scientists are operating at ever increasing speeds and they want their information faster. They may also be eagerly awaiting certain emails such as decisions from journals, etc so they are often tempted to have their email auto-check regularly. Email also perpetuates a growing trend that emails must be responded to quickly, but really most often this is not necessary or even desirable….however the sense is there that speed is better.

Miscommunication and angry communication. Email is the basis for more miscommunication than any other form of communication today. This kind of poor communication and in some cases email acting as an “easy” way for people to express anger without having to face a person, can be extremely disruptive and a huge waste of time and energy. Without talking to a person face-to-face, people tend to send more emotional emails and there are often misunderstandings.

Email also makes it easy to accidentally (or purposefully) send dumb messages to large numbers of people at once. I’ve seen angry people send spiteful emails to entire departments of deans of colleges….and once the deed was done, it was too late. There is no undoing an email.

What most scientists find is that they spend too much time on email for all these reasons, but email is not something they can simply ignore because despite these problems there are very important emails in the mix and it is far too easy to get behind on one’s email.

Solutions?

What some scientists do is have a separate “secret” email that only their closest associates know about. Such secret email addresses are intended to result in a purer stream of high value content email. I’ve never had a secret email address, but I seriously doubt that it achieves its purpose and it also defeats one golden intent of email, which is to facilitate communication between scientists that do not know each other.

Other scientists who have administrative assistants ask them to sift through their emails for them, but I doubt many do this because first of all I don’t think many people have their own administrative people any more and even if they do, the admin people have better things to do. Also, most scientists feel the need to go through their email themselves. I’ve never had an administrative assistant so I have never faced this dilemma.

What do you think? Is email good or bad for science? Please take our poll above. Comments are also appreciated.

2 Comments


  1. Good article. But, of course, I learned about it by email from a colleague and I took a break from doing something else to read it. So we depend on email even to discuss how bad email might be.

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