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When meeting some scientists in person, I've had good conversations with decisions upon interesting plans for research cooperation and personal visits. But then, subsequent contact by e-mail is difficult, where the other party either doesn't reply at all, or very slowly (several weeks +). However, when I then meet them again at a later date, they are still enthusiastic about the project (where the bulk of the work is mine) and a short in-person discussion makes more progress than the past months of (lack of) e-mail have. So it appears that a lack of interest in the project does not explain the lack of response. The project is scientifically interesting, fits with my PhD, and the visit enhances my chances of finding a post-doc after my PhD (it's a very good institute for my field).

I understand that many scientists are very busy and flooded by e-mail, but it feels sad to abandon a potentially interesting project just because communication by e-mail is not working well. I'm quite sure it would work if I were in the same building. What strategies exist to mitigate this problem? I can think of:

  1. Try to ask a common acquaintance to poke him/her (my local colleague has a shared friend with him/her). Pro: Might get indirect feedback as to why the irresponsiveness. Con: involves 3rd party (may or may not be on-site) not necessarily involved.
  2. Send reminder e-mails (did you see my e-mail from 20 February?). Pro: increases chances of being noticed. Con: may be considered annoying
  3. Phone. Pro: hard to run away. Con: I don't like phoning and I don't like being phoned.
  4. E-mail someone sitting in the neighbouring office. Pro: neighbour has small step to irresponsive scientist. Con: a bit strange to involve someone I don't even know
  5. Give up on the project. Con: means no project and no visit.
  6. Try to do the project without their input. Pro: no need for communication. Con: might waste a lot of time by trying known dead-ends that I'm not aware of.

What other options exist? What advantages and disadvantages have I not thought of? What is wise to do?

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This question is interesting. No wonder why I seldom get responses from e-mails I sent. Have you come up with the pros and cons for old fashion mails(real mail)? –  scaaahu Feb 26 '13 at 11:10
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phone them, i think it is the best option –  MaybeAnotherPhD Feb 26 '13 at 11:16
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I don't like phoning and I don't like being phoned — Some people don't like emailing and don't like being emailed. Choose your poison. (I recommend Skype / Google chat.) –  JeffE Feb 26 '13 at 14:40

4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

First: that situation is common. Actually, that situation is very common. You listed a large number of options that come to mind, let's discuss them a bit:

  1. For me, that's the best.
  2. Reminders don't cost you much, but they can only go so far before you risk being annoying.
  3. I would strongly advise phone or Skype. Don't get me wrong: I hate phone too. It has the inconveniences of both verbal communication (you need to reply fast, and have no time to smith your words precisely) and written communication (you don't see the other person's face and non-verbal indicators). However, it helps if people are unresponsive to email. Also, consider that maybe they like phone better than email (some people do!).

    As I said, Skype (or any video-chatting tool) might be a useful alternative to phone. Some people hate it, some people love it, so be sure to ask if they would consider it.

  4. No. You can ask a friend or common acquaintance to poke them, but don't use someone you don't know well. Unless it's their job, of course: if you communicate with a big boss or dean or whatever, it is fine to use his personal assistant or secretary to check up on things or remind him of deadlines.

  5. and 6. It's your choice to make, not much we can say here.


To your (already good ideas) I would add an important one:

   7. Set yourselves (or give him) a goal and a deadline. On one occasion where you actually meet him, use his enthusiasm to set an (achievable) goal, possibly with an associated deadline: decide that you want to present this work at this occasion, or submit to a given special issue that has a deadline in 6 months, or want to have the project finished by September to hire a post-doc with funding from the John Doe Foundation, …

Whatever the deadline is, it will spur contributions from his side. The research environment puts people under a lot of pressure with bureaucracy and deadlines. If your project doesn't have any visible deadline, he will never get it done. So, create one, even if it's more of a pretext. Then use that deadline as a hammer!

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+1 for the deadline, with intermediary milestones: you want to submit to X, so a first draft should be done by X-1 month, a possible structure for the paper by X-2 months, etc. –  Charles Morisset Feb 26 '13 at 11:33

I recognize this all too well and I do not have a patented solution. This is in part because the reasons will vary from case to case. I have found that collaborations will be easier in two cases: The first is when the collaborator is driven by their own agenda and can see a strong personal gain apart from the collaboration. This might seem a poor excuse for a collaboration but, I think, reflects the stress most are under. The second is when you strike up a true friendship and simply enjoy each others comåany apart from the science. This should not be underestimated even if it is hard to chose collaborators based on such premises. Over to the answer.

If you think you have a collaborator where a mutual interest to collaborate exists according to the above, the best way is to arrange to visit for a couple of weeks. This can be folowed up by a returnvisit at some stage. Under suchcircumstances you can work in relative pace and you can set up short and unintrusive meetings under a short period with your collaborator. Such a visit can be preceded by some homework but expect to do most yourself if the initiative is yours.

A visit is certainly possible in all other cases as well but if the personal chemistry/interest is not strong to begin with, I do not know how successful you will be. Uncertain in any case. You will also likely end up doing most of the work throughout the process.

The bottom line is that unless the project (paper) is priority one on everyones list, you run the risk of not getting much response and certainly not much drive from your collaborators. It just seems to be the nature of things. I am sorry if this sounds negative but the times when I have done work during visits (going away or receiveing a visit) have seen a much higher success rate.

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I'm actually trying to fix a visit (although not a several-week one at this stage). –  gerrit Feb 26 '13 at 21:19

One point that I would like to stress is to set a new date for a live/skype/phone talk at the end of each meeting. In this way you avoid having to email someone for a new date, and you minimise the risk of your communication dying down until the next live meeting. There is still the risk of the appointment getting rescheduled, but at least a rescheduled appointment is more concrete than waiting for an email back that never shows up.

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In addition to the fine answers here already, I've found helpful to get the ball rolling to do work on my own and then send that along to the colleague.

It seems to me that often a substantial block is if project has some ambiguity, and if a person can't devote a large amount of time to it they will put it off in favor of more concretely defined goals. Doing some work on your own can frequently help to refine the goals of the project and how the collaborator fits in.

Obviously you can't do the whole project on your own and need feedback, but often there are substantial amounts of work you can do on your own. A literature review, an extensive outline, writing particular sections of a paper, preliminary data analysis etc. are almost always good candidates.

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@gerrit: From a game theory perspective, this leads to you doing more work and the other person doing less. If this is acceptable to you, go for it. If not, you have fewer options. If you can show this to promotion/hiring committees this may be a good thing. It's hard-think rationally. –  Ross Millikan Feb 27 '13 at 4:36

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