94

It is customary to use one's academic e-mail address as contact address in publications; I have seen once or twice an @gmail.com address being used instead, but it simply looked unprofessional.

However, I already experienced personally twice that system administrators love to deactivate e-mail addresses when people leave the institution. In a time when serving 1 GB of data costs one cent, apparently it is too demanding to set up forwarding for a few old users.

This leads to "e-mail rot" in many published papers, also for addresses that are explicitly designated as contact addresses. If one happens to have a popular name, it might become difficult to identify them using a search engine after the e-mail address becomes invalid.

What is your proposed solution to this problem? Should we (well, the ones of us that have tenure and power) put pressure on system administrator to change this practice? Should we use in our publications a different, more stable e-mail address than the academic one? Should we maybe get rid of the e-mail and contact address in papers overall? Should we insist that the journal publishers set up an alternative contact system (good luck with that)?

Related question: Changing mailing and e-mail addresses as corresponding author--which to include?

  • 5
    I'd have to disagree with "serving 1 GB of data costs one cent"...enterprise drives are far more expensive than the one in your desktop. And you need backups. And per user licenses (sometimes per user, per year). – Grant Aug 17 '12 at 15:33
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    On a side note, check out "E-mail Address Harvesting on PubMed—A Call for Responsible Handling of E-mail Addresses" See: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3068898 – LFCVhelp Aug 17 '12 at 17:06
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    @Grant you need none of those things (well, maybe per user licenses, but that's an argument for using a different kind of server if so) to do forwarding - he was talking about bandwidth costs. – Random832 Aug 17 '12 at 19:32
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    "system administrators love to deactivate e-mail addresses when people leave the institution" - as I have recently been explained, they actually hate it, but feel forced to due to legal ramifications: In some jurisdictions, apparently, the moment the university provides an e-mail address to someone who is not formally a current "member" of the university (and having studied or worked there in former times does not count), the university does not act as an employer or educational institution that internally provides e-mail addresses any more, but as a public e-mail provider. ... – O. R. Mapper Dec 17 '15 at 16:39
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    ... Unfortunately, in some jurisdictions, this implies conformance with different legal requirements than if it were only an internal e-mail service for employees and students, such as conducting the data retention for security agencies, etc. This seems to be the case at least in Germany, and possibly elsewhere. – O. R. Mapper Dec 17 '15 at 16:39

11 Answers 11

23

Since Piotr's answer and the discussion following it states the most important points (while an academic email address may become invalid, a private one provides no means to verify the author's actual affiliation, or even suggest the author doesn't identify with it), here's my suggestion:

  1. Create a PGP key+ for your private email address
    • optionally add your academic email address as another identity
  2. Have your key signed, e.g. by
    • colleagues
    • your institution's sysadmin
    • a key exclusively for your academic email adress
  3. Publish the key, e.g. at http://pgp.mit.edu/
  4. Ask the publisher to include your public key+ or at least the footprint in the publication
    • The online version should even link to the key entry to make verification easier

Now everyone can easily check your affiliation while you've made sure you can be contacted in the future - you can even add alternative email addresses to you key later on (the upload can be updated), and everyone will be able to deduce that should your original address not be reachable any more, you might be reachable via one of the other addresses associated with your public key.

As an additional benefit, now both you and your co-authors can sign the publication itself, adding another level of trust that this is truly authored (or sometimes rather endorsed, if you're so honest ;) by each of you. And since you now have PGP keys anyway, you can also sign and/or encrypt your emails, making electronic communication both more trustworthy and less prone to leaks. Also, it keeps the NSA out for a while.


+ In case you're not familiar with PGP:

You create a pair of keys consisting of a secret key (which you and only you shall ever possess) and a public key (which you are supposed to make as public as possible/required). The secret key can be used to put a signature on anything digital, like messages, files, protocols, papers or other people's public key, and anyone can use the matching public key to verify that this signature stems from that secret key, and thus (hopefully) from you. Reversely, anyone can encrypt data for you with your public key that only you can decrypt again with your secret key (messages can be encrypted for multiple recipients as well if required). Since everyone can sign anyone's key, you obtain the Web of trust, a network of keys that allows you to estimate how reliable the association of a key to an actual person is without having to exchange public keys in person. (The downside is, your email address is public and social engineering is possible, but we're responsible adults, right?)

A great open source implementation of the Open PGP standard is the GNU Privacy Guard

  • 20
    Although this is perfectly valid, this is overkill for something that is unlikely to be used as such. I haven't heard about anyone who didn't first google the author of a paper before contacting her, and first checking her webpage, current affiliation, etc. That being said, having a PGP key is good in general, but rather for the ensuring the security of your emails. – user102 Aug 18 '12 at 12:27
  • 1
    @CharlesMorisset well, those who are googling anyway shouldn't care about whether one used a private email address or not :-7 I don't think it's so much overkill, creating the keys and having them signed is a once in a lifetime (ok, make that once per institution maybe) thing which, due to the security shortcomings of email, should be encouraged anyway... – Tobias Kienzler Aug 18 '12 at 13:30
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    I'm not sure that asking a sysadmin to sign your key is easier than asking her to enforce an email forward :) Also, I'm not sure one keeps her personal email address for a lifetime, and I'm not even sure we will still be using the current mail system in 10 years :) But I totally agree that signing and encrypting emails is not a bad thing :) – user102 Aug 18 '12 at 13:54
  • @CharlesMorisset Well, that's the great thing about PGP keys: You can add identities later on, i.e. even if your original email address is long gone (or email not used any more), the key will still exist and show your new address if you update it. But I agree that the sysadmin may not be too easily motivated to sign all academics' keys... Anyway I hope these thoughts at do inspire others to at least think about signatures and encryption a bit more – Tobias Kienzler Aug 18 '12 at 15:21
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    I like the idea in the abstract sense of "the world should use more crypto", but it's not feasible in the real world. Journals aren't going to publish or link to pgp keys unless you really push hard for it, and it's not worth pushing for in practice. (For years I encouraged people to use the PGP key on my web page, but only one colleague ever did, and when I replied it turned out he had already forgotten the passphrase for his private key.) – Anonymous Mathematician Aug 25 '12 at 7:54
41

Personally, I think that (in academia) sticking to official e-mail addresses is an atavism.

Currently, one's personal e-mail (say, ...@gmail.com) is better because:

  • usually more efficient/stable/etc,
  • lasts for longer than 1-4 years.

While names like mad_theoretican_666@... may sound ridiculous for professional communications (but it's rather a matter of taste than anything else), I don't see anything wrong with e-mails like name.surname@ or n.surname@.

However, I heard quite a few times that non-institutional e-mails sounds less serious.

But honestly, if someone builds his/her value depending on how his/her e-mail sounds (and doing it against very practical reasons), it is the thing that is ridiculous.

  • 19
    An institutional email address is a form of official affiliation. Yes, it's stupid to judge a paper based on the authors' affiliation instead of the content, but people do. (Remember, we're apes; we do apey things.) – JeffE Aug 17 '12 at 11:59
  • 7
    There is no strong identification with a personal email address. Anybody can own the email address Piotr.Migdal@gmail.com, while this is not true for "official" address. You can write any affiliation you want on the paper, but if you put an email address that doesn't exist, that's easily checkable. It's not like a serious argument pro or against, but I will always trust more official addresses rather than personal ones. – user102 Aug 17 '12 at 12:56
  • 5
    @JeffE For instance, arXiv prefers you to use your official e-mail address because they can much easier verify it. (They simply consider having any email address from a university/research institute server as a proof that you are an academic.) – yo' Aug 17 '12 at 14:21
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    This being an international forum that happens to use English as its main language, I'd recommend keeping language simple and avoid terms like atavism, which most native English speakers, let alone non-native English speakers, wouldn't be familiar with. – Marc van Dongen Aug 17 '12 at 15:40
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    @PiotrMigdal It's very easy to pretend to send an email from an address you don't own, it's not that easy to receive email on a counterfeit one. Let me rephrase it, I don't trust any official address, I trust even less personal addresses. Whenever I see a gmail address, I can't help but wonder why the author didn't use her academic address instead. That being said, I won't reject a paper because of that :) – user102 Aug 17 '12 at 20:08
37

The American Mathematical Society had a email forwarding service for its members, which gives them a stable @member.ams.org address that they can update as they move. However, this email forwarding service is no longer available. Still, something like this could be a good solution.

  • 2
    And so does the Institute of Physics, as I've just discovered: iop.org/membership/why/page_38344.html – Nicholas Aug 17 '12 at 12:53
  • 4
    I think this is the best answer so far. I personally think a university e-mail address is better than a "generic" address (for the reason mentioned by Charles Morisset in his comment on Piotr Migdal's answer). But if the author is a member of a relevant organization (such as ACM, IEEE, etc.), then perhaps an address from here would be best (again, for the reason mentioned by Charles Morisset). – Joel Reyes Noche Aug 17 '12 at 13:13
  • 2
    (1.) Your answer reminded me about IEEE email addresses. If you are a member of IEEE, IEEE will give you an IEEE.org address that you can configure to forward to your stable gmail.com address. NOTE: IEEE member does cost money per year. (2.) If you sign up for your own URL, you can use this as your email address and forward to gmail. NOTE: having your own URL does cost time and money per year. ||| Both (1.) and (2.) fix the social stigma associated with gmail/hotmail addresses and allow you to at the same time keep a stable gmail/hotmail address. – syn1kk Aug 17 '12 at 13:34
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    I find ieee.org or ams.org email addresses jarring for exactly the same apey reason as gmail.com addresses. At some level, it suggests "Well, yes, that's my offical affiliation, but not really." – JeffE Aug 17 '12 at 15:32
18

I make a point of offering all of my papers for download from my website. So if readers discover me via a paper I've written, it should be easy for them to find my website (just google my name and the title of the paper). On my website I list my current email address.

  • 9
    +1, I've seen quite some abandoned websites of people who changed institutions, and more often than not there was no information on where to. But I assume you mean your private homepage and not one hosted by your institution – Tobias Kienzler Aug 18 '12 at 9:14
  • 4
    @TobiasKienzler Yes, I mean my personal (but professional) webpage hosted by the school, typically at: math.schoolname.edu/~myname . Whenever I'm about to change institutions I move my webpage to the new institution's site, then replace my old page with something like "Dan C and his [link to new webpage] have moved to [link to new school]." – Dan C Aug 18 '12 at 14:59
18

When I see a gmail address on a paper I think "this is an IT-savvy author who realises their current institutional email address will probably be gone in a few years and wants people to be able to contact them after that." It doesn't look at all unprofessional to me.

But if you're concerned about the appearance of such an address, one solution would be to register your own domain name and have an email address like contact@yourownname.com, which forwards to (for example) a gmail account. You can also put your own academic web site at this domain, meaning you can take that with you when you change institutions as well.

  • 9
    ...or to put it more succinctly, "The author is a student/postdoc." – JeffE Aug 24 '12 at 19:45
  • 3
    @JeffE sure, but that's the majority of authors these days - I don't think there's anything wrong with giving the impression of being a student/postdoc if that is in fact what you are. – Nathaniel Aug 26 '12 at 10:10
  • 4
    @JoelReyesNoche I don't know anyone who went straight from a PhD to a permanent position at the same institution. At least in my fields (computer science and biosciences) and my country (UK), everyone does multiple 1-3 year postdocs, there just isn't any choice about it. It's not because they're bad researchers, it's just a sign of an overcrowded sector. Because of this, I've never experienced any stigma about being on a temporary contract. – Nathaniel Aug 27 '12 at 8:35
  • 1
    @Nathaniel, thank you very much for the clarification. I forgot to consider the case of post-docs (even though you and JeffE mentioned it). – Joel Reyes Noche Aug 27 '12 at 9:12
  • 5
    @JoelReyesNoche: there are also cases of reputable universities where IT people make small changes to everybody's addresses every now and then, for no particularly good reason. When I was a grad student in Leiden (consistently ranking in the top 100 worldwide), addresses where @leidenuniv.nl; a couple of years after I left, they added a division subdomain, so my former advisors became @let.leidenuniv.nl; and a few years later, they renamed the divisions, so everybody had to start using @hum.leidenuniv.nl. Now there is a rumor that everybody will be @leiden.edu some time soon. – Koldito Jun 19 '15 at 13:10
10

Should we (well, the ones of us that have tenure and power) put pressure on system administrator to change this practice?

Implementing a direct forward (i.e., your mailbox no longer exists, so no disk space problem) is not really hard, and I have currently two previous email addresses forwarded. The volume of emails decreases

Should we use in our publications a different, more stable e-mail address than the academic one?

What makes you think that a gmail address is more stable than an academic one? What if gmail decides to switch to a different business model where you would have to pay for that address, would you necessarily keep it? Would you say that your yahoo email is stable? Maybe it was 3 years ago, but now, I wouldn't be so sure. Academic institutions tend to last longer.

In addition, as you said, personal addresses look unprofessional, because they cannot be trusted. It won't cause your paper to be rejected, but that's not going to be a plus side. And it won't change the fact that readers of your papers can contact you or not.

Should we maybe get rid of the e-mail and contact address in papers overall? Should we insist that the journal publishers set up an alternative contact system (good luck with that)?

As other people mentioned, the important point for contact is actually that people can find you. An email is a unique ID, you can put it on your current page so as to be indexed by search engines.

  • "Implementing a direct forward is not really hard" --- I know, but I changed two positions in the last three years and in both cases the administrators insisted that setting up the forwarding for at most 1 year after the leaving date is plenty. Am I particularly unlucky? Do you have experiences that suggest otherwise? – Federico Poloni Aug 17 '12 at 14:36
  • 2
    My first affiliation didn't have any forward at all (I was PhD student, not permanent staff), so I lost completely. My second one installed a permanent forward. My third one doesn't do direct forward, so they kept my mailbox (in which I defined myself a forward). I should have lost it already, but haven't yet. I don't know the policy for my current affiliation. – user102 Aug 17 '12 at 14:47
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    "What makes you think that a gmail address is more stable than an academic one?" Experience. I don't have an e-mail address from my previous institute, I do have my gmail address. Also, I can bet that my gmail account with last longer than my current institutional one. "Academic institutions tend to last longer." ...but not their e-mails (unless you are tenured, which makes a totally different story). – Piotr Migdal Aug 20 '12 at 10:01
  • 4
    @Piotr It has been only 5 years since Gmail is publicly available (it wasn't even available when I started my PhD). My personal address when I was younger was a Caramail address, one of the most important french speaking website at that time, and it has disappeared since then. I wouldn't bet a dime on the fact that yahoo will still exist in 5 years. I had some personal, legal files on Megaupload. Google has a business model almost only based on advertisement, if everybody starts using adblock, they might fail. Pretending to know what will be the Web in 10 years is very risky ... – user102 Aug 20 '12 at 10:19
  • @CharlesMorisset I don't claim that gmail address will last forever. However, I believe that gmail account will last >10 years (there are Internet things that are more and less serious). But it's an act of faith anyway. However, I can bet that gmail will last longer than 2.5 years (i.e. will survive my institutional e-mail). – Piotr Migdal Aug 20 '12 at 11:54
8

Should we use a stable email address?

I agree that seeing @gmail.com, @hotmail.com, @yahoo.com in email addresses for academic papers is somewhat jarring. That it should be the case probably says more about our assumptions about the author than it should (why doesn't he/she have a proper email address?). The benefits of having a stable email account - for those of us still moving frequently from post to post - is undeniable, but we choose not to use it for these reasons. Will that attitude change? Not impossible, but don't count on it.

Should we put pressure on sysadmins to maintain forwards on our old emails?

I'm not a sysadmin but I doubt whether any sysadmin would look favourably on maintaining indefinitely forwards in this way. After two or three hops, your email chain starts getting long and vulnerable.

Should we get rid of addresses altogether?

Probably not. We need some way of being contactable.

Should we insist that the journal publishers set up an alternative contact system

I like this idea but appreciate that getting the publishers to do this would be difficult.

What if there was a third party site which stored up-to-date contact data and was linked to by the journals? A freely accessible, central repository of author contact data. The authors would be responsible for maintaining their contact information.

Users of the repository would themselves have to log in to prevent massive downloading of users' data by spammers.

  • 3
    For your last suggestion, Mathematics is one step ahead of you :) Behold the Combined Membership List! (Well, ok, it only covers North America, but it's something.) – Nate Eldredge Aug 17 '12 at 12:57
7

In the age of search engines and relatively high mobility on the side of researchers, personally I see no reason to include an e-mail address on research papers. Whenever possible (i.e., the published/editor does not explicitly ask for it), I do not include it at all and if I must, I use the currently valid one. The reason is exactly that it becomes invalid quite quickly. The e-mail address is not useful even as a means for author identity disambiguation. For lucky guys bearing a name like "John Smith" in various languages (I am such a case as well), it's relatively common to encounter a guy with the same name, or initials working at the same university, or sharing part of academic history.

A complementary issue to the original question posed is this:

How many times in the last ten years did you used an e-mail address stated in the paper as a means to contact the author(s) of the paper?

I did so exactly zero times and know of nobody who did so more than that (and yes, I asked several colleagues about this in the course of the last few years).

  • 3
    I did at least twice in the last 2 years. And I've been contacted that way about twice as well (though I don't know for sure whether it was via the published email address or via googling for me which would lead to the same email address). – cbeleites Aug 20 '12 at 11:46
  • 1
    @cbeleites: so maybe I am wrong in my answer if there is a significant number of people who do that. Well, one of the assumptions I made in the answer is that one has an on-line presence set up, that is a personal website hosting a collection of downloadable published papers. That completely removes the need to list an e-mail address in papers, but of course there are differences between cultures in different research fields. – walkmanyi Aug 20 '12 at 12:07
  • One of the reasons I don't tend to use the email address from the paper is that, if it ends in .edu, I know it's likely to fail anyway. When I see an address with more (presumed) permanence, I am likelier to give it a try. – Brian B Apr 21 '14 at 17:49
  • I use email addresses on papers all the time. I mean, ok, not every day, but when I want to contact the author of a paper, I use his/her listed email address before trying anything else. – einpoklum Jun 17 at 10:18
4

Eventually, if ORCID (discussed also in this answer) takes momentum (and it seems it will, since it is backed by the most important publishers), it could solve this problem: the paper contain the ORCID number of the author, and points to an online profile which the researcher itself can update.

  • In the end, this is similar to Tobias' solution, but with the ORCID in place of the pgp key and the orcid server in place of the MIT one. You lose the other benefits of having a PGP key available for encrypting and signing, but it will be much easier to set up since journals will do almost all the work (also for the non-tech-savvy researchers). – Federico Poloni Aug 25 '12 at 8:11
3

While I like Tobias' approach I agree that it is overkill. However, I wonder whether it would just be a rather simple solution to give two email adresses of the corresponding author: the institutional and the stable personal one.

On the other hand, while I do sometimes contact authors using the contact email address, I consider this a convenience rather than a necessity.

  • It is usually quite easy to track down the author even if he moved on. People at the old institute usually know where he went.

  • If the author has been moving on so often that the old institute doesn't know any longer where to find him,

    • usually that means that he (or the institute) moved to a different field,
    • and this happens mostly for papers that were published quite a while ago (but if he has continued working in that field, you usually find newer work with newer contact address)
    • consequently, there's a high probability that he anyways doesn't remember the details I want to ask...
2

We should just use the email of our current academic institution, and academic institutions should provide user-controlled forwarding of some type (so people don't need to ask a sys admin if their forwarding address changes). Simple, effective.

Should we (well, the ones of us that have tenure and power) put pressure on system administrator to change this practice?"

Yes. Unqualifiedly. In my opinion, any institution that fails to do that does a massive disservice to its students and non-tenured researchers (i.e., anyone who might leave during their career). Email forwarding is not hard, nor is it costly. If someone tells me their institution doesn't forward, I would suspect they have a mediocre administrative infrastructure for research. Research institutions are built on the successes of their professors and professor's successes are built (in part) on the success of their students and research staff. If you could improve your school's standing in the research community by one peg by adding email forwarding, wouldn't it look pretty stupid not to do it?

Disconnecting those researchers' emails entirely is a small but non-trivial obstacle that could impact their research careers, which trickles back to the institution (particularly with PhD recipients). They might miss out on invitations to collaborate, book chapters, and even a heads-up on job opportunities. To those who say "Well, I always Google anyway," you probably aren't emailing a couple dozen people to contribute to a book (or, for an encyclopedia, think 100+ contributors). If you did and a couple emails bounced, how much time will you spend trying to hunt down the new emails?

I've been affiliated with an institution that did provide email forwarding, by a mechanism that I thought was pretty flexible. At the end of your time there, they closed down your email account after a couple months (the storage, that is). You could request that your emails be forwarded to an alumni address. This alumni address was controlled by you, in terms of where it forwarded.

So then, you would do the following:

  1. Create an alumni address
  2. Set up your original email at the institution to forward to the alumni account
  3. Set up the alumni address to forward to a stable account (e.g., Gmail)
  4. Emails to either your original or alumni emails would forward to the permanent email

So long as your permanent email doesn't change, you only need to do this process once per institution. Even if you did change your permanent email, it would take only a small amount of time to re-route your forwarding (one re-route per past institution).

protected by Alexandros Aug 27 '18 at 16:48

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