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I frequently receive brief, usually confirmatory e-mails (such as "Can do. Best" in response to a request for a letter of recommendation) from academics with considerably less time than myself.

Each time this happens, I am very indecisive about whether the nuisance caused by responding -- and adding an e-mail with essentially no information, such as "Many thanks; this means a lot to me! All the best" to their inbox -- really weighs more heavily than the risk of being perceived as ungrateful.

Any thoughts, ideally from the referee's perspective are greatly appreciated!

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    What about sending an email with subject like "Thank you very much! [EOM]". The first time one encounters this acronym, there is a one-time overhead of checking what that means; then the persons says to him/herself: "Ah, that's clever!", starts using it and the easy way to save people's time spreads further;-). – mbork Dec 4 '14 at 19:03
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    @mbork changing the subject line is a bad idea, it should always be descriptive so the recipient always knows which problem it refers to. Only adding the tag to the subject line is OK – Erbureth says Reinstate Monica Dec 4 '14 at 19:06
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    @mbork: I don't. I find that confusing. I need to see my e-mails sorted by date, and possibly filtered, not jumbled in seemingly arbitrary ways because some e-mail client thinks it knows which messages belong together. Occasionally, I have to use a web-based version of Outlook that does that by default. It just doesn't work there, and it gets incredibly difficult to find anything - and it is particularly bad because it mixes up e-mails from different folders, such as Inbox and Sent. (But with that said, changing the subject line seems fine to me.) – O. R. Mapper Dec 6 '14 at 20:16
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My own busy-person email triage has three tiers:

  1. No response needed = near-zero cost
  2. Minimal response needed = minimal cost
  3. Response with significant thought and care needed = significant context-switching cost

A brief "thank you" email would go into category #1: no bother or burden, but noticed and appreciated all the same. In other words, send the email: it's not a significant nuisance, and it's nice to be appreciated.

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    Yes, indeed, send the thank-you/acknowledgement. It requires no action, and/but is a positive thing. In fact, to not do so is a slight negative, for me. Not that I'd hold a grudge, etc., but just note-to-self about the on-going self-absorbedness of many... "got what I needed". – paul garrett Dec 3 '14 at 23:31
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    Even better: IMHO, there is 1.5 Future response possibly needed = unknown cost. A mere "thank you" e-mail tells me that a particular process is concluded for good and nothing will follow up anytime soon. (Or, if it does, I am not expected to still know about the previous process in depth.) – O. R. Mapper Dec 4 '14 at 16:44
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To me, any email takes some amount of time to process. If I were to send something so short as "Can do. Best" (NB I wouldn't, but if I did) then I wouldn't be expecting a response, and in fact if I got one, to be honest, I would consider it a waste of time. Don't get me wrong, I'd appreciate the sentiment, and I wouldn't be offended, but I'd consider such an email wholly unnecessary and more distracting than it's worth. After all, what's the alternative - that you're not thankful? I think I can safely assume that, unless you're actually an all-around horrible person, that is not the case.

Contrasting this with jakebeal's answer, I think the only general conclusion you can draw is that depending on the person you're emailing, a "thanks" email in response to a short message of acknowledgement may be appreciated at best and somewhat inconvenient at worst, but it's unlikely to seriously bother anyone.

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  • "what's the alternative - that you're not thankful?" - not quite, but maybe that you're not interested any more. In a way, it can show that you stop caring as soon as you got what you wanted. Getting that impression of someone does not motivate me to do them a second favour, because it implies they interpret any collaboration as "I participate as long as I draw direct benefits, and as soon as I reached my personal goals, I stop contributing to the mutual goal." – O. R. Mapper Dec 4 '14 at 16:46
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    @O.R.Mapper none of that would cross my mind in the situation described. The other party made a request, I accepted the request, and I see no reason to jump to the conclusion that they are no longer interested unless they tell me so. – David Z Dec 4 '14 at 17:02
  • Very well, that may be related to whether in your culture/place, it is generally considered customary/polite to respond with a thank you in that situation (or rude not to do so). – O. R. Mapper Dec 4 '14 at 17:09
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To me it depends on how well I know you.

  1. If I know you very well, then we are probably exchanging e-mails frequently. In this case, the continuous streams of gratitude are a distraction and may even seem sycophantic.
  2. If I know you somewhat well, and have already formed an opinion of you (presumably a good one, if I'm willing to do something for which you are thankful), then either way is fine, and everyone's preference will be different. Personally, I'd rather receive the "thanks!" mail only for really significant favors and omit them otherwise.
  3. If I do not know you well, especially if our only contact was for you to request the favor, then I'd probably appreciate the "thanks!" mail, as I would have no other way of knowing that you appreciated the effort.

Given that you're requesting a LoR, you are probably in the second group, which is maybe why the answers are so mixed. In this case, my personal strategy would be to send a detailed "thank you" mail (or even a small gift) after all the letters are submitted, but I would not continuously thank them after every correspondence.

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