The ethics of professional (non-)correspondence

I communcate with lots of academics regularly, as I'm sure most readers of this blog do. This is not surprising. But what I do find surprising is how frequently academics simply do not respond to, or even acknowledge, communications from professional colleagues. This includes communications of the following sorts: invitations to give a talk, invitations to contribute a paper, invitations to review a paper, messages sharing a copy of published work that engages their views, messages sharing in-progress work that engages their views, and messages asking specific questions about their own published work. (The list is not exhaustive.)

Of course, many of our colleagues respond promptly and helpfully to such messages. But it's still amazing how many simply ignore communications –– including short, polite follow-ups to the initial short, polite message. Not even so much as "Thanks, but I don't have time" or "Sorry, I'm no longer working on that topic." In many cases, it's clear that simply ignoring the message interferes with the sender's ability to effectively discharge professional responsibilities (e.g. organizing a colloquium series or an editor's responsibility to secure timely review of papers).

Life's too short to get bitter or dwell much on such slights, but I did want to hopefully start a conversation that raises awareness and to see if others had thoughts about this unflattering aspect of our profession, including what sort of attitude is warranted toward offenders.

20 Replies to “The ethics of professional (non-)correspondence

  1. Introverts + busy (esp. pre-tenure): difficult and draining to reply to large quantity email. Some empathy? Personally, I don’t take offense when people don’t reply to me, because I know how hard it is for me to reply to others; like to hope that understanding is reciprocated.

  2. once i was organizing a conference. there was an interesting type of academic that i learned during that experience. during the course of the organization, i kept asking them a brief one paragraph abstract of their talk so that i can put it in the program and the webpage. they simply ignored. i thought they were super busy. incidentally, the same week I emailed them about their hotel details [we were organizing their stay], and they replied within hours!
    it is just rudeness.
    and my response, I won’t invite them again.

  3. I must say it drives me crazy when academic professionals don’t respond to such communications. Even writing something like “I’m so swamped right now; I’ll try to get back to you when I can” takes under 30 seconds to type and send, so I simply don’t get the excuse that it’s too difficult or draining to provide at least a minimum level of politesse.
    When substantive, thoughtful replies are required, or when a decision is needed on whether to review a book or come give a talk, then delays are to be expected: people need time to mull such things. But even then, one can very easily shoot a message saying, “Thanks — let me think about it a few days.”
    I take it that what you’re really worried about, John, is the way in which such failures to reply leave you hanging, unsure when/if to move on to someone else, and this can delay many time-sensitive proposals. This is exactly right. What’s missing is precisely empathy, the consideration on the part of the recipient of just what the sender is expecting and going through in having to wait on a reply, never knowing when/if it will come through. This is disregard.
    (Incidentally, I have an honest question for the gen pop. Prior to the real onset of e-mail, how did refereeing requests occur? By snail mail or phone? By the time I got to the point where I was asked to referee, e-mail was in full bloom.)

  4. It will be good to have some practical suggestions as to how to deal—politely and empathically—with non-responders in those cases where a non-response is truly problematic for the sender, such as invitations to speak or review.
    How about indicating the time frame within which you need to hear back? Or doing so after some period of time. ‘We’d really love to have you speak but for organizational purposes we need to know by….” Or “If we have not heard back by…we will assume that this is not something you will be able to do…” Or…
    Other ideas along these lines?

  5. D-Shoe, I am pretty sure I got my first couple of refereeing requests by mail. But I’m going to have to look in a file cabinet in my office to be sure. I guess that would have been early nineties. Hm, I must have got a few requests from PPR, whose home was Brown (like mine). Anyway, I am quite sure I didn’t get phone calls asking me to referee.

  6. Nice to see the discussion off to a great start!
    Paul,
    I emphathize and I don’t take it as a personal insult or anything like that. But –– in a practical, cooperative and empathetic spirit –– here’s a suggestion: if someone anticipates that they won’t have time to respond to email sent to their professional address, they should enable an auto-reply saying so. It takes less than a minute and provides valuable information to senders.
    David,
    Yes, that’s the thing that mainly concerns me. As for pre-email times, my understanding is that telephone, snail mail, and fax were used. I’ve even heard that editors would arrive at conferences with copies of papers to hand over when making requests in person.
    Margaret,
    I think your suggestions are excellent and accord with general norms of professional email etiquette. My guess is that this is most effective when included in the subject-line of the email –– something like: “Invitation to Keynote a conference: Please reply by DD” –– and reiterated, perhaps with a brief explanation, in the email’s final sentence.
    [Later edit in light of comments stuck in the filter]
    XX,
    Thanks for sharing. Sorry to hear you were treated that way.

  7. Thank you for drawing attention to this problem. As an editor and director of a center, I invite professional colleagues to tasks both toilsome (and necessary) and enjoyable. I find it astonishing that people do not respond. My own sense is that the cause lies in some nexus of socialization (or, rather, lack thereof) and power relations. Many academics feel, because of tenure and status, that no cost can or will ever be imposed on them for sheer rudeness.
    For my part, I do not forget, and I will not extend professional courtesies, or support invitations, to people who so behave.

  8. Dave and Jamie,
    The first five years or so of my career (perhaps longer) refereeing requests sent a hard copy of the paper along with a request to referee. Replies were generally also by mail. (It says something that times in refereeing did not get shorter when email became the norm.) I recall once stopping at a Kinko’s in the middle of a cross country trip to submit a report on deadline by fax.
    On the overall point of the thread. I think that many failures to reply are inadvertent. It isn’t an accident that there are people who feel compelled to declare email bankruptcy. I know mine stresses me out a lot and I hate it that if I don’t check it for two days I will lose hours just getting back on top of it.
    I tried creating a box of mail to reply to when I had time to think, but that has been an only so-so response. I’ve found that if I put an email aside for thought I can easily forget about it. So now I try to give at least a short response at first and let the sender know that they should feel free to bug me again if they don’t get a response in time.
    Since I’m not the world’s most in demand person, I think others must have it even worse than me and I could easily see it getting to the point where actually responding to everything is very hard to do even if one would like to. So I’m not at all shocked, though I think other things equal one ought to try to respond to email one gets.

  9. John, thanks for raising this issue, which touches a raw nerve for me. I’d like to point out an angle of your post that has been overlooked in the responses so far, and brings out some of the ugliest aspects of the profession. When I was a grad student at UIUC, as I recall all 4 or 5 of the emails I sent to other philosophers about my work or theirs received no response at all. Needless to say, I’ve never had that problem since being hired at USC, and when I’ve mentioned it to friends and colleagues who received their PhDs from top 20 programs, none have reported similar experiences. I think that most philosophers have no clue about how far-reaching and insidious the effects of institutional prestige can be. This reception from other philosophers did nothing for my confidence, and made me very hesitant about bothering important people.
    No doubt there was quite a bit of bad luck in my experience, as I believe most philosophers I know would reply to the likes of me. And I’m inclined to believe that the bad actors are generally beyond being shamed, though I’d like to add my disapprobation to that expressed by others here. My guess is that many people find it less uncomfortable to pretend they never received the message than to take the time to explain that they’re too busy for any other response–which strikes me as just cowardly.

  10. Thanks, Mark and Jamie. Mark addressed one of my implied questions by saying that “refereeing did not get shorter when email became the norm.” I would not be surprised if the amount of time it took to go from sending out a ref request to ultimately getting back a viable ref report was roughly the same as it is today, but if so, that would likely be because I imagine editors have to go through more prospects who turn them down before finding people who will accept. In the “olden days,” surely receiving a mailed ref request (paper included!) would be harder to turn down than it is today. Or maybe I’m wrong.

  11. I remember like it was yesterday being a newly hired Bowling Green junior faculty and daring to send Michael Smith an e-mail outlining some criticisms of his work I had worked up. He responded kindly, thoughtfully, quickly, helpfully, and in a way that made it seem like it was difficult to sort out which of us was right. In a flash, I felt like I was in the game and could dare to address the big-shots and try to think with them. The awful, frustrating certainty that no one would pay any attention to what I thought, even if I came up with a good idea, slowly started to fade away. Thank goodness for folks like him in our profession.

  12. David, I couldn’t agree more. Michael was one of the first big names to make me feel welcome in my field, along with David Copp, and for going far beyond the call of duty I’d especially like to mention Kent Bach, who responded to my email (as junior faculty) by inviting me to join himself and his wife for breakfast at their hotel, while they were on vacation! As you say, thank goodness for folks like these.

  13. Steve,
    I had similar experiences as a graduate student and recall the challenge it posed to my confidence. And I agree that people underestimate the “far-reaching and insidious” prestige-effect.
    David,
    Thanks for the uplifting anecdote! In my own case, Jonathan Schaffer played a similar role. He got back to me quickly with a set of thoughtful, generous and insightful comments on a draft. Another thing that has always stuck out in my memory as particularly gratifying was a conversation with Rae Langton, in which she took my ideas seriously. Experiences like that were big confidence boosters and genuinely formative.

  14. And, my goodness, I don’t think anyone can say enough about Josh Knobe. Just about anyone working in experimental philosophy can tell you how unbelievably encouraging he is. Amazingly, he can even make you feel great about your work by explaining to you where it goes wrong!

  15. As a recent graduate myself, I second all that—the general value of responding genially to grad students, even just to say you’re too busy; the disvalue of failing to do so; and the specific cases of David Copp and Josh Knobe.
    I also want to point out that, at least for me, PEA Soup itself played much the same positive role. Many of you helped boost my confidence (in general, while often shaking it with respect to particular views) when I was a grad student. I thank you for that.
    Of course, those of you who know me know that I was probably less timid than average as a grad student, anyway. So, I also want to encourage grad students who are more timid to comment when they have something to say. (If nothing else, the public nature of this forum probably means you’re more likely to receive a genial response, since everyone will know if you’re ignored or mistreated!)

  16. A note regarding something similar to what Steve Finlay and John Turri reported as grad students, but this from the perspective of a junior faculty member teaching at a low-prestige teaching-intensive institution. I understand that faculty at high-prestige research-intensive institutions are busy in ways I don’t fully grasp, just as I’m busy in ways they don’t fully grasp. So I am very careful about sending comments, questions, requests to referee, drafts of my own work engaging theirs, etc., to such people. I’m sorry to say, though, that when I have sent such things to such people, I have been almost universally disappointed with non-responses. I have not been similarly disappointed when writing to people at institutions more like mine.
    I have decent reason to believe that the things I write in such correspondence is not incomprehensible rubbish (based on my publication record, citation record, and top-5 Leiter Ph.D.). Even if it were, I would think that a minimum standard of decency would require a very brief reply simply thanking me for my paper or comment whatever (or declining the invitation to referee), with no further comment required by minimum decency. My experience reinforces the perception of a sort of class bias that is sometimes alleged to exist based on institutional affiliation.

  17. I think David Faraci’s point is insightful: forums like this have opened up new possibilities for mentoring and professionalization.
    Junior Faculty Member,
    I spent my first four years in a similar context, so I can definitely feel where you’re coming from on this.

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