Feature

You haven't got mail

Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2012.18 Published online 7 February 2012

What's it that makes Indian scientists far less responsive to e-mails than their western counterparts? A student trio studying the interesting phenomenon says Indian scientists occupying senior positions are probably influenced by the 'old Indian tradition' which disregards upward communication.

Another reason, they say, could be that senior academics rely on their secretaries, who have 'a different perception of priority'.

Why don't scientists respond to e-mails from research students?

Abhishek Sharma and Prachi Sharma from Manipal University in Karnataka along with Aanchal Malhotra of the Amity University in Noida, Uttar Pradesh set up a simple experiment to analyse the phenomenon. They sent more than 400 e-mails to professors of leading science schools in India and abroad. The mail was an application backed by a CV seeking to pursue a research internship in molecular biology, biotechnology, biochemistry or pharmacology.

Only about 16% professors from Indian universities replied compared to about 36% from abroad.

The top Indian institutions from whom they received a reply Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) at Pune and Bhopal (around 43%), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay (around 31%); Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow (around 29%) and National Institute of Immunology (NII), Delhi (25%).

On the other hand, some big names like All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi; IIT-Guwahati, IIT-Delhi and Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad were placed extremely low on the replying index.

In the West, replies from University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University, Washington and University of Massachusetts were most encouraging. However, University of British Columbia, Canada (12.5%) was an exception from the West.

Websites with obsolete e-mail addresses included AIIMS, Delhi; Chemistry Department, IIT-Indore and Pharmacology and Environmental Toxicology Department, University of Madras, Chennai.

"Not surprisingly though, e-responsiveness was greatly enhanced when there was a commercial interest. When we sent queries on registration and travel grants to organizers of conferences, we received prompt replies from all in the West and 66.67% from India," Abhishek Sharma, the lead researcher, points out.

Indian academics are generally not e-mail savvy, says Shaheed Jameel, Head of the Virology group at International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi. "What is interesting though is that the same academics responded very promptly when there was a commercial interest involved," he notes.

Jameel says when he receives an internship applicationwritten directly to him, he responds immediately — positively or negatively — with a one-liner. However, an e-mail written in SMS language or copied to several people puts scientists off. "If someone is lazy enough to approach me like that, he/she does not deserve a reply." On the other hand, it helps if the person sending the email has spent a little time looking at the scientist's website or papers and refers to a specific work of interest.

However, Jameel says IITs and forward-looking institutions like NCBS and CCMB ranking poorly in this study "makes little intuitive sense."

Sandhya Koushika of TIFR, Mumbai says the study results could be 'just numbers'. "The difference in response pattern may arise in part from the number of requests Indian principal investigators get compared to those in the west. I get at least 3 requests per week, and during peak times when people are looking for 6-month projects, 5 e-mails every day." An average Indian lab trains a lot more junior research fellows and interns than an average lab in the west, she points out.

The e-mails, she says, are often poorly written, with the requester clueless about the scientist's work. "They often address me as 'sir' when I am a woman and I get an e-mail copied to ten other people in the institute." Some years back, she responded to every e-mail but as she got busier, "I was losing enthusiasm."

Addressing similar reasons that put scientists off in email communications, TIFR's Shubha Tole counselled students on the dos and don'ts of approaching scientists in a blog some time back.

Koushika says the important issue to consider is what a non-response does to a student's enthusiasm and desire to do science. "I hope it does not completely frustrate them. In time things will improve as more labs are set up in India and undergrads learn how to approach scientists."

Gautam Priyadarshan, a research scientist at the University of Nevada Reno, USA attributes this to the somewhat "procrastinating and materialistic approach" of Asians. "If they gain nothing, it goes to the back burner and (they) get to it if and when they can."

However, when it comes to reviewing a paper or a proposal there is ample 'motive' in delaying response, he figures. "By holding back response, some buy time to duplicate the work and the process before they consider replying or making comments," he contends.

Archana Sharma, a staff scientist at CERN, Geneva says the study has a take home for Indian scientists — the need for a change in attitude. "With the ubiquitous reach of e-mails and internet, we should stop finding excuses for the poor 'citation index' of our scientific publications. The example of responsiveness from abroad demonstrates that things can be done," she notes.

The study, in one way or another, serves as an eye opener, she adds.


References

  1. Sharma, A. et al. Responsiveness of academics to e-mails: India versus the West. Curr. Sci. 102, 9-10 (2012) Article