Timeliness in Academia: Email, Deadlines, Meetings, etc.


There are a bunch of things that people in the course of their normal work lives have to do in a timely fashion in order to stay in good standing in their jobs, but about which there is, let’s say, greater variation in academia. This observation was prompted by a query from Tom Donaldson, received in the Daily Nous inbox a, er, couple of weeks ago:

Philosophers differ radically in their email response times. Some philosophers seem to reply to every email within an hour or two. Goodness knows how they manage it. Some ignore emails for days or even weeks. So here’s my question: What is the upper limit on what is acceptable?

His suggestion:

Obviously it varies a good deal from case to case. Some emails are very urgent, some are not. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for a rule of thumb. My proposal is that in normal cases one should reply to each email before the end of the next working day. So if you receive an email on Monday, you should reply before the end of Tuesday. Weekends and holidays don’t count as working days.

Sounds reasonable, but it would be interesting to learn what others’ practices and expectations are.

And while we’re at it, we can take a look at some other matters of timeliness in professional responsiveness: meeting deadlines for submissions, being on time for class and meetings, returning comments on work you’ve agreed to look at, and so on. Where are the problems? What are the appropriate expectations? And how do we get people to comply?
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Douglas W. Portmore
5 years ago

The rule of thumb for replying to an email requesting you to review a paper should be to reply to that email as soon as possible, whether it be a workday or not. And if you’re not going to be able to reply to such an email within 48 hours of receiving it, then you should probably set up an automatic “out of office” reply that indicates when you will again be able to respond to such requests. I have been horrified and surprised to discover that some philosophers don’t respond to such requests in a timely fashion and that some don’t even respond at all. As a result of this, review times increase dramatically.Report

Professor with a Life
Professor with a Life
Reply to  Douglas W. Portmore
5 years ago

There should not be any rule of thumb that presumes academics will look at their work email on weekends or holidays. Academics, like others, can and should reserve time for themselves and their friends and families, time that is not beholden to a smartphone. This holds with respect to peer review to an even greater extent, given that this work is unpaid, not counted towards any professional advancement, and yet is used to make ridiculous sums of money for publishers.Report

Douglas W. Portmore
Reply to  Professor with a Life
5 years ago

I’m fine with people not checking their emails on weekends, holidays, and vacations. But if you’re going to be away from your email for more than a couple (maybe I should say “a few”) of days, I think that it would be a good idea to let people know. And if you do check your email, you should reply if possible — even if it’s on the weekend. Now, by ‘possible’, I don’t mean anything like physically possible, but something more like can do so without unreasonable burden. And, typically replying to a request to review will not involve incurring an unreasonable burden. It’s takes seconds to decline such an invitation, allowing the journal to move on to whoever is next on the list. And although I agree that reviewing for a journal is a supererogatory service, I think that replying to email requests to review in a timely fashion is obligatory. I believe that it’s one of our professional duties. It’s also something for which most professors who are asked to review are compensated for. For instance, at my university, I’m expected (and paid) to spend 20% of my time doing community, university, and professional service. So I am indeed paid to provide service to my profession. Lastly, I don’t see what the fact that some publishers make substantial profits has to do with it. By failing to reply to emails in a timely fashion, you don’t harm the publisher. You harm those who submit to the journal and need to get timely reviews in order to advance in the profession. Moreover, many journals are not associated with any for-profit publisher (e.g., JESP). In any case, the duty to reply in a timely fashion is not owed to the publishers but to your fellow professionals. So the fact that the publisher makes a profit is irrelevant to your duty to your fellow professionals.Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Reply to  Douglas W. Portmore
5 years ago

I disagree strongly with Douglas Portmore’s suggestion—both in its specificity and in the thought behind it. Undertaking referee work is volunteer service work. It is important volunteer service work, and we must do it, and do it well—but it doesn’t urgently override everything else you’re doing. I think that the idea that we’re all constantly ‘on call’ for our jobs is a serious detriment to academic work–life balance, even when it comes to things like admin, teaching, and research—that which is literally part of our jobs. Doing volunteer referee work isn’t even my job.Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
5 years ago

(Or to put it another way: what Professor with a Life said.)Report

Sara L. Uckelman
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
5 years ago

Among the types of emails that can take up a lot of time and thought to respond to, responding to a request to referee is generally not one of them, though — a quick perusal of the paper or your todo queue should let you know quickly whether you think you can or can’t accept the request. I don’t think there should be such a short time-frame before a referee is uninvited (if for no other reason that the one noted, that some of us don’t check work email on the weekends, and should not be expected to), but I think that it is perfectly acceptable to desire people to respond promptly, positively OR negatively to such requests, and even more appropriate to desire that they respond at all. Every time you don’t respond to a request to referee, you add on weeks to the process for some other author.Report

Douglas W. Portmore
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
5 years ago

Jonathan: I’m talking about replying to email requests to review, not about reviewing. Undertaking referee work is supererogatory, but that doesn’t mean that replying to email requests to referee in a timely fashion is supererogatory.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
5 years ago

One working day for a reply to an email sounds rather strict to me! A lot can happen in a single day: It can be the person’s teaching heavy day, or they can be home with a sick child (or sick themselves), or they can be away at a conference.

If it’s something I need a reply from, I generally don’t worry until it’s been more than a week.Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
Reply to  Sara L. Uckelman
5 years ago

What is more important? Answering email or preparing for class, writing tests, committee work, etc…? Email does not demand a quick response, in fact, there seems no obligation to answer it at all, same as for phone calls, and letters (remember them?). Now, there are some of all the above that it would be polite and professional to respond to quickly — conference papers so that schedules can be set, attending a conference or committee meeting, for example. Day to day responsibilities do not necessarily include responding to email.

Question, does a professor have the right to not even have an email address?Report

Wittgenstein
Wittgenstein
5 years ago

Take your time!Report

Aix
Aix
5 years ago

Almost nothing is so urgent that it can’t wait a few days or even a week. For centuries, philosophers got by perfectly well writing letters on paper to each other and waiting for them to be delivered. There’s no reason to treat e-mail any differently.Report

Douglas W. Portmore
Reply to  Aix
5 years ago

Yes, of course, it can wait. But that’s also true of the editor’s waiting a few days before giving the managerial editor a list of potential reviewers to solicit, and of the managerial editor waiting a few days to ask the first person on that list after receiving it, and of the first person responding to that request after receiving the request, and of the managerial editor asking the next person on the list after the first person declines, etc. It adds up. And since we know that one big problem in our profession is that it takes far too long on average for journals to complete their reviews we all need to do what we can to speed things up as part of our professional obligation to each other. So it seems quite reasonable to think that people should respond to such requests as soon as possible — possible being interpreted normatively.Report

Neil
Neil
5 years ago

Accepting or declining a review request requires nothing more than a single click of the mouse/touch of the screen. While there should be norm that people check their email when away from work, there should be a norm that one they check, they respond rapidly. A significant minority don’t respond until the second or third reminder, and perhaps 10% never respond at all. I bet that in many of those cases, a failure to respond immediately leads to the request being forgotten until the next reminder (at which point the process begins again). Refereeing is only supererogatory if you’re not yourself submitting to journals. And even if it is supererogatory, responding to referee requests is obligatory.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
5 years ago

When I decline a referee request, I often get a form that asks me to explain my reasons for declining and to recommend other possible referees, which requires a bit more than one touch if I fill it out. How useful do editors find these?Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Matt Weiner
5 years ago

Matt;
Suggestions of other referees, often very helpful.
Your reasons for declining: useful if they let me know whether you don’t want to be asked again for a year, or you’ll be available again in a few weeks, or you just can’t do this particular one because you know who the author is… that kind of thing.Report

Sergio Tenenbaum
Sergio Tenenbaum
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
5 years ago

What Jamie said. It is also useful to know if the paper is in an area that you’re not willing/not able to referee. So, a one line reply such as “Can’t referee till 2035” or “can’t referee philosophy of X” is great. But I would much prefer to have a blank response than a delayed reply.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

My mentor once advised me that he answers emails, writes recommendations, fulfills referee obligations, etc., as quickly as possible so as to better serve the person making the request and also to clear it off of his list of things to do so he doesn’t have to think about it. I have known and greatly admired several philosophers who demonstrate professional courtesy in this way. I have tried to follow these examples and I must say that it lowers my anxiety about things hanging over my head while seeming to please students and colleagues. If you have time to write comments on Daily Nous, you surely have time to respond to your students’ and colleagues’ emails.Report

DocFEmeritus
DocFEmeritus
5 years ago

Being an old geezer, I remember getting snail mail responses a week or more after I wrote and was elated with the quick response. I do not think many things philosophers do, apart from scheduling at conferences or such, that require a one day response. This idea that everything has to be answered immediately is onerous. One can choose when to answer and the sender must respect that. There is no duty to respond asap! This imposes the impatience of the sender onto the receiver, unjustifiably. “Your need for speed, does not impose a need for speed on my part.” Nothing, with a few exceptions, is so urgent on email that the receiver needs to feel put upon to answer.

Tom: being a former student, colleague and basketball player with you back at Loyola in the old days, chill, dude. Us retired guys have learned that doing nothing is sometimes a virtue, as the Buddha said.Report

Tom Donaldson
5 years ago

DocFEmeritus: I think you must have me confused with another Tom Donaldson!

I don’t think that “as quickly as possible” is a good answer to my question. In busy times, there are many of tasks on my “as soon as possible” list. There’s replying to emails, of course, but also meeting with students and advisees, grading, preparing for meetings, reading students’ work, writing rec letters, etc. etc.. And this is to say nothing of the problem of finding time for tasks that are not urgent, but important in the long run.

Of course it’s good to reply to emails quickly. But I still think it’s reasonable to ask for some upper limit to the acceptable reply time…Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
Reply to  Tom Donaldson
5 years ago

Don’t know why we need limits and demand a rule of thumb we all apply. This reminds me of a cartoon years ago wherein the boss asks the assistant to write and send an email response to a client, he waits while looking over her shoulder as she hits ‘send’. Next cel – one minute later, “Where’s the response, (angrily)?” Assistant responds, “This looks like a case of artificial urgency.” My point, again, is while responding quickly can be a virtue, it cannot be a requirement or duty. Moreover, letting technology and its ability to allow us to respond immediately rule over the receiver’s choice, other overriding daily duties, etc… is not desirable. But good discussion and good points.Report

Mats Volberg
Mats Volberg
5 years ago

If I get an email from a student or another faculty member sent directly to me and which contains a specific question or task for me, then I aim to answer that email by the end of the next workday.

If I get an email as a part of some group of people and it asks for input in a more general way then I aim to answer it within few days (or by the specific deadline provided).Report

Jack Woods
Jack Woods
5 years ago

Honestly, why is this even a question? Being a (employed) philosopher is a professional job and the usual professional standards apply. Tom’s [by the end of the next working day] suggestion seems generous to me. One responds to emails in a reasonable fashion (same day, or next) or writes a quick squib saying [I’m super busy and will get back to your email in X time] where X is not especially small. Especially when the author of the initial email is someone you’ve professional obligations towards, like a student or colleague.

(of course, you can ignore kook emails…)Report

Heather Logue
Heather Logue
5 years ago

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, especially if you don’t or can’t work on evenings and weekends, and/or if your teaching load isn’t constant across terms (e.g., many institutions in the UK don’t divvy up teaching in neat 2/2 or 3/3 chunks). The end of the next working day simply wouldn’t be feasible for me during heavy teaching terms (a day or two can easily go by where there isn’t any time for email at all). So I have to prioritise. I aim to reply to students and refereeing requests within two working days, and everything else within a week (unless the sender specifies that they need a reply sooner). Sometimes I’m too busy to manage even this; recently I’ve starting setting auto-replies indicating that my response will take longer during these periods.Report

Jack Woods
Jack Woods
Reply to  Heather Logue
5 years ago

That last suggestion strikes me as an excellent one. If you know you’re going to be unable to respond quickly, best to let them know about that in a way which doesn’t make your life more difficult (i.e. by an auto-reply.)Report

C
C
5 years ago

“What is the upper limit on what is acceptable?”

I don’t think there’s a general duty to respond to an email.

Much of the thread above is concerned with a specific kind of email, one that carries with it special responsibilities. I agree with some of the points about those, but I want to focus on the more general case. Isn’t an email a request for a discussion? Sometimes we’re busy, sometimes we’d like to carve a little space out for something else, and some of us (esp. who work in the UK) have far too many distractions imposed on us by work. I don’t see why we have any responsibility to respond to this kind of request. (Don’t we all screen our calls and decide not to pick up if it’s someone we don’t want to talk to?)

It’s acceptable to never respond except in the cases where it’s not. (And those cases are cases where there are reasons to respond that aren’t simply generated by things in an inbox. I think it’s healthy to remind ourselves of this. There’s no upper limit. We don’t need an 8th principle of prima facie duty that has to do with keeping up with emails from people we don’t want to respond to.)Report

Fred Waynehammer
Fred Waynehammer
Reply to  C
5 years ago

“We don’t need an 8th principle of prima facie duty that has to do with keeping up with emails from people we don’t want to respond to.)”

Well, it’s more like a pro tanto duty to reply to certain kinds of work e-mails. And most of these are from people I don’t want to respond to.

The requirement that teachers/lecturers reply to student e-mails is engrafted in many academic contracts (though not all). A norm I often hear is that you should respond to a student e-mail regardless of whether you “want to talk to that person” within about 24-48 hours (excepting weekends). Responding to student e-mails isn’t like deciding whether to take a call from a spammer or a drunk dialer whom you have a liberty right to simply ignore. You are *foregoing* such a liberty right when you take money as a teacher and agree to be contactable under certain conditions. Note that I am not claiming the same holds in the case of responding to requests to referee papers; that is more complicated.Report

C
C
Reply to  Fred Waynehammer
5 years ago

You seem to want to disagree, but it’s generally not a good idea to try to do that by repeating points that I said I accepted.Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
5 years ago

There are many different kinds of emails, which I think generate many different kinds of norms. If I invite someone to speak at a conference I’m organizing, I’ll have one kind of expectation; if I’m asking my colleague whether this Friday is acceptable for scheduling the comps exam, I’ll have quite another. In the former case, I probably wouldn’t start to feel disrespected until about a week has gone by with no response—people need time to consult their calendars, to think about whether they want to write on a suitable topic, etc. (And I’ll only barely feel disrespected; I’ll just send the follow-up email at that one-week point.) In the latter case, where time is clearly of the essence, I hope they’ll get back to me the first time they have a minute, which is usually today.

I think some of the people above are underestimating the time it might take to deal with a referee request. It’s only only one click once you’ve decided whether to accept the request. I can only speak for myself, but I need some time to decide. Does the topic interest me? How busy am I in the near future? Am I already sitting on refereeing tasks, and when will I clear them from my backlog? This doesn’t take a *ton* of time, but it takes enough that it’s be a serious imposition for me to drop everything and do it every time a request comes in. (If I did have to decide instantly, I’d say no a lot more.) So I put refereeing requests somewhere in between the two cases mentioned above.

And of course there are many other kinds of cases too. Timeliness will be influenced by many factors, including the time-sensitivity of the email and the amount of time it will take to deal with it. If you need a quick reply, say so—and construct your email in a way that makes it easy to respond quickly to.

And speaking for myself, if a few days have gone by and I haven’t replied yet, I’ll never resent a polite follow-up.Report

Douglas W. Portmore
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
5 years ago

I guess that I wish that the norms in academia were less relaxed. For instance, when I get an invitation to a conference, I reply right away to thank them for the kind invitation. And if I’m going to need a week or, perhaps, more to decide, I tell them that so that they know both that I received their email and when they can expect to have my decision by. I just find it odd that people get these requests and then wait days and even weeks to even acknowledge them. And there are a fair number that, in our profession, that just go forever unanswered. And this seems to me problematic. Since some people don’t respond at all, editors and conference organizers never know whether they’re waiting in vain or not. Is the person just a complete jerk who never responds to such emails or just someone who takes days or weeks to reach a decision before even acknowledging that the request has been received? I suspect that outside of academia, it’s considered rude not to respond to such requests and invitations. I wish it was so in academia as well. I wish that it was a norm of our profession that we would respond to legitimate emails from our fellow professionals as soon as we can without undue burden. And a quick reply to tell people that you received the request and will get back to them with an answer in n days is not usually a significant burden. (And, of course a caveat: I’m only talking about emails from one professional to another — not emails sent to several recipients or emails sent by some quack.)Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Reply to  Douglas W. Portmore
5 years ago

That’s interesting, I think there are some purely conventional differences in preference around here that I’d been unaware of. For example, when I invite someone to an event, I’d prefer to just get an answer five days later, rather than getting an instant ‘I received your email but am not ready to answer your question’ followed by an answer five days later. The latter clutters my inbox, and makes it slightly harder for me to keep track of where the event stands.

Different people are different I guessReport

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
5 years ago

Yeah, that is interesting.

I’m exactly with Doug on this one. If I invite someone to do something and they don’t respond in, say, three days, I start to suspect that they aren’t going to respond at all. And when I get an invitation I’m not sure I want to accept, I reply normally within 24 hours and explain and also ask how long I can take before it starts to become a problem for them.
I understand that other people may just be following different conventions, but like Doug I wish the conventions were stricter.

Let me also emphasize something Doug said in another comment: in the case of refereeing requests timeliness might be a lot more important than people realize. I *often* have to ask three people to ref something before I get one to agree to do it, and if the custom were to take a week to answer, the author of the paper would have three weeks tacked on to their journal response time. That’s a lot; for some people it could be calamitous. Or put it this way: if we could cut journal response times by three weeks, that would be a real boon to junior members of the profession especially.

(Moral: Doug, don’t invite Jonathan to do anything fun. Ask me instead.)Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
5 years ago

I agree as to the cases you enumerated. Invites, etc. Should be answered promptly. But how about, “hey dude, how goes it?”. Can respond or not, right?Report