How to collaborate using only email

Two climate researchers show how it’s done.

11 June 2020

Andy Tay

Stockbyte/Getty

To date, Shipra Jain, a postdoc at the University of Edinburgh, and Adam Scaife, head of long range forecasting at the UK Met Office, have co-authored three papers in leading climate and environmental science journals on tropical rainfall predictions. Their most recent paper was published in Environmental Research Letters in March.

Shipra Jain

Since meeting at the 2016 American Geophysical Union Fall meeting in San Francisco, they have communicated solely via more than 1,000 emails, forgoing other forms of face-to-face or voice-to-voice communication.

“It shows that if you have a good idea, and focus on it and communicate regularly by email, you do not need so many meetings,” says Scaife, who is also professor of applied mathematics at the University of Exeter.

Embracing a distanced approach

Scaife predicts that researchers will opt for more virtual communications long after the easing of pandemic restrictions that preclude face-to-face meetings.

“I know that face-to-face meetings allow important ideas to spring up unexpectedly in the corridors or at a tea break, but given the great technical support for remote work and the benefits of reduced travel, I suspect there will be more of such online-only collaboration in the future.”

Their focus is on seasonal weather predictions, an evolving area of research that is relevant to the recurring floods and droughts that beset Jain’s home country, India, in the summer months.

Adam Scaife

“Adam is an expert in long-range predictions, and he introduced me to this area of research,” says Jain. “While I had the skills necessary to analyse the atmospheric data, my knowledge of this field was limited. His experience and mentoring allowed us to do some exciting research for India.”

The flexibility offered by their “email-only” collaboration was particularly helpful when she was working in India and Scaife was in the UK, she says. It allowed her to learn at her own pace.

For Scaife, the partnership has given him the opportunity to apply his apply climate models and predictions beyond the UK to scenarios in India.

The pair acknowledge that email-only collaboration might not be appropriate for teams that are carrying out experiments or fieldwork, or working within timelines set by funding agencies.

And it’s not always easy to explain complicated concepts in an email setting.

“I think the hardest thing is dealing with a complex procedure or calculation that is difficult to explain in words without ambiguity,” says Scaife. “We deal with this by performing regular simple checks on results.”

Tips for successful collaboration

Jain says communicating regularly is vital to maintaining a productive relationship over email, whether there is active project in the pipeline or not.

“I try to send Adam a new graph I’ve created, share any doubts or ideas I have, or any new reference I’ve found, at least once every two weeks to keep our discussions alive,” she says.

Jain adds that Scaife’s ‘goal-gradient’ approach to mentoring helped her learn effectively. “Adam gives me small research goals and does not overwhelm me with too much information at one time. The joy of achieving a small goal is rewarding, and it keeps me motivated.”

Scaife’s advice is to really consider the language that’s being used. Jain counts this as one of the main reasons why neither of them have ever felt compelled to just pick up the phone.

“Short, punchy, but clear messages,” Scaife advises. “There is nothing worse than a long, rambling text from a collaborator who uses a whole page to say what can be written in a few lines.”

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