David Payne: The demise of the email

Email and mobile phones are certainly the bane of most people’s lives, but the generation of students who have never known life without the internet seem to be managing fine without them.I am in Stanford, California, for the Spring 2008 Publishers’ Meeting, hosted by HighWire Press, the organisation that hosts more than a hundred scientific journal websites, including bmj.com.

Day one of the meeting concludes with a very revealing panel discussion involving seven US postgraduate students who describe how they use and share information. Most are on Masters and post-doctoral programmesBetween them they list Google Scholar, PubMed, RSS feeds, journal alerts, fellow students’ blogs, and Wikipedia as good sources of research.

Reassuringly, the latter doesn’t seem to be trusted as a source of “gospel truth,” but as “good for references.” One Masters student confessed to feeling frustrated when students in a class she teaches cite Wikipedia urls as references in assignments.

What about social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter? For people who can’t afford to send 1000 text messages a month, it’s the best way of keeping in touch with friends apparently, particularly for “status updates,” when you need to tell friends, family and acquaintances that you have a new job, car, partner or child.

The status update phenomenon is credited with raising people’s Dunbar’s number, cited as around 150 on Wikipedia. First proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, this is the maximum number of people you can maintain social relationships with.

One said: “Facebook is a good site for keeping in touch with people that don’t use emails. Email has become the letter-writing of modern society, used as a way of formal introduction.”Another added: “I got rid of my cellphone. I use Skype and wikis.”Nobody on the panel engaged much with social bookmarking sites such as Delicious and Connotea. One of the seven had never heard of them before.

So where does this leave journals? Each of the students expected online articles to add value to their print counterparts, with more images, audio, or video content to accompany the text.One Masters students said he never paid for articles, preferring instead to trawl the internet until he accessed a free version. Two of the seven said they preferred a longer-term subscription as a way of saving time and to avoid having to pay $5 each time they wanted to access an article.

So are today’s students completely different from the generation that preceded them? Perhaps not. Their reward for participating in the one-hour session was a free dinner, during which I caught up with the student who described email as today’s equivalent of formal letter-writing.Does she never write letters? “I do, yes. I love writing letters, and send loads at New Year. But I never get replies, or if I do, they email me.”

There were no medical students on the panel, and maybe these students’ European counterparts have other information-gathering habits, but I suspect not. If you have any comments, have your say on the blog.