Liz Wager on falling in love with email again

Liz WagerThere are days when I curse the existence of email. I curse it when I have been training all day yet feel obliged to sit up half the night to plough through the 50 messages that have popped uninvited into my in-box. I grind my teeth when people in meetings check their Blackberries every 5 minutes. I shout at my computer when I get an “out-of-office” message informing me that the recipient is on holiday and will only be checking emails once a day. “That’s not a holiday!” I want to tell them. “Relax, just ignore your email for a whole week, the world won’t come to an end.”

But this week I have fallen in love with email again. I have just returned from the 2nd World Conference on Research Integrity in Singapore. It was a stimulating meeting attended by 350 participants from over 50 countries. I was involved in sessions developing international standards for authors and editors (representing COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics). We had lively debate trying to find wording acceptable across continents and disciplines. The philosophers didn’t think accuracy was a concept they could aspire to. The mathematicians didn’t understand the sections about ethical research and informed consent. The social scientists didn’t like the word discipline. We haggled over whether we should call the document “best practice” or “good practice.” Yet, even the disagreements reminded us that people cared passionately about publication ethics, which was hugely encouraging.

On the long flight home, I started to revise the draft document. When I got home, I sent it to the people who’d been in Singapore. Still slightly jetlagged and grumpy, I wondered gloomily how I would handle yet more conflicting suggestions. Then the responses started arriving. Within minutes of sending out the draft I’d had a polite thank-you from a lady in Malaysia. Somebody in Japan asked me to re-send the document because he couldn’t open it. A participant from France promised to share the document with his colleagues. A woman from Cameroon sent thoughtful comments. Somebody in Sri Lanka thanked me for my efforts, as did an American working in Hong Kong. If we ever manage to agree the wording these guidelines will be a truly international collaboration. I’m in love with e-mail again!

Liz Wager is a freelance medical writer, editor, and trainer. She is the current chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).