This post covers the much-ignored craft of research correspondence. Have you been emailing people, perhaps inviting them to be in a study – and getting nowhere? Maybe you know you’ve got to make contact, but don’t know how or where to begin.
This post is for you if you’re using email to:
- Directly or indirectly recruit people to research
- Publicise a study
- Request assistance with publicity/recruitment
- Create a conversation with participants (for example scheduling interviews or following up after a study has been completed)
- Invite others to collaborate (for example as examiners, research colleagues, or speakers for events)
You might be a student undertaking a research dissertation at undergraduate, Masters, or PhD level; or you could be an independent researcher and/or an academic that teaches research methods or undertakes their own studies. While the advice here is focusing on email, it also applies to other written correspondence across social media formats.
Why does a well-written email matter?
Emails can be an excellent way for recruiting, sharing, networking and showcasing you or your work. They can reach out to people who would benefit from being in your research – or enhance it through their participation. And bring you closer to others who’ll help you undertake your work more effectively, ethically, accurately and meaningfully.
Perhaps because we use email so much it’s assumed to be so simple it requires no real focus or dedicated project time. As a consequence many messages are poorly written, rushed and badly presented. Which results in wasted effort, may cause distress to recipients, and can have the opposite effect of what was intended. As in the email doesn’t invite people to join in – it puts them right off.
10 things to check before you send an email
- is email the best way to reach the people I want to connect with? How do I know this? Who will I bring in or leave out if I use email as my main way to connect – and what other options might I consider instead?
- what other similar studies have used email and done well from it recruitment/networking wise?
- if I’m intending to recruit participants via email, do I have specific ethical approvals to do this (including noting if the emailing will be unsolicited/unanticipated – a form of cold calling; or when it may be something respondents opt into)
- how will I find the people I want to email (e.g. mailing lists, pre-existing databases, snowballing, advertising your details on blogs etc)
- what’s my email strategy going to be – how many emails will I be sending out, over what time period, and how will I keep track of who does/doesn’t respond?
- will I be the only one sending emails or is it a group/team effort? Is email the only way I’ll be making contact or will I also be using other approaches (e.g. email plus posters advertising my project or email followed by a phone call)?
- is emailing people to help with my work a required part of my course? Do I need permission from my college/tutor before I proceed? Do I have a clear purpose plus support/supervisory structure behind me?
- what’s my Plan B if I try emailing people but this doesn’t generate much of a response?
- what do I want to say in my email?
- am I messaging the right person, at the right time, in the right way?
A few more things to consider….
Check the email address of the person you’re contacting. Is it correct? This is particularly important if you’re using pre-existing lists or databases.
Note how you came by a person’s email (they may well want you to explain this in your message to them).
If you’re doing a bulk/group mailout how can you maintain confidentiality and anonymity – and are there any other ethical issues you need to consider when you’re approaching lots of people? [Consider if you want to do bulk/group emails, or individual ones – tracking may be easier with the latter but it also could be more time consuming].
Have you included in your project planning a time frame that allows for emails – have you piloted how long sending and chasing up emails might take? If you’re unsure, do you know anyone who could help give you a rough estimate?
Let’s have a go at writing an email, here’s a stepwise approach to the things you need to consider and check
Your email address
Where possible use your work address – your charity, college etc. If you’re undertaking a research project or programme where you’ll be emailing a lot of people it may be appropriate to set up a dedicated account just for your particular project. This needs to convey a serious tone, avoiding terminologies that might lead to a message ending in spam, or potentially put participants off (or put them at risk, more on this later).
Don’t use email addresses that sound unprofessional or carry different connotations to the study itself (for example things like sexyboi, hunnigirl, or yummymummy_28).
The subject line
This should be engaging, truthful and short. For example ‘can you give a talk for us?’, ‘viva examination request’, or ‘please join my study on women’s health’
For sensitive research topics avoid putting things in the subject line that may be triggering, distressing, or potentially risky to recipients – I saw one recently entitled ‘MY BIG GAY STUDY’, which might be fine to receive if you’re happily out; easily ignored if you’re straight; but could be alarming if you are LGBT+ but not out, or not out in the place you just got that email! Similarly, a study I declined to promote used ‘domestic violence project’ in the subject heading. Something that could well be spotted by an abusive partner and put victims at more risk of harm, or make someone who’s tentatively trying to escape feel threatened and exposed. If you feel emailing someone direct could put them at risk, revise your recruitment strategy. Remember, the way you introduce your study in a subject line can convey you’re in control of a thoughtful project – or imply you’re not to be trusted.
Note also that bland, spammy, or confusingly long subject lines are liable to end up in the bin, or not read promptly. You may wish to experiment with a number of subject headings to see what feels the most inviting – particularly if email invitation is your main way of recruiting respondents and if you’re effectively ‘cold calling’ them (as in the email from you will be the first they’ve ever heard of you/your research).
This should be ‘Dear….’ You’re making a formal request to a participant, student or colleague so you need to signify respect. If you wish to seem slightly less formal you may want to use ‘hello’ but this should be considered in relation to who you’re approaching and why. Terms such as ‘good day’ ‘greetings’ or ‘good morning/afternoon’ may be acceptable but are often a feature of spam messages so could easily not reach your intended recipient(s).
Avoid ‘Hi’, ‘Hai’, ‘Hiya’ or ‘Hey’ – this is not an email to your friend, and while some recipients may not mind informality, many will find this approach overly familiar or even rude. Don’t assume that young people will warm towards using a more casual address, or that they don’t need to be treated with the same respect as older recipients.
In some cases you may not wish to use any salutation and may just post a message about your research. This may be appropriate in cases where it’s clear you’re sending to a group. However, it might feel impersonal and lead to fewer people replying to you.
I’ve used English addresses here, but when writing in other languages the same rules apply – formal addresses to open an email, not casual terms.
The recipient’s title
You should check their title before messaging and, unless you know it would be preferred, do not use first names only.
If you know someone’s title, use it! For example – Dr, Professor etc. Do not drop the title because you’ve previously met them, or use their first name instead of their title. Many people, particularly women, people of colour, younger or senior people, or other minorities find it disrespectful to have their title neglected in formal addresses. Even if you prefer not to use titles to describe yourself, do not assume you can discard them when addressing other people.
Where you are writing to a member of the public, then you may want to use an address like Mrs, Mma, Madame, Ms, Mx etc. Ensure you are using the right title so you don’t accidentally misgender recipients; and be careful around age/gender combinations – some people are annoyed if you call them Miss when they prefer Mrs, for example.
If you don’t know their title or believe they would prefer not to have a title used then you can use their name(s) instead. For academics you may wish to default to Prof, they can always correct you if you’re wrong.
The recipient’s name
The use of a title (or not) will determine what name follows. So if you are using titles such as Dr, Professor, Mrs then you would conventionally follow it with the person’s surname/last name only. You don’t need to use title, then first name/initial and then last name.
However, this may vary depending on the cultural background of the person you’re addressing – where a clan or tribe name may be used instead of a surname. Or where a last/family name is always given first. Some people may have more than one name and like all of them used in a specific order, others have multiple names but are happy with only one or two of them being used, while others may have a single name only.
If someone is replying to an invitation you’ve given, then directly copy how they’ve described themselves. Some people may use several initials; a mix of upper or lower case lettering; crossing out of names; or punctuation marks; emphasis on specific letters; particular spelling conventions; hypens; or other typographical or visual cues. It is not for you to alter or remove these. Use them as they have done – copying and pasting if appropriate/possible. You might use someone’s written or electronic signature, phone book listing, or authorship on an academic paper to be certain you’ve got a name right.
If you are working from other records, databases etc then proof read first and use the right names in the right order.
Always check the spelling of a name and if it is a name unfamiliar to you then double-check it online or via a name guide and/or with the input of colleagues.
Names that are familiar to us often allow us to then make assumptions about someone’s age, gender and so on. But it isn’t a failsafe approach. If you are aware of the pronouns someone wants you to use then ensure this is done consistently – even (or especially) if a given name does not necessarily match what you might have guessed the pronoun to be. Never alter someone’s preferred pronoun to bring it in line with a given name. If it is unclear what someone’s preferred gender might be (s/he or other gender variations), or if you can’t confidently work it out from someone’s name, then use gender-neutral terminology throughout your message (they/theirs).
Getting someone’s name and title wrong is a guaranteed bad start to a message, which is why I’m spending so much time on it here. While some people may make allowances, for others misnaming can be deeply off-putting or even offensive. Echoing also the persistent problem of white/Western researchers misnaming or misspelling the names of those from ethnic minorities/other countries/people of colour.
In many parts of the world names are personal and important and getting them right conveys respect. It’s vital, therefore, if you mess up, to apologise genuinely and swiftly.
If you don’t know someone’s name, or are addressing a group you might say something like ‘Dear colleague’ or ‘Dear group member’.
The main body of your message
This is where you briefly tell your recipient:
who you are – depending on the message topic and who you are contacting you may wish to use your title and surname, your first and last name, or your first name only.
where you’re from and who is overseeing your work (for example a university, charity, or other organisation). You don’t need to give a full address here, just a location (e.g. ‘Sociology Department at Newcastle University’ or ‘Haven Hospital, Port au Prince’ or ‘Unicef’).
what you are doing – this is a sentence or two explaining what you’re up to, which prefixes what you want from them. For example ‘I am undertaking a project about…’, ‘I have a student completing a dissertation on…’, ‘I am organising a fundraising event…’
why you are contacting them – they may be used to being approached by students/researchers, but they may not. Be reassuring. So tell them how you came about their details. For example ‘a colleague recommended you’, ‘I’ve enjoyed reading your work’, ‘I was given your name by your doctor’. And then why you’ve got in touch – ‘I’d like you to help examine my PhD student’, ‘I would love you to give a talk to my study group’, ‘I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences of living with sickle cell disease as a means of helping other patients’.
what you want them to do – you want to make this bit as inviting and accessible as possible. The temptation is to write reams about your work, which most people won’t read. As this is an initial invitation you should be brief, clear and engaging. And truthful! For example – ‘I can provide a thesis for you to read and arrange a time for the viva, you would be reimbursed for your time and travel’. ‘A talk based on your recent paper about climate change would be ideal, students would enjoy hearing about your direct experiences and asking questions. We can offer accommodation plus a tour of our city’. ‘You would meet with me on three separate occasions to tell me about your life via a recorded interview and to complete a short questionnaire that measures your mental and physical health’.
links to any relevant additional information – here you may tell them who is funding your supervisor or any overseeing/regulatory body/ethics committee should they wish to verify you/your work.
Give a timeline by which you’d like/need them to respond – and details of how they confirm if they are interested (that might be they need to email you back, sign up to a website, or return a form, or have a phone/Skype conversation with you).
Remind them if they have any accessibility requirements to let you know what these might be. Or offer a range of ways you can meet people’s communication, access or mobility needs.
If they are interested you can follow up with more detail so you don’t need to overload them with links, pictures, attachments etc in an initial email or the start of an email conversation.
Thank them for reading and considering your request. Depending on the starting salutation you may say ‘yours sincerely’ (if you used their name), ‘yours faithfully’ (if you didn’t), ‘thank you’ or ‘thank you for considering this request’. You can follow this with ‘I look forward to hearing from you soon/working with you’. Do not say ‘thanks’, ‘cheers’ ‘bye’ or leave the end of the message with no respectful closure.
Your full name and qualifications (if appropriate)
Your contact details and links to relevant information to help verify who you are (for example links to a professional website, project/university/charity page, blog etc).
Make sure you
- Write a message that is short, clear, and specific to the person you are messaging
- Use a legible font
- Consider the colour of font and background for accessibility
- Avoid attachments unless necessary, and if you include any these must be accessible to participants (e.g. things they’ll be able to open and be able to follow if they’re using text to speech recognition software)
- Check, check, and double check for spelling and grammar
- Write in the language(s) your respondents speak
- Note that for international audiences or diverse cultures conventions of addresses, salutations, and instructions may vary in how they’re phrased and interpreted
- Avoid pressuring or coercing (including offering prizes, mention this towards the end, if at all); or throwing in sensitive or potentially distressing ideas without clarification or forewarning (e.g. ‘you’ve had lots of miscarriages and I’m writing to see if you’d like to tell us about them…’ a less than inviting opportunity I was recently offered)
- Put yourself in their shoes – don’t assume because the topic you’re messaging them about is important/interesting to you it will be to them, or that because you’re used to the topic it won’t be daunting/threatening/upsetting to recipients. Or even if topic is benign that an out of the blue email might not still feel unsettling. Imagine the email you plan to send just turned up in your inbox – how would you feel?
- Note when you’re sending emails – over the weekend, during festivals or religious/work holidays, or other busy periods may reduce the replies you get or introduce delays in response times
If you are using email for research PILOT YOUR EMAIL/MESSAGE – that includes what you are asking and the mail out strategy.
If they reply
And say no (N) – either don’t respond if you believe they don’t wish/need to hear from you. Or reply with a polite thanks and note you won’t bother them again (if it’s a call for research). If working with colleagues ensure everyone’s aware and respectful of requests for no more contact. Do not email them to argue about their answer, question their refusal, or imply they are unreasonable for not being part of your research.
Maybe (M) – some people are interested but aren’t sure if they’re available or may want more details. In which case provide them with what they need to know quickly and concisely.
Yes (Y) – don’t suddenly become informal, you’re not their best friend. Be ready to send out whatever further information is needed to get them involved with your research, teaching etc.
If they don’t reply
You can send a ‘friendly reminder’ (and even put this in your subject heading). But do this once, twice at a push. If they aren’t interested or available you continuing to pester them is unlikely to change things. If you notice this is happening a lot then it may be worth checking if your email is the problem (perhaps it’s going to spam for a lot of recipients), or maybe if emailing people is not the best approach to get them interested in you/your work.
For research participants – note if they did reply, what their response was (Y/N/M), or if no response if you followed up and outcome (Y/N/M or still no response). You can record this as part of your ongoing data management about study responders and non-responders, assuming you have the relevant approvals to collect this information and appropriate means of storing it securely.
Send out messages when you will be available to respond. If you’re liable to be only picking up sporadically note your availability on your contact details at end of message (e.g. I will respond within 7 days; I am currently travelling so will check my messages weekly).
There’s more information on how to communicate effectively with participants in The Research Companion (particularly Chapters 2, 5 and 8).
If you’ve anything to add about positive and negative emailing experiences; further questions about emailing respondents/colleagues; or guides for crafting email or letter invitations to research respondents, please share them in the comments.
Thanks to Jay Owens @Hautepop, research director at Pulsar. And Dr Heather Williams @alrightPET for ideas about good emailing practices.
In the latest edition of The Lancet’s Global Health is a short piece entitled “Preserving dignity and anonymity at scientific conferences”. It encourages those working across the social sciences, health and development (research and practice) to consider the impact of both taking photos and films within our work – and in sharing those images at public events. It’s an excellent piece, and one that is well worth using in your own self-development or in wider teaching about presentation skills, safety and wellbeing, individual and community rights, and professional ethics.
It reminded me of a case study I’ve used in teaching many times, that I published in 2010 (then titled ‘Smile! You’re on my phone’s camera’). It’s based on a real story, but I deliberately altered identifying details. I developed it as a training activity for healthcare practitioners to consider some of the shifting boundaries that exist around mobile technology and our working practices. In an era where we’re eager to use new technologies to improve healthcare and health education there can also be hidden issues we’ve perhaps not focused on as much as we should.
See what you think about the case described below. What would you do if you were the healthcare practitioner, the patient, or the carer talked about in the story?
Darrell, a newly qualified physiotherapist was talking animatedly with his colleagues over lunch about a new patient Ketan, a six-year-old boy recovering from a car accident that had left him with severe leg injuries. ‘He’s amazing!’ enthused Darrell, explaining how Ketan was slowly learning to walk again, ‘here, let me show you’. Darrell produced his smartphone, and showed his colleagues a series of photographs. There was Ketan concentrating hard, frowning as he performed his exercises. Next a shot of the injured leg, followed by a beaming Ketan giving a gap-toothed grin and thumb’s up to the camera. Louise, one of Darrell’s co-workers was the only one to appear concerned. Raising her voice above the ‘isn’t he adorable?’ comments of her colleagues she asked ‘is it okay to take pictures like this?’ ‘Oh yes’ Darrell reassured her ‘I asked Ket’s mum and she said it was fine, in fact, here they are together’. A fourth photograph was shown, picturing a smiling Ketan seated on his mum’s lap, pointing at his leg, whilst she looked uncertainly into the camera.
Darrell’s case probably isn’t that unusual. With new technologies it’s now easier than ever to capture a memorable moment, and that includes colleagues, patients and their families. Darrell wasn’t using the images for research or training, he was inspired by Ketan and wanted to share that feeling with others. He genuinely meant no harm. Ketan was clearly happy to show off his ‘poorly pins’ as he and Darrell had come to name them. Ketan’s mum probably was happy that such an enthusiastic health professional admired her son enough to take his picture.
But would she have agreed so readily knowing Darrell intended to show the picture to his colleagues, friends, and relatives? Perhaps Ketan’s mum thought that Darrell’s photo taking was part of his job or her son’s recovery, so didn’t question it. Or maybe she felt unable to say no.
Consistently we ask patients to share their stories, lend us their images, and let us sample bits of their bodies. We use this to diagnose, help and treat patients, to teach medical students, or to make new discoveries in research. Patients can expect to be asked to share their histories, be photographed, filmed or audio taped. That doesn’t mean they always understand what they are consenting to, nor have control over how the information, images, or samples they provide will be used.
And outside of this process are the health care staff like Darrell with their own agendas. They collect images or stories to explain their work, to move others as they’ve been moved, or even to make themselves look good in front of friends and colleagues. Maybe like Darrell they show a picture of a cute case study, or perhaps regale squeamish friends down the pub with a story of a particularly gruesome illness or difficult patient. Shouldn’t we be training our staff to respect patient confidentiality and privacy? Or in criticising someone like Darrell are we stifling their skills, and denying them job satisfaction?
In an era where public access is greater than ever, where we’re used to seeing candid shots of celebrities, Darrell’s behaviour isn’t out of place. But in a hospital setting where his job is to provide care, is it appropriate? Ketan’s recovery made a remarkable story – but maybe it wasn’t Darrell’s to tell.
You can use this story in several ways. You can think about changing the dynamics – what happens if you alter the gender, age, status, or ethnicity of the protagonists in this case?
You can also consider how this kind of situation occurs in teaching settings, with students filming or photographing and sharing stories of classmates or lecturers. In research where participants or wider communities can be filmed or photographed. Or where films or images are collected during work in development or aid. Images certainly can be used to raise awareness, drive funding or explain complex issues more simply. Which may be essential in crisis situations.
When is it okay to share images? How can this be explained to those you’re filming or photographing? And what happens when you take a photo or a film with people you’re researching or treating but not at a point when you – or they – consider this to be a formal study or therapeutic situation.
Answers to these questions may seem obvious, but often they are not. We are so used to sharing images and posting status updates it may feel odd to not be able to take pictures of what you want, where you want, and share it how you want. Having a space to talk about when it is – and is not – okay to photograph or film. And noting different places where it might be okay or not to share images, and the consequences of doing so.
If you’ve got examples of good practice or templates for gaining consent or encouraging ethical and respectful practice I’d love to hear them in the comments. Conversely learning from where people have been filmed or photographed without full consent is also important to talk about, so long as we don’t reproduce any abuses or breach anonymity and confidentiality.