I skype therefore I am a scientist?

A few weeks ago I suggested that I am a scientist because I put numbers on things. Although even I recognize some limits to that argument, I was quite serious in suggesting that measurement and numeration is a central feature of being a scientist. I am not seriously suggesting that skyping is a central feature of being a scientist. But sometimes it feels like it!

I now average more than five hours a week on Skype (or Google Hangouts – I’m using skype as a generic verb here). I am part of three collaborations that have weekly one hour calls. And I have two postdocs and a graduate student who live in other states for personal reasons and who I meet with weekly on Skype. My lab meeting is on skype every week as well. If you like collaborations and believe in students having lives outside the lab (e.g. spouses that can’t get jobs in my university town) but want to maintain a mentoring relationship, there is really no choice these days.

I hardly think I am alone in this trend. Back a couple of decades ago when I was in business, I spent a lot of time on the phone (usually one-on-one but a fair number of speakerphone and conference calls too). Then as a graduate student and early career professor, somehow I seemed to get by with just email Word track changes for all my collaborations. Basically travel to meet in person once a year, and then email. But as technology has gotten better (and cheaper), skype/google seems to be an ever growing presence in science. And I think that is a good thing. It certainly reduces my carbon footprint to be smaller than it would be otherwise (even if it is already too big). And it lets me to continue to mentor students that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to interact with (although that could happen over the phone too, although I think the video is beneficial). But the big change I’ve noticed is that the working groups I participate in now have a new modality – they continue to function as a large group after the face-to-face meeting is over. In the old days it was fly in to meet. Go home, and one or two people did specific tasks, emailing each other. But email falls apart when you have 5 or 10 people still trying to coordinate things. The multiparty skype call seems to be tailor made for maintaining momentum and group dynamics after everybody goes home (as I’ve noted a major challenge in working groups).

A few things I’ve learned the hard way along the way:

  1. Invest in a really good microphone. When I’m the only person my end of a call, I will use a headset (I use this one but there are many for around $25). More importantly when I have many people on my end (e.g. my lab group), I have invested in a $150 microphone (I use polycomm for skype). Words cannot begin to tell you how many times over these investments have paid for themselves. I have been on too many calls where I can only hear half of what is being said. It is exhausting, disruptive and often a downright waste of time. And there is absolutely no reason for it with modern technology except maybe being a cheapskate. A good microphone is probably almost literally worth its weight in gold. The headset has the added advantage that the sound from the speakers doesn’t go into the microphone causing feedback. There’s nothing worse than a call with somebody who cranks up the volume really high and then points the speakers at the microphone. Even if modern technology prevents outright feedback and echos (most of the time), it greatly degrades the call.
  2. If its a multiway call and you’re not talking, mute your microphone. And everybody else should do the same. Yes its a pain to unmute and remute when you want to talk. And its embarassing to be visibly talking when nobody can hear you. But it quickly becomes second nature. And if you don’t do it the call becomes much harder. All the back ground noise in all the rooms starts to circle around and degrading the call. It really is a matter of courtesy to mute when you’re not talking.
  3. It is worth taking a few minutes just to chit-chat about nothing important. We still all act like the old days where long distance phone calls cost $1/minute and tend to get right to the point. But whether it is a student/adviser relation or a collaboration keeping the social processes oiled is worth an extra 5 minutes
  4. Use video. Not everybody agrees with me. And certainly if I’m eating. Or cheating and working while listening to a call I am only partly engaged in I will turn off my camera. But for the same reasons as #3, I think it is long-term beneficial to keep the camera on and keep visual contact with facial expressions as they are an important part of social interactions. The one exception is when the network connection is poor, turning off video can drastically increase the audio quality.

That’s pretty much it .#1 and #2 are absolute musts in my book. And #3 and #4 are good ideas. Some people have big agendas about which software to use. I’ve found both Skype and Google Hangouts work pretty well. For a while skype was clearly better. But I’ve found skype less stable in the last 6 months and google hangouts has improved. So I would call them about equal these days. Ironically I find both the free tools better than the commercial meeting software from Adobe and Citrix.

All that said, I am pretty firm believer that we will never fully eliminate travel. Collaborations still need to be face-to-face every 6-12 months. So do those long distance advising relationships. And since half the point of meetings is not the talks, meetings unfortunately our CO2 impacts will almost certainly be face-to-face for some time to come.

I am curious how often you skype for scientific/professional reasons and what software you prefer:

What do you think. Is video technology up to the job. Does it improve or degrade our lives? Will it ever replace conferences?


This entry was posted in Advice by Brian McGill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

11 thoughts on “I skype therefore I am a scientist?

  1. All goods points Brian. I also think taking some time to set up your lighting when using video is worth while. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to ensure that you don’t have a window behind you or something like that. Poor quality video/audio can really ruin things.

    But for working in groups I find Slack (or the opensource alternative Mattermost) indispensable. We starting using Slack over a year ago and now there is no going back to email/Skype. They have recently introduced a calling feature (haven’t tested it yet), so I think Skype/GHangout’s days may be counted soon for us at least.
    If you have many long distance collaborations I strongly suggest giving one of the apps a test.

    • Probably Slack won’t catch on in academia until there’s more available for free (group calls, e.g.) or institutions decide to pony up for institutional licenses…

  2. I agree with you. Remote communication is essential nowadays. But I communicate with my students and collaborators more frequently using desktop versions of instant messengers, such as Facebook, Telegram, and WhatsApp. We use Skype only for meetings and more complex discussions.

    • I think you’re right Marco that other forms of collaboration software are showing increases in science as well. I confess I’m not there yet – still email or skype (or face-to-face!). But I think those days are numbered (as Lars noted too)

  3. Our university has a subscription for Zoom, and I’ve really enjoyed it for videoconferencing. No one else needs the membership, they can just accept my invite. That said, if we didn’t have it, I’d happily use either Skype or Google hangout.

  4. It would appear by the poll results that I am pretty unusual in spending more than 5 hours/week on video conferencing. Interesting.

  5. For writing proposals with collaborators, Skype and Google docs (or Overleaf) have been so valuable that it’s hard for me to imagine how I would get it done without those.

    Other times Skype has been particularly helpful for me:
    – when I was here in Michigan but half of my lab was still in Atlanta. There was lots of skyping then and I think it worked quite well.
    – in the time between having a baby and having the baby in daycare. This cuts down on the number of times I need to go in to campus. This also adds additional reasons to mute the call (babies make lots of little noises!) and for me not to want the video on (I haven’t always had a chance to shower and get dressed before the call, and sometimes am bouncing up and down on a yoga ball to keep baby happy).

    I’ve also Skyped in to committee meetings and defenses at other universities and had that work really well.

    So, in all: yes! Skype is incredibly valuable to me, but I also agree that it will never fully replace face-to-face meetings.

  6. > What do you think?
    Agree with you 100% on everything.

    > Is video technology up to the job?
    It’s okay. And it will get better. I worked in telecomm in the early 2000’s, when Skype first launched. It was a big leap over its rival software then, but still just kinda-sorta okay. It’s *amazing* to me how far video conference software has come in the past 15 or so years. And I think it’s likely that it will get even better over the next decade.

    > Does it improve or degrade our lives?
    For some of us, it makes academia *possible*. It is one of the solutions to the moving-all-the-time problem. (And high-five to you for being willing to support remote students and post-docs!) I spent half of my 6-year PhD away from my institution, but was able to Skype in for lab meetings, and one-on-ones with my advisors, committee, and other collaborators. I still use it regularly for ongoing collaborations.

    > Will it ever replace conferences?
    Doubt it. Still doesn’t quite work for the chit-chat, by-the-way sorts of conversations that come up in the interstitial spaces around formal meetings. (I always found this part of Skyping in to my old lab meetings sad and frustrating. I could never participate in side conversations — which is where a lot of the good stuff happens.) Also, you can’t share food through Skype. When they get that figured out, maybe then conferences might start to decline…

    • “Also, you can’t share food through Skype. When they get that figured out, maybe then conferences might start to decline…” This is very true. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a meeting where somebody offered to smoosh food into the mike an see if they could share.

      This goes back to one of my recurring themes. As much as humans (and especially intellectual academics) like to think we’ve evolved, when it comes to social interactions so much of it is still subconscious and not that different from primates. Sharing small talk, laughter, food fundamentally changes the nature of social relationships.

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