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‘Nightmare’ breakdown in email service hits 50,000 academics


Thousands of subscribers kicked off 500 academic mailing lists as “frustrating” issues cripple UK’s JiscMail

Around 50,000 subscribers to UK academic mailing lists were kicked out of discussion groups after the service that runs them broke down.

JiscMail, run by UK higher education IT organisation Jisc, is the national academic mailing list service. Lists are themed around different topics and are usually run by an academic called a ‘list owner’, with others signed up to debate and communicate on issues related to that topic.

Problems for the service, described as a “nightmare”, started on 5 January when one of the email servers used by JiscMail was listed on a global spam ‘blacklist’, which meant messages could not get through to recipients.

The problem resulted in the removal of 50,000 subscriptions to just short of 500 lists, according to Jisc. The total number of subscribers to JiscMail, which is included with Jisc membership, is around 1.23 million.

A couple of days later, Jisc resubscribed the affected users, but another issue then emerged where list users were receiving multiple ‘error’ messages and messages were not getting through.

After a total of two weeks disruption, the JiscMail service was finally back to normal today.

“The JiscMail service is now running again as normal following the resolution of a fault with our suppliers’ hardware and software,” Jisc told Research Professional News. “We apologise for the considerable disruption caused to service users over the past two weeks. While we believe the problem has been resolved, we continue to carefully monitor the situation.”

Breakdown ‘frustrating’ for list owners

While the service was down, academics expressed annoyance at the problems, with many taking to social media to voice their concerns and find out more about what was going on.

Jo Brodie, a public engagement co-ordinator at Queen Mary University of London, runs a list on the topic of public engagement with science. She told Research Professional News that the JiscMail problems had been “frustrating” but highlighted that the service is usually very reliable.

“It is frustrating because obviously I want to run a list and make it workable for people,” Brodie said.

She said her list originally had 4,770 subscribers. It then lost 1,200 of them overnight. Subscribers to the list have now hit 4,818 which Brodie put down to people “hearing about the drama” and deciding to sign up.

After JiscMail resubscribed the users, Brodie said she still had problems sending and receiving emails via the list. For a week nothing came through to the list, which is normally “very active with about five to eight messages per day”.

She said the JiscMail issues had created more work for her, dealing with the backlog and workarounds, but she did not mind doing it.

“JiscMail is normally very reliable,” she said. “I have been using this service since 2003 without any problems. It is a fantastic resource. It’s just there has been a critical problem with the email.”

JiscMail ‘nightmare’ highlights lack of assistance

As the disruptions went on, Jisc said it kept users up to date via their website and on social media, where they described the situation as a “nightmare” in one tweet.

George Piero Ferzoco—an academic at the University of Bristol and the University of Calgary in Canada who runs one list on medieval religion and another on Italian studies—said JiscMail’s breakdown highlighted a “general inability to assist” those in charge of the lists.

While Ferzoco “acknowledged and applauded” that the lists have operated “on the whole” without problems, he said assistance from JiscMail has “not always been swift or easily decipherable”. But the lack of assistance in the past was in relation to relatively minor issues, he said.

“The present near-total collapse of the JiscMail lists has spotlighted a general inability to assist list managers simply and speedily,” Ferzoco said.

“This would not be so bad were it not for the hundreds of list managers being volunteers—who manage the day-to-day administration of their lists in their spare time and without any thought of recompense—being made to be at the front lines of this mess.”

In response to Ferzoco’s criticism, Jisc told Research Professional News that it has limited ability to fix problems in house as the service is run using a third party’s hardware and software.

“We acknowledge that JiscMail users have been greatly inconvenienced and frustrated with interruptions to the service over the past two weeks,” a spokesperson for Jisc said. “We can only apologise for the disruption.”