What you can ask of a researcher in an email

I routinely get emails from unknown graduate students who ask me to help them. Most of these emails are interesting. Unfortunately, some are unacceptably rude.

What is ok:

  • Can I get an electronic copy of your paper?
  • Do you have the source code or the data for this paper?
  • This new paper claims to do better than your algorithm, what do you think about their work?
  • In Algorithm 1, isn’t there a missing loop at the end?

What is not ok:

  • This friend of yours has written a paper, can I get a copy?
  • Can I get an implementation of this standard algorithm?
  • I don’t understand this standard algorithm, can you explain it to me?
  • I need to adapt your algorithm to my own problem, can you do it?
  • It is urgent, I need you to… (Hint: if it is urgent, don’t email a stranger about it.)

What you must understand is that if a researcher fails to answer your query, he is not being rude. An email to a researcher is a bottle in the ocean, you may get an answer, you may not.

One key quality that all competent researchers share is that they are able to deal efficiently with distractions. They may choose not to return an email or a phone call, or not to wash, to get their work done. Researchers are very good at fooling themselves into thinking that their current research is the most important thing they must do.

Oh! And whoever asked me for an implementation of Godin’s lattice-construction algorithm, and got a polite answer saying I had none to offer, you were out-of-line in telling me I was rude. You did get a polite answer. I will not stop my work to implement a standard algorithm for your own selfish needs.

5 thoughts on “What you can ask of a researcher in an email”

  1. Yes, I’ve had entire papers conceived in the shower! My research productivity would soar if they put a private shower in my office, but somehow, the powers that be do not seem to understand my reasoning here.

  2. I liked your post, but I don’t agree with your statement that it is rude to ask a researcher for the implementation of a “standard algorithm”. If you have used such an algorithm in a previous paper and have a tried and tested implementation of it lying around, why shouldn’t a graduate student (or anybody else for that matter) ask you for it? You are free to say no – although I would argue that to be counterproductive for you and the research community in general. And if you don’t have an implementation then you simply state so. Where’s the problem?

    I guess my take is that most young researchers are relatively shy (me included) and don’t send enough emails asking for advice/explanations/code/etc. I think emailing distinguished researchers should be encouraged not discouraged, and most researchers are indeed very happy to receive such requests. The lesson here, I suppose, is just to write a polite email if you want a polite answer.

  3. Note to students: even if your question is in the “OK” category AND you get ans answer, don’t hesitate to reply with a quick thank you. This is a good way to show appreciation and show us that you are not a creep who takes everything for granted.

    I would tend to agree with placing standard/baseline algorithms in the “not OK” (although not flat-out “rude”) category. First if it’s a good baseline, chances are there is a free implementation available somewhere. If you ask me about that, this is a good indication that you haven’t done your homework.

    Second, I would be reluctant to have my implementation of somebody else’s work perceived somehow as a “reference” implementation.

    I guess that the reaction you will get to your request depends in large part of the perception of how seriously you prepared that request. I would suggest the following rule of thumb : if you have put less effort in your request than you expect me to put in the reply: not OK.

  4. Hi Daniel,
    Thanks for this artikel. I once in a while refer to it when answering emails of the type which you do consider not OK.

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