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I am reading a paper and have questions about the details of the procedure described. I have read other papers by the same team but they don't explain too much about that procedure anyway. I think it might be common, but my supervisor doesn't know it too.

I am stuck and I want to get out of it. As a student working on my master thesis, can I email the contact author for the manuscript cold out, or should I ask someone to contact him for me? I would ask my supervisor but I don't want it to imply that I'm avoid taking initiatives when I could do it on my own.

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up vote 28 down vote accepted

You can definitely contact a paper author. They might be of the 'it obviously follows' == after 5 pages of calculations kind, or the empiricist who published the 20 successful regressions or simulations out of 200, with 180 contradicting their result or being inconclusive; and in either case ignore your question. From personal experience though, it can even lead to breakthroughs: in my case, someone sent me his lecture notes which clarified something I was stuck with, and related to the submitted question. However, if your advisor knows the author, or simply is well-known in their field, do mention that you are their student, as it should increase good will on the author's part - after confirming with your advisor that they are cool with it. Showing that you are active, interested, and independent should also go down well with the advisor.

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Definitely contact the author. Collaboration is what research is all about. Authors expect these sort of emails when they publish. Also, sending email like this lets people know your name, one person at a time. This way, when you're at a conference later on, you can go over to the author and say, "hey, I emailed you a while back, nice to meet you in person." It's always good to network.

It would be good form to mention your advisor in the email, whether he's well-known or not.

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how would you go about mentioning your advisor? will that not easily seem a bit unnecessary and name droppy? – K. Schaffer May 13 at 15:47
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@K.Schaffer - Not really, it's just to give context. It's highly unlikely that the professor has heard of you, but he may know your advisor. I would introduce as, "Hi, I'm (my name), a graduate student in (advisor's name)'s research group doing research on (topic)." – eykanal May 13 at 15:52
    
I concur with your advice, but I would certainly not say that "collaboration is what research is all about". Research is about discovering truth. Not collaboration, which is only a common practice in research. – Dilworth Jul 18 at 17:20

I will give the point of view from Eastern Asian Universities.

Here the Lab culture is too focused on the professor as the head and only public face of the laboratory.

Because of this, many students are not used to being asked directly about their research, and usually they do not know what to do about it, and will end up asking their professor.

The best case scenario is that the professor won't mind and will give the student authorization to mail you back, but the worst case scenario (it happens!) is that the professor will get offended because you contacted a student and not him, and you won't get any answer at all.

This mostly applies to Universities in China, Japan, Korea, etc. I would recommend mailing the professor and asking him directly, it will take time, but is usually your best bet. Even more, it is way better if you get your adviser to contact him for you, and then he can ask for his permission for you to contact the student directly (I'm really not joking about this)

Unless the guy writing the paper is foreigner, then go ahead.

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In that case, wouldn't the professor be listed as corresponding author anyways? – cbeleites Jan 28 '13 at 20:39
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You would think, but since they don't want to be bothered with things like Copyright forms and formatting and things like that, it ends up being the guy who wrote most of the paper. – Leon palafox Jan 28 '13 at 22:17

Yes, you can and should contact the author of the paper.

The more thought-out and coherent your email and questions are, the better chance you stand of getting a useful reply. The risk with a cold email is being ignored, so make sure that you do everything to avoid that.

  1. Make sure you carefully state your question, and make sure that you actually can't understand it yourself (have you looked at any references that may clarify things)
  2. Make sure the subject line is to the point, send the email from your university address, and don't be afraid to mention your advisor or even cc him or her on the email - this will give the person you are cold-emailing some immediate context.
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