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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 doesnt' 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 him to think that I avoid taking initiatives when I could do it on my own.

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up vote 13 down vote accepted

You can definitely contact a paper author. He or she 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 his or her 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 his field, do mention that you work with him or her, as it should increase good will on the authors part - after confirming with your advisor he is cool with that. 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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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
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

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