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Can anyone chime in whether if it is socially acceptable for a (graduate) student to directly contact renowned academics outside your immediate research department with comments on their work or your work?

This is under the assumption that you are not a crank or a stalker or someone who is trying to become an "academic celebrity".

By renowned academic, I refer to people who have published well-known textbooks, ultra-high impact publications, or are important figures (i.e., "Godfather/mother of..."), or have made public appearances, shook hand with the President, etc.

It is not unheard of in the old days. I remember seeing letters from Einstein or Freud answering questions from "concerned citizens" (including kids). But I wonder if it is socially acceptable to do this nowadays. Regardless of the answer, I wonder what are the chances of receiving a serious reply.

Update: Encouraged by the response I have received, I contacted the person with his work and I posed to question for him asking for advice. The person gave me a very warm reply!

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    We also had students writing emails to well-known researchers and they replied. However, this is not guaranteed but a friendly, short, and precise mail may increase your chances. – J-Kun Feb 22 '18 at 7:53
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    I'm tempted to - as a joke - suggest that you should sacrifice your first paper to contact an author. Of course - as other have correctly pointed out - anybody can contact the author of a paper. How well someone is known in the field is absolutely irrelevant in this case. Just because you are well known/established, doesn't mean your papers are error free or clear to everybody. Having said that, in addition to other good answers here, I suggest that it should be clear that you have actually read the paper. You are asking about something that you tried to resolve and haven't been able to. – DetlevCM Feb 22 '18 at 11:44
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    Absent a court order to the contrary, it is socially acceptable to directly contact renowned academics, sport super stars, world leaders, movie stars, fashion models, etc. It is equally socially acceptable for them to completely ignore your communications. – emory Feb 22 '18 at 13:17
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    I wrote to a prof to suggest bio mimickery of spider hydrophobic hairs made into mats for use under boats, he was very kind and sent me an informative return. – com.prehensible Feb 22 '18 at 18:18
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    Not knowing any better, I contacted the author of many books on a topic I was dabbling in. The unexpected result was a long friendship and a lot of mentoring. And a short-term job as an assistant. – WGroleau Feb 23 '18 at 4:46
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From my experience, it is very acceptable, and there are very high chances of reply — in my case, reaching 100%.

Highly reputable scientists are people, too, and like to hear comments on their work — of course positive feedback is most welcome, but they are willing to clarify doubts or hear out concerns.

I have successfully contacted authors asking to share their data (no one refused), asking for clarifications, or expressing doubts whether their methodology is bullet-proof. I also repeated some computations and just sent the authors a message saying that it's a nice work and I agree with them. They also replied, and were very pleased with the confirmation of their results.

Some people may direct you to their co-authors or assistants or PhD students for technical details, but that still counts as a helpful reply.

Being an astrophysicist, I was for a moment interested in the IQ distribution, so I contacted, as it turned out, one of the world's most prominent psychologists in the field, who was very polite and helpful: pointed me to semi-public repositories of data and gave advice on how to handle it. In the end, I couldn't contribute anything meaningful, but I would't be discouraged to send him potentially interesting results and propose a collaboration to write a paper together. He made an impression that he'd be very up to it.

As for how-to, start en e-mail with a brief introduction of yourself:

Dear Prof. XXX,

I am a PhD student in YYY at University UUU in WWW. I recently read your work ZZZ and found it very interesting.

Try to keep the message rather short and concise. Scientists are busy and appreciate being precise and getting to the point.

95

Yes, it's perfectly fine to do so. To maximise the chances of a response, make sure your email is clear, concise and polite.

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    Who are renowned academics going to communicate with if not other academics (students)? This reminds me of the movie where two struggling musicians get to meet the Big Rock Star who then says, "how's it going?" The two struggling musicians bow down and chant, "we are not worthy". My point is, yes, you are worthy. – Jennifer Feb 22 '18 at 18:53
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    That movie was Wayne's World and they're not struggling musicians; at that point they're stars of a new TV show who happen to love and play music. – user124384 Feb 22 '18 at 19:19
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    @user124384 Also the Big Rock Star was Alice Cooper. – Justin Lardinois Feb 25 '18 at 8:40
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    Adding to this: Make sure to include a question. This seems trivial, but when communicating with academics, actually including the question you are asking improves the chances of a reply. – Demosthenes Feb 26 '18 at 17:07
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As others have written, yes you may. I would also add some do's and don'ts:

  • Don't contact them just to offer praise/thanks (nor derision/dislike).
  • Don't contact them to ask for general advice, social commentary, general opinion on something academic (i.e. "What are your thoughts on the theory of XYZ"). Do ask specific and concrete questions (if you have questions).
  • Do send email; Don't phone them. If they have office hours at their campus and you're visiting - that's fine too.
  • Don't ask for something you could easily find the answer to in your own academic surroundings, or by reading their published work on the subject of your interest. Do look at that published work before writing (but no need to go through dozens of papers and books).
  • Don't make them read a very long message explaining context that would be useless to them. Do be concise if possible, and otherwise start with a brief version of what you mean to say, providing a more detailed explanation later.
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    Don't contact them to offer praise/thanks (nor derision/dislike). Disagree with this (except for the parenthetical). Almost everyone will appreciate praise and thanks for their work, even if they are very busy, as long as it is sincere. – MJeffryes Feb 22 '18 at 17:50
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    @MJeffryes: Your taxing of their time with yet another email will be more annoying than the praise in said email, IMO. Also, it will allow said academic to get to the actually actionable mail faster, so this is also a public-interest consideration. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Feb 22 '18 at 18:39
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    I know few academics for whom the feeling that they are positively impacting others with their work is not one of the most rewarding parts of their job. Fewer still who would be actively annoyed by the seconds it takes to triage an email praising them. Your argument that you should avoid praising people in case it eats into their publicly funded research time is frankly dystopian. – MJeffryes Feb 22 '18 at 18:57
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    @MJeffryes Perhaps the better advice would be "Don't write the praise in such a way that they will feel obligated to take the time to respond ". – Ray Feb 22 '18 at 21:24
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    @Nat Sure, these are all things that you could do, but not all of them may be practical or applicable. I strongly reject the idea that a thank you email is going to clutter anyone's inbox. Everyone here is arguing about hypothetical annoyance. I challenge anyone to find an academic who is annoyed by the amount of time they have to spend trawling through endless praise and thank you emails. – MJeffryes Feb 23 '18 at 22:17
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Yes, I'd say so.

I have personally emailed Noam Chomsky's MIT address and received a reply within a day. This was from my university email address, although I've heard he tirelessly replies to nearly all emails he receives

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    I'm in a profoundly non-Chomskyan program and I think I'd still kind of be in awe if he replied to an email from me. I might get it framed. – Sparksbet Feb 23 '18 at 4:49
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    @NostradamusJR He's not that old to do intellectual work. This guy published books until he was 109 – Arthur Tarasov Feb 23 '18 at 10:18
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It is absolutely accepted and common. Of course, make sure your e-mail is polite and has some content (not, like, "I just wrote to say hello"). As an anecdote, I once wrote an e-mail to the author of my favorite textbook when I was trying to replicate one of its tables, and he replied the same day, and sent me the original code he used to obtain those results!

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    Once I taught a course and a student in the course was very fond of a textbook other than the adopted one. I got to meet this other author at a conference. I told him, “I have a student who thinks your book is the bee's knees." He said, "Tell that kid to get a life." – Matthew Leingang Feb 23 '18 at 2:43
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    I went back to the student and said, “You'll never guess who I met,” and named the author. ”He says thanks.” – Matthew Leingang Feb 23 '18 at 2:43
  • Hahahaha that's such a cool story! – Anna SdTC Feb 23 '18 at 22:38
6

In your case you are an academic (even if you are still at the graduate student stage) contacting another academic. That is a perfectly socially acceptable thing to do. This is somewhat different from your example where someone outside of academia has decided to contact a well known academic.

Email away, though don't take it personally if they don't respond (they are often quite busy)!

6

People have been sending fan letters since snail mail existed, and probably before. What's the worst that can happen? It's not likely they'll resent the “intrusion” so much as to do anything harmful (like what? sabotage your college application?) or embarrassing (like what? spend the time responding only to say, “buzz off!”). Chances are, the worst that will happen is the email will be ignored.

2

It is perfectly acceptable to do so, and many do respond if the question is relevant. Most often if they do not respond, it is because of them being busy (having hit the e-mail event horizon) rather than being offended by your question.

Like the other answers, I would recommend that you are to the point in your e-mail and not too chatty.

I would recommend following Matt Might's Guide to sending and replying to e-mails, to increase your chances of getting a response.

  • "Most often if they do not respond" - I disagree. I've contacted a few very famous researchers, even as a high school student, and received a friendly and informative response in all cases, usually within a few hours/days. – Paula Feb 23 '18 at 11:13
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    @Paula Please notice the if in the sentence. The sentence explains why they potentially would not respond. Not that they would not respond at all. – Yet Another Geek Feb 23 '18 at 11:43
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    Sorry, I misunderstood you! – Paula Feb 23 '18 at 11:55
  • No worries :-). – Yet Another Geek Feb 23 '18 at 12:00
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In my own experience, I had a question about a WWII Japanese submarine sunk off the coast of California. On an impulse, I phoned Dr. Robert Ballard: discoverer of the Titanic. After calling his office, I was put right through to him! He knew of the story and passed along the name of a colleague in California who had researched this story. I was absolutely amazed.

Please follow this advice: Be very brief; have your question well thought out and researched; be profusely appreciative of their time; follow up with a hand written note, in an envelope with a stamp, thanking them again.

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