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Would authors of a paper be okay with fielding technical questions about the paper (implementation, theory, etc.) from a person in industry?

I see this as a moral grey area because an engineer in industry is in some way profiting off the work of a researcher without necessarily paying them for the time they took to respond to emails, etc. On the other hand, is the researcher responsible for clarifying details about their paper regardless of who they are being contacted by?

Of course, this will vary from person to person and the length of the engagement, but I was just wondering what the general attitude towards this situation is.

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    Most people are pleased when anybody has found their work useful or interesting! Someone in industry with a professional interest in the paper is much more likely to get a good response than a question that looks like it has come from a crackpot. – alephzero Jan 19 at 11:48
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    WHen they publish their work, I assume they expect people to profit off it. They were paid by whoever sponsored the research, there's no expectation that people who find it interesting will pay them again (unless they want to hire them). – Barmar Jan 19 at 17:48
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    The engineer is paying the researcher through the company which pays taxes to the state which founds the research. That's the whole concept. And publishing a paper is just a necessity of spreading that research. Best would be to put it directly into everyones head. Notice though that this is about retreiving results and not about asking to research. That would be a different story. – Mayou36 Jan 19 at 21:18
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    @Mayou36: Not all research funds come through the government. – Ben Voigt Jan 20 at 3:07
  • Researcher make money off each by that measure- getting grants is big money and gaining knowledge helps them get some. – user2617804 Jan 20 at 11:22
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I certainly don't see anything immoral about asking questions. You may want to mention your affiliation, which will clarify the issue and perhaps also help the author give a more useful response.

The author doesn't have any particular obligation to respond to your questions or anyone else's, but probably will if they are interesting and well thought out. Academics generally would want to encourage anyone who is interested in their work.

If your questions get very involved, to the point where an academic might consider suggesting a collaboration, you may want to consider offering the author a consultant contract.

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    +1 If you ask to clarify something they said in a paper, then it's perfectly okay. If you ask "How would I apply this technique to my situation", then you should be hiring them as consultants :) – Ant Jan 19 at 10:44
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    Replace "you may want to mention your affiliation" with "you should always mention your affiliation." Your affiliation helps to show that the intent of the question was serious, even if the actual question turns out to be dumb because you misunderstood something basic. – alephzero Jan 19 at 11:56
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    As someone who does research with close-to-industry applications, I would love more industry involvement and questions. – starrise Jan 19 at 16:52
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This is not a moral grey area - asking is totally okay.

In my country (Germany) researchers at public research institutions are even expected to answer. It's called "third mission" (the first two being research and teaching respectively).

Besides this "third mission" I shall pursue (helping to bring their research to industry), I would be pleased to learn how my research would be helpful in practice and would love to help the company. Just explaining some details is no problem at all. If this develops into some severe counselling one could start thinking about payment, but actually, this is often how collaborations between universities and companies start.

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    Same in the US as well, public schools will have something in their mission statements about economic development and serving the public. – user71659 Jan 19 at 21:05
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There’s a distinction between asking an author for clarifications on what she/he has done and asking said author to do more work. The former is fine. The latter... well... I wouldn’t assume an author would necessarily do it unless this extra work would be of some benefit - v.g. additional publication - to said author.

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I tried it and got positive feedback.

Would authors of a paper be okay with fielding technical questions about the paper (implementation, theory, etc.) from a person in industry?

I was asking myself the same question 1,5 years ago. I work also in industry and was interested in some technical details. I asked my boss for a budget and then contacted the authors offering budget if needed.

I did this several times. My experience: If it takes <15-20min to answer your request, they are happy to help for free. Discussing a budget only made sense for them if the effort was 1-2 days effort or more.

Only problem i would see is if you have questions that would take away a few hours of their time, then its too much to do for free, but too less to consider a contract. But i think asking is always fine, if you show that you respect their time.

(All based on my (limited) experience of 3-4 contacts and my own reasoning,...)

  • In the mentioned situation of "too much time to spend gratis, too little to set up a contract", you might consider whether you expect to ask for more of their time in the future, or could plan to knowing that it's available. It might be worthwhile paying a retainer for some number of future hours of assistance, or writing a more open-ended agreement that would extend beyond that immediate need. – Phil Miller Jan 21 at 18:02
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It's fine. You might even learn something. They can share practical knowledge and you can explain some things about the paper or bounce ideas around about things that aren't publishable. Really, it would be good if it happened a lot more than it does, but the two sides are usually so unable to bridge the gap.

Obviously if someone takes a lot of your time, than you should ask for a consulting contract. But this is really rare that you have that much to offer. I would instead view it as a good form of networking. There is a world outside the ivory tower and it can inform your research (and teaching) to know something about applications.

Of course you don't have any obligation to explain the paper if the interaction is tedious or unpleasant. But I would be open to positive interactions. Have ended up inviting a person in for a talk and vice versa. Granted I was doing research that had a fit with industry (and vice versa). But also, I was open to the interaction and enjoyed something outside academia. Business manager was a cool dude too, funny and good taste in wine.

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Would authors ... be okay with... questions about the paper... from a person in industry?

Yes, within reason.

By the way - don't forget that readers outside our "clique" sometimes notice things like implicit assumptions, and occasionally even an error (!)

I see this as a moral gray area because an engineer in industry is in some way profiting off the work of a researcher without necessarily paying them for the time they took to respond to emails, etc.

This is actually a good point, but perhaps more on the collective level than on the individual level. Industry bases a whole lot of its for-profit activity on science and tech developed in universities, and employ engineers and technicians trained in universities/colleges - yet they repay academia with very little money (donations + fraction of taxes) and other resources. Of course this changes by country, but it's definitely the case for most of the world's large tech giants.

So, bottom line:

  • On the collective level, try to get your superiors to donate to the author's institute, in recognition of their contribution to your company's success. You'll very possibly fail, but you can try. Donation can be in the form of money, hardware, or manpower (e.g. someone who would teach an advanced course relating to his/her professional specialty at the company).
  • If you expect to require significant effort explaining, consider asking your direct superior for budget for a few consultant hours. If you're in the same country as that person consider even inviting him/her to talk about the paper's findings, adapting it to the background of employees of your companies and allowing for a lot of audience questions.
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Yes, definitely feel free to inquire.

Others have noted the general value of an inquiring, but there is another aspect.

When someone from industry inquires, it means that you are potentially doing the academic a favour!

@Dirk mentioned the German 'third mission'. Elsewhere in the world it may not be so formal, but academics are constantly being asked to justify their funding in terms of its 'real world' applicable or economic value.

You help the academic understand how what they do is applied and how that creates economic value.

They might even be able to use that information directly in grant application, or perhaps in less formal situations.

Additionally, as someone in industry you might understand that when you create a product you thrive on feedback from the market. For an academic, you are potentially providing that feedback, helping them understand which areas of their work is relevant and potentially shaping where they wish to spend their time.

Note: The academic is always on the hunt for funding. Take care to not give false signals in regards whether your organisation might provide that.

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Not guaranteed. Depends lots on the person and how much time they have. Quite some authors of papers expect to get paid for any kind of consulting - which is what answering any question outside of work would be for them.

They often have their fair share of questions from students which is their job to answer on work-time. It is not so weird to imagine they would expect compensation helping people (who usually make more than they do) for doing any work for them.

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As a researcher with a strong industry background, I tended to find a disconnect between the actions of my industry (software development and data science) and the research being conducted by the academics.

I would be delighted if an industry practitioner asked for more details of my academic work and certainly would regard it as a mark of prestige. There is no downside I can see to engaging with such a person - providing, of course, they are not expecting you to contribute significant amounts of your time and resources. If this is the case, then the answer above is correct - they need to be paying for a consultant.

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