I am currently reading a book on a research-level science topic. But there are some concepts that aren't properly explained in the book and are stopping me from proceeding. I have tried the following:

  • Searching the Internet and the library for these concepts

  • Asking about these problems online

But these attempts haven't been very useful. And I am quite desperate now. I am now considering writing an email to the author asking for clarification directly. Yet I don't know if this is an inappropriate or rude thing do? And if I do do that, how to avoid being impolite?

  • The whole point of research and publications is to write about it and debate it out. The author is not there to teach and educate you.
    – Poidah
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 10:15
  • 3
    Of course you can ask. Not sure you ll get the answer. By the way, did you try to ask on the appropriate SE?
    – Alchimista
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 10:52
  • @Alchimista I did. Several SE sites actually.
    – rsch
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 10:55
  • 3
    If you don't understand a concept X that's presupposed in a paper, then instead of asking the author to explain X to you, you might ask the author about sources where you can learn about X. A list of a few sources might be a lot easier for the author to provide, so it might increase your chances of getting an answer. Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 1:22

2 Answers 2


If a work (book or otherwise) is assuming you know a concept, yet you can't find information about them elsewhere, then it's likely that either you're missing something fundamental or else the concept may itself be problematic. I had an experience of the latter sort once reading a book about "holons" that all sounded very nice if you were just sort of reading causally but ultimately turned out to be basically pointless handwaving.

In either case, it's always OK to write to the author of a scientific work to ask about their work. Don't expect them to teach you a course, however. Instead, you can say something like:

I'm reading your book "Weasel-Taming in but a Single Fortnite", and although I find it very interesting, I'm not familiar with some of the things it assumes as background. Would you be willing to give me some pointers on where to learn about the Voight-Kampff test or how to temper chocolate?

substituting the appropriate nouns, of course. If your email doesn't get lost in their inbox, most authors will be more than happy to at least give you a hint for where to go learn about their favorite subjects.


I think it probably depends on the nature of the text. Most authors of papers would be happy, or even enthusiastic to engage with people who have questions about their work.

On the other hand, textbook authors not so much.

I don't really know about monograph authors, as I don't really know any - my field doesn't really do monographs.

If you choose to go ahead and contact the authors, I'd definitely avoid phrases like "there are some concepts that aren't properly explained". I'd avoid anything that might sound like a criticism of the author. Also, like a good SE question, I'd include in your email things you have tried in order to fill in the gap yourself.

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