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I'm a Physics Ph.D. student and I have been studying one paper and had some doubt in one point. More specifically the author defines a concept in a way which is a little bit different from other texts I've read before and I'm failing to understand why it is the same thing. I believe I would benefit from understanding this correctly.

More specifically to the situation, the paper has been posted on arXiv and is really some lecture notes which were latter transformed into a book. The author also says to email any questions or corrections to his email in the first page.

  1. Considering this situation (that it is really some lecture notes later transformed into a book and that the author says to email any questions to his email) is it considered ok to ask it?

  2. More generally, if it is really some paper published in some journal, and if there is nothing written saying that "any questions should be sent to that email", is it still ok to ask of the author in case of any doubts?

  3. My main issue is that I fear if the author might consider my doubt something "too basic". Is that really a problem?

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    I have heard once that in India "doubt" menas "question". Are you from.India and do you mean "question"? – user111388 Mar 26 at 18:45
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    No, I'm not from India. It is a doubt really. As I said, something I'm having a hard time to understand and considered asking the author about it. I want to know if it is considered fine in general to ask the author if I have some doubt or if in general this is not fine and we should find a way to handle it ourselves. – Aegon Mar 26 at 18:49
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    In any case, I'd recommend that you not refer to your question as a "doubt". It just doesn't suggest what you'd want, as, in U.S., Canadian, and much western european English, it strongly suggests distrust or disbelief in the author, as opposed to asking for help in understanding. That is, even if you privately "doubt" the correctness of an argument/proof, it is vastly more polite to ask a question as informational, and NOT expressing a "doubt". A "doubt" is lack of confidence... skepticism... distrust. – paul garrett Mar 27 at 0:32
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    My take on this is that you should first make sure that you put in sufficient effort to understand what they have written (which means consulting the literature, your colleagues working in the same field or scientific advisor). Having satisfied this you should definitely contact them. – Blazej Mar 27 at 10:42
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    "confusion" might be a better word to use instead of "doubt". – Joe Mar 27 at 12:58
75

By all means ask. A person who goes through the trouble of writing up lecture notes, is almost certainly a person who would be happy to answer.

As someone who receives a lot of questions from PhD students myself, here are a couple of pointers for how to phrase your question. This could be obvious to you, but I know for sure that it is not obvious for everybody.

  • If you have a local supervisor, it makes sense to ask them first - maybe it is a trivial question.

  • Read the paper first, and use the notation from that paper when you can.

  • Cut to the chase as quickly as possible. Don't explain their paper back to them in the mail, they know what they wrote.

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    I would maybe caution on taking the last point too broadly. Explaining the entire paper is different than sufficient context for explaining the question. If I wrote some 50 page lecture notes 10 years ago, and someone just emails me saying 'I am wondering if you can explain why variable x is unique in a set' , without enough context or page numbers, etc. – 001001 Mar 28 at 17:57
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    When I ask questions, I sometimes "explain the paper back to them" because I might have misunderstood something that they can then point out. Would you say that is in some ways not to be encouraged? – lucidbrot Mar 29 at 11:48
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    @lucidbrot: I think you should ask your real question early, at least a TL:DR version of it, then go into more detail. If the question is nonsensical for some reason, they'll know what misunderstanding to look for when reading through your thought process / detailed description. That's the same advice I'd give for asking a good Stack Overflow question. You still want to keep that later part concise, especially in a personal email where there's more of an expectation to read what you wrote, not just skim like in a public Q&A format like SO. – Peter Cordes Mar 29 at 22:31
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The author says to email them, so email them. You’re overthinking this. You would be using their publicly listed email address for exactly its intended purpose.

In general, people who prefer not to contacted by PhD students who have questions about their work will find a way to make that known or to avoid receiving such questions. Leave it to those people (who don’t really exist, by the way) to worry about such things for themselves.

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I agree with all the other posters. (Go ahead, ask!) Two additional points:

  • You might not get a response; sometimes, non-urgent emails get lost in the shuffle. (Especially now, with the sudden shift to online teaching.) If this happens, try not to worry about it.

  • I'd avoid the word "doubt". It suggests (to me, anyway) that you believe there's a mistake in what the author wrote. Even if you do suspect this, it's still polite to write from the point of view that the misunderstanding is likely on your end. In the past, I've saved myself some embarrassment by doing this!

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    Actually I was unaware that "doubt" could in some way imply that (I'm not a native english speaker). In fact it is quite the contrary, I'm sure the misunderstanding is on my end. Thanks for pointing this out ! – Aegon Mar 26 at 22:25
  • @Aegon I think the usual word for what you mean is "uncertainty". That is, you are uncertain about your own thoughts, while "doubt" tends to imply you might suspect that they are incorrect. – Dronz Mar 27 at 19:17
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    @Dronz To my ear (I'm American), "uncertainty" also carries a mild connotation of "I suspect that you're wrong". – academic Mar 27 at 22:02
  • @academic Yes, especially if the subject is the other person's work or rightness. It seems to me to depend on whether it's clearly written that the uncertainty (or doubt) is about the asker's own full understanding. – Dronz Mar 29 at 15:25
  • @Aegon: Apparently "doubt" often gets used as a synonym for "question" by Indian English speakers, like "I have a doubt (about ...)". Some consider this a dialect, others just a common mistake. In "regular" English it looks either wrong (when the meaning is still clear), or worse like you're doubting the correctness of a statement. I only know this from someone on meta.stackoverflow pointing this out, after years of having seen SO questions that use that phrasing, sometimes even in questions that were otherwise written in fairly good English. – Peter Cordes Mar 29 at 22:44
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Book authors are not some kind of demi-gods whom you cannot look in the eye.

If someone writes a book, pushes some code on GitHub, write a blog post or whatever is public - you can contact them.

  • Some of them will be delighted and they will answer with joy.

  • Some of them will be happy but do not have the time to answer. They may send a short note, or answer later, or not answer.

  • Some of them may feel that your question is stupid and that you should learn something before asking questions. Well, there are assholes in all populations.

If you write a nice note (everyone likes to receive nice notes) and keep it to the point, normal people will reply.

When I was a kid I wrote a letter to the President and I got a reply. A few months ago I wrote a letter to the mayor of my small city and I am still waiting for them to "find time" to reply. You never know the odds.

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  • What, not demi-gods? I, myself, have many of the characteristics of Budai. Overweight, wanders aimlessly, eccentric lifestyle... Hrrumph. But you are allowed to look me in the eye, yes, and ask me questions. ;-) – Buffy Mar 30 at 13:12
  • Well, when I was in Academia some 20+ years ago, one of the reasons I quit was that feudal system described in an illustration probably from a peer-review journal because it is so accurate – WoJ Mar 30 at 16:28
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Yes it is fine to send such an email. If it is polite and/or phrased in the form of a question you might be more likely to get a reply than otherwise. Errors happen. The authors generally want them corrected.

But it is also possible that you have misunderstood something, of course.

It is also a way to establish a relationship for the future, provided that your questions and comments are useful.

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My main issue is that I fear if the author might consider my doubt something "too basic". Is that really a problem?

Virtually everyone I've met has not felt "too basic" questions are not worth answering. Think about your own work and the questions you might get from your children/nieces/nephews/parents. They're likely to be too basic. They might not even be well-posed. But chances are you're happy to answer them simply because it's flattering that others are interested in your work.

So don't worry about asking - but be sure to make a serious attempt to understand whatever they're saying before asking a second time, to avoid giving the impression that you're asking them to solve your research question for you.

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As someone early-career (about to be a postdoc) who has a few first-author papers, I would be delighted if someone emailed me about them!

Except a predatory journal... I hate predatory journals... but anything else, even an email from a 3rd grader asking what a p-value is, would make me very happy because it means someone read my paper!

The only scenario where I could possibly imagine this being annoying is something that happened to me at a conference, not by email. Someone who did not understand the analysis I was using as well as he thought he did came up to my poster at a poster session and started asking questions trying to "prove" me wrong. And even though I corrected the premise of his questions multiple times and tried to clarify things for him, he just kept going until he finally decided he had "won" the argument, told me I had no basis for my conclusions, and left before I could respond. So don't do that... people asking ignorant questions with a tone of "I want to prove you wrong" gets annoying fast!

I have also had a few different times when I wrote to authors of papers who were more senior and had a lot more publications than I do. I'd say probably about 80% of the time I get a positive response (even when I asked a fairly basic question because I'm not in the same subfield/specialty as the author), and the other 20% of the time I get no response (that just happens sometimes when you email professors - they have too much email). I have never had anyone get upset with me for writing to them or tell me that my question was dumb.

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'Dear Dr. Gasbag,'

I am pursing a PhD in the field of offensive odors and recently had the pleasure of reading your interesting 1978 paper, "On The Origins of Stomach Gas." I am sure you are very busy with your research, but I wonder if I might call or correspond with you to briefly discuss some aspects of your work and to gain clarity on a few points in your paper.

Warmest regards,

Joe Shmuckatelly Rikers Island University College of Kusai (808)000-0000

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  • A call seems a bit much if it can be handled via a simple clarification. Maybe if it turns out to be a deeper issue, then a call would be in order. – 6005 Mar 29 at 18:10

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