I often face the following situation:

I am reading a technical paper, and I can't figure out a calculation shown in the paper, whose details are not given. There is no reference in the paper about the exact calculations. It is not possible to get an answer from the author(s), either they are dead or they don't answer even if I did (even if they did, it takes a lot of time for them to respond). I can't write to my advisor; for him to help, he also needs to read the paper and practically this is neither ideal nor realizable in a short amount of time. I can't write to my friend because I don't have any friend who works in the same field as I do. I won't ask the question in one of the stack exchange websites, because it is often the question is too field-specific and technical that I don't receive any helpful answer in a considerably short amount of time (assuming that I will get a helpful answer, which is not the case most of the time).

So, in the end, I try and try to understand what the heck author did in that part of the article that I couldn't understand, and it takes a considerable amount of time for me to figure that out (if I can).

Question: Assuming that I am not the only one who faces such problems, where can we get help in such situations?

Note: I am working in a field of Physics.

  • I would try to understand what the authors are trying to calculate. So base on previously presented concepts, say A, and the aim, say B, I would then fill in the gaps myself trying to go from A to B. It's possible that the authors' answer or derivation is wrong. – Prof. Santa Claus May 19 at 19:04
  • @Prof.SantaClaus just to get an idea, how often do you see wrong calculations in peer-reviewed papers? – onurcanbkts May 19 at 19:07
  • quite often. Also, most reviewers (in my experience) do not check calculations. – Prof. Santa Claus May 19 at 20:48
  • @Prof.SantaClaus good to know; thanks for the comment – onurcanbkts May 19 at 22:13

Assuming that you've exhausted a reasonable degree of effort to try and understand what the author is doing, you can always just contact the author directly. There is usually contact information on the paper for the corresponding author.

There have been a number of papers that I have read and needed to reach out to the authors for to get a better understanding of what is going on in their paper. Professors are people too. As long as you have demonstrated a reasonable degree of effort prior to reaching out, asking for some clarification from them is a reasonable thing to do.

In the case of an author having passed away... then you will want to communicate this to your supervisor and explain why you need help to understand the paper. If you cannot figure it out for yourself, do not have any peers you can talk to, or are unable to contact the original author, then you have your supervisor as a work colleague.

If that all fails, then you will just have to try and drudge through understanding the computation. While I understand you want the answer quickly, all things worth while do not come quickly, and you'll need to cultivate and demonstrate resilience in the face of that struggle.

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  • Thanks for the answer; the effort is not a problem, but ideally I would like to get the bottom of the issue quickly, so that I can use the calculations in the paper in my own research. – onurcanbkts May 19 at 19:09
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    They may be depending on something done in one of the references. Traditionally you follow those back to see what is there. And, there may be no quick solution to understanding. – Buffy May 19 at 19:22
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    Since the effort required is not a problem you should exert it, because very few people will explain long and detailed calculations. Very specific, short answers that deal with a clear issue are more likely to be answered, or those that refer to a mistake. Issues like the ones you ask are dealt in technical appendices, footnotes, reference papers or advanced textbooks. – user117109 May 19 at 19:25
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    +1 for "While I understand you want the answer quickly, all things worth while do not come quickly" – nabla May 19 at 19:46
  • @Buffy Thanks; I didn't think the author could be using a calculation given in an earlier reference. But, I remember that I have seen such (failure of proper referencing) cases in the past, so I will keep that in mind next time. – onurcanbkts May 19 at 19:56

From the question and your comments it seems like you are actually capable of reading and understanding the paper, it would just require effort on your side. It would therefore be easier for you if someone else would exert that effort.

Allow me a bit of a harsh reply, then.

It is not the job of the author of said paper to provide a pedestrian introduction - they wrote a paper that is apparently both readable and correct.

It is not the job of random people at SO to answer very field specific questions about a specific paper at someone's request. One might get lucky, but asking SO requires patience. And luck.

It is in general not the job of your supervisor to read papers, and give you a Reader's digest version of it. It is, however, the job of your supervisor to help you overcome specific hurdles you encounter when trying to understand a paper, ie. a specific calculation you cannot reproduce.

So: Use the resources at hand, and start reading :).

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  • Sir, no need to be harsh; I know it is my job to exert the effort, but even after two days of working on the same calculation, I can't figure out how the author go from one equation to another. – onurcanbkts May 19 at 20:02
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    "It is, however, the job of your supervisor to help you overcome specific hurdles you encounter when trying to understand a paper, ie. a specific calculation you cannot reproduce." – nabla May 20 at 8:02

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