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Often when I am reading a newly published article, I will encounter some points that are difficult to understand. For example, some details of the methodology that I think the authors did not explain in enough detail.

I'm not sure how to write an appropriate email to ask for clarification, especially on how to phrase, so as to be polite. For example, should I write "Ask for details on methodology" or "Inquiry on details on methodology" or ...?

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    You can also ask if there is an appendix (published or not) containing more methodological details than appeared in the published article. – Alexis Jul 6 at 23:24
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    Be warned that authors of papers can be of varying degrees of helpfulness when you ask them about details of their papers or more explicit details of their methodology/computations. – Tom Jul 7 at 0:45
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    There is a website called pubpeer, which is useful for public comments of papers, if you have a question it's possible other people may too, maybe someone has asked it before – Rainb Jul 7 at 5:10
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    By the way, it should go without saying but also make sure you have thoroughly read the paper before asking :) – a3nm Jul 7 at 8:26
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Showing interest is nice, accusing people is not. So, show interest, something like "I saw your article XXX in YYY and I am working on something similar. I was wondering how exactly you dealt with ZZZ."

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9

This probably is a bit culturally determined, but almost anything polite will do. I personally prefer your second formulation, but others might not. Don't overthink it.

But in a first mail to the author(s) I suggest asking questions that can be answered fairly simply/quickly and don't ask for too much. If it seems like it will be a lot of work to reply, then you might not get any answer. You can always follow up with additional questions if the authors seem open to communication.

In the best case it can open the possibility of future collaboration if the topic is of mutual interest.

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8

Contacting researchers for clarification is good practice. Before you do, ask yourself why you think the authors did not provide enough details. In formulating an answer, you may find they did provide enough details. Otherwise, you'll have established a better understanding for what you need to know, and you can put that to the researchers. Always be humble in asking.

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So long as what you write is not rude or arrogant, nobody will care much.

The important thing is to ask some specific questions. If you just asked me for "details of methodology" I would hit the delete button, because I'm not going to write a comprehensive reply that is probably longer than the published paper telling you every little detail about what I did - especially if the paper was published years ago and I have forgotten most of the details anyway.

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  • That depends imho. If you write an article about Nuclear Power and completely leave out the part about uranium atoms splitting, well, do you assume your readers will know ? – clockw0rk Jul 8 at 8:09
  • @clockw0rk yes? For a journal article, I think you can safely assume a decent general science background, especially in the topic of the journal (e.g., fission for a Modern Physics Letters paper). – Matt Jul 9 at 0:11
  • @Matt u maybe right about that, but I encountered papers about advanced hacking techniques where the author completely leaves out facts about what he is refferring to when he says "... because it is simply a fact" or "...as is common knowledge". Not the topic of this question, but definately provide at least sources to your readers where they can find the basics of your research. Well, I guess it's part of the topic that these papers always come a little "mysterious" or "arcane", so to speak. – clockw0rk Jul 9 at 12:31
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I was for 5 or so years a university researcher and co-wrote a few papers. I would have been thrilled if someone had written to me asking a sensible question (they never did) but horrified if they had found an error. Professors, on the other hand, can be time poor, so it will be best to write to the most junior author if this is an option. In my experience many academics build upon their previous work and answers to any questions will often be found in previous papers. To be specific I would suggest: "Do you use the [your best guess at the techniques/methodology used] system in your research?" after a preamble much as Oleg has given above.

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If the paper is published it is because the editor (and presumably the referees) believe there are enough details either in the manuscript per se, in the references or that the procedure is sufficiently well-known not to waste time on it.

Thus I would encourage you to be very careful in suggesting there is not enough information: it might not be enough information for you but presumably it’s enough information for that typical reader of the journal.

You might ask for clarifications on a few specific points but do so selectively, making sure you include significant context and references so that your query is legitimate.

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Let's get more templated. What about this?

To: %Corresponding author%
Subject: %Paper title%

Dear Prof. %NAME%,

With a great interest I read your paper on %TOPIC%. Since I work in a similar area, I would like to %short presentation of what you want% [e.g., to compare my approach [1, 2, 3] to yours].

Do you have %your actual inquiry, detailed%?

Thank you very much in advance.

[1] Paper
[2] Paper
[3] Paper

Best regards,
%Your name%
--
%Your signature, including your institution, email, phone, and further ways to contact you%

If you are asking for code, try searching GitHub and further usual places first. Googling the corresponding author would also help. Take a look at their most recent papers, may be your question is already answered.

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2

A while ago I also read a paper and had a question which was not answered in the paper (or maybe it was and I just wasn't capable of interpreting it).

I searched for the address of the main author and wrote a polite, kind email without much fluff (because I had often heard that scientists don't like fluff).

I also mentioned that I had asked another scientist I knew first, but that no one knew the answer (just to add some justification for why I was writing him instead of asking others or consulting books).

For me, he was something like a famous Professor and I thought he would never answer my mail. But not even a day later I received a kind and helpful answer from him.

I would also like to add here to encourage everyone to answer emails like this if possible. For him it was maybe just an email but his answer meant so very much to me, I nearly even cried because I was so happy and I felt taken seriously and acknowledged.

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This is what I used to do when I was a math grad student:

  1. Be extra polite (I would start with "Dear Prof. NNN")
  2. Introduce yourself. Say what level you're at, what institution you're at, and who you're working with. (Briefly.) It will help them understand what level you're at and indicate a connection.
  3. Be somewhat detailed about what you do understand. Don't just say "I didn't understand this step in the methods." Say "When you say that you did XXX, did you mean YYY, or ZZZ? Or perhaps I misunderstand completely?" Just like with Stack Exchange you want to make it clear you put some effort in, and you also want to make it clear just what needs to be explained.
  4. Include a phone number in case they want to talk further.

I want to re-emphasize the importance of being clear about where you are uncertain. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to answer your question. And as you try to put your confusion into words, it may actually become more clear to you.

But don't be afraid to make the contact. It could even lead to a future collaboration. Connecting with other researchers is a good thing to do.

One other note: Even though I suggested "Dear Prof. NNN", that's just for the first contact. After that, look at how they talk to you. If they close with just their first name, that's generally an invitation to address them that way.

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