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I am a postdoc in math. From time to time, I have some simple questions, which I believe most graduate students know in their field. So, I email specialists to ask them. I sometimes noticed that people don't react well to my questions which means I should have known the answer.

My friend suggested me to ask such simple questions using a fake email address, which is not my original email address. Although it sounds a good idea, I don't like it. I would like to know what you advise me.

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    Are you e-mailing questions to random people you don't know? That would be the first thing to address, in my view. – Federico Poloni Jun 1 at 13:03
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    How do you know the people you're emailing (if you know them) and what are you asking them? If a stranger spontaneously emailed me a generic question about a field I'm in, I probably wouldn't react too well, even if it were a really good question. If it were about a paper or some work I specifically produced, or I were their adviser or professor, then it would probably be a different story. The email address they're using wouldn't change anything (unless perhaps it were an obvious throw-away or offensive address or it's sent from a university email address). – NotThatGuy Jun 1 at 22:45
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    What is a "fake email address" even? A secondary address that you send and receive emails from isn't "fake". It would only really be fake if you can't receive emails from it (but then using it to ask questions would be rather pointless). If it's fairly obviously an address you don't care about ("throwaway3710935709190"), that might be a problem, but that's easy enough to avoid. I'm assuming you'd not give them your full name, because lying about your identity would probably the more questionable behaviour there (and using your real name with a "fake" address seems pointless). – NotThatGuy Jun 1 at 23:00
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    I've been the expert and I've been the learner. Everyone has tons of questions and everyone thinks they're the only one not understanding. For some reason, at some point, something in my brain clicked and I just started asking, perhaps I got enough cachet in my field, who knows. I stopped caring. If possible, do due diligence first, a modicum of research, but honestly, just ask - it's not nearly as bad as you think it is. In fact, if in public, others will appreciate it. – Matt Jun 2 at 2:55
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    This question feels like saying “People don’t react well when I talk to them in the street. Should I wear a disguise to avoid reputational blowback?” – PLL Jun 2 at 12:39
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I agree with both of the provided answers so far, but I feel like they are incomplete as they avoid the core issue here.

The problem that you are facing is not reputational blowback. It's that you are asking questions that are received poorly. There could be many reasons the questions are received poorly: maybe you're being rude in your emails; maybe the receiver is in a bad mood; maybe there's some reason that you're asking an inappropriate person; maybe you're sending 100 emails a month to the same person. Whatever the reason that people respond poorly to your questions is, the fact that they are responding poorly is the issue that needs to be addressed. This can cause reputational blowback, but the best way to avoid reputational blowback is to not ask questions that are received poorly. Using an anonymous email address does not help with this, and will still result in irate respondants.

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    Ah, looks like you nailed it. – Buffy Jun 1 at 17:25
  • Hmmm. Or not. Check marks come and check marks go. Anyway, welcome back. – Buffy Jun 1 at 20:53
  • This is the real answer, pointing out the real problem. Probably because I have high reputation on one SE site, I regularly get emails asking for help. Many of the askers seem to truly not understand the inappropriateness of their request (such as targeting a single person with a basic but tedious to solve question that many others could answer and would fit an SE site). – Szabolcs Jun 2 at 13:16
  • My answer has been accepted - but this one has more upvotes, as it should. – Ethan Bolker Jun 2 at 13:24
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Bad idea. I'm glad you "don't like it". Don't do it.

Talk to your lab mates and colleagues. Ask your professors. Ask at mathematics stackexchange.

Use the feedback you get to figure out which kinds of things you "should have known" and which are genuine confusions it's good to get help with.

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    For those that don't respond, it's also because you are one of the "unknown millions" of which a large number tend to waste other professor's time. If you use LInkedIn, to find a commonly known intermediate, you might ask them to introduce you, which may improve the responses. Of course, it's impossible to do that anonymously, but that's the point. You want to cultivate a working relationship of some kind with these people. Friends of friends are easier to say "yes" to, or to at least get a rational explanation of why "no" must be said. LInkedIn is one way, your dept profs are the better. – Edwin Buck Jun 1 at 17:52
  • There is also mathoverflow. – Carsten S Jun 2 at 11:47
  • @EdwinBuck I suspect the acceptability of Linkedin varies by field. In pure math, I would never try to contact a colleague via linkedin (in fact I don't have an account there and it is common not to have it) – Denis Nardin Jun 2 at 13:29
  • I didn't recommend contacting a colleague through linkedin. I recommended finding someone you and he both know, and then (outside of LinkedIn) asking the go-between for an introduction. This typically means asking your go-between if he would be willing to do such a thing on your behalf, clearly indicating what you want to accomplish so he can help present you to the not-yet-known professor. Sometimes you have to be introduced to an additional go-between, and sometimes you get responses like "he will only respond to his grad students, so give up." It's standard networking, nothing more. – Edwin Buck Jun 2 at 16:10
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Perhaps you are asking the wrong people. Those you are asking may be frustrated to be interrupted by anyone asking questions that they think their own students should know the answers to.

I don't find your need especially troubling, however, since specialization in math is very specialized and insight into math isn't general. You can have great insight into some subfield and little in others. I used to have great insight into real analysis and topology, but very little in abstract algebra - especially ring theory.

But, as a post doc you probably have access to others who might know the answers or guide you to sources where you can learn what you need to know.

But faking your identity is a bad practice in general except in a forum (like this one) where anonymity may be both accepted and valued. People are more likely to be unhappy with you if you do that, I think.

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Certainly do not use fake email addresses. This has too many problems to even discuss here.

To answer the underlying question, about getting advice from people who understand things... Well, first, especially with the advent of the internet, it is easy to find out about standard things. At least if you have some of the keywords. Wikipedia exists, and is far more reliable now than it was decades ago.

In particular, many "experts" have written extensive notes about the things in which they're interested... So you could/should look at their notes, rather than asking them to repeat them for you personally.

Also, many "experts" are fully busy with their own projects, their own students (grad and undergrad), and cannot reasonably attempt to respond to all emails from the whole world. Especially if the questions are about basic things, well-documented many places. For special, interesting questions, yes, people may be able to find time. But for basic questions, whose answers are everywhere, it's not an interesting investment of one's limited time.

So don't think about how to "game" experts into spoon-feeding you basic things... :)

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    Call the experts when you've made a solid effort and are still lost. Should be the exception, not the rule. – StephenG Jun 1 at 23:48
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    I guess the summary of the answer is... you should do a bit of research before asking -- and maybe that's also why it is called research ! – Vincent Fourmond Jun 2 at 6:27
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The other answers so far are reasonable, but I have an alternative take.

Can I use a fake email address for asking simple questions to experts?

Do not impersonate someone else. Sending polite emails anonymously is permitted, but it is a pointless inconvenience. I answer questions from unknown strangers if I feel like it; I am doing it right now. But I usually answer questions from colleagues I dislike first.

I sometimes noticed that people don't react well to my questions which means I should have known the answer.

Maybe you should have known the answer. But many people who have good questions think they should have known the answer when that is not realistic. In the absence of evidence about the questions you ask and who you ask, it is equally reasonable to assume you have asked people who "don't react well" to good questions.

Keeping your identity secret will make little difference. Focus on one or both of these:

  • Asking good questions
  • Asking people who give good answers

Do not be a cruel person who assumes that asking good questions is all that is necessary.

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I was raised with the following principle, the "stupidest question asked, is the one that has never been asked". I understand your point of view on this point and also your justification for "faking" your own e-mail address in order to do solve your problems and not "embarrass" yourself in the eyes of the so-called experts.

I do believe that you have a reason for asking the experts though. I mean that you have searched your respective books, done your google searches, asked a couple of friends if the subject is indeed "simple" and then as a last resort you contacted the experts? Because in that regard, if you contact a person you don't know THAT well on a constant basis then I may get why they could get frustrated by something like that. And it has nothing to do with the fact that they are experts or that your question is "simple". It's simply that they cannot devote the time to you.

Having said that, I believe that asking is the cornerstone of understanding, which is the cornerstone of knowledge. If you do have a question and you need an answer that you cannot easily find I do not believe that you should care at all that the experts comment on your question in a negative manner as long as they provide you the answer. Because in that case, you can simply ignore their comments and move on with your life. Many people, experts primarily, do not care about what effects their comments may have on other people. They just say what they feel. Which is something like a double-edged sword. They are honest, an attribute hard to find nowadays, yet they seem so detached and cold to the others. So you just have to harden your mentality and never stop asking. Do not deprive yourself of knowledge by playing mind games with them or their comments.

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