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Can I write:

Hi Prof. xxx,

I am xxx, PhD student from xx University. Recently I am studying your paper titled “xxx” in xxx. Could you please help me understand why xxx? I assume that there may be two reasons: 1)xxx 2) xxx.

Thank you so much for your time.

Sincerely,

xxx

xx University

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  • 25
    Standard salutation would be "Dear Prof. xxx, ..." instead of "Hi". I would only use "Hi" with someone I am on a first-name basis with.
    – spin
    Apr 4 at 13:34
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    Just as a side note, not all authors of papers (not even the first authors) will be professors, but much more often PhD students just like you. Apr 4 at 14:54
  • 1
    What is the reason to write the letter? Do you want to make contact with them, or do you not understand xxx? If the latter, would steps did you do to understand xxx?
    – lalala
    Apr 5 at 8:04
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    Your email template is already better than 50% of the ones I receive.... Apr 5 at 14:13
  • 1
    As an alternative to writing a formal email you could try finding the author, preferably first or last author, on a social platform like ResearchGate or LinkedIn and then reaching out there.
    – Cam
    Apr 6 at 0:03

5 Answers 5

14

When I was a student I liked to also mention my advisor and my area of research, and maybe a few words about how the author's paper related to my research. Of course, this only makes sense if you already have an advisor and a project, but the more the author understands about who you are and how they are helping you, the better.

I also agree with the others that it's better to start with "Dear Prof. xxxx" (if the author is in fact a professor).

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It sounds not very professional. I would suggest writing "Dear Prof. .." Here is an edited version of your letter:

Dear Prof. xxx,

I am a PhD student from xx University. Recently, I came across your paper titled “xxx” in xxx. Could you please help me to understand why xxx? I assume that there may be two reasons: 1)xxx 2) xxx. I would greatly appreciate your response.

Best regards, xxx, xx University

7

Yes, you could write that and you might get a reply. It is possible that you won't, but it seems polite enough that the chances are good.

It might take a while for a reply (weeks), however, since people are busy and it might take some time to reflect on the proper response. And the reply might just be a pointer to somewhere you can get additional background.

As user spin notes in a comment, a more formal salutation would be better, however. Some places can be quite formal.

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  • I assume that in principle authors are happy that people read their work and are curious about it. Would it help in your opinion to make the author curious about the work of the OP that leads him to write the letter, for example by outlining one's work, providing a link to a paper, or giving some other detail? Also, I'd (naively) write something like "I am particularly intrigued by your innovative [insert field specific thing here, like strategy to compensate for measurement errors] which leads me to the following questions: ..." Would such a rationale be a good idea? Apr 5 at 16:41
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica, generally, for a first contact a short message is better than a long one. It can open a conversation. If the receiver is overwhelmed by the size/complexity of a first (blind) email it is easy to just delete it.
    – Buffy
    Apr 5 at 16:46
  • Yes, I suppose that's the dilemma. Apr 5 at 16:46
  • "I am particularly intrigued by your innovative..." I would avoid that, reactions to flattery are not always positive (it may come across as insincere). I suspect most authors would regard evidence that someone had actually read the paper and had questions to be more than sufficient as a complement ;o) I'd definitely prefer a short to the point email. Apr 5 at 20:24
2

Yes you can ask. But your current version has some issues.

Hi Prof. xxx,

Use a more formal way to address him in the first e-mail. There is a chance that he will answer less formal, but you don't know in advance, so be more formal for the first e-mail.

I am xxx, PhD student from xx University. Recently I am studying your paper titled “xxx” in xxx. Could you please help me understand why xxx?

This sounds like "I need a teacher that helps me understand my assignments". The professor will see it as not being his duty to help students to do their work.

First, really try to do your own research. What don't you understand, do some of the references in the paper explain it? Can you find other material or textbooks that help? Ask another student or staff from your faculty.

Then, of course, the paper can be hard to read and a question is still justified. Try to explain in a concise way what you don't understand and ask a question as concrete as possible.

I assume that there may be two reasons: 1)xxx 2) xxx.

That's a good way to approach the issue. Tell (without too much text) what you didn't understand and what you think what may be meant but doesn't quite sum up for you. Don't go into too much detail, as you obviously did not understand it and explaining your wrong version doesn't help the author. But write enough that he is able to see what you didn't understand.

Thank you so much for your time.

Personally I would not exaggerate here. A simple "Thank you for your time" is appropriate, but the "so much" may be a bit over the top.
They may be a professor and you're "just" a student, but in the end you're both just persons and you can ask questions like any other person. So I'd be polite, but don't exaggerate.

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    Yes, demonstrated effort is always good. Apr 5 at 14:07
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As an author, I appreciate it when someone shows interest in my work. I have no issue with responding to specific questions or engaging in a discussion.

That said, when you reach out to an author you should show competence in the area and ask relevant questions. The template you posted looks fine.

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