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I published a paper that received a bit of attention several years ago. A few months ago, I received an email from a student who expressed interest in my work. I don't know her, she is not in the same institution as I am, and she appears to not be located in the same country. I thought I was corresponding with a peer.

Later, I found out she is an undergraduate student who is doing her own research project with my model. She has been sending me emails asking very elementary stuff which she should have figured out herself and sometimes she tries to urge me to reply by implying what I did in my paper was wrong.

I answered a few of her emails just to clarify that what I did in the paper is correct. Moreover, from time to time, she said that she has severe depression and the deadlines were close.

What is the professional and ethical way to deal with this student? I don't want to waste time on this student, to whom I have no obligation to train, but I also don't want to increase her depression.

Currently, I plan to stop answering her emails.

Edit 1: After reading @Buffy's answer, I realized I forgot to mention an important point. At first, I thought the student was somewhat experienced in the field. After a while, I found out she did not know various basic concepts in the filed, so I pointed her to various introductory materials. However, the next time she asked a bunch of elementary questions that were covered by the introductory materials, as if she had never read the materials. Several days ago, she said she just wanted to finish thesis on time, suggesting she would just throw all things away after her thesis was finished. I felt very discouraged at the moment. At first, I thought I was communicating with a potential collaborator. After a while, I thought I could inspire a curious mind. Now I found out that she have never been interested in the things I discussed with her.

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    The notion of her (alleged) depression is also possibly a (maybe subconscious) emotional blackmailing technique which some people use in many ways all their lives. "Something bad will happen me if you don't fix my problem for me". This is the way some people avoid taking personal responsibility, sometimes consciously sometime not. Big red flag that you need to walk away from this person. Nov 5 at 0:05
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    @StephenG-HelpUkraine this is not a helpful way to respond to allusions of sever depression. I agree that the students depression is not OPs responsibility, but none the less, it's 100x better that they are telling someone that something is wrong, even if it's not the right person right now. OP may be in a position to redirect that conversation over to the right person and potentially mitigate serious harm.
    – Clumsy cat
    Nov 5 at 7:28
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    @Clumsycat The OP could make such a suggestion to this person, but that doesn't change my viewpoint. My experience of depression (which is from suffering it myself) is that people who are severely depressed do not email other people in this way , but in fact hide their depression. People who ask for help with their own work (from a stranger no less), and link the request to their own claimed depression are far more likely to be manipulative people. It's hard to believe that the email correspondent would be aware of their depression but unaware that this needs medical help. Nov 5 at 9:49
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    @StephenG-HelpUkraine: Depression can express itself in a wide range of ways. Hiding/denial is common, but it’s far from universal, and using it for manipulation is also not uncommon. From the OP’s description, the student’s descriptions of their depression sound certainly manipulative, but quite possibly also true.
    – PLL
    Nov 5 at 13:07
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    I agree with Clumsy cat and PLL. One person's experience of depression being a certain way does not mean that all cases, or even most cases, are the same.
    – Oliver882
    Nov 5 at 14:41

9 Answers 9

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I guess I have a more expansive view of "duty" here. While you may not be paid for any interaction, IMO a professor has a "duty" to help people who ask them for professional help if done sincerely. It is part of what it means to be a "scholar".

But you can also make it less of a burden by pointing the student to some resource(s) that they can study to bring themselves up to date. You don't need to give them a course via email.

Imagine a different situation in which some eminent scholar from a related field sent similar emails asking for help? They don't have the background you have and don't understand some things. How would you treat them? Would you consider it a "waste of time"?

Personally, I'd be quite pleased if some undergraduate decided to follow up on something I'd done earlier. And, if they had serious misconceptions, then I'd be glad to set them on the right track. But not by giving them a university level course via email. I might suggest that they consult with a local professor to help them learn. Lots of "low impact" possibilities.

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    I wish I could upvote this more than once, especially the part about "pointing the student to some resources." By doing that instead of answering elementary questions, you will help this student grow and learn to be independent. That may, in fact, be more trouble than just answering the questions, but see Buffy's definition of "scholar."
    – Bob Brown
    Nov 5 at 14:01
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    Yes! Thank you! Students are also human beings, and should be treated as such. I was really afraid to read the awnsers here, but yours is really nice.
    – Nico
    Nov 6 at 12:05
  • Yea i like this answer a lot. Just because someone is incompetent doesn't mean they are evil. If they mean well then telling them "you are making trivial mistakes but you have hope" and then pointing them to constructive resources would be the right thing to do. "Shutting down"/"ghosting" stupid people before offering them a path forward doesn't really benefit our society and exacerbates the image "academic elitism" for people not already in the circle/aware of how to interact with academia properly. Nov 7 at 0:35
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    I do agree with you though I don't think it applies to my case. I replied to the first several emails with enthusiasm. Later, she started to ask elementary questions as if I was her supervisor. (Actually you don't want to ask questions so elementary to waste your precious time with your supervisor.) It's like my paper was about an efficient method to perform Monte-Carlo Markov Chain, she asked me to show her to code to plot the marginal priors (I posted all my code on github and specified all priors in the code!). How should I deal with it?
    – wdg
    Nov 7 at 11:37
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    @Buffy, Regarding your third paragraph, a scholar would likely spend much more time and effort to try to understand the subject matter than this undergraduate student. A scholar likely would not complain to the OP that they have "a severe depression and the deadlines were close". Nov 8 at 23:09
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I plan to stop answering her emails.

Good plan. Put it in practice. Yesterday.

sending me emails asking very elementary stuff

When dealing with a paper from someone else, it is better to ask any doubt, also on the elementary stuff. Then, the answer may be "please go and find the answer in your notes from Introduction to inorganic chemistry" to a passive-aggressive "you should know that valency of carbon is 4"

she tries to urge me to reply by implying what I did in my paper was wrong.

She is free to write a rebuttal paper or to go ahead proving your method wrong. You should welcome any effort in confuting your paper: it is the best peer review you can receive.

Back to the student: your duty with her were not different than with any researcher. Give her the keys of the publication, i.e. to give her all the tools to repeat the results you obtained in your paper.

If she cannot, it is not your duty to teach her how to get there.

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    "Please go and find the answer in your notes from Introduction to inorganic chemistry" is way more passive-aggressive than "you should know that valency of carbon is 4". Nov 5 at 19:33
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    @theonlygusti It is not, if you are discussing and offering it genuinely (I understand my writing is abrupt and it souns otherwise). See same concept in the most voted answer.
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 7 at 13:15
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    No matter the context, it is more passive-aggressive. Because it presupposes that you took notes in the first place, and anyway implies 1. it is elementary knowledge 2. you should feel guilty for not taking notes 3. you should feel stupid for forgetting something you explicitly personally noted down. Nov 7 at 13:25
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    All responses are fine and valid. I just commented to point out your answer's misconception that "go and find the answer in your notes" is less passive-aggressive than "you should know that the valency of carbon is 4". Nov 7 at 13:37
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    bringing full attention to the (as you are telling them it is) embarrassing fact that they are ignorant, instead of just kindly telling them the elementary knowledge they asked for? There is a big misunderstanding here. Being ignorant must not be source of embarassment. Being ignorant is our natural condition. There is no problem at all in being ignorant, nor in pointing privately to someone ignorance, as long as someone is truly motivated in learning and not in obtaining a free ride.
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 8 at 8:46
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Essentially I agree with Buffy's answer, but I think there is a more important step again; you do not have a duty of confidentiality to this student, and they are displaying symptoms of serious mental distress, if you know their home institution you should raise this issue.

In the UK we have recently had two high profile cases involving student death due to suicide.

https://wearetogether.live/phoebe-grime-inquest/ https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-61534460

In the second case, the university was actually found liable for failing to take reasonable actions to protect a student who was known to be at risk.

If you know which institute this student does belong to, you should raise your concerns there. This will give the institute a more complete picture of the risk to that student, and their own institute is in a position to act on that risk. This could be anything from refering the student to appropriate support facilities, to starting a discussion with the student about a medical break from studies. Good friends of mine have done both these things, they do make a difference and they do matter.

But all you can do is make sure someone at their home intuition knows, so they can act on this information.

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    “Death due to suicide”? That's a bit of an odd formulation, as if suicide were something that happened to these students without their own involvement. Now – sure there's a point to be made about university/society piling a lot of burden on students that may push them to such an action, and that they should have received help from the responsible institution, and/or friends/family. But it really isn't something that a researcher from an entirely different institution should feel responsible for. Referring to appropriate support facilities can certainly make sense though. Nov 5 at 11:24
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    @leftaroundabout the point of the wording it to emphasize that suicide is increasingly seen, legally and medically, as something that the sufferer may not have really chose. It's often a side effect of a medical condition, and the phrasing is ment to highlight that.
    – Clumsy cat
    Nov 5 at 11:56
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    @leftaroundabout anyway, point is, at least one university has found itself culpable of neglect over this one, so OP would likely be doing everyone in the picture a favour if they reported it to someone who could intervene.
    – Clumsy cat
    Nov 5 at 11:57
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    @leftaroundabout As we've seen, universities are perfectly capable of not following up on these things. The potential harm from reporting is not all that high.
    – wizzwizz4
    Nov 5 at 17:12
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    @EarlGrey That's not what my answer says. My answer names the two interventions that are targeted at the underlying problem, and have been seen to be effective at improving quality of life. While I do talk about what can go wrong if nobody intervenes, it is in order to give case law as proof that I'm not the only person who has come to the conclusion that a student's university ought to be actively involved in mitigating mental health issues that arise in it's students. At no point do I say the depression is only a problem if there is also a suicide risk.
    – Clumsy cat
    Nov 7 at 14:56
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Politely end the conversation and stop responding, even if she keeps trying to get help from you. You've given a nominal, helpful response to her initial inquiries, which is, I think, a good default approach to research questions from strangers. But a cold email never obligates you to get into an extended discussion. Her depression issues (taking her at her word) shouldn't be downplayed, but there's nothing to do from your position that would alleviate them.

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I thought I was corresponding with a peer.

Later, I found out she is an undergraduate student who is doing her own research project.

I would go way out of my way to to provide appropriate assistance to this (potentially future) scholar. I have to go with @Buffy's:

...a professor has a "duty" to help people who ask them for professional help if done sincerely. It is part of what it means to be a "scholar".

Personally I think all human beings have this duty, but that's for other SE sites :-)


The issue of depression can be addressed completely separately from the help/don't help question.

These days most people (especially younger) are working hard to de-stigmatize mental health issues. And so you will see a lot more matter-of-fact discussion of depression.

There's nothing wrong with a short caveat like

I'm sorry to hear about the depression. On this topic I simply can't help you at all. I sure hope you are getting some help from qualified people.

But I can help you with some resources on topic X that might be most suitable for you and your project right now. A lot of the material out there is pretty high level, but the following...

I think it's great you are pursuing this project, and I wish you the very best of luck in your future!

The notion you should a priori suspect deceit and refuse help based on such preconception is ludicrous. You don't know and you don't need to. As long as the interaction helps someone to better understand your field of research, the potential benefit of helping someone in a rough spot outweighs the potential risk that they got help without matching the profile of the person you think "deserves" your help.


Several days ago, she said she just wanted to finish thesis on time, suggesting she would just throw all things away after her thesis was finished. I felt very discouraged at the moment. At first, I thought I was communicating with a potential collaborator. After a while, I thought I could inspire a curious mind. Now I found out that she have never been interested in the things I discussed with her.

This is very forthcoming of you and I applaud your willingness to be so open. This aspect might better be addressed with an additional question in Interpersonal SE, but I would say the best thing you can do is

  1. Don't loose faith so quickly! They're in a challenging situation with pressure and simply may have slightly "overshared" how they were feeling at the moment.
  2. What they ultimately do or don't do in the future should not be a gating factor for how much you do/don't do right now. The fact that someone helped may crop up later in their life, they may even choose to help someone else some day based on this memory.
  3. That you care so much is wonderful, but we must always give without expectation of return or immediate gratitude. Life is a hard, funny and strange thing for each of us, and it seems you already got the notion that "this one is worth helping" based on correspondence. Disengage a little bit at the emotional level so your feelings aren't impacted, help where you can and then move on.
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I think it depends, for example, if their questions are 'real' questions.

I would like sharing my experience, from the student side.

When I was doing my thesis project, I was studying many algorithms and I had to read their original papers and re-achieve their algorithms. I read their papers carefully, including their published codings. I find some errors in their codes, and some places stated in their papers are not same as what they did in their codes. I also sent emails to the author about my questions. I sent some, but only one teacher replied me, and even he replied me three times. I invited him to my thesis defence, and even he would like to provide my recommendation letter for my phd application.

I appreciate it very much, I got lots of confidence because of him. I am not a confident student, cause english is very hard to me.

Maybe, next time, when you are not busy and you find their questions are meaningful, you could give them some time.

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If she is doing a research project, there must be a supervisor, and if they have agreed to base her work on your model, the supervisor most certainly has some knowledge of the model, too.

Kindly tell her to turn to her supervisor if she has any more questions. She obviously needs supervision, but that's not your job, but someone else's. This person is also responsible for teaching her the basics. If she contacts you again, tell her again to ask her supervisor.

In the end, it is her supervisor who has to be contented with her work, not you, so she has to communicate with them.

I would not talk to her or somebody else about her depression, that's too intrusive.

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I don't think the idea that there is a (single?) "right thing" that one "should" do makes much sense here. There is a wide range of reactions that I'd consider as acceptable, and what I'd do would depend on things such as my personal time planning, deadlines etc.

Personally I think helping people who are interested in my work is worthwhile, also addressing concerns with my work. On the other hand I don't want to get myself into a situation in which I do other people's jobs. If the student lacks some basic knowledge required for understanding the paper, it is for sure not my duty to teach this to her, although depending on my personal time planning I may help a bit. At some point I'd tell the student that "XXX is basic knowledge, taught in course so-and-so and/or book so-and-so", and that I don't have the time to teach her these things myself. The central thing to tell the student is that my time is limited, and that they have to understand that my ability and willingness to respond is therefore also limited. This can be done without implying anything negative about the student, I believe.

Regarding the mental health issue, I think I'd just advise them to get professional help. So I can really only say what I'd do, without implying anything about what is "generally right".

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I would try to find out who is overseeing her work at her college/university, and make your concerns known about her ability, and her health.

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    Alhough good meant, this is very intrusive.
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 7 at 13:11
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    I tried, but the student did not use her institutional email address, and a google search of her name did not turn up anything useful.
    – wdg
    Nov 7 at 13:12
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    @EarlGrey If I was teaching someone, I would definitely want to know this; if it wasn't evident.
    – benwiggy
    Nov 7 at 13:42
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    @EarlGrey If the student is telling people they are depressed, it might well be because they need someone to know. OP is the wrong person to tell, but they don't owe the student confidentially, so letting the right person know would be a good thing.
    – Clumsy cat
    Nov 7 at 15:00
  • @Clumsycat Their supervisor may not be the right person to inform.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 8 at 16:34

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