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I am autistic and I hold a bachelor's degree but, sadly, had to quit grad school due to health reasons. I have a special interest in a subfield of hematology-oncology and have read a fair amount of research papers about that subject. I have some – hopefully – sound questions that I'd like to get answered but these are very precise questions regarding a specific subject that only a couple hundred researchers know about (so no luck getting answers elsewhere). Since I am not in academia I can't post them in the comment section on ResearchGate (which would have been more practical).

How appropriate is it for me to e-mail the corresponding author to ask for details about their paper and/or ask for their insights about a possible research gap? Should I mention that I am autistic with a special interest in their research subject?

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    It's likely your questions are on-topic for Medical Sciences Stack Exchange. Of course, it's possible no one there will be able to answer. Questions there will be best received if they include references to the specific papers you're asking about.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 23, 2022 at 21:13
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    Should I answer email from a student who based her project on one of my publications? and the answers may provide some insight into the diversity of possible reactions (sans autism)
    – uhoh
    Nov 23, 2022 at 22:10
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    I don't know how well this will work for you, but on several occasions I've posted Stack Exchange questions about a recent paper in the appropriate site, then as a courtesy emailed one or more authors to let them know, inviting them to either reply to me directly or consider posting an answer in Stack Exchange or asking a colleague or student whose already active in SE to do so.
    – uhoh
    Nov 23, 2022 at 22:12
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    I'd prefer to get a direct email rather than a comment on ResearchGate, which I very well might miss. Nov 24, 2022 at 10:08
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    +1 to @uhoh's comment. Here is a question I recently posted. I sent the link to the corresponding author of the paper in question, and they very graciously answered at great length. If you have a question on a paper, some other people may well have similar questions, and discussing them on an appropriate StackExchange site makes the clarifications available for more people than just having an email exchange. Nov 24, 2022 at 10:39

4 Answers 4

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It's always entirely appropriate to email the corresponding author of a paper to ask about the details of that paper (indeed, that's what the role of 'corresponding author' is all about). The following (at a minimum) don't affect that answer, and don't especially need to be mentioned (unless you want to mention them): (i) whether you're in academia, (ii) whether you hold a research degree, and (iii) whether you're autistic. Conversely, you might want to mention that you have a special interest in their research subject, if you genuinely do - people tend to enjoy talking to kindred spirits :)

As another answer implies, the tone of the message you send them may affect your chances of getting the desired response. A reasonable formula might be:

Hi <>,

I'm <>, and I have a particular interest in <> because <> (keep it brief). I recently read your paper on <>, which I found really interesting because <> (imply that you actually put in the effort to read it in detail, and so you're not asking things that could have been trivially answered by reading it). However, there were a couple of things I didn't quite get from the paper, and I wondered if I could run them by you if you have time please?

<Question 1>

<Question 2>

(not too many questions in a first email)

Many thanks!

<>

Basically, keep it brief, friendly and non-onerous for them, and you're more likely to get an answer.

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    Nice answer. This may be culture-dependent, but starting with "Sorry to trouble you", seems a bit odd and unnecessary to me.
    – GoodDeeds
    Nov 24, 2022 at 7:19
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    Since academics get a lot of spam, you want to phrase the email in a way, that does not come off as written by a bot. This means including some details of the paper written in your own words, rather than just copying something (worst of all: the title!) directly from the paper
    – And
    Nov 24, 2022 at 8:53
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    @GoodDeeds It’s possibly a bit cultural (I’m from the UK). Also possibly a bit my personal style - maybe I should desist :) Nov 24, 2022 at 9:01
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    Concerning personal information to include that would affect the answer: you might want to say something like "I have a bachelor's degree in [field] and attended grad school in [field] for a few years." This lets the author know that you have some familiarity with the field and they can use more technical language & concepts than they might use with a member of the general public. Nov 25, 2022 at 13:39
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    One more thing: don't email asking if you can ask questions. Just ask the questions (a few) in the first email! Nov 26, 2022 at 3:31
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I've written to authors to ask details about the diets they fed to mice in their experiments, from an entirely non-academic e-mail address and they responded very quickly. Just don't ask them to submit a research paper to your journal! (as corresponding author that's the type of spam I always get). From my most recent paper, altmetric score of 800, reported in 100 newspapers, I got around three real people writing to me and I was happy to respond properly to all of them. Go for it.

If anything writing to researchers sharing your interest, could potentially be a first stop on rejoining your career working in their labs. Of course that's a very distant goal that relies on a lot of other steps. But definitely embrace your interests, and do reach out, researchers don't bite.

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How appropriate is it for me to e-mail the corresponding author to ask for details ... and/or ... insights about a possible research gap?

Very appropriate. Just don't write them in a presumptive or accusative tone, and be respectful. Now, you mentioned autism, which sometimes makes it difficult to adhere to the finer points of social convention; so, if this is the case for you, perhaps you should ask someone to give your email a once-over to make sure you're not being unintentionally offensive somehow. Or, indeed...

Should I mention that I am autistic

... possibly do that. But only if it's important for them to be aware of your autism when answering your question. Otherwise, who cares what you are?

with a special interest in their research subject?

If you're not an academic and are writing these authors, then you obviously have such a special interest. But you should probably write what your interest is, i.e. whether you or people you know are suffering from some medical condition the book discusses; whether you are considering about a diagnostic, therapeutic or palliative method; or whether you just find it interesting, period.

On the other hand - don't write an essay. Be relatively brief and to the point, or split off a long description-of-motivation to an appendix after the request proper.

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It is fine to do so. I recommend that, if possible, you have some academic introduce you to the author. This might be a former professor, for example. It is harder to ignore a mail from another academic than from an otherwise unknown person.

But, for first contact, write a short mail, introducing yourself (briefly) and asking if they would be willing to answer some questions in the future.

Your mail might look quite a lot like your post here.

But, don't flood them in a first contact. Many such mails are simply discarded. If you start out slowly you'll probably have a better chance of success.

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    Are you recommending to send an email without asking the questions about the paper, and instead, just asking if it's okay to ask?
    – Stef
    Nov 24, 2022 at 8:52
  • Not exactly. I'm suggesting that you don't flood them with questions and comments in a first email. You might also mention what you bring to the task.
    – Buffy
    Nov 24, 2022 at 13:39
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    This seems unnecessarily cautious. Nov 24, 2022 at 21:02
  • @Carl-FredrikNybergBrodda, it is intentionally cautious. Better that than having a long mail trashed. A long term conversation is probably more valuable than a one shot in any case.
    – Buffy
    Nov 24, 2022 at 21:18
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    @Buffy It is possible to write a short email that's not as overly cautious as your answer (see e.g. the other answer). Honestly, I'd find an email like that a lot more attractive than one where someone is asking me permission to ask a question (which is already paradoxical). Nov 24, 2022 at 21:28

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