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While writing my PhD I've come across some writings that were OUTSTANDINGLY well written, handy and helpful.

Obviously I cited them, but as I understand, thesis citations aren't counted by various bibliometry tools. Also, in my opinion, a single citation doesn't show how much I enjoyed a paper.

Can I just send fanmail to the authors of such papers? I know that academics rarely get appreciation that they deserve. I doubt that we have prospects for any real collaboration, so I don't have any immediate interest in sending such fanmail. But maybe I can write it in a way that will be more beneficial than just pleasing someone?

To sum up:

  • Is sending fanmail to a respected author a good idea?
  • How to send fanmail in order to make it at least somewhat useful to anyone?
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    Why did you cite them? You cite things that you need/use in your work, not things you (just) like.
    – Buffy
    Aug 30, 2023 at 20:44
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    I regularly get invitations to connect on LinkedIn and similar. Most of the boilerplate invitations I immediately delete. If someone invests a few words saying they enjoyed a paper of mine (or an SE post), I will be much more likely to accept. And yes, reading that a paper or SE post was helpful to someone is nice to hear - as a semi-academic, one often wonders whether one's papers are only ever read by three reviewers. Aug 31, 2023 at 6:27

6 Answers 6

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Yes! Send fanmail! :)

The professional academic math milieu does seem a bit "cold"... yes. True, there's no requirement of warm-and-fuzziness to be a math prof, but I myself do think that we toooo often forget/fail to tell people when we think their work/writing is amazing. I still do recall the few occasions when someone told me that some talk I gave was "stunning"... Sure, maybe I don't uniformly achieve that standard. :)

I do occasionally send email to people, some of whom I know, but by no means all, thanking them for writing something, and saying how much I enjoyed it. In some cases, people did respond, not only politely thanking me, but also saying that they had no idea what the reception of the paper/book was, since they'd heard back nothing at all. The feeling of "talking into the void"?!? That's a sad state.

I do also greatly enjoy getting a bit of fanmail now and then, confirming that all the stuff I put on-line is actually helpful/fun. :)

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    It has been reported to me in confidence that you may be feeling under-appreciated lately; perhaps also experiencing distant lighthouse keeper syndrome (DLKS): despite performing an essential role in guiding craft both big and small to safe berth, you nonetheless find your duties cut you off from the everyday engagements and joys partaken by those benefitting from your care. I want to state categorically that my office is open all Friday afternoons (evenings too) to all my faculty who may be in doubt of their vocation. Bring a bottle if you like. -- Dean Alleyne, University of Minn.
    – Trunk
    Aug 31, 2023 at 8:47
  • @Trunk :) :) ... Aug 31, 2023 at 15:28
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TL;DR: Everybody likes it if one appreciates their work. As long as you write honestly, informatively, and without further agenda, this is welcome and helpful. Don't worry about making it useful beyond the personal appreciation.

Scientists do their work because they like it and/or feel the need to do science - they do not (and should not) expect thanks beyond citations, invitations to talks, tenure, i.e. collecting the usual experience points of the academic dungeons and dragons game which can be turned into tangible uplevelling.

That being said, someone who expresses their real appreciation their work because it is particularly well done, or even just well written, is a welcome and unusual surprise.

If you write, don't be generic. Explain what in the paper was helpful, how, and why. State whether it was the writing of the paper, the organization of the material or whatever else that made it so useful to you.

The reason for that is that, not only does it show that you had a particular reason for praising the paper (rather than trying to ingratiate yourself), but it also helps the author understand what features of the paper were useful so that they can try and keep improving their future work (or keep doing it, at least) in that direction.

Additionally, note that they may have been criticized by a reviewer before for precisely those things that you liked about the paper (this happens more often than one would like; one reason why peer review is more often than not a lottery, especially in competitive venues); with only the reviewer's comment in mind they might be tempted in future not to write things this way - you would show them that there are readers that may actually profit from this style of presentation. While this does not resolve the authors' dilemma in what audience to write for, it gives them additional information to operate with in the future.

What not to do:

  1. if your priority is to write about how much you enjoyed the paper, do this, but do not carry a secondary agenda beyond a friendly thanks/compliment/feedback to the author. If you primarily want a collaboration, write a mail suggesting initiating a conversation or collaboration, only citing the paper as an inspiration for you to initiate this contact. That's fine. What's not recommended is to write effusively about the "great paper" only to insert some possibility of future collaboration. This looks weird and, to be honest, sycophantic [here I agree with Buffy], if not creepily indirect. Your mail should reflect what you want. Don't mix agendas.

  2. Don't bother thinking about how to make the letter formally valuable. If you are not in an academically advanced position to write a reference to the author, you probably don't have the clout to do so, anyway - and that's not a bad thing, you'll have to do enough of these at some point, anyway. By feeding back that you enjoyed the paper, and why, you have done your part to help the author continue to do good work. And, in the end, that's what really counts.

  3. [Thanks to Bryan Krause for this one:] do not expect a response. You may receive one, but should understand from the outset that your mail is likely to be a one-sided communication, at least on the immediate level. If you did your due diligence in highlighting what you liked about the work, you still have done your best in making the day nicer to the author of the paper and signalling what achievements you'd enjoy seeing repeated in the future.

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    I think this is already implicit in your answer, but just to make it more explicit: don't expect a response. If you're writing a thank you mail to get a response, you're not thanking genuinely, you're doing something else.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 30, 2023 at 22:41
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    Good answer. Don't mix agendas <=> Don't mix the signal.
    – Trunk
    Aug 31, 2023 at 8:55
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My first reaction is that it makes you seem like a sycophant (A person who attempts to gain advantage by flattering influential people or behaving in a servile manner: Webster). Especially since you mention "useful" and beneficial. This isn't Twitter (or its successor).

I can't envision an academic bragging about how many "likes" they got on their recent scholarly paper. Maybe for a laugh.

If you meet someone at a conference, though, you could say that you've gained a lot from their work. But email is just noise when it doesn't have things of substance. I'd recommend against it.

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    It's very rare that I fundamentally disagree with you, but my response will be diametrically opposite this time. Aug 30, 2023 at 21:04
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    I am very sorry, but complimenting each other and being nice to each other is what people do and enjoy. A place where this is seen as dishonest flattering or noise must be a very cold one.
    – Nico
    Aug 31, 2023 at 8:48
  • @Nico Sure. But doesn't it take us some years of maturing to learn how to handle this human trust thing in a work situation ? And isn't there some gushing - and naive - effervescence between the lines of the OP's text ?
    – Trunk
    Aug 31, 2023 at 9:35
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The only addition I can provide is that I wouldn't have been accepted to my fully funded PhD programme if I hadn't reached out via some "fan mail".

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Speaking as a nobody (a grad student, and not a very good one at that) who has gotten some "fanmail" in the past (one from a StackExchange user who was particularly grateful for a comment I left, one from a professor (who happens to also browse AcademiaSE fairly often...), some from friends), all of which I have saved away as treasures, I think that writing some kind words to someone to indicate that you sincerely appreciate some work of theirs (especially if you point out particular aspects that stand out to you!) would mean the world to them.

Perhaps for more senior and/or eminent members of the community, such fawning would truly be "noise", since it could be that they have already received enough of it in their life that they just don't want any more; but for more junior researchers who are just getting started, or even students, your "fanmail" may very well be the only positive affirmation they ever receive about something that "cost" them a great deal of blood sweat and tears.

As for anxiety about what is "acceptable" in a "fanmail", personally my views are along the lines of this following Tumblr comic. two cakes Tumblr comic

Of course, the advice given in previous answers are good (write about specific things you enjoyed, etc.), but at the end of the day, sincere and kind words are sincere and kind words.

Also, I would advise you not to expect anything in return, though people are probably often polite enough to send a thank-you message in return. Some people may not know how to respond to praise, and/or have anxiety over responding awkwardly (especially in the situation of a more senior researcher writing "fanmail" to a more junior researcher), so try not take it personally if you don't get any reply, or the reply takes a long time. (There are of course infinitely many other reasons someone may not respond to a "fanmail"; in any case, try not to take it personally.)

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Firstly, you have not said what the "writings" are.

I doubt if you read any particularly lucid published papers - clear research papers are not something that are usually submitted for publication owing to the space limits. Nor are they encouraged by those editors reviewing the papers. But if you have found some and they are in your own field of interest, praise the Lord, La Olam.

I think it far more likely that your much-appreciated writings would be in a text on the topic: the author has much more latitude spacewise and in regard to how they express things in a text - and most technical publishers' editors seldom interfere with a good draft.

Yes, getting a brief, measured and calm note of appreciation from a colleague is nice for those who have the gift or the determination to produce a well-written paper or text chapter. (Naturally text authors would also love to hear you say that you are recommending their work as reading material for an undergrad course you are giving . . .)

More useful would be an appreciation note with perhaps one or two suggestions. The latter need not be w.r.t. the writing but maybe on content, e.g. applications that the author may be unaware of or diagrams/photos/tables/schema that might get a concept across quicker to readers than via words.

One last thing is a certain "thought experiment" that many of us should conduct before we do something we haven't done before and we're not sure how the other party will receive it. Imagine your scenario of writing a note of appreciation for a well-written paper/book to a professor was a first scene in a TV movie . . . Now, how do you imagine the rest of the movie-story is going to pan out ?

If you find yourself moving away from mere academic communication things and into a whole new interpersonal sphere, maybe this isn't such a good idea.

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