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I'm an undergraduate from a non-academic background.

I have a personal interest in researching about some ethnic minorities, and came across a Routledge Handbook that focuses on that topic.

The author of the article in question seems to repeatedly use language that implies genocide denial, victim blaming and minimization of oppressive policies. I'm not sure if this matters, but the author belongs to the ethnic group that keeps systemically oppressing this minority.

This professor wrote this article in 2019 and lives in a different country.

Is it an acceptable practice for random people to write to professors they have no connection to about material they've written? My intent isn't necessarily to criticize the author, but rather to question them about the claims they've made and ask for clarifications.

Alternatively, I would contact the editor/coordinator of the handbook instead. Are any of these options acceptable?

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    Be aware that you are asking them for a favor. Make your question as precise, succinct, and easy to answer as possible. Might be a good time to review the various "how to ask a good question" essays on the Internet.
    – keshlam
    Mar 22 at 20:58
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    You might explain a bit more about why you believe they might not be acceptable. Mar 23 at 3:23
  • Remember you can also make questions about academic writings in public and anonymously on PubPeer
    – sourcream
    Mar 31 at 10:45

8 Answers 8

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First, 2019 isn't that long ago. When I read your title I was thinking it was an article from 20 or 30 years ago.

But, to answer your question, I think it depends on "acceptable to whom?" I mean, you are exploring a personal interest, and it's not breaking any laws to send an e-mail, it's not even breaking any norms. Is it acceptable to your recipient? Maybe not. But what's the worst they will do? Probably ignore you.

OTOH, is it going to be useful to you to write to him? If they wrote what you said, then I can pretty much guarantee they get tons of angry e-mail (and maybe worse). They probably routinely ignore it. They might even have a rule set up on their e-mail that automatically deletes a lot.

So, if you really want to engage in some sort of dialogue with the author, then I'd word my e-mail very carefully to try to make it as friendly as possible. It still might get ignored.

Writing the editor of the handbook might be more likely to be productive. It depends how tight the editing was. In some of these, the editor basically just collects things, maybe checks the grammar and spelling, and publishes. In others, they take much more interest. What were the other articles in the handbook like?

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If someone puts out something into public view, they can expect to be contacted about it from time to time, though depending on the contents, being contacted might be a very rare occurrence.

In your case, you want to disagree with the professor, which you are free to do in many different forms. Direct contact is fine, but you might not get an answer. Talking to the editor begs the question what you want to achieve. The editor usually does not have any additional information.

So, go ahead, but do not have high hopes that something good will come out of it.

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I think that all of the options are acceptable. Whether or not the recipient replies is a matter for them to choose (I like to assume that the authors are adults with free will) ... as is whether or not they even read your email.

I frequently receive queries about papers that I have written, and in most instances, I reply. Similarly, I frequently write to other authors ... most recently about a paper that was published in 1992 (I wasn't even sure that I had contacted the correct person given the elapse of time!)

I don't always get a reply, but I do on the majority of occasions and I have never received a reply that suggested that it was somehow improper to write. In fact, I find it difficult to see how it could be improper. It is worth adding that, while I frequently ask questions about the methods used, or conclusions drawn, in a paper, I never ask questions to which I could find the answer from another source or by updating my own general knowledge of the area. In other words, my questions are only ever about things that only one of the paper's authors could possibly answer.

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Is it an acceptable practice for random people to write to professors they have no connection to about material they've written?

Absolutely (though beware that your email might easily get lost in a spam filter, or the professor might delay responding and eventually forget about it, or any of a number of other things might happen). However:

The author of the article in question seems to repeatedly use language that implies genocide denial, victim blaming and minimization of oppressive policies.

[...]

Is it an acceptable practice for random people to write to professors they have no connection to about material they've written? My intent isn't necessarily to criticize the author, but rather to question them about the claims they've made and ask for clarifications.

It strikes me as unlikely that they would wish to be drawn into some protracted political discussion, however well-intentioned, with a random person over email. And if they do, it seems even less likely that this would lead to a productive outcome for either side. Note that while you might know that you are a reasonable person who can take a hint if the professor indicates a lack of interest in pursuing the discussion further, the professor does not know that. For all they know, you might be the kind of person who will keep pestering them with their political opinions even after they have indicated that this is unwelcome. It may be quite difficult for you to overcome this suspicion.

Besides, what are you hoping to achieve with this? You say that you want to ask for clarification. If you are fully honest with yourself, is it genuinely unclear to you why the author takes the opinions they take, or is this more of an attempt to get them to see the error of their ways? Even if it's the former rather than the latter, good luck convincing the professor about that.

Alternatively, I would contact the editor/coordinator of the handbook instead. Are any of these options acceptable?

Saying what and hoping to achieve what? If your goal is to get the paper retracted, you need some support from some group of people who know how publishing works and who are invested in this particular political issue. If your goal is not to get the paper retracted, what exactly are you hoping of achieve as a result of contacting the editor? Editors are not responsible for explaining why the author wrote what they wrote.

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It is not just acceptable, it is desirable. Academia is all about the pursuit of truth and knowledge, and the ability of any “random” person to contact any academic with a question about the academic’s work is one of the core strengths that help make academia the powerful truth-seeking machine that it is. When people of different backgrounds communicate openly and respectfully to share their knowledge and perspectives, great things often happen.

Conversely, groups of people who isolate themselves from the thoughts and opinions of others in the wider world, claiming to possess some special wisdom that only they, an anointed few, understand and have access to, are doomed to stagnate and become irrelevant.

In other words, I’m going to disagree with @ThomasSchwarz, who wrote in his answer:

So, go ahead, but do not have high hopes that something good will come out of it.

I would argue instead that the correct answer should be: So, go ahead, and hopefully something good will come out of it!

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When you say "language that implies" X, can you point at where in the article where X manifests itself? Also, by stating the "author belongs to the ethnic group that keeps systemically oppressing this minority," you are not only drawing conclusions on this author specifically but also pigeonholing an entire ethnic group.

Go back to the article. Identify what you consider inconsistent with an article in that field, or discrepancies that could have been attributed to incomplete research. And then ask yourself how can you help address those. And then you can consider starting with something like

I am a student at Y and recently came upon your article. While I enjoyed reading it -- anything that causes my mind to work overtime pleases me -- I noticed some small points I would appreciate some clarification.

Work from the factual side, not the opinion one. For inspiration, lookup how Zhang Chongren contacted and then helped Hergé write/improve The Blue Lotus.

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I have written professors a couple of times with questions about things I read in preprints... I got answers a couple of times. Sometimes they were questions I maybe should have already known the answer to and sometimes they were questions already answered in research but not something I could have easily found or should have known. Thanks to those professors. I think it was reasonably polite. No citation or further collaboration was needed, because the questions didn't result in research, but if they had, perhaps it would have been polite to include the person I emailed in some form (even if only in a citation or acknowledgement).

I don't see any reason not to email someone if it's friendly, kind, and well thought through, but in this case it seems not quite friendly, and I am not sure it will help your career or theirs, or either of your moods, or your cause.

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Part1 - Personal experience

I did this once for my final project of graduate school, where I had to report on a paper. I was praised by my instructor/supervisor that I got a reply from the author of a paper.

The issue was that there was some unclear thing in the paper. I asked both author & my instructor, who was unsure, but my instructor & I had the same interpretation. Later I got a reply from the author who corrected our interpretation! I proposed a precise way of wording what the author said and then the author told me

You would have been a good reviewer. Your comments could have improved the readability of the paper (and avoided any misinterpretations)

Part2 - My own thoughts + Terry Tao

Anyhoo, I'm kinda the opposite end of the spectrum of you. I never had reservations of doing anything like these. I even email like sports players or youtubers & authors of fiction or non-fiction books. I thought they'd like getting inquiries because it implies they're being read.

Terry Tao:

When you write a paper by yourself you know there's always somehow the nagging fear at the back of your mind that maybe you know no one will care about this.

Part3 - Wait...

Or well maybe this a thing formal and natural sciences (usually only a few answers for one question) and the social sciences (usually many answers for one question). If it's some political issue and then you're messaging, then it's 1 of those fields of study that has 'opinions', so Idk maybe something's up there. But mathematics isn't like 'pro-Riemann hypothesis is racism.'

Part4 - Connection

As for

they have no connection to

Depends what you mean by connection. You have common interest. That might be a connection.

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