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I'm a PhD student in pure maths at a university in Europe. For reasons that I won't go into, my research interests do not coincide with my supervisor's ones. This means that, although she gives me good general advice, she can't give me more "technical" feedback on my work. I've now written a complete first draft of my first paper, and I'd like to get some external feedback before thinking of submitting it to a journal. My question is:

What is the best way to approach the experts in my field (for whom I am a complete stranger) to politely ask if they can read my paper and give some feedback on it?

Emailing, of course, would be the preferred means of communication, so suggestions on how to structure a potential email to send to the experts are very welcomed.

  • Would you consider arXiv? – Megadeth Jan 17 '15 at 10:59
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    Isn't there any expert in your field in your Department? The best approach would be probably that of approaching them and, possibly, agree with your advisor to have a co-advisor. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 17 '15 at 11:00
  • @Chou I'd rather not post my draft publicly for now. Also, I don't like the fact that, once in Arxiv, you cannot really retract your paper. – user27937 Jan 17 '15 at 11:12
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    Did you try asking your supervisor if she (or perhaps someone else in the department) can put you in contact with an expert? Hopefully she at least knows someone in your general area. – Kimball Jan 17 '15 at 11:44
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    It's not frowned upon, but faculty are quite busy and get lots of various requests from people we don't know or barely know. So if you just contact a random person out of the blue, they may or may not give your paper a serious look (which could be a significant time investment depending on the paper). That's why it's better to have an introduction. – Kimball Jan 17 '15 at 12:14
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What is the best way to approach the experts in my field (for whom I am a complete stranger) to politely ask if they can read my paper and give some feedback on it?

For a student who is not very senior -- let's say "very senior" means they already have a draft of their thesis -- I think that (probably: as usual on this site, a literal universal quantifier will get me in trouble) the best way to do this is with your advisor as an intermediary.

Don't misunderstand: you ask whether it is frowned upon for you to directly contact experts and ask for feedback and the answer is a resounding no: you can contact whomever you wish, and they may or may not respond. However, they are much more likely to respond -- and to respond more deeply and usefully -- to someone that they already know, at least by reputation, especially if that person is at roughly their level of seniority (and, yes, even more if that person is more senior).

When I was a PhD student, I didn't have the best luck "cold-contacting" people. I remember in particular trying to contact one guy who was a former student of my advisor and whose thesis I was reading. He was a professor in New York but he didn't have a webpage. I left a longish, awkwardish phone message for him at one point and never heard back from him. (Did he even get the message? Who knows??) I emailed a famous French mathematician and did hear back from him....four months later, which is like forever when you're in your 20s. I was so clueless back then: if I had been serious about it, I would have gone through my advisor, and they would have responded. Well, of course I knew that intellectually, but still somehow decided that it would be better if I did it on my own. (There were a lot of things that I did and didn't do as a graduate student that were directly motivated both by a desire for independence -- good -- and a lack of confidence -- bad -- intertwined in such a complicated way that it is hard for me to pull them apart even now.) It's not that people don't want to be helpful. It's that their time is at such a premium that they have to prioritize helping people that they already know.

If your advisor cannot direct you to those who have the research expertise you need, then I would say that she is not really your advisor and you need to find someone else who can fulfill that role.

Anyway:

1) As others have suggested, if you have completed drafts of papers -- even if not in as polished a form as you would want in order to submit to a journal -- then putting them on the arxiv is a great idea. You'll get some small (in most cases) positive (in my experience) number of "cold emails" just from them, and these can be priceless: in my case, more than once I got connected with the one other person on the planet who really deeply understood and cared about what I was doing.

2) A lot of times you will still send an email. It's just that your advisor will have greased the wheels for you by ensuring the recipient's, um, receptivity in advance. Let me give a little advice on that:

  • Introduce yourself politely but don't make a big deal out of it.

You don't need to be overly obsequious or solicitous about their personal life and such. Something like "Dear Professor X, Hello there. I am a student at University A working on Subject B. Though we have not corresponded before, I think you know my advisor, Professor Y. She encouraged me to contact you about my work on C." That's plenty of introduction; you could get away with less.

  • Try to write an initial email that the recipient can and will read completely as soon as they open it.

Thus you want it to be quite short, but not so short that it doesn't say anything.

  • Don't describe your work at length in the email. Instead, include files (of a reasonable length) and/or links to files or webpages. (If you have a webpage, you should put a link to it somewhere in your email!)

  • Make a clear request. Better: ask a math question.

If you include a 30 page paper and say "I'd be grateful for any comments you have": well, that's the sort of thing that I do to my good friends, and when I run into them the following year they politely apologize for not having finished it. Mathematicians like questions and -- here's a little psychological secret -- seem to regard a question mark as being much more compulsory of some sort of answer than most other people. (I am always amazed at how I can have a phone conversation or an email exchange with some non-academic type, ask a question, and their response completely ignores the fact that I asked them anything. To my eyes that is some kind of Jedi mind trick.) If you want to know whether X is true, ask them directly and right away whether X is true.

In fact, if you're not clear enough about what you want, it could go wrong in the other direction: some samaritan savant could reply with several typed pages that answer your question all too well and leave you without a thesis problem. (This is another good reason for getting help from your advisor.)

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Generally it's considered okay to e-mail researchers who you don't know and share your work with them. This is especially true if you are a student.

Be conservative about it -- pick only a few people whose research interests align closely with the paper you're writing. (For example, whose work are you citing?) Don't e-mail famous people just because they're famous.

That said, I think that asking for detailed feedback might be seen as presumptuous. Rather, just tell them that you would like to share your work with them, describe it very briefly, and say something like "If you have any comments I would be grateful to hear them."

Probably most people will ignore your message. (They have no obligation whatsoever to read your message or respond.) Maybe one or two will write back with general feedback or suggestions, and if you are very lucky you might get some detailed feedback. What you might realistically hope for is a response along the lines of "Thanks, this looks interesting, you might be interested in X, Y, and Z" which at least gives you some related works to check out.

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Asking just for feedback on a specific paper is not, I think, a good approach. It would be definitely better to set up a collaboration, which can become a long-standing one and which can be more rewarding for both parties.

Many PhD programs in Europe allow, and sometimes require, students to spend a period abroad. If your PhD program allows this and your advisor agrees, you can think of searching a research group working in your favourite field and spending from a few weeks to a few months or a year with them. You can then discuss your paper directly with them and possibly you can think of new works to be done in collaboration.

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  • Although setting up collaborations in general is a good strategy towards building up a strong career, setting up a formal collaboration or spending time abroad every time one has a doubt regarding a paper does not seem practical to me. Once you publish a paper (i.e. make it public) you are subjected to public scrutiny. That's where the concept of "corresponding author" comes into play, that is a person the readership should contact in case they have an enquiry - of course this person is not obliged to reply, although I personally consider it my ethical duty to do so upon reasobable requests. – Miguel Jan 17 '15 at 21:27
  • @Miguel, your comment apply to a situation which is different from that described by the op, who wants feedback about a not yet published article of his. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 18 '15 at 15:54
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I will add my answer in the form of two examples coming from experience, given that there are already other answers that might be more generally useful.

The first example is regarding how I (a non famous recently graduated postdoc) handle this kind of enquiries. From my perspective, interaction with people interested in my work leads to, besides learning more about what I do, a potential gain in citations and contacts. Both are vital to me at this early stage in my career. I therefore tend to be very keen to address emails promptly and in detail, given they are reasonable (i.e. discard spam article invitations and random applications immediately).

For the other example I'm at the opposite side of the rope, contacting other people regarding my interest in their work. Here are three cases with different outcomes:

  • If it's regarding a specific paper I try contacting the corresponding author (that's the purpose of it after all!). Once I contacted a famous guy this way who failed to produce any response at all.

  • After changing topics, a world leading author in my new area happened to be a former collaborator of my PhD supervisor, so I got the latter to "introduce" me to the other, which was done in the form of a phone call between the two followed by an email by me. The expert replied politely but very briefly, clearly shutting down any door to further interaction - he was clearly not interested.

  • A more successful story is with regards to contacting a guy on a paper he had coauthored with a quite famous guy. After I didn't get a reply from him I tried with the famous dude, who did not only reply but also copied the less famous guy thus triggering his reaction and cooperation.

In every case I was very polite and as brief as possible in my emails.

The bottom line is that getting a reply from different people will vary depending on practical matters such as how busy they are, but will also wildly depend on their personal character. To increase your chances always try clear polite emails directly to the point, hope you get a reply but don't expect too much.

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