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I am a grad student and I am reading a certain recent breakthrough paper. There is a part of the paper which is not making sense to me at all. So I wrote to one of the authors inquiring about it. But this person forwarded my email to every of the other authors! (and that includes some of the living legends in the fields!)

Why did this person do this?

Is this a scary situation to be in?

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    He did the right thing. An email about a paper (or an error in it) is something that all co-authors should know. If you were not sure about what you wrote in the email, you should not have sent it in the first place. – Alexandros Jul 21 '15 at 7:05
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    See it that way: he (when working with living legends surely not a no-one) thought that your email was worth being read by living legends in your field! Yes, that might be scary but in a good way. E.g. I was once scared too when I went to lunch with Penrose, but then I realized that he deemed my question to be worth discussing in his lunch time, hey how cool was that? – PlasmaHH Jul 21 '15 at 9:22
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    "So I wrote to one of the authors" -- which one? Especially if you are in a field where authorship order is determined by contribution, it would be odd if you emailed any but the lead/contact author, and therefore to be expected that it was forwarded to everyone else. In fact this sounds like a paper with lots of authors, so likely a number of them didn't really contribute enough to be able to answer any deep question about it. – user4512 Jul 21 '15 at 10:19
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    So you had picked the least intimidating of the authors? How should he feel about that? ;) – Carsten S Jul 21 '15 at 11:43
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    @BrianBorchers One of the authors replied back just now with detailed explanations to my inquiry! (this reply is again cc-ed to every one!) – randomgrad Jul 22 '15 at 9:57
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Why did this person do this?

There is a long list of possible reasons:

  • If something is unclear in the paper, it makes sense for the other coauthors to know in case somebody else asks the same question later.
  • The author you emailed might not have worked on that part of the paper, and thus is not able to properly address your question.
  • Or perhaps they did work on that part of the paper and simply have no idea how to answer you, and are hoping another author will be able to come up with a good response.
  • Your question might inspire one of the other authors to come up with a followup idea.
  • The other authors may want to know that somebody is reading their paper and is interested enough in it to want to ask a question.
  • Perhaps the author you emailed doesn't feel qualified to speak on behalf of the group, or doesn't want to take the chance of misrepresenting the group's opinions.
  • The other authors may have requested to be notified about any communication regarding the paper.
  • As some other answers (like keshlam's) mentioned, the author you wrote to may simply think it's an interesting question.

And so on...

Is this a scary situation to be in?

No, why would it be scary? I suppose if you feel that way, who am I to tell you your feelings are wrong... but it's a very normal thing.

In fact, as a general rule, any time you email one author of a collaborative paper about that paper, you should expect that your message will be shared with the other authors.

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    living legends are still people ;) – Qix Jul 22 '15 at 4:12
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    You should be proud of the question, – If you do not know- just GIS Jul 23 '15 at 21:25
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I don't think you should worry about it.

  1. I've not yet heard of a case in which someone forwarded a question because it was trivial and put the inquirer in CC.
  2. In my opinion, the author acknowledged that your question was not totally uninteresting by forwarding it. Most high-level academics receive many of those emails and I reckon that most of them won't get forwarded at all.
  3. Finally and most importantly: Asking questions is never stupid. It shows your interest and in the best case scenario, it also gives your counterpart some new thoughts and ideas.
  • This. The fact that it's been forwarded suggests that the reason you have found it hard to understand may lie with the paper, not with you. Good news! – Flyto Jul 22 '15 at 6:01
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According to @MassimoOrtolano suggestion, I am adding my comment as an slightly expanded answer.

Why did this person do this?

He did the right thing. An email about a paper (or an error in it) is something that all co-authors should know. If you were not sure about what you wrote in the email, you should not have sent it in the first place. Emails are permanent in the sense a) They cannot be undone, once sent b) They can be stored on someone's else PC or in his mail server for ever. In that spirit, before sending an email to someone unknown to you and inquiring about his paper or criticizing a portion of it, is something that should not be done lightly.

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Why should this be scary? It was presumably forwarded because it was an interesting or amusing question. Hopefully the former.

  • Well - if it is amusing or trivial then I guess that will have a negative impact on my career! – randomgrad Jul 21 '15 at 6:26
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    Since when is "amusing" a bad thing? – David Z Jul 21 '15 at 9:17
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    @Konrad: You said: you have to show that you can't contribute something of value. Hmm. That's not that easy actually. – user21820 Jul 21 '15 at 13:05
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    Since when are "trivial questions" a bad thing? – JeffE Jul 21 '15 at 18:53
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    @randomgrad if your question was the "amusing" type that may hurt your career (and that would take something like "how can I use your results to design a more efficient tin foil hat against the government mind control waves") I would have forwarded it, yes, but probably not keeping you in the CC. – Davidmh Jul 21 '15 at 20:38
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I can definitely understand why this may seem scary, but honestly there are many non-scary reasons that this happened.

  1. Its possible that the person you e-mailed wasn't as equipped to answer your question as another author might've been (perhaps it related more to his/her piece of the paper)

  2. It was out of courtesy. Many times co-authors will share anything and everything related to the paper as a way to maintain equal footing and understanding of all things related to the subject. This can take away the sense that "you're working without me".

  3. They in fact found your question to be very interesting or helpful to their research topic and wanted all the authors to read it. Perhaps, it was a question they hadn't ever thought about or addressed.

If they did by some very unlikely chance forward it so they could all laugh at you and make memes about the hilarious question... don't worry because they wont remember you, just the question.

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    Seconding that last paragraph. Remember, everyone asks foolish questions occasionally. If you don't ask, you can't learn or contribute. – keshlam Jul 21 '15 at 14:00
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    If they forwarded it so they could laugh at you, they wouldn't have copied you in :) – Stuart Golodetz Jul 21 '15 at 17:26
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To answer your question in a different sense, yes, this can definitely be scary! As a grad student I often got scared when talking to famous people, and I think that feeling scared is quite common and natural.

But, to repeat what everyone else said, this is at worst neutral and quite possibly very good for you. Good questions are worth a great deal in academia, and apparently your question was worth forwarding to "living legends". Congratulations!

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I have some questions about original question that might shape the answer, so I will provide a multi-branch answer:

Did the recipient CC the OP with the forward?

  • if yes, then presumably the recipient wanted one of the other authors to respond directly to the OP

  • if no, and the OP only found out they they had done so because one of the other authors replied directly, then perhaps there was a need for the authors to discuss among themselves before responding.

Did the recipient present any text in their forward, or simple just hit forward?

  • I presume this one is a no, since if they had, that text would have come back to OP and self-explained the reasoning. They probably were just busy at the time and forwarded to the group so whoever could respond first would take the task of replying. Or perhaps that's just their usual way of dealing with questions about their shared work.

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