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For me as a graduate student, there are some papers out there that really stand out among the others. Some of them are really meaningful and inspiring.

Is it polite or even acceptable emailing the authors of a paper you enjoyed reading?

Sometimes I think some people would be happy for knowing that a student got inspired about the work they did. But at the same time, I think this could be taken as a weird/spam/useless e-mail.

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    Not to mention "stalking"... – karlphillip Nov 7 '15 at 2:36
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    Wine. If the paper is mine, send wine, instead :-) – Massimo Ortolano Nov 7 '15 at 6:14
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    You will motivate authors to write more if you do this. – phys_chem_prof Nov 7 '15 at 13:23
  • Now I am tempted to thank D. Knuth for "The complexity of songs", because it picks me up whenever I doubt that I can be a serious, adult scientist. I guess I should do that. – skymningen Nov 9 '15 at 12:09
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    Data point: I recently sent such a message. It was enthusiastically received (apparently the author did not get any (positive) feedback before mine) and it started off an interesting discussion that may have affected subsequent versions of the article in positive ways. Win-win! In non-academic cases of indie-makers, I have done this more often and the feedback was always warmly received. Just don't expect an answer -- every mildly successful person is busy. – Raphael Nov 9 '15 at 13:16
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Is it polite or even acceptable emailing the authors of a paper you enjoyed reading?

Yes! Who doesn't like getting a compliment about work they did? Nobody, that's who. On the somewhat rare occasions it happened to me, I was delighted. And I don't think it matters how famous the author is -- trust me, no one in academia is so busy that they will not enjoy receiving fan mail.

The only caveat I would make to the above advice is that the email should be 100% genuine in its intent to express your admiration of the authors' paper and achieve no other purpose. Do not appear to have a hidden agenda or ulterior motive of any kind. Do not start telling the email recipient elaborate stories about yourself, ask leading questions about jobs or collaborations, etc., and for heaven's sake don't attach a CV. Keep it short. And please don't make up a technical question to have an "excuse" for sending the email -- in my opinion, aside from being dishonest, this runs the risk of coming up with a question that is clearly lame and inauthentic-sounding, which may spoil the whole effect. On the other hand, if you do have a genuine question, even a vague one like "that formula in section 3 is amazing, how did you think of it?", go ahead and ask it, but be considerate of the recipient's time, and make it clear that you would be extremely grateful for a reply but that you are not expecting one and that the recipient should feel free to ignore your email if they are too busy.

Here is an example of how I would go about phrasing such an email:

Subject: your awesome paper (no reply necessary)

Dear Prof. Goodpaper,

I hope you'll excuse this unsolicited email from a grad student. I recently read your paper "Traveling salesman optimizers in pseudo-logarithmic time". I'm writing to let you know that I was simply blown away by how good of a paper it is. Not only was it an incredibly clear and fun paper to read, but I was also really inspired by the clever ideas. In section 3, your definition of the class of problems solvable in pseudo-logarithmic time really captures the essence of the kind of algorithmic complexity that was previously studied only in a few special cases in the Jones-Truckey paper you cited. And your idea of taking the Mellin transform of the recurrence relation to get the asymptotic behavior of your TSP optimizer was also very inspiring -- I've never seen that trick anywhere, and was wondering how you came up with that idea. I'm currently working on a problem involving an asymptotic analysis in a graph connectedness problem that has a somewhat similar structure, so I'll definitely try to see if the same technique could apply.

Anyway, thank you again for the inspiration, and thank you for reading this. If you have any references to other papers you wrote or other books or papers by others on pseudo-logarithmic time problems that you think I should look at, I'd be very happy to hear about it. However, I realize you're very busy, so please do not feel obliged to send me anything or to reply to this email at all.

Sincerely,
[your name]

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    Prof. Goodpaper taught my second year algorithms course! – Reinstate Monica Nov 8 '15 at 3:12
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    FWIW if I received an email like that, my first impression of the sender would be as quite a brown-noser - decidedly not positive. But maybe I'm weird. – David Z Nov 8 '15 at 10:36
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    @DavidZ hmm, interesting. I conjecture that how you perceived such an email would depend on whether the paper you were being complimented on was good enough to deserve the praise. If it was truly an achievement that you yourself were very proud of and knew to be exceptionally good, my guess is you would understand that the compliment was genuine and would not think badly of the sender. But I could be wrong. I do agree that if the paper the student was praising you for was just an average paper, the email could come across as a bit bizarre. – Dan Romik Nov 8 '15 at 18:32
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    Your first sentence would be completely unnecessary for any of the professors I have known. It also seems to contradict the spirit of your answer. Why should a graduate student have any less right than any other researcher to email a professor? – jwg Nov 9 '15 at 8:28
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    Although I agree with the spirit of your answer, your example is in my view much too long and way over the top. Which makes me interpret the sender as a brown-noser, as David says. It should be enough to say "I just finished reading your paper and I just wanted to say that I enjoyed it a lot". – Sverre Nov 9 '15 at 9:28
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I think this would be partially a function of the fame of the author.

A minor nobody like me would be happy to hear someone is reading his work and finds it useful.

A major somebody in my field would probably experience it as pretentious spam. (Though perhaps people who are major somebodies can comment on this).

Either would probably enjoy if you had a question or two for clarification or asked for further related reading.

Of course people differ so mutatis mutandis and the answer can only be general.

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    I am a fellow 'minor nobody' and are always happy to receive the feedback! – user41783 Nov 7 '15 at 1:21
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    Also a minor nobody, love these emails when I get them. – D.Salo Nov 7 '15 at 3:01
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    Mutatis mutandis is a Medieval Latin phrase meaning "the necessary changes having been made" or "once the necessary changes have been made". – Ooker Nov 7 '15 at 5:39
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    I have written to a couple of famous academics, just to let them know I appreciated their work and was inspired by it. Both of the replies were warm and personal. It was clear they appreciated it. – mhwombat Nov 7 '15 at 17:52
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    Anyone who thinks an honest "wow, thank you for the great paper" is pretentious spam because of his own "majorness in the field" has a severely overblown ego and can stand to be taken down a notch from such rarefied heights of hauteur. – ErikE Nov 7 '15 at 19:34
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One approach is to indeed write the email, complimenting the authors on their work, but also include:

  • a mention of a specific part of the paper that truly got your attention.
  • a question or more related to the paper.

As a published author, I get emails (and letters) like this every now and then, I am very appreciative of them - but, having said that, each person is different in this regard.

Writing such a letter can provide opportunities for academic networking that could potentially benefit both parties.

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Is it acceptable to send thanks to the maker of a work that you enjoyed? Yes, totally. Note that I chose the word maker and not academic nor author. This question is far more general than you may be framing it. You're communicating, one individual to another. Furthermore, you're conveying a positive and reinforcing message. Nothing weird about it.

To be polite, keep it brief and just show your appreciation. This takes one or two sentences tops. If you have more to write, so be it, yet don't expect the recipient to read an essay. If you have a specific question, feel free to add it in. Whether or not you receive a reply depends on the time and interest level of whomever you contact.

I've sent brief messages to academics who have spoken at my university - those that have inspired me. Some were big names, some weren't. A couple shot me back a sentence that expressed their gratitude! People like feedback!

In a similar vein, you can send short messages of thanks to musicians, photographers, and even to companies! It's no different, is it?

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Yes, it is totally acceptable. I have never heard of anyone frowning upon their work being valued and appreciated.

And I, for one, would not consider an email stalking. However, just telling me what you like, is not always what I am after. I would appreciate it more if you tell me what you do not like, what you cannot agree with and why. No man is an island. I have found I come up with concepts faster working in isolation, but that input from others give me insights in developing my ideas better, because others have skills, experience and knowledge that I might lack.

Of course as long as it stays at an email . If you show up at my work or residence, then I might look at it in a totally different light.

  • "I have never heard of anyone frowning upon their work being valued and appreciated." Ever heard of J. D. Salinger? ;) – Mason Wheeler Nov 9 '15 at 20:40

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