I'm currently an undergrad student and have found a recent paper, published in Nature a few days ago, that represents a huge breakthrough in its field (I'm active in that area, so I'm aware of it), but has barely been reported elsewhere.

One of my professors is doing research in a related, but not the same area. I was thinking of sending him a short email along the lines of "It seemed like this might be of interest to you, so just for your information: There has been a breakthrough in [area] recently, published at [link to Nature online], in which ..." and one or two sentences about the content.

It is nothing that requires a lot of thought to understand, and the fact that it happened at all is more important than the details. One can easily understand most of it from the abstract.

Would such an email generally be considered more of an annoyance, or acceptable?

Update: Thank you all for your helpful answers and also the many interesting comments. I have sent him an email and received a short reply.

  • 12
    Be careful that this "breakthrough" is real. Nature has a habit of reporting shaky claims that nonetheless sound intriguing, substituting enthusiasm for quality. So for instance in my field we ignore Nature articles as probably wrong. Your field may vary.
    – user4512
    Jan 27, 2016 at 21:48
  • 32
    I would modify the wording slightly in the direction of "Just in case you have not already seen this....". I don't think you should assume the professor is unaware of developments in his field. Jan 28, 2016 at 0:20
  • 1
    Sounds like the deepmind go paper. ;-) Just don't wait for too long otherwise he will surely have heard of it already. Jan 28, 2016 at 9:26
  • @BlindKungFuMaster Indeed. I gather my perception was correct in this case, then :) I will heed the good advise of user Chris White though.
    – mafu
    Jan 28, 2016 at 11:15
  • 2
    Treat a professor like anyone else - this email is an attempt to be helpful and would not be an annoyance. Just be somewhat aware of your tone - if you do not know the professor as well, you don't want to be overly-familiar. Jan 28, 2016 at 17:18

3 Answers 3


Yes, send it. We all like to get links to papers we might have missed. I would leave out the "breakthrough" part. He may have seen it (or even reviewed it), but there is no harm in sending it along to either him or his entire research group.

  • 11
    In general, I'd expect a positive reaction from a professor to a student who is reading cutting edge papers in related fields, with the wisdom to see where things are actually related.
    – corsiKa
    Jan 27, 2016 at 23:43
  • 11
    E-mailing the whole research group seems excessive to me, especially since there are chances that they already know it. Jan 28, 2016 at 7:22

In the absolute worst case scenario I can imagine the professor's response could be:

"who's this little upstart sending me papers in my own field? I know very well what's going on!"

Of course this is worst case, I would never expect this to happen... but it might. If you wanted cover all your bases and minimise your chances of appearing like a "little upstart" (this is probably only a tiny chance to begin with), you can always phrase your email as requesting an opinion:

"I came across this paper, I wonder what your thoughts are?" or "what do you think the implications of this paper could be?"

It's an especially useful tactic if you are cold-calling.

  • 36
    No! You are changing an attempt to be helpful into something the supervisor needs to do.
    – StrongBad
    Jan 27, 2016 at 23:43
  • 1
    True, but I wouldn't say "needs to do". They might respond, they might not, but either way it paints the sender as a conscientious student who is taking some initiative, while avoiding making the student look like they are presuming anything about the professor.
    – Bamboo
    Jan 28, 2016 at 0:21
  • 7
    I agree with @StrongBad, offering information is fundamentally different than requesting that someone analyse information and give an opinion on it. It's irrational to expect that someone would get offended that you didn't expect them to have read something, if anything include a question like "have you seen this research?" that can be responded to (ie, not ignored) without increasing the professor's workload.
    – sig_seg_v
    Jan 28, 2016 at 6:21

[EDIT: due to an interesting mix of positive and negative reactions, I have provided additional context, mainly for robot readers. I am not against emails, but sometimes words can be more efficient, see at the end]

Providing useful information to others is a great quality. It shows you care. To know that you have provided useful information to a person requires feeback. Feedback is an central concept in biology. A good information "should" be provided to the right person, at a right time, with an appropriate medium.

In our time of email avalanche (I get about 20 emails a day with a link to read "for my information"), may I suggest you to do something less virtual:

  1. print the paper, read it carefully, pick an important piece of information so that you can talk about it easily
  2. when you meet your professor (at the end of a lecture, dropping by his office), ask whether she/he has 5 minutes to talk about a paper you have found
  3. convey your information: "I read that... and thought this paper was in your scope of interest". If the professor seems interested, and did not read it, or only browsed it fast (as I do most of the time when someone only send me an email with pdf link withoout more context), offer him/her the "physical" paper if interested.
  4. if your professor does not have time, do not insist. You have proposed something, now it is up to the professor for the next move.

You may have a more direct feedback than with an email lost in a mailbox.

A final personal note, from a fellow PhD, a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. When he wrote a email to his advisor, and the advisor found the mail too long, too complicated for the purpose, he replied with 6 letters:PLSSPK. Meaning: "please, speak".

  • 25
    I disagree with this answer. As a professor, I would vastly prefer that someone point me via email to a recent paper I might be interested in than scheduling a meeting to discuss it with me. First of all, that scheduling requires an email. Second, 5 minutes is never 5 minutes. Third, is the point of this to inform me of developments in the field or to impress me with the student's insights? Jan 27, 2016 at 21:57
  • 4
    Wow, I am shocked by the negative reaction to this answer. Exactly why does the university bother to have a physical campus if this is the prevailing attitude/practice? Isn’t live in-person collegial student-professor interaction one of the primary purposes to a university? Jan 28, 2016 at 6:40
  • 1
    @Raghu Parthasarathy as a professor and an advisor, I like to give credit to people, but also provide directions. I am glad I do not need an email schedule to talk with humans ("that scheduling requires an email"). I am glad when someone (a student, a colleague) drop by my office to give me an information. It means to me it is important enough to the person to move his **s from a chair. Then, if the information is known to me, or weak, I can explain face to face why, and how I would like to interact in the future: "this is outside the scope, but this other domain is interesting to me". Jan 28, 2016 at 6:50
  • @Basil Bourque I am surprised as well, and your support means to me. I believe this reaction is an interesting sign of times, and will add some details later this evening. Now I have to go to work, and talk to human colleagues (including my present PhD student) Jan 28, 2016 at 6:53
  • 1
    @Larent Duval, and others: Thanks for the comments. I realize I sound grumpy. A point of clarification. I encourage students who I'm working with in my lab, undergrads and graduate students, to come and drop in, in person, which they do quite a lot of. I do the same and we spend lots of unscheduled time in face-to-face interactions. I would love to extend this to the 60 students in the class I teach, or to any student at the University, rather than asking that they come to scheduled office hours or arrange times to meet, but if I did this, it would be disastrous for me, my lab, and my class. Jan 28, 2016 at 15:44

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