I have just discovered that the (psychological) instrument I've been reading up on for my research team has never been, itself, published, though research into its validity and reliability etc has been; one of these research papers says in a footnote that the instrument and the manual are available from the author.

In writing the author, how should I phrase my request?

Issues I am wondering include:

  • Should I assume that he charges money for these and ask the price he charges? Should I simply ask if he would be willing to send them to me electronically, and allow him to indicate if there is a fee?
  • Is requesting soft copy vs hard copy more or less polite?
  • I don't know the author's title; he is not at an academic institution, but a government agency. Should I address him as "Dear Dr. Authorname" by default?
  • Is there anything else I should know about the etiquette of this sort of request that it might not have occurred to me to ask about?

In case it matters: what I really want is to see the instrument itself, to start. Some of the example items included in one of the research papers I read suggest they may be phrased in a way which, alas, makes the instrument inappropriate for our project, but I gather that since then the instrument has been revised. Obviously, I don't want to sink money into resources that we won't be able to use. Is asking for a review copy a thing that is done in this field?

Edited to add: Ah, we've moved! Hello, Academics.stackexchange.com! This question was migrated from CogSci.stackexchange.com, which is why it was as cryptic as several of you found it. It lacked the explanatory context you needed, because it's reasonable to assume the original audience of cognitive scientists know, e.g. what a psychological instrument is.

The answers posted here so far have been from people who have said they're unfamiliar with psychological instruments, but proceed to answer anyways. "What's the big deal? It's some sort of questionnaire, right?"

If you're not familiar with psychology and cognitive science – if you don't know what a psychological instrument is – you probably don't know about the intellectual property status of psychological instruments.

In research psychology, it is a reasonably common practice to commodify instruments. That means sell them for money. In this sense, they are less like research articles, and more like textbooks: made by academics, but sold as products.

For instance, if you want to administer the Beck Hopelessness Scale, you would need to buy the manual at $83.00, a pack of 25 forms (the actual questionnaire) at $58.00, and the scoring key at $10.50, or buy the whole package for $131.

As you can see from those prices, instruments can be big business. Publishers can be pretty fierce about protecting their intellectual property. In 2012, Pearson got the entirety of Edublogs shut down by serving a DMCA takedown notice to the Edublogs' host, because one of those 1.5 million bloggers posted the Beck Hopelessness Scale.

In other instruments-as-big-business news, there was the conflict-of-interest scandal, where the head of the APA’s DSM-5 task force, who had driven the adoption of dimensional scale measures in the DSM-5, was discovered not to have disclosed that he was involved in a business preparing to sell a computerized dimensional assessment instrument.

Contrariwise, very many instruments are made widely available, essentially for free. Usually that is done by either just including the instrument as an appendix to the article when the substantiating research is published, or it's slapped on a website somewhere (e.g.). In this era of trivial self-publishing, it struck me as a little odd that the author requires direct personal contact to source his instrument and manual, and is one of the things which makes me wonder if that is because he is selling it.

In any event, now that I've explained to you how psychological instruments are situated as intellectual property in psychology, perhaps you can see my confusion.

It may be that in asking him for a copy of the instrument and manual, I would be doing the equivalent, as I think some of the answerers to date have assumed, of asking for a copy of a research article, or data. But it also may be that asking for a copy of the instrument and manual, I am doing something much more like asking for a digital copy of a textbook, in that it may be a product priced equivalently, and as zealously guarded. I suspect that most academics here would not consider asking for a copy of a textbook a "reasonable request", but would consider it more reasonable to ask how one might buy one.

That was why I was hoping researchers in psychology would answer my question, based on their direct knowledge of the occupational-cultural norms around the "reasonableness" of requesting instruments.

  • 3
    What does it mean to "publish an instrument"? Commented May 22, 2016 at 16:18
  • 4
    What's a psychological instrument? Commented May 22, 2016 at 17:34
  • 2
    Concerning the edit: you don't need to be a researcher in psychology to know that if someone writes "X is available from Mr. Y," then it's okay to contact Mr. Y if you're interested in X. Note that my answer did not come down on either side of the question of whether you will have to pay money for the document you're asking for. The point being: whether and how much you'll have to pay is something that the person who has the document will tell you when you write to ask for it. By the way, if you're confused about occupational-cultural norms in your field, talk to your advisor. Commented May 23, 2016 at 7:12
  • Further: you seem confident that it is okay to ask for articles and not okay to ask for textbooks, but I have not perceived such a distinction in my own academic work. Articles are copyrighted just like textbooks, and their price per page is usually much higher. Some people put copies of textbooks freely online, and I have been emailed copies of textbooks from fellow academics which are not available online. I have also had academics tell me that they do not have a copy to give me...with no hard feelings whatsoever.... Commented May 23, 2016 at 7:23
  • 1
    @Codeswitcher: The site is academia.SE, not research.SE. To be honest, if you had mentioned at the beginning that you were not an academic, your question might have been closed as being off-topic. Of course you didn't come to the site either but had your question migrated here, so it's a bit of a strange situation all around. Commented May 23, 2016 at 22:54

4 Answers 4


According to this link, a "psychological instrument" is another term for a "psychological test". (So I understand now what it means to "publish the instrument".) However, usually one does not publish a test while it is being used or may be used again, and I don't see why psychological tests should be any different, so the lack of publication is not very surprising.

The rest of your question is making quite a mountain out of a molehill. According to Mr. So-and-so, the test is available if you write to him. So write to him and ask for the test. Just for peace of mind, let me quickly address your concerns:

1) No, you don't need to do either of those things. Just ask for a copy.

2) No. If one version is preferable, you can ask for it. Just make clear you'll be happy either way.

3) It really doesn't matter that much. If you care, you might try googling the name to see if you can find out whether he has a doctoral degree. If you don't know, then since you ask, for me in academic correspondence I tend to assume that the correspondent has a PhD until they tell me otherwise. But it is no big deal.

4) Just don't be weird. The entire request shouldn't take more than five lines.

  • Yeah, this: you politely ask askfor this the same way you'd politely ask for pretty much anything else. Just introduce yourself briefly and cite the paper with the offer and ask.
    – The Nate
    Commented May 22, 2016 at 18:14

I do hope this psychological instrument detects how likely someone is to over-think an e-mail ;)

  • Don't call people Dr if you don't know they are a Dr. This goes or Mr, Mrs, Lord, Lady, Your Majesty, Mother of Dragons, etc.

  • A request is impolite if it is unreasonable. If you don't know what is more reasonable, a hard copy or a soft copy, just ask for "a copy".

  • Do not assume this person wants money. Assumptions can be offensive, even if correct. Leave it up to them to stipulate the conditions of use. If they do want money, you'll be in a better bargaining position anyway if you come from a position of not expecting to have to pay anything.

If this person is a non-academic, they will probably be excited that their work is still being put to use by academics. My advice would be to write this e-mail from an abundance philosophy rather than a scarcity philosophy which is the impression I get based on your listed concerns. Just relax!

  • There is a reasonable possibility that a governmental employee created something that is public domain to citizens.
    – The Nate
    Commented May 22, 2016 at 18:00
  • 1
    One point I disagree with: "Don't call people Dr if you don't know they are a Dr". It has a good chance of coming of as impolite if you go with Mr/Ms. Going with Dr is usually a safe bet. Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 21:04
  • It's a fair point, because yes it's awkward when you write Mr. and they reply with "actually i'm a Dr." -- but it's more awkward in my experience when you say "Dr." and they reply "i'm not a Dr. i'm just a Mr". It... sets a tone of this other person not meeting your expectations, rather than being better than you thought. But you're right, it's ultimately personal preference. Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 13:10

I'm no psychologist (but from another quantitative social science). But I am very sure that your request is not unreasonable at all. In fact, to the opposite: not sharing the instrument with a fellow researcher would border academic misconduct, I think. Just think of the recent scandals in the field of social-psychology (Stapel, Förster, ...): In these cases, the researchers were unable to produce their data - and were in the end declared guilty of fraud. Sharing an instrument is the least one can do.

Given the fact that an instrument is basically just a text document, and the only reason why it is not published is often a lack of space (though this is a weird argument in times of online appendices), there is no reason for the researcher not to share it with you. In fact, it is in their own interest, as it generates citations.


Here is for your inspiration:

Dear Dr./Mr./Ms./...,

recently I was reading your paper "..." in Journal. I am very curious about the unpublished ... Test that you used in some of the described experiments, as I am currently planning a study and am looking for a test like that. So I was wondering if you could provide me with the task material and allow me use that test for an experiment on ...? In that experiment I plan to .... Please let me know if there is a chance to use that test. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards, ...

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