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I was wondering what kind of correspondance should one have with persons denominated as corresponding authors ?

Let's assume one was reading through a paper and did not understand a specific point. Is that a reason to mail the corresponding author ?

I've read through the different answers that it is in general the main contributor of the work. So, what are the reasons one can encounter being sufficient to make contact ?

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    Related question: Does "corresponding author" carry an implied meaning? – scaaahu Jun 1 '16 at 11:26
  • @scaaahu Thank you for your suggestion. I've read the post. My question isn't about why one is a corresponding author, but rather about what a corresponding author should address ? – Blue_Elephant Jun 1 '16 at 11:35
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    All correspondence regarding the paper should go to the corresponding author. If you should contact them with requests for clarification is a judgment call. If you are a student not understanding it, you should probably first discuss it with your supervisor. If you are an experienced scientist and believe that there is insufficient information or even an error asking them would be appropriate. However, most correspondence you receive as the corresponding author is usually with the journal (and spam from other journals and conferences). – Roland Jun 1 '16 at 12:11
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    most correspondence you receive as the corresponding author is usually with the journal (and spam from other journals and conferences) That pretty much answers my question. – Blue_Elephant Jun 2 '16 at 8:24
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All correspondence regarding the paper should go to the corresponding author (with very few exceptions).

If you should contact them with requests for clarification is a judgment call. If you are a student not understanding it, you should probably first discuss it with your supervisor. If you are an experienced scientist and believe that there is insufficient information or even an error, asking them would be appropriate.

Me and my colleagues have also (successfully) contacted corresponding authors with requests for access to data for a meta analysis or to invite them to a workshop (all expenses paid).

So there are a number of legitimate reasons to contact a corresponding author. That's why the contact data is given in the manuscript.

However, from the perspective of a corresponding author, most correspondence you receive is usually with the journal (and spam from other journals and conferences).

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In my experience (from an HCI-related CS subfield), the only messages that go specifically to the corresponding author are the ones related to organisational aspects during the publishing process.

All questions about the content will rather be sent to all authors (in the vague hope that at least one of them is still reachable by means of the indicated e-mail address).

This experience (from talking to other researchers and receiving enquiries myself) fits with some additional observations:

  • The corresponding author flag can usually be set in the submission system, normally at the time of manuscript submission. It is not necessarily visible to readers of the paper.1
  • Accordingly, requests for formatting changes are sometimes sent only to the authors marked as corresponding authors.
  • Also accordingly, as such technical details are often dealt with by the more junior researchers among the authors, it is likely the corresponding author is not in a permanent position yet, so they might not be reachable at the indicated address for much longer, just about long enough to complete the publication process.
  • I have come across copyright forms that required the corresponding author to sign as a representative of all involved authors. Hence, the corresponding author in such cases will be the author who happens do complete the manual steps of submission, not necessarily an author who will be available for questions about the content of the paper in the future.

With this background, as a direct recommendation in response to the question, I would suggest to e-mail all authors for any questions of understanding. Do make sure they know they have all been e-mailed, though, as this allows them to agree who will answer (if they are still in touch) rather than wasting time by each of them writing essentially the same answer. For this purpose, simply put all of them into the recipient field of the same e-mail without hiding the other recipients.

1: And frankly, I usually do not remember who was the corresponding author in any given paper of mine for long after publication.

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I don't know how it is in other fields, but in Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science, any questions pertaining to the paper should be addressed to the corresponding author, that is if you don't have particular reasons for contacting any of the other authors.

And whether you should contact the corresponding author depends on many things. If there is no other way, or if it is, e.g., much more invloved, to get an answer to your question, then yes, contact the corresponding author. However, if the information is easily available out there, then perhaps you will just be wasting the time of the corresponding author.

If you are fairly certain you've found an error in the paper, then I believe you should definitely try to get in touch with the corresponding author.

Also, be prepared to not get a reply. Corresponding authors are often too busy.

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As corresponding author, I have had people contact me for a few reasons:

  1. Much the most common has been to request a PDF copy of the paper.
  2. Twice, someone has contacted me to tell me about a potential error or something they didn't understand.
  3. A couple of times, people have contacted me to tell me how much they enjoyed and appreciated the paper - this was great to hear!

I have contacted authors myself for reasons 2 & 3 and also:

  1. To ask whether they wanted to collaborate on a project that I had good reason to think they'd be interested in, given their work
  2. To ask for more information (data behind published figures, details of methods that weren't fully described, or whether they'd be willing to share their code or database).
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It's not uncommon for the corresponding author not to be the first¹/major author. This is especailly true if the paper was written by a postgrad or even a postdoc close to the end of a contract -- the supervising/most permanent author may be a better point of contact.

There's "did not understand" and "did not understand". Only you can judge (having worked through the refernces and possibly with the aid of more experienced colleagues) whether you couldn't understand because of a gap in the paper, or a gap in your knowledge. Only in the former case is it generally worth contacting the author.

¹Assuming author order matters.

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