81

It has happened on several occasion now, that I read a paper, understand 95% of it, but there are some niggling details which I simply don't get. I ask around, I ask my advisor, and nobody is able to help (either because they don't get it themselves or they are too busy, which is completely understandable).

I have often felt like simply writing to the author of the paper, asking clarifying questions. But these are all busy people, currently on the job market, interviewing everywhere. And another thing is they also know my (rather famous) advisor pretty well.

Would it be weird to write to them? If so, should I mention my advisor at all? I don't want to put my advisor in an awkward situation, at the same time I don't want to seem like I'm hiding some information.

I am just not comfortable asking such a stupid question to my advisor, hence asking here. Thanks so much!

  • 14
    During the course of my masters I wrote to a couple of authors asking for a little more guidance when my supervisor wasn't sure. No body reacted poorly. Despite my being so junior, they both seem happy to explain things. – Clumsy cat May 7 '17 at 9:54
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    It's perfectly appropriate and, if you were asking me about my paper I would actually be extremely happy to know people are reading my work, and they found it interesting enough to dig further into the details. – Miguel May 7 '17 at 14:32
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    Incidentally, it's worth pointing out the increasing use of stackexchange-style websites - e.g. I've frequently used mathoverflow or math.stackexchange to help me resolve a technical problem in a paper I"m reading or similar. One advantage of this approach is that you aren't even implicitly impinging on anyone's time, you're simply putting the question "out there" and hopefully someone answers it. This is not to say that you shouldn't email the author (although of course you should do so very politely, and only after putting forth a good-faith effort on your own), but it's worth knowing about. – Noah Schweber May 7 '17 at 22:07
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    I always thought this is what corresponding authors are ultimately for? – skymningen May 8 '17 at 6:41
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    The fact that people are actually thinking about such stuff is telling. Doing research without asking the people who had ideas just because of some reputation garbage is the worst thing that can ever happen to a scientific community. If you really think you could upset your advisor by this, he's probably more interested in his reputation than your knowledge. Hence, you should probably look for a more stimulating position elsewhere. – image May 8 '17 at 13:07
89

As a professor, I've received many emails from graduate students at other institutions over the years asking me questions about my research. Not once has any of the following thoughts ever crossed my mind following such an email:

  1. This student is doing something "inappropriate" by contacting me at my publicly listed email address.

  2. This student is "stupid" or is asking a "stupid question".

  3. Oh, this student mentioned their famous advisor. Their ignorance reflects poorly on their advisor. I will make sure to complain to the advisor the next time I see them.

  4. Oh, this student didn't mention their advisor. Something's fishy here. I need to know who their advisor is, and preferably know it's someone famous who can help me in my career, before I dignify their email with a reply.

  5. Etc etc, i.e. any other bad thought that suggests the student has crossed some invisible line separating lowlifes like them from (supposedly) important, powerful people like me.

Instead, here is a sampling of ways I actually react when I receive such an email:

  1. Oh, how nice. Someone at [name of cool university] is thinking about [name of my paper]!

  2. Oh, how nice. A student of [name of famous advisor I am friends with] is thinking about [name of my paper]!

  3. Oh, how nice. This student pointed out a weak point in the presentation of one of my proofs. I hadn't thought of the question that way, it's quite interesting! Seems like a smart student, would be nice to meet them some day.

  4. Hmm, I'm kind of busy with lots of other things so this email stresses me out a bit. Oh well, I'll find time to reply to it some time in the next few days. In the meantime, how nice that someone is taking an interest in my paper and has interesting things to ask/say about it.

As you can see from these two lists, basically the whole premise assumed in your question about the mindset of a professor receiving an email of the type you are thinking of sending is deeply misguided. Professors (the vast majority of them at least) are simply nothing like the scary, classist, pretentious, easily offended, thin-skinned people that a lot of students and other people seem to think they are. They are busy, yes, but the main thing that makes them so busy is that they are passionate about their work and usually cannot pass on an opportunity to discuss it with someone, regardless of their academic rank. So, good luck sending your emails! I'm sure you will be pleasantly surprised by the replies you get. :-)

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    Yes. So many of us walk around with an inferiority complex, afraid that if we ask a "dumb" question, we will suddenly be exposed as the "sham researchers" we feel we are. This perception is false. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it ought to be a normal part of research. – Steven Bell May 8 '17 at 18:23
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    Just about every time I've contacted someone to ask about their research they've been delighted to learn of my interest in it. Not coincidentally, this is basically my reaction whenever someone contacts me about my work. :-) – hBy2Py May 8 '17 at 20:10
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    Excellent answer, thank you. My wife, when preparing her MSc, contacted the authors of a paper and they were so glad that someone is actually reading that they not only responded, but pointed out interesting ramifications and provided a copy of their software so that she can test hers. They ended up, years later, to write a few papers together after her PhD. Ah, and the jury highlighted the fact that she went the extra mile to contact the authors (during her MSc defense) – WoJ May 9 '17 at 18:04
73

I think it's perfectly fine. They publish their research because they want other researchers to know about it. Maybe they will ignore your question, or maybe they will answer - in any case, it's not weird.

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    I'd add: Just make it visible that you've already made an effort to understand the paper. – Helen May 7 '17 at 13:17
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    And, for bonus points, write the email in a way that offers them a guilt-free way out if they are too busy to respond in depth. – E.P. May 7 '17 at 15:04
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    @E.P. Yes, for example suggesting one is open to being redirected to some other resource (e.g. paper, textbook) in the e-mail would make it more likely the author would give some response, if not able to answer fully. – JNS May 8 '17 at 11:48
56

If you are worried about making your advisor look like an idiot, I would ask him/her the question first. If they cannot answer it or they do not have the time, then, by all means, reach out to the corresponding author of the paper in question.

More importantly, you shouldn't let your advisor's popularity get in the way of you doing great research, so don't do that.

  • 3
    Just because the advisor cannot answer, he may still appear as an idiot to authors of paper – innisfree May 7 '17 at 8:52
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    You don't need to mention upfront that your advisor can not answer. That would ease the "make him look like an idiot" part. However, if the question is answerable, I would be more worried about your advisor looking lazy - more willing to waste the author's time than his own. – Pere May 7 '17 at 9:16
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    You probably don't need to mention your advisor at all. But do ask your advisor's advice on phrasing: they might suggest you're obsessing about details, or be pleased they've got a particularly careful student, or suggest ‘don't admit you don't know X’, or... (as a PhD student you're an apprentice academic, and this is the sort of professional communication skill you can only learn this way). – Norman Gray May 7 '17 at 11:15
  • @NormanGray - Could you post this as an answer? Comments are ephemeral but answers stick around. – aparente001 May 7 '17 at 21:04
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    "Say, Professor X, I was wondering about point Y in your paper Z, and asked Professor X' my advisor. Would you believe he couldn't figure it out? Lame...." :-) – einpoklum May 9 '17 at 19:59
25

Is it appropriate

Yes it is. Science is about exchange of information. Unless the other researchers are on a rival group that hate you, I see no reason for you not to ask them. Put yourself in their shoes, and you will see it is actually in their own interest to help you. Two things that might go through their head:

  1. Someone is asking me about my research! I will help them so they can cite me, my h-index will go up and I will be promoted sooner!
  2. Someone is asking me about my research! I will help them so they will invite me to their next symposium/colloquium/workshop to speak about the subject!

By asking them a question, you are not making the impression that you do not know. Assuming they help you, you should know afterwards. You are learning, and people also learn by explaining themselves. Maybe your question will make them think of something they didn't before? This starts a discussion and opens up new opportunities. Who knows? You might even collaborate in the future.

This discussion is also beneficial if you meet them later on, let's say in a conference. Instead of saying "hi, I'm convexityftw" followed by an awkward silence, you can start with "hi, I'm convexityftw and we talked before on the subject of...I did this...got that...". You're getting your name known, and this is just one form of networking.

If so, should I mention my advisor at all?

No, in my opinion. Being a PhD student means you're being trained as an independent researcher. It's a matter between you, researcher A, and the author(s), researcher B. Your advisor should not babysit you or give you the answers. It's your job.

asking such a stupid question

  1. There are no stupid questions.
  2. I don't know in how many seminars and conferences you've been, but I've heard so many "stupid questions" from senior professors, so I don't worry about it anymore. I'm in good company and we're all asking stupid questions.

I will finish with some anecdotes from my own experience (a last-year PhD student in the earth sciences):

I send these kind of emails all the time. My advisor doesn't even know or care that I do. I never got a negative reply in the form of "I'm busy I don't want to answer you" or similar. I was ignored only three times. I don't even remember how many positive responses I got - several dozens? Some were more useful than others, but positive nonetheless. I met some of these "important" people at later conferences, and we had good and productive discussions. Now they know me as "the guy who knows X and is good with Y". Only good can come out of this.

  • 2
    +1, even though there are stupid questions (trust me on this). – einpoklum May 9 '17 at 20:00
  • @einpoklum I think its one of those statements that is true up until you start to take advantage of it (and that's The Ultimate Sin) – Jacob Murray Wakem May 10 '17 at 0:22
6

You probably don't need to mention your advisor at all.

That said, it would probably be worth asking your advisor's advice on phrasing: they might suggest you're obsessing about details, or be pleased they've got a particularly careful student, or suggest ‘don't admit you don't know X’, or...

As a PhD student you're an apprentice academic – by the end of your PhD you should expect to be working and talking with other scientists as a (junior) peer – and this is the sort of professional communication skill you can only learn this way.

4

(turning my comment into an answer after giving it a thought - it may help you to make up your mind)

My wife, when preparing her MSc, contacted the authors of a paper and they were so glad that someone actually read it that they not only responded, but pointed out interesting ramifications and provided a copy of their software so that she can test hers.

They ended up, years later, to write a few papers together after her PhD.

Ah, and the jury highlighted the fact that she went the extra mile to contact the authors (during her MSc defense)

  • Why should her jury know that she contacted that author? Did she cite it as "personal communication"? – einpoklum May 9 '17 at 20:01
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    Yes, she mentioned that she double-checked previous results to verify her software. She specifically wanted to highlight their help in her thesis. – WoJ May 9 '17 at 20:07
2

First of all, I believe that you could try to "acquire" the technique by yourself and to spend more time on the paper(3-4 months). After this, if you don't see any improving and don't see the answer, you might ask for help to the authors. Don't be afraid to ask questions, it happens to all of us. A few months ago, I send an e-mail for the authors of one paper asking about an erratum(they write proper eqs. in a follow up paper, but haven't published an erratum to the original paper). These eqs. and paper was the basis of an analysis I have done recently which have been published, and I needed the correct eqs. before submission. After some exchange of e-mails, I work in a joint project with one of these authors. The tip would be to find a more relaxed author, like a PhD student.

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    What! Spend 3-4 months trying to work out something that can potentially be solved by the author spending maybe one hour answering a question in an email? – ptomato May 7 '17 at 22:22
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    If you replaced "months" with "days" I would probably upvote you... – einpoklum May 9 '17 at 20:00
2

Yes it is - papers are often ambiguous, and hard to follow. It is only sensible to ask polite questions about points that you don't understand.

However, you are right, most people are busy, and while they will almost always welcome your interest, you do need to put in some time on the paper first.

1

At times, it might be appropriate to look up co-authors who are also graduate students. That way you can speak directly with a peer in your own field, and have a good networking opportunity as well.

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