Daniel Lemire's blog

, 1 min read

What you can ask of a researcher in an email

I routinely get emails from unknown graduate students who ask me to help them. Most of these emails are interesting. Unfortunately, some are unacceptably rude. What is ok:

  • Can I get an electronic copy of your paper?- Do you have the source code or the data for this paper?
  • This new paper claims to do better than your algorithm, what do you think about their work?
  • In Algorithm 1, isn’t there a missing loop at the end?

What is not ok:

  • This friend of yours has written a paper, can I get a copy?
  • Can I get an implementation of this standard algorithm?
  • I don’t understand this standard algorithm, can you explain it to me?
  • I need to adapt your algorithm to my own problem, can you do it?
  • It is urgent, I need you to… (Hint: if it is urgent, don’t email a stranger about it.)

What you must understand is that if a researcher fails to answer your query, he is not being rude. An email to a researcher is a bottle in the ocean, you may get an answer, you may not. One key quality that all competent researchers share is that they are able to deal efficiently with distractions. They may choose not to return an email or a phone call, or not to wash, to get their work done. Researchers are very good at fooling themselves into thinking that their current research is the most important thing they must do. Oh! And whoever asked me for an implementation of Godin’s lattice-construction algorithm, and got a polite answer saying I had none to offer, you were out-of-line in telling me I was rude. You did get a polite answer. I will not stop my work to implement a standard algorithm for your own selfish needs.