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I have recently started a PhD. and am researching an area that two now eminent mathematicians devoted considerable time to in the 1980s. However, there appears to have been fairly moderate focus on this research area in the intervening years, and I have a question regarding one of the papers published by these authors nearly 25 years ago that nobody I have talked to has been able to answer.

My question is, what is the etiquette regarding contacting the author of a journal article? Obviously one would only contact them regarding issues when all other channels had been exhausted, but in such circumstances or any other, is contact justified, or is it regarded by authors as a nuisance - as the question to them may well seem trivial in nature?

If anybody is able to shed any light into the issue of when they would feel comfortable (as a PhD. student) contacting an author, it would be very greatly appreciated.

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Most people are happy to talk about their work. Write a nice, polite mail and don't give this too much thought. –  alvarezpaiva Jun 14 '12 at 14:57
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You can contact anybody, of course. Be polite, and make sure to indicate, by the careful formulation of your question, that you have thought a lot about what you're asking. Also keep in mind, depending on who you contact, that you can expect to get at most one or two email responses, and that any further emails might end up unanswered. So use them well. –  André Henriques Jun 14 '12 at 14:57
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I've just realized that it's me you are thinking of contacting. My addresses are on the CML, and I do reply to email. Happy to help. –  Will Jagy Jun 14 '12 at 15:29
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I think most mathematicians would be pleased to learn that, despite the "moderate focus" that you mention, someone is still seriously interested in their 25-year-old work. Remember, though, that it's possible to forget quite a lot in 25 years, even about one's own work so don't assume that the replies will be as good as what you get when asking people about their recent work. –  Andreas Blass Jun 14 '12 at 16:11
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Go ahead and write to them. The worse that can happen is that they don't reply. –  Angelo Jun 14 '12 at 18:33
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3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Let me separate your question into two parts, and note that some good advise is already given in the comments to your questions.

First, you are concerned with the status issues and the age issues (student vs. professor, recent work vs. old classical papers, etc.) I think math is pretty egalitarian, so the status issue should not be an obstacle. The reality may be different, but often it's not an ethical issue - some senior faculty tend to be busier than grad students... Similarly, to a lesser extent, math is timeless. Unless the older work has been subsumed/trivialized by later far-reaching developments, I don't see this as an ethical obstacle either. Of course, some people retire, leave the area or mathematics altogether, die, join NSA, or stop communicating with the outside world, but that's just life.

Second, perhaps the more interesting part of your question is whether it is ethical to ask a clarification of some argument, complete proof of the lemma, etc. While others might emphatically say "yes", I think this is less clear. As with food or diet, I think this is good in moderation, but bad in large amounts, and the line is really easy to cross, and when that happens it's unpleasant for everyone involved.

To make another imperfect analogy, let's compare math papers with children. While the parents are of course completely responsible for their behavior when they are very young, as they move into adulthood this is less clear and eventually not true. While the line in this case is hard to draw (it varies in different countries and cultures), when it comes to papers there is a clear line: the publication date. In my opinion, while the paper is in the preprint form, the default position is that the author is responsible for all that's in the paper, as it undergoes public scrutiny. She/he really should answer and explain unclear/difficult points, unless there are compelling reasons not to do that (say, a followup paper with a better exposition). But after the publication date, it seems the author may answer only if he/she wishes to, and the default position is that "somebody studied the paper and agreed with eveyrthing in it". I know, life is more complicated, the authors and referees make mistakes, etc. but that's life again. My point is that you should not get upset if the author refuses to comment on a published paper.

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Concerning "somebody studied the paper and agreed with eveyrthing in it": I've once experienced the following opposite rather annoying situation "somebody studied the paper and DISagreed with a bunch of things in it". I then got into trouble for citing the paper as having done something... (the results turned up not to be wrong -- but the proofs were incomplete). –  André Henriques Jun 14 '12 at 19:40
    
Thank you all for your helpful advice. I have just contacted said mathematician, taking the above advice into account. It has been really helpful to hear other people's views on the issues, and to gain a greater understanding of the etiquette of the academic world. Thanks! –  dward1996 Jun 15 '12 at 8:51
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Sorry I forgot to add a final comment to this post. In the end I contacted both co-authors of the given journal article. One of the mathematicians as expected was unable to answer my question as he had not considered the material for over 25 years. However, he was kind enough to inform me of this and explain why his focus left this area of research. The other co-author gave a very nice response explaining where an expected mistake had occurred in the paper, and how this related to other parts of the paper. In doing so he gave invaluable insight into the motivation behind some of his work! –  dward1996 Aug 30 '12 at 20:09
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While I was an undergraduate I once asked Gilles Pisier about an "obvious" proof in one of his articles (I plainly wrote: "Dr. Pisier, how did you get this?"), and he very kindly provided it. He even tried to answer me in Spanish!

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@Teo B In my personal experience, I must say you are quite right! –  Lurgul Feb 20 '13 at 2:29
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