When and How Scientists Reach Out

You’ve probably heard of the myth of the solitary scientist. While Newton might have figured out calculus isolated on his farm, most scientists work better when they communicate. If we reach out to other scientists, we can make progress a lot faster.

Even if you understand that, you might not know what that reaching out actually looks like. I’ve seen far too many crackpots who approach scientific communication like a spammer: sending out emails to everyone in a department, commenting in every vaguely related comment section they can find. While commercial spammers hope for a few gullible people among the thousands they contact, that kind of thing doesn’t benefit crackpots. As far as I can tell, they communicate that way because they genuinely don’t know any better.

So in this post, I want to give a road map for how we scientists reach out to other scientists. Keep these steps in mind, and if you ever need to reach out to a scientist you’ll know what to do.

First, decide what you want to know. This may sound obvious, but sometimes people skip this step. We aren’t communicating just to communicate, but because we want to learn something from the other person. Maybe it’s a new method or idea, maybe we just want confirmation we’re on the right track. We don’t reach out just to “show our theory”, but because we hope to learn something from the response.

Then, figure out who might know it. To do this, we first need to decide how specialized our question is. We often have questions about specific papers: a statement we don’t understand, a formula that seems wrong, or a method that isn’t working. For those, we contact an author from that paper. Other times, the question hasn’t been addressed in a paper, but does fall under a specific well-defined topic: a particular type of calculation, for example. For those we seek out a specialist on that specific topic. Finally, sometimes the question is more general, something anyone in our field might in principle know but we happen not to. For that kind of question, we look for someone we trust, someone we have a prior friendship with and feel comfortable asking “dumb questions”. These days, we can supplement that with platforms like PhysicsOverflow that let us post technical questions and invite anyone to respond.

Note that, for all of these, there’s some work to do first. We need to read the relevant papers, bone up on a topic, even check Wikipedia sometimes. We need to put in enough work to at least try to answer our question, so that we know exactly what we need the other person for.

Finally, contact them appropriately. Papers will usually give contact information for one, or all, of the authors. University websites will give university emails. We’d reach out with something like that first, and switch to personal email (or something even more casual, like Skype or social media) only for people we already have a track record of communicating with in that way.

By posing and directing our questions well, scientists can reach out and get help when we struggle. Science is a team effort, we’re stronger when we work together.

2 thoughts on “When and How Scientists Reach Out

  1. Jan Reimers

    I have been pondering this topic recently. There is one particular condensed matter theorist I would like to contact in order to seek advice about a computational physics project I am working on. There are two problems with this 1) The theorist works at the Perimeter Institute, and they don’t seem to provide contact information on their website, 2) I am retired and as such don’t have an institution. #2 combined with wanting to talk to a theorist probably gives me 20 points right of bat on John Baez’s crackpot index. At least I don’t have a “theory” to promote and I am not claiming Einstein was wrong:) I am all ears if you have any advice as to how I should proceed without appearing to be yet another crackpot.

    Thanks
    Jan

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    1. 4gravitons Post author

      Perimeter is a bit inconsistent with contact information: some staff pages have it, some don’t. I’d suggest looking at this person’s papers instead, usually there’ll be a contact email there. If there isn’t, Perimeter does have a standard name-based format for staff emails so you can probably guess it based on emails from other staff pages.

      I wouldn’t worry too much about seeming like a crackpot. It’s true that someone might be nervous about answering you if they can’t find anything about you online, but I don’t know if your situation is that extreme (unless it’s a different Jan Reimers, your publications do appear on Google Scholar). And more importantly, I suspect your email would pass the “sniff test”: you’re asking about a specific technical question, using the right terminology, and it’s something for which the theorist you’re contacting is the correct expert. Basically, someone reading your email is going to start out by seeing if you look like you know what you’re talking about, only if that looks fishy are they going to start worrying about where you’re from.

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