Dealing With E-Mailed Research Queries from Strangers

Almost every day I get an email from a student somewhere that reads something vaguely like this one I received today:

Dear Mr. Froomkin.

As a graduate student in The [Redacted] Institute for the History and Philosophy of Sciences and Ideas at [Redacted] university, [OECD country] I am doing a reaearch on building an identity and self representation in the blogs. I read some of your papers refering to Habermas, which might be of use to me. Would you be able to send me some more papers [or adresses of these] talking about Habermas attitude towards the discourse used by individuals while trying to represent themselves, wheather in a true or false way, using blogs or psychological forums on the internet.

Any other citations dealing with Habermas, Discourse and the cyber would be of help.


Perhaps because I’m an intellectual dilettante, the subject matter of the queries vary widely. Other variations on the theme involve questions from students in far less developed countries (who may not have access to as many materials), and questions from high school students — or even grade school — students doing a class project who want to know my views on some loaded question, like whether all speech or only harmful speech should be regulated online. And then (especially in December, January, April and May) there are the US college and UK law students who have an urgent question about some point of cyberlaw which they really need answered before 3pm today — presumably because it’s a question on their open book exam.

I try to respond to the grade school and high school queries whenever I can. And I try to be helpful with the third-world correspondents because I want to be sensitive to the possibility that they don’t have a good library to hand, and that their internet access may be slow or limited. And if I happen to have written a paper on the subject of the query, I send the URL — although I wonder why anyone who could find my email address couldn’t also find my papers. And if the student has an interesting topic, once in a while I offer to read the paper when it is in draft.

But for the bulk of the more advanced students in the developed world who ought to be doing their own research — well, there the struggle is to be polite. Or at least not too rude.

Today was not a good day: I’m afraid I responded as follows,

I haven’t written other papers in this area.

You may find the following links helpful:

But I’m torn: on the one hand, scholarly inquiry is a good thing. And I might have known the answer off the top of my head, in which case I would have given it. And just because today’s questioner comes after dozens, maybe hundreds, of others, doesn’t mean he really deserves my bad temper. On the other hand, I’m not his research assistant, and life is short.

But of course, I already feel guilty: Was I too curt? I’d be very curious to hear from other people on both sides of these sorts of exchanges what the right way to deal with them is.

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7 Responses to Dealing With E-Mailed Research Queries from Strangers

  1. calugg says:

    No, you were NOT too curt. It may be the hazard of working in professional schools (law, education, social work, etc). I receive similar e-mails (occassionally), particularly from graduate students who have yet to hit their own libraries. I have little patience or time for such inquiries. At this point, I just won’t respond, which seems cold, but I’m not paid to be their graduate assistant.

  2. scott says:

    No, you weren’t too curt. TOO curt might be recommending this.

  3. Michael says:

    It is unfair to tempt me like that.

  4. aidan says:

    I once messaged Michael because I had problems linking to Discourse. There was some larger problem going on down in Florida I was unaware of – being a resident of the Canadian boonies and all.

    I got a helpful email back the professor that said – “it’s not all about you.” No Google re-directs though.

  5. aidan says:

    My wife added “exactly” – guess there’s a message there.

  6. BroD says:

    You feel guilty about that?! You must live for Yom Kippur.

    I might have added something along the lines of “Come on, man, this is what Google’s for.”

  7. Cathy says:

    Too curt. (A) he paid you a compliment by reading your paper at all, and then treating you as an authority. (B) contextual help will likely be much more profitable than random searching. Your brain is a more powerful tool than Google; he was just trying to tap into it. (C) his query seems to operate with the assumption that perhaps you have or know of papers not online, in which case you may be one of the few who know of their existence and/or who are easily able to find them.

    And (D) the email also reads like an invitation for dialog (albeit perhaps a clumsily phrased one), not so much an abdication of his own duties of diligence, and could be one by someone who might someday have some knowledge that you might want to tap yourself.

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