I am all in favour of people asking for what they want and need. It’s useful for each of us to figure out what we really want, what we need, how much of that we can sort out for ourselves, and what we need to ask from others. However, as my work has become more widely known, I have begun to receive more and more requests for help from people I have never met offline or interacted with online. I want to help where help is needed, but some of the requests I get are quite unreasonable. For example, I got an email from a stranger asking me to write their doctoral thesis for them, because they were unwell, and because God would reward me in heaven for my good deed. There is so much wrong with this request. To begin with, I would never write someone else’s doctoral thesis for them, or even part of one, because that would be highly unethical. I do take writing assignments on a professional basis – which means I get paid in actual money (or I don’t take the work). Also, assuming someone shares the same beliefs as you is not sensible and, I would argue, not ethical.
Other requests are differently unreasonable. Direct messages on Twitter or Instagram asking things like, ‘I’ve heard of thematic analysis, what other kinds of data analysis are there?’ which could easily be answered through an online search. Or ‘What’s the best way to ask people for consent to participate in research?’ which is a big question with no context and so impossible to answer. Then there are the emails saying, for example, ‘I love your blog, can you tell me how to get a good deal from a publisher?’ which signals to me that the writer hasn’t bothered to actually read or search my blog where I have written about this subject.
Then, of course, there are all the reasonable requests. Can you review this article? That manuscript? Keynote this conference? Deliver that seminar? And so on.
Recently I spent a whole morning responding to requests, only one of which was asking me to work for money. I realised, then, that I needed to write this blog post.
I would like to suggest four key pointers for contacting busy professionals with whom you have no existing relationship (and, FYI, a couple of tweets exchanged does not constitute a ‘relationship’). I have been using this system myself for many years, but it’s only just occurred to me to put it in writing.
- Do all you can to find the answer you need for yourself. Use internet search engines and search functions on website and blogs, libraries, and your own networks. Apart from anything else, this will strengthen your research skills.
- If you can’t find the answer and decide to ask someone you don’t know, wherever possible, ask in public. If you ask in a public tweet or blog comment or suchlike, others can also provide answers which can help the person you’re asking, and any answer may help other people. Asking questions in private – through direct messages, emails and so on – puts more pressure on the respondent and doesn’t benefit anyone but the questioner.
- There will be times when asking in private is appropriate, such as if you want to ask about something sensitive, confidential, or contentious. But if you do need to ask in private, try to keep it to a single or – at the most – a double exchange. Don’t assume that because you received a helpful reply, the person you have contacted is your new best friend.
- If you get help from someone you’ve not otherwise dealt with, think about how you could repay them. Are you in a position to contribute to that person’s Patreon, Kofi, or suchlike? If not, can you review one of their books (or equivalent) on a website or blog? I would not recommend posting on social media about how helpful they are, because I can assure you the last thing they want is for you to encourage more people to ask them for help. If nothing else, vow to ‘pay it forward’ – i.e. help someone else when you’re in a position to do so – and make that happen.
I think one of the problems with private messaging or emailing is that each person may feel they are the only one making such requests because there is no opportunity for them to see all the others. But I am absolutely sure that if you have enough respect for someone’s work to want to ask them a question, so will many other people. So now I’m going to ask of you: please, please be aware that you’re not the only one, and that the person from whom you’re seeking help has very many other demands on their time.
This is not to say “don’t ask”. It is to say please ask only as a last resort, and in public whenever possible. Thank you.
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Thank you for tabling this issue. I can totally relate to your situation. I would suggest one more point. If you are asking for free advice on an area, such as labour law, respect the time – and especially the cost – that has been expended to remain current in that subject area.
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Thanks for your helpful comment, Sylvia. I agree completely. I also considered including a suggestion to think about the status of the person you’re asking – can they respond in paid time or will they have to respond in unpaid time? Are they in a permanent post with a high salary, or precariously employed and/or low paid? I didn’t, because I thought maybe it would be too complicated to figure out in many cases, but perhaps I should have done.
That is a good point – although with the trend to casualisation, the advice could be not to assume that the person is in formal full-time employment, and to consider that they may earn their income through some form of time-based pay.
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Yes. Though even if they are in formal full-time employment, they may be low paid, and/or not have time to answer such questions in their paid time. It’s complicated!
Thanks, Helen, for writing about this important topic.
If a stranger asks me for assistance concerning whistleblowing, activism, plagiarism or dissent, I nearly always try to help.
On the other hand, I am periodically contacted by high school and undergraduate students (from several countries) wanting to interview me or have me write answers to some basic questions about a topic. It seems that their teachers gave them an assignment that involves obtaining responses from someone knowledgeable about a topic.
My current practice is to write back saying I can’t respond to generic questions, but if they have specific questions about what I’ve written then I can comment. I also tell them about Ann Forsyth’s post “If Paul Davidoff has email should I write?” (http://www.planetizen.com/node/23230) and sometimes suggest they show it to their teacher. Your post, Helen, is now something to which I can refer such students.
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“Read first and write much, much, much later” – YES! That’s a terrific post, Brian; thanks for sharing. I’m so glad this post will be useful for you.
Thanks for this pragmatic approach! I occasionally have people DMing me on Twitter or via my blog seeking clinical advice in my area of expertise. While I’m more than happy to chat about general concepts/principles in public as a form of education, providing medical opinions via social media is a huge no-no.
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Goodness, I hadn’t thought of that – but I can imagine!
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