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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