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Advice for approaching scientists for help with research

M Corbett

I am referencing some pretty cutting edge microbiology and neuroscience in my book but I’m not a scientist myself. Does anyone have any tips for approaching the researchers who authored the papers I’m using? I want to do this respectfully, with reasonable expectations of them.


If you can get an email, emailing them a question truthfully may get them to respond but I'd say 50/50 because a lot of people let their email flood and never catch up. Also, often the authors will have to put people on the author list that handle funding etc and don't know.

If you're just talking about referencing the work, make up fictional names and don't get into too many details that perfectly match the papers, lawyers love to claim rights once you use the underlying resources as a base. It shouldn't end up that way but you know.

If you're just trying to understand, alternatively give me the paper and the questions you have. I may be able to help. I've written many of such techical documents and can probably decipher it.

Lastly, all your technical discussions and background in a fictional work is virtually wasted because many well respected and successful works have completely ignorant science in them.

*car turns over but won't start*
Mechanic: "I think it's the battery."
AELowan gave me a good tip of just sending across an email to a relevant individual that specialises in the particular area you are interested in getting those facts about - as long as it’s professionally written and formal sounding etc they might well enjoy the discussion, after all it is about their work. Maybe try tracking down local sources, or phd students. They’re just people, all you can do is ask.


Fiery Keeper of the Hat
So a common thing to do is to email professors, asking if they can connect you with a student who would be up for a conversation with you about your book. Professors who are normally busier then see it as a good opportunity for a student. At decent schools, students should be more than capable of answering your questions. Be sure to record the discussion, and follow up afterwards with any lingering questions.

Mad Swede

Approach the authors directly. Just make sure your opening e-mail is polite and don't forget to explain why you want help. They won't want paying, but you may find they want to have some suitable character named after them.

I've written academic papers (in my own field) and I was always happy to answer questions about my research. In many ways replying to questions like that is expected of you as a researcher, it's part of the job to educate and explain to others. Bear in mind that many research scientists are busy, so you may not get an immediate reply.


Myth Weaver
I post occasionally on a hard science forum dedicated to Astrophysics. People popping up looking for advice with the occasional science issue for a book they are working on is fairly common. This might be a relevant approach.
2 things to keep in mind:
- Scientists generally really like the subject they study and love telling people about it. Normally when they start talking about the details of their area of expertise at parties, people's eyes just glaze over and they look for an excuse to get a drink and talk to someone else.
- Writers are mythical beings in themselves. Many people dream of writing a book, but few do. Not many people know someone who has written and published a book.

When you combine these two, I think that you may find that plenty of people are willing to help you. As long as you're clear about what you're doing, what you need to know and how much time it's going to cost them. I can imagine an email like "I'm a science-fiction author, and I need help with these 5 questions about your area of expertise" will get a surprising number of responses.

If you're contacting a professor, asking if they can pass on the question can definitely help.


Myth Weaver
I bet there are science forums out there, and one way to get an answer to something is post something about it that is wrong. People love to correct. And.*le gasp*, who needs them. Ask an AI.