Hva er galt med denne eposten? Hvordan å spørre en ekspert via epost.

Hva er galt med denne eposten, til Dr. Charli Carpenter, statsviter:

Hi Mr. Carpenter,

I am a fourth year college student and I have the honor of reading one of your books and I just had a few questions… I am very fascinated by your work and I am just trying to understand everything. Can you please address some of my questions? I would greatly appreciate it. It certainly help me understand your wonderful article better. Thank you very much!🙂

1. What is the fundamental purpose of your article?

2. What is your fundamental thesis?

3. What evidence do you use to support your thesis?

4. What is the overall conclusion?

5. Do you feel that you have a fair balance of opposing viewpoints?

Sincerely,

Vel, skal du noensinne skrive til en professor, eller ekspert på et område du trenger å vite mer om, les videre. Hva Andrew Gelman synes om eposten kommer her:

Does it feel like cheating when I do this? Variation in ethical standards and expectations: «

John Sides points to this discussion (with over 200 comments!) by political scientist Charli Carpenter of her response to a student from another university who emailed with questions that look like they come from a homework assignment. Here’s the student’s original email:

Hi Mr. Carpenter,

I am a fourth year college student and I have the honor of reading one of your books and I just had a few questions… I am very fascinated by your work and I am just trying to understand everything. Can you please address some of my questions? I would greatly appreciate it. It certainly help me understand your wonderful article better. Thank you very much!🙂

1. What is the fundamental purpose of your article?

2. What is your fundamental thesis?

3. What evidence do you use to support your thesis?

4. What is the overall conclusion?

5. Do you feel that you have a fair balance of opposing viewpoints?

Sincerely,

After a series of emails in which Carpenter explained why she thought these questions were a form of cheating on a homework assignment and the student kept dodging the issues, Carpenter used the email address to track down the student’s name and then contacted the student’s university.

I have a few thoughts on this.

– Carpenter and her commenters present this bit of attempted cheating as a serious violation on the student’s part. I see where she’s coming from–after all, asking someone else to do your homework for you really is against the rules–but, from the student’s perspective, sending an email to an article’s author is just a slightly enterprising step beyond scouring the web for something written on the article. And you can’t stop students from searching the web. All you can hope for is that students digest any summaries they read and ultimately spit out some conclusions in their own words.

– To me, what would be most annoying about receiving the email above is how insulting it is:

– First off, the evidently female Prof. Carpenter is addressed as ‘Mr.’ That can’t be fun. I don’t even like it when people on the phone call me Mrs. Gelman–this occasionally happens when I answer the phone in a high, baby-talk voice–and it’s gotta be that much more irritating for Carpenter when someone claims to love her book and can’t be bothered to determine her sex (or simply to call her Dr. or Prof. and leave it at that).

– Even more annoying is the use of flattery or, perhaps I should say, the devaluing of compliments. I don’t know about Carpenter but, personally, I love love love when people sent me emails or come up to me at conferences and tell me how much they love my books or articles. I’m a little embarrassed at how much I like this (to the extent that, when I receive emails of the form, ‘I love your book and your blog. I have a question regarding a problem I’ve been working on that we’re all stuck on here. We’re trying to fit a hierarchical model with 4 groups…’, my corresponding blog entry (if I choose to answer the question) would begin ‘We’re trying to fit a hierarchical model with 4 groups…’), but I have to admit it makes my day, every time it happens.

Anyway, the above email is transparently lying about believing Carpenter’s article is ‘wonderful.’ And that’s just horrible. It reminds me of the time when I was a kid that I asked my mom to demonstrate a fake laugh. Without a pause, she emitted a warm, rich fake laugh, which (inadvertently, I’m sure) caused me to mentally re-evaluate every laugh I’d heard from her in the past. Maybe she hadn’t found my jokes funny at all.

Anyway, for some reason it feels fundamentally abusive to me for this student to be to trafficking in our understandable but somehow vaguely disreputable desire for love, fame, fortune, or whatever. I’d feel similarly violated if someone tried to sleaze a homework out of me by pretending to be a news reporter or a potential source of funds. In any case, it seems like an attempt at manipulation.

– The last question from the student’s email (‘5. Do you feel that you have a fair balance of opposing viewpoints?’) is just plain insulting. It’s either insulting because the question is so rude, or (more likely) insulting because the student didn’t even bother to think about whether the question made sense before asking it. It’s the same way in which I’m annoyed by receiving spam for lab instrumentation that I would never be interested in, based on a link from an article that had nothing to do with these products.

– Finally, the fame factor. The student in question is ‘a public figure’–Carpenter didn’t supply any details–but in any case you’d want such a person to show a bit better judgment. This the same reason I more bothered by the tacky ad on the website for the journal Nature than from the spam ad mentioned above.

To me, thought, the key point is that the use of flattery, the original email brought things to an uncomfortably personal level. That’s why I think I was so annoyed by this email that some asshole at Wolfram Research sent to Christian Robert, claiming that a scholarly article of his had ‘caught the attention of one of [the spammers] colleagues’ when actually it was pretty clear that there was no such colleague involved. Always annoying but even more so coming from a well-known source such as Wolfram Research.

Consider another example. Why was I so annoyed by the following fake email I received last year:

I am writing you because I am a prospective Ph.D. student with considerable interest in your research. My plan is to apply to Ph.D. programs this coming fall, and I am eager to learn as much as I can about research opportunities in the meantime.

I will be on campus today, and although I know it is short notice, I was wondering if you might have 10 minutes when you would be willing to meet with me to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research. Any time that would be convenient for you would be fine with me, as meeting with you is my first priority during this campus visit.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

The key phrases, I think, are ‘considerable interest in your research’ and ‘meeting with you is my first priority during this campus visit.’ OK, sure, I know that when a student says this sort of thing, it’s usually a ‘stretcher’ (as Mark Twain would put it). But every time I get one of these messages and realize that it’s a manipulative lie, it hurts a little bit. At the very least, I think I should’ve be compensated for my time on this. Not compensating me (and other participants in this study) seems to me a sign of disrespect.

Anyway, my point here is not to revisit the battle of the fake emails or to again drag the good name of Wolfram Research through the mud. Rather, I’m just trying to trace what was so annoying about the original email Carpenter received. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s the cheating–after all, with a bit of care, a student could easily ask lots and lots of questions and get free responses by email–but the fake flattery and personal appeal which has the effect of devaluing actual positive reactions to her work.

I think Carpenter’s mistake came at the very beginning, when she responded to the obnoxious initial email with the following:

Dear [NAME REDACTED],

If you’ve read my article, you should have answers to the first four of your questions. Why don’t you tell me what you think the answers are and if you’ve misunderstood in any way I’ll let you know.

Regarding your fifth question, I guess I need to know more about what you consider ‘fair balance’ and ‘opposing viewpoints,’ as it relates to my article.

Also, could you tell me a little more about your own research project?

Thanks.

Dr. Carpenter

I think I understand why she did this–given that the student was trying to cheat, Carpenter was trying to answer very properly and carefully, even to the extent of signing her emails ‘Dr. Carpenter’ and ‘Professor Carpenter’ (which in normal circumstances would be very unusual signoffs)–but I think it would make more sense to simply not reply at all or give a simple no (that’s what I do when I receive nonsensical requests), or else to respond very directly, for example:

That sounds like cheating to me. I recommend you think hard and answer these questions yourself.

Or, if Carpenter really feels the responsibility to police this sort of thing–and I can respect this attitude, I understand the argument that if there are no consequences, this person would likely continue to cheat–just forward the email directly to the student’s university and let them handle it.

Carpenter’s mistake, I think, was to treat this as a game–to respond cagily and see how the student responds, etc. Asking the student for the name of the professor was another dead end, in my opinion. If you want to report it to the university, fine; then they can take if from there.

I’m not saying that Carpenter did anything ethically wrong or that her cat-and-mouse email exchange didn’t work for her. She treated the student completely fairly and in addition gave us all an interesting case to think about. But as a general strategy in dealing with students who are trying to cheat, I’d recommend a direct approach.

Nå vet du hva du ikke skal gjøre!

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