Tuesday, January 12, 2010

When is a Request Inappropriate?

I get a lot of requests in e-mail from people in theoretical CS: requests to write letters of recommendation, to serve on thesis committees, to referee papers, to serve on grant evaluation committees, to read a paper that someone wrote and let them know what I think of it, etc. In this I am not unusual - probably many of my colleagues get even more requests than I do.

Occasionally, however, I get requests that I find inappropriate. One of them arrived today. A student from a developing country asked me to send him an electronic copy of a paper by Ginsburg and Spanier that appeared in SIAM Journal on Control in the 1960's.

Here's what I wrote back:

Let me explain to you - hopefully gently - why your request for me to provide you with a copy of an article that I cited in my book is an inappropriate one.

First, your university library probably has this journal.

Second, if they do not, academic libraries participate in something called "interlibrary loan" where they can get copies (usually for free) of articles in journals they do not have. You should try this next.

Third, although it's reasonable to contact an author and ask them for a copy of a paper they wrote, it's usually not reasonable to write to person A to get a copy of person B's paper. The exceptions might be 1) if person A and person B are co-authors; 2) if the paper appeared in an extremely obscure venue and is basically impossible to get. In that case, it might be a reasonable request, /but/ you would need to acknowledge that you would be wasting the other person's time and apologize in advance for doing so. Neither 1) nor 2) apply here.

Fourth, think about what would happen to me if everyone who read one of my books asked me to provide them with an article I cited. I would never get any work done!

I thank you again for your interest in my book, and I apologize for not being able to help you.

Was I wrong? Should I have spent the 10 minutes it would have taken to log on to the Waterloo library system, locate the article, download it, and send it to him?


Michael J. Swart said...

My two cents: The letter was fine and very tactful. And the worst case scenario is that an email conversation is started. Or maybe they give up.

justin said...

Similar situation: When a student asks you for course information that's clearly in the syllabus. Should you just tell them? Or tell them to look it up? I've only been a TA for a few years, but more and more I'm taking the latter.

Anonymous said...

You were probably right to say no (without more explanation why he thinks he needs you to do this for him), but not to chastise him. Demands might be inappropriate, but how can a request be inappropriate? Just say "Sorry, I don't have time to get that paper; check your local library" and leave it at that.

You said the paper was from the 60s. Perhaps the authors are dead, and he learned of the paper by reading your book, and the paper is not available where he can get it. ("E-prime" would have helped you here: you claim the paper is not hard to get, when you you really mean that you find the paper easy to get. Perhaps he finds it hard to get in his developing country.)

What can he do now? Try to find someone who has the paper. Well, who is the one person that he is almost sure has actually obtained the paper once? You, because you cited it. Maybe you are the only person with this property of whom he is aware. So it is not necessarily even an unreasonable request, yet perhaps he did not have the English to express these nuances, nor the same cultural background as you that would tell him to apologize in advance for such a request.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Umm, there is a difference between "not hard" and the negation of "basically impossible". The latter is what I said.

Erik Hetzner said...

Many libraries in developing countries do not have the money to pay the enormous cost of subscriptions to the online resources that those of us who work for large research universities (in my case as staff) do. It is possible that this person was unable to find this article using the resources available to them. So that would be something to take into account when deciding whether or not to fulfill a request like that.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Yes, egh, I certainly took that into account.

But it's my understanding - and I could be wrong - that even in developing countries there is access to interlibrary loan.

Erik Hetzner said...

Thanks for the response, Jeffrey. I don't know what the loan situation is like either. -Erik

Akilan said...

I do not mean to say your reply was or was not correct but:

But it's my understanding - and I could be wrong - that even in developing countries there is access to interlibrary loan

I'm from India and my college doesn't have anything of the sort. I could get current IEEE papers. Nothing more.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I'm from India and my college doesn't have anything of the sort.

Are you sure? Did you ask your librarian? It's my experience that many people simply don't know about this option.

I once got a request from a Chinese student for a paper from a journal; I then asked a colleague to check for me and in 5 minutes he was able to find the paper in the student's library's catalogue.

D. Swart said...

Could you provide any insight into what is typically expected by a university of a professor? I.e., what requests listed in your first paragraph would a university consider part of the job as opposed to a courtesy?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Writing letters of recommendation and serving on (local) thesis committees are definitely part of the job. A university would look askance if you said "no" too often to routine requests like this.

Refereeing papers is part of being a "good citizen". You don't get anything in return, but if everybody stopped agreeing to referee papers, the peer review system would entirely break down. If you write x papers in a year, you should probably be willing to referee 2x or 3x papers.

Serving on grant evaluation committees is also part of "being a good citizen".

Reading a paper that someone sends you is more part of one's responsibility as a scholar. The problem is, there are more people sending me papers than I can possibly read.

Unknown said...

I agree that it's an inappropriate request, but I don't agree that the response was especially tactful. It wasn't overtly hostile, but it carried a tone of correction by authority, which is not a pleasant experience for most people.

Part of the problem is that you're treating the recipient as a repeat offender, even though the repeated offenses came from other people. My impression (obviously I have no way of knowing) is that it feels as if there's this one idiot out there who thinks you're his personal librarian. You've finally had enough of it, and this is your ultimatum. But the actual recipient is probably one naive student who may or may not have used this approach before and may or may not have exhausted other reasonable approaches first.

My response would be to suggest looking harder for the paper, pointing out the likely existence of interlibrary loan without putting it in quotes as if to suggest the recipient is unfamiliar with the concept. Something along the lines of "I am surprised you have had trouble finding this well known paper," followed by a link to papers that cite it could have the same outcome of making the recipient reconsider asking your help, while avoiding the harsh corrective tone.

It's not a big deal either way. You could also argue that the chance of an irate response will set incentives better and reduce the likelihood of this sort of request.

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

If by "Ginsburg and Spanier" it's meant Seymour Ginsburg and Edwin H. Spanier, the authors are dead. Ginsburg died in 2004* and Spanier, in 1996**.
As a naïve student from a developing country myself, I imagine that assuming the authors are dead and [s]he can't afford to purchase the article, -and [s]he probably doesn't know about this interlibrary loan system, and his/her college may be in vacation- one might think that the person would naturally find it a hard article to acquire.
What surprises me is that you seem to think that it is not sufficient. To help him, it should be something "basically impossible"! The student was reading your book, got interested about the subject, thought it to be very hard to acquire the article, inferred (and [s]he was right) that you have easy access to it, and it was an inappropriate request! Of course, you might inform the student of this "interlibrary loan system", but the only point would be to make him/her independent.
"think about what would happen to me if everyone who read one of my books asked me to provide them with an article I cited. I would never get any work done!"
This is basically the same as saying: "think about what would happen if everyone decided to go by bus, someday: the lines wouldn't supply the demand". You know it wouldn't happen: there are statistical laws about it. Such requests as this one, under such circumstances, are fated to be rare, and you know it.
It may be something that varies with the culture, but I don't find this, under those circumstances, to be an inappropriate request at all!
However, I must make clear that I'm only saying that because you asked, and I (and, I think, all here) recognize your right to have done as you did.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


I imagine I can do the student's homework faster than he can, too. Should I do that? I can probably also do a better job writing his resume. Should he write to me asking me for help?

[s]he probably doesn't know about this interlibrary loan system

Right - which is why my response informed them about it.

inferred (and [s]he was right) that you have easy access to it,

Well, not that easy. An hour ago, I looked for it, and it took me a good 15 minutes - partially because our university's system is not so easy to use. Should I be expected to spend 15 minutes of my time on every request someone sends me?

Such requests as this one, under such circumstances, are fated to be rare, and you know it.

Actually, they're not. I spend, on average, about half my day dealing with requests of various kinds for which I receive no compensation: referee reports, recommendation letters, grant evaluations, etc. At some point I have to say no - and I think when someone asks me to be their librarian, that's where to draw the line.

one might think that the person would naturally find it a hard article to acquire.

When I was a teenager, I use to walk to the train station, take the train to downtown Philadelphia, walk from there to the Unversity of Pennsylvania, then photocopy articles by hand, inserting 5 cents or 10 censt for each copy, and then reverse the entire process to go home. It would never have occurred to me to write to the author of the book where I found the reference and ask them to send me copies of those papers. I would have been astounded to think this was a legitimate way to acquire the copy of a paper.

Miranda said...

I think you did the right thing, but I think I would've left out #4.
It can be used to justify not helping anyone (or at least not any non-relative or -friend.)

Nested said...

I think you should have sent the copy of the paper if it was so easy for you to do so. If this were to become a recurrent theme and was eating up a lot of time and so on, then sure, say no. My impression, given the ease with which you could accommodate the request, is that you should have helped them out and included your comments about checking the library/inter-library loan for future reference. I don't want to be rude or mean, but honestly, your reply struck me as rather pendantic/pompous.

NAL said...

If not illegal it is certainly unethical for you to use your library resources (bandwidth, servers, licensing fees) for something that is not for your use.

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

Reading again my previous comment here, I think I might have failed in not making clear that I think that it's right (or, at least, not wrong) NOT to send him/her (from now on, him) a copy of the article in this first response. Informing him of the interlibrary system seems to be enough FOR A START: but if (and only if!) there is not such a system available in his University, he should send you a message informing this, and you would (in this hypothesis) send him the article.

Summarizing (because I don't know if I made myself clear): he sent you the message - you'd answer him informing him about the system, and saying that if it doesn't work he would tell you, and you'd send him the article.

So, in most cases, the only answer you might receive would be one thanking you for teaching the student about a valuable system.
So, I just disagree with the idea that his request was inappropriate.
And I must say that, when I said "Such requests as this one, under such circumstances, are fated to be rare, and you know it.", I was referring to this kind of case: a student from afar asking for an old article, which he read in your book, whose authors are dead.

Dan Eastwood said...

You are not a library or a librarian. It would be nice to be helpful to every person that asks, but your time is valuable too.

Anonymous said...

oh, come on, isn't it ironic that you have already spent way more than 15min on this issue? You have downloaded the article, you have written a blog post, and continue to defend yourself... you could have helped the poor kid, justify it under fair use exception and helping the propagation of knowledge and get over with it.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

you could have helped the poor kid

And how do you know I haven't?

Really, the number of people who claim intimate knowledge about my actions is really astonishing.

Miranda said...

Now you've got me curious. In what way did you help "the poor kid" that contradicts your statement to him, "I apologize for not being able to help you."

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Do you think, like anonymous apparently does, that my conversation with the student who asked for the paper ended there? That he didn't write back explaining more about his situation? That I can't change my opinion based on new information? That I must report every detail of my conversation with him here?

justin said...

Also, the "help" could be that you explained academic social norms and taught him to be independent :)

Miranda said...

I asked a question; I did not make any claims.
But assume away...

Anonymous said...

I perhaps agree with response but not tone, as others have said.
Here in my highly rated school, ILL is available but can be expensive - $5 to $30. Our professional society collects old journals and books and ships them to developing countries. So I can readily imagine that these are practically (literally) unobtainable in some countries.
PS I also know reviewers who cut authors from developing countries some slack in papers. One was wondering what to do about some mundane work and was quite pleased to find out that the work had already been reported and he escaped having to make a hard decision.