Should I be nice?

I got the following email.

Subject: i have a question?
Date: May 18, 2012 7:57:56 AM CDT

how can i enter the data of QTL analysis.

That was the whole thing.

I presume that the writer wishes to use my R/qtl software.

I could probably respond helpfully (for example, “See the sample data files and code at the R/qtl web site.”), but can’t I expect more from people seeking my help?

I suppose there are three options:

  • Just answer the inferred question.
  • Answer the inferred question, but in an offensive way.
  • Ask the writer to provide further details.

I chose the third option, but I probably should have chosen the first. A fabulously useful person who I greatly admire is well known for his use of the middle option.


I responded

Your question is not answerable without further details.

to which the correspondent replied

How can i analysis data the by RQTL?

I responded with links to tutorials, sample data files, and my book with Śaunak Sen.


Tags: ,

8 Responses to “Should I be nice?”

  1. xi'an Says:

    What about the option of ignoring the email altogether?!

  2. John Says:

    How about sending the person a link to

  3. jeromyanglim Says:

    I get a fair few statistics questions by email.
    I point people to a dedicated page ( ) which describes how to ask a question on

    I think for most questions there is an appropriate online forum where answers will be stored in a way that others can benefit from them.

  4. John Says:

    It is a shame that I feel so intimidated by “Academic” forums that I will never ask a question of you. I’m the lesser for this decision I know. All the knowledge you possess I will discover the hard way, by reading.

  5. guckerkellogg Says:

    Isn’t the most likely explanation that the questioner has very, very limited command of English? Both the original question and the response to your reply would support it. Obviously, you have other things to do besides coaching someone’s English skills to the level where they can read your documentation enough to ask a competent question. But you might encourage them to find other avenues (such as a mentor) to develop those skills. And if the core problem is really language you might not be inclined to label their question “stupid”.

    • Karl Broman Says:

      Good points; thanks. I’ll drop the “stupid” label; it was rather offensive.

      The language problem is clear. Still, it seems a bit crazy to me to send an email that is basically, “How do I use your software?” And so I don’t think language is the core problem.

  6. Andrew Gelman Says:

    I suggest you ask Brian Ripley for advice on how to reply politely to such questions. You might even just send Ripley an email with your question; I’m sure he’ll respond politely.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: