If you like someone’s work, don’t just cite them, write them!
We scientists are hard on ourselves. We obsessively check and recheck our data. We expose our nascent manuscripts to the keen scrutiny of co-authors, mentors, and anonymous peer review. Most of the time, the reviews are critical. Sometimes they are downright unkind. Ultimately, we hope, our revised manuscript pasts muster. Then we get to enjoy the scrutiny of a copy-editor and in the process discover typos that have survived, unscathed, through the gauntlet. Little wonder that on publication our feeling is mostly relief, rarely joy.
Why do we do it? As scientists, we constantly court criticism because it helps us to find our errors. I rarely read a review that is not in some way constructive, if only in the sense of “I need to communicate this better”. (1) And in any creative endeavor, discovering our failures, large and small, improves our work in the short run and builds our scientific intuition, project by project, review by review.
With this constant barrage of criticism, it’s not surprising that Imposter Syndrome (2)–the inability to internalize success while living in a constant fear of being exposed as a fraud–is so rampant in science. It is common in every creative endeavor. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that Imposter Syndrome is limited to novices. Even the most alpha scientist at a conference is only two perceived slights away from re-living their first year of grad school.
A modest suggestion: the Kudos Email
We occasionally come across a paper that inspires us. It could be a citation classic, an obscure paper that has flown under the radar, or something new that you discover as part of your regular reading routine.
That paper’s author deserves a Kudos Email. (3)
A Kudos Email communicates to the author that you enjoyed and were inspired by their work. It includes something concrete to back up the praise: “Someone finally figured out how to experimentally test X in system Y”, or “Figure 2 has changed the way I think about X”, or “I’ve passed this onto my reading group”, or “I’m looking forward to using your paper in my class.” (4). A Kudos Email arriving on the desk of the harried scientist (especially if is from someone they don’t know) can do a lot to balance the psychological trauma of Reviewer 2. It is also a pleasant and effective way to introduce yourself to someone you might want to get to know.
I have been writing Kudos Emails for years. They are easy to compose because they form in your brain as you read the paper: “Wow, that is really cool.” ,”Yep, gotta try that out in my system.”, “I can’t wait to tell my lab about this one”. Kudos Emails don’t have to be more than one short paragraph. And here’s the great part: everybody–from grad students to proto-emeritae–likes to get Kudos Emails. Everybody likes to hear from someone they don’t know telling them they did good. In my experience, the most common response to a Kudos Email from a young scientist is “Thank you very much! I’m very happy with the work and am glad you liked it.”. A common response from older colleagues: “Odd. Nobody’s every written me an email like this before.”. (5)
Here’s the thing. There is more than one way to increase the quality of work in our beloved science. Sure, a key way will continue to consist of writing reviews that, even done concisely and with compassion, still sting a little. Why not also praise published work we admire, and do it while the paper is fresh in our minds? Why wait for the author to tally her citations? Investing in some Kudos Emails encourages the very scientists that you think are doing good work.
There is also a fringe benefit to Kudos Emails. When we express gratitude to our colleagues for teaching us something new, it can do wonders for our own outlook (6).
We’re all in this together.
(1) And even reviews by cranky old assholes teach one the very important lesson “Don’t be a cranky old asshole.”.
(2) Just Google it.
(3) From the online Oxford Dictionary. Usage: Kudos comes from Greek and means ‘praise’. Despite appearances, it is not a plural form. This means that there is no singular form kudo and that the use of kudos as a plural, as in the following sentence, is incorrect: he received many kudos for his work (correct use is he received much kudos for his work).
(4) The “one concrete thing” rule ensures the by-now-flabbergasted recipient that you are sincere and not just trying to get them to submit their next paper to your new open access journal “Paradigms in Science Capitalization”.
(5) Something like this used to happen–kind of–in the bad old days of paper reprints. Folks like me would carry pre-printed postcards to the library, skim the new journals, and when we saw something we liked, scribble out the particulars on the back of the card, mail it to the author with perhaps scribbling a hand-drawn heart and “Thanks!”, and then wait for a copy of the reprint to arrive in the post. Getting reprint requests communicated that *someone* was interested in your latest work.
(6) Choose to be grateful by Arthur Brooks, New York Times, 2015
I have sent a few kudos emails over my career, and the experience has been good. However, I do worry about a potential negative effect: that the reader might think that I am just “sucking up”. Once, during a conference, I was standing with a friend when someone walked next to us. I had just read this person’s paper and thought that it was fantastic. So, I approached him, and said so. He thanked me, we exchanged pleasantries, and he left. My friend then turned to me and said “why do you suck up to him?”. It doesn’t matter if I was sucking up or not. My friend, and perhaps other people, might think that I am. Thus, I only send kudos emails to people far away in science. But this leaves out many great people.
A sincere complement is not sucking up. It is a sincere complement.
Kudos to you for writing this! Thank you.
Thank you. Great article and applicable far more widely than in science alone (evidence: I’m not a professional scientist and I know kudos emails have helped me stick out some difficult times and keep working.) And reinforcing the “sincere compliment is not sucking up” from pheidole: a person who sees giving sincere compliments as sucking up is a prime candidate for becoming a cranky old asshole. Send that person a link to this article. Fewer cranky assholes (of any age) and more people recognizing and celebrating each other’s accomplishments would be a good thing. (Reminder to self: send some kudos emails every week.)