I am a writer first, and an entomologist second, but I am certainly accessible to the general public and usually like it that way. That said, there is a certain etiquette that a “layperson” should use in approaching a scientist. Here are some things to consider when you are making a request of my time and expertise.
Do use e-mail. Electronic mail is generally an excellent way to approach an expert, if the person makes their e-mail address public. Do not, however, leave the subject line blank. That is a sure fire way to get me to kick it to my spam folder without even opening the message. Indicate in the subject line if you are familiar with the expert from meeting them personally on a prior occasion, from their blog, or from a website like AllExperts.com or Bugguide.net. Politely introduce yourself in the body of the e-mail, and then make your request. Conclude by thanking the person in advance for their time.
Use proper spelling and grammar. I am immediately turned off by incorrect spellings, texting shorthand, and poor grammar because I am a writer (and sometimes editor). Your inattention to detail tells me you don’t really care about making a good impression; and you obviously don’t want to invest any time on your end. So, why should I invest any of my time?
Do not attach unsolicited images. It is widely known that many a computer virus is introduced to a machine via e-mail attachments. State in your initial e-mail whether you do have images, and ask if you can send them once the expert replies to that first e-mail. Alternatively, find out before you even e-mail whether the expert is affiliated with a service like AllExperts.com (I volunteer there myself), About.com, or Answers.com, and reach them that way instead.
Don’t put the person on a pedestal. There is a fine line between being appreciative of your interactions with a scientist and worshipping that person. A simple “thank you,” with or without an exclamation mark, is just fine. Constantly praising the expert publicly via social media may cause the person to go into hiding, or take out a restraining order. Just sayin’.
Don’t pit experts against each other. These days, everyone wants a second opinion, and that is probably not a bad idea. However, I know I don’t like to furnish someone with an answer to their query only to be told “Thank you; by the way, Dr. So-and-so said it was this species….” You have just made me feel redundant, and/or stupid if the other expert’s answer differs from mine. Query both experts at the same time for transparency. I can always stand to learn something, and I don’t mind being corrected, but don’t go behind my back.
Don’t abuse the privilege of access. I certainly don’t mind periodic requests from the same person to identify this image or that specimen, or offer advice on the spider in the bathroom, but infringing on a person’s time week after week becomes tiresome at best, and eventually irritating. I appreciate curious people, but you have to learn patience, too. Remember, you are not the only person making requests; and, speaking for myself, I’m not retired yet.
Consider making a donation. I won’t ever request remuneration for my services to individuals, but my AllExperts.com account does have that option, as does this blog. If you value what the scientist or expert is doing, then consider saying thank you with a small donation, either to the person, or an organization or cause close to that person’s heart.
Don’t have a hidden agenda. I often receive e-mails praising my blog, but then the person goes on to ask me to let them write a guest blog, promote their business for free, or otherwise do them a favor that will earn them notoriety or income by riding on my coattails. Guess what kind of language I use in my reply? Yeah, even I have limits to my kindness.
I think I value simple courtesy and politeness above all else when someone seeks to interact with me for the first time. I very rarely turn anyone away. I’ll sooner set them straight on how to address experts than “stand them up” by not replying. I have gotten some nasty replies when I’ve done so, though, because no good deed goes unpunished. Carry on.
Note: Image above by Arthur V. Evans depicting myself and professor Jeanne Bellemin of El Camino College.