Dealing with lazy inquiries

David Kennedy demonstrates how to answer the “I’m-a-student-please-write-my-term-paper-for-me” email.

Much as I value my friend David Kennedy, I wish he’d settle for being smarter and handsomer than I am and not insist on also being nicer. He produced what must surely be the perfect response to the “I’m-a-student-please-write-my-term-paper-for-me” email. I much prefer his answer to mine. Note that the student seems to think that sending random questions to scholars constitutes conducting “interviews” as “primary research.”

Full text at the jump, with names changed to protect the guilty.

From: June Spring
Sent: Monday, April 08, 2013
To: David Kennedy
Subject: Research questions

1. I am taking a Criminal Justice course and while doing research for my paper your name came up. I was hoping that you could answer these questions for me. I am trying to find out what is going wrong in corrections and what can be done to fix it. Interviews are my primary research and you seem to be quite knowledgeable when it comes to ideas on how to make our corrections system better. Please feel free to add anything you think may help with my research. I really appreciate this. Thank you.

What in your opinion, is the reason the U.S. has such high recidivism rates? What do you think should be done to fix those problems?

So many crimes are committed while people are under the influence because of an addiction. Do you think this should be taken into consideration during sentencing?

With a criminal justice system that is more punitive than rehabilitative, how does this impact recidivism rates?

What rehabilitative measures should be taken for first time offenders to ensure they do not re-offend?

What do think should be done to make parole more effective?

Which form of corrections (imprisonment, rehab, community corrections, probation, parole) do you think is most effective?

Do you think first time offenders should be given leniency? Why or why not?

What should be done with offenders who are thought to have some form of mental illness?

Do you think mental Illness is properly addressed in our judicial system? Why/why not?

Do you think chemical dependency is properly addressed in our judicial system? Why/why not?

What is the number one problem with our judicial system?

What is the number one problem in our prison system?

Do you think something else can be done with non-violent offenders besides long term incarceration?

Do you feel that prison helps or hurts? Why?

Do you think making a stay in a half-way house mandatory after release from prison would be beneficial to offenders?

Why do you think some parole officers are so lenient?

Do you think it’s possible that the state looks the other way so much because corrections is such big business?

I interviewed an offender and he told me that he feels like he’s set up for failure when he gets out of prison. Do you see where he’s coming from or do you agree?




I’m always encouraged when students show initiative, as by reaching out to do real research with specialists. So I hope what follows will help you, both with your current paper and in general.

-Give the people you’re talking to some more context. I can cover the same ground, for example, with freshmen and post-graduate students, but I do it in different ways. So saying, “My name is April Spring and I’m a junior (or whatever you actually are) at (such and such college, or high school, or whatever) will help me get my bearings.

-Each of the questions below could be a paper on its own (and more; I know people who are spending their entire careers on some of them). If you’re planning on covering all this ground in one research paper, you’ll almost certainly find that it’s too much: you won’t be able to learn about and think about all of that in any real way. Pick one and do it right, or a couple of closely related ones (how should probation deal with non-violent first offenders with substance abuse issues?). From my side, I couldn’t begin to answer them all in an e-mail.

-Specialists, like me, don’t like to be the beginning of somebody’s research process; they like to come in at the point that somebody has done a lot of homework – reading books and journal articles, and the better kind of work you can do on-line – and has learned quite a bit on their own. When people have questions at that point, they’re informed questions, and it’s more interesting and useful both for you and for me. So do the basics first. If you have done that already, let me know. A question that says, for example, “It turns out that intensive supervision probation programs, which combine closer monitoring with a wide range of services, don’t produce lower recidivism than ordinary probation. Why is that and is there an alternative?” shows me that you’ve done your background research and gives me something to work with.

-E-mail is good for a lot of things, but it really isn’t very good for this. A real interview is a kind of conversation between the two people engaged in it. This way we’re both more or less blind. You’ll find that very few people with anything worthwhile to say will answer a long list of questions like this in writing.

-So a better way to do this is to reach out, tell me who you are and what you’re doing, share what you’ve already learned, and let me know that it’s going to be worth both of our whiles to build on that. Then I, and lots of others, will be happy to schedule a phone call and get down to business. If you’d like to do that, let’s give this another shot.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

9 thoughts on “Dealing with lazy inquiries”

  1. I find this to be such a strange growing trend in K-12 education. At my old job researching policy and political issues, I’d constantly receive emails from middle school and high school students asking me to answer their full prompt who admitted they were only writing because it was a requirement.

    While learning how to write an effective email is an important skill, knowing how to interview someone via phone or in person is still essential. A sixth grader would benefit so much more from learning how to have a face-to-face conversation, even if it is someone who is not a leading expert but just knowledgeable on the subject.

    Kudos to Kennedy for taking the time to construct such a thoughtful response. Even when I do write specific, informed emails to practitioners that I’ve had conversations with in-person, it’s like winning the nerd lottery when they respond. Talk may be cheap, but shooting off a quick email is too costless at times.

    1. I’d constantly receive emails from middle school and high school students asking me to answer their full prompt who admitted they were only writing because it was a requirement.

      When I was a kid, I could not fathom the notion of going and asking an important person (relative to my status anyways) a question like this, and I would’ve been ashamed and embarrassed to not have the subject down cold (as much as humanly possible without having a degree in the stuff) before I ever said a word.

      And then I still wouldn’t do it. ‘I have not read enough books yet!’

      I really do not understand it if kids are doing this stuff on their own (except things like plagiarism sites spring to mind). I really cannot understand it if teachers are mandating their charges do this, and expecting them to get anything other than the brushoff. (And if they’re expecting them to get the brushoff, then they should set up a automated script as an ‘expert’ and then have the little darlings send email to the script.)

      Note: comments are different – that’s where the hoi polloi are supposed to be (politely!) annoying. It’s so easily ignored and no time-wasting favors are involved!

      [‘Pretty good canned response!’]

  2. Too costless, and as you say, seems to be encouraged by high-school teachers. I’ve seen a fair number of them posted to professional listservs in the past couple of weeks; these seem to be from college students but they may be doing this only because they were expected to in high school and figured it should be the same in college. And it’s term-paper time.

    Personally, after trying to oblige some of these requests, I’ve come to take a curmudgeonly view of what strikes me mostly as a combination of laziness and presumption and I think Kennedy is far too kind. Almost all the recent examples I’ve seen are questions that the student’s own instructor (or librarian) could easily guide him/her on, but the student seems somehow to think it’s more impressive or effective to ask somebody else’s instructors (who are paid by somebody else’s institution). To students it must seem like only a small step away from using wikipedia, I guess. But it’s asking for an individual consultation and/or tutorial at someone else’s expense in time and attention.

    Would anyone ever think of emailing a medical doctor or a lawyer this way? I could see them responding encouragingly to a local high-school or college student in a relatively small place, but how would one of these people respond to someone they had no connection or conceivable obligation to? So why should academics be any different?

    1. So maybe a less than aggressive, but still instructive, reply might be to ask what the student’s instructor has to say about these issues?

  3. Kennedy still can teach one student at a time, knows it takes time. He is optimistic about the young folk. One at a time.

  4. Brilliant job by David. I got one of these yesterday with 20 multi-part questions, cc’d to several other professors at other universities. I just didn’t answer — should have sent this, in fact I am going to do this now.

  5. Not just K-12. Some departments, in some reasonably decent universities, will support a PhD dissertation based on a quick email survey. 30-60 days start to finish with a small sample. Sigh – it took me many years. Times have changed.

  6. When I was in college, I actually made appointments and interviewed people for my papers. But even in the 1980s, that was going out of style. Today… It’s all email & texting.

    But it was a good response. I think kids should learn to interview as it could very well be a career enhancing skill later on.

Comments are closed.