Automating reprint requests

I just attended a forum on open access publishing at The University of Melbourne where I was invited to give my perspective as an academic. I’ll probably write a blog post about that separately. This post is a response to a request I had at the forum about how to automate email responses to reprint requests.

All else being equal, it would be ideal to have papers freely downloadable, and easily found by search engines. But if lodging papers online breaches copyright, it can often still be legal to distribute a copy of your paper by email in response a request. It is possible to automate some of that to make your papers slightly more accessible.

I mentioned this in the forum, and a few people asked me how to do it. So I figured I should write a blog post to describe the three steps in case others were also interested. Here we go…

Step 1 – Set up your website

On your website, you need to insert a line of HTML code that creates a link that opens an email with the request when clicked. For example, you could use:

Please <a href=” Letters paper 2010&body=Hi Mick – can you please email me a copy of your 2010 Ecology Letters paper ‘Resource allocation for efficient environmental management’ identified by the code EcologyLetters2010? Thanks!”> email me</a> if you would like a copy.

Alternatively, if you use WordPress (and don’t use the HTML editor), then instead of using the above HTML code, you insert a hyperlink (use the chain symbol in the editor), and rather than use the usual “http://…&#8221; address, insert a mailto command as one line: Letters paper 2010&body=Hi Mick – can you please email me a copy of your 2010 Ecology Letters paper ‘Resource allocation for efficient environmental management’ identified by the code EcologyLetters2010? Thanks!

Either way, your website would appear with this:

Please email me if you would like a copy.

Then, when your prospective reader clicks on the “email me” link, their email client will open a message that is already written requesting your paper. Your prospective reader then simply sends the email to make the request.

One trick at this stage is to insert a unique code or phrase into the request so that your email system will recognize it and potentially respond automatically.

Step 2 – Create the auto-reply to be used and save it as template

You can set up an auto-reply to answer that email request and send the paper. I only know how to do that within Microsoft Outlook, and even then there are limitations (I’ll mention those later). Here’s how to do it in Outlook 2007:

Open a new email. Enter a subject relevant to your paper, and also enter the text that will be included in the response. Attach the paper to that message. Then use “Save As” to save that email as a template (.oft file), using a relevant name for the file.

Write your message, attach the file, and then save it as a *.oft template file.

Close the email once you have saved it as a template (you don’t need to save a copy of the message).

Step 3 – Set up Outlook to auto-reply

The final step is to set up Outlook to recognize incoming emails and respond appropriately.

Go to the “Tools” menu and select “Rules and Alerts…”

Click on the “New Rule…” button, and then select the rule wizard “Check messages when they arrive”.

Check “with specific words in the body” and then enter the relevant words. Make sure that these words exactly match the unique words or phrase in the email request that you set up via the HTML code. Click “Next”.

On the next screen, click the check box for “reply using a specific template” and enter the template to be used. When searching for the file, you will need to change the “Look In:” option to “User Templates in the File System”. Select the appropriate template that you created in step 2.

Use the “New Rule…” wizard to check incoming messages for the key phrase or code, and then reply with the specified template.

Continue on clicking “Next”, “Next”, “Finish”, “OK”, “Apply”, “OK”, etc until you are done.

Now, when someone sends you an email, your email system will check if the requisite phrase is in the email. If that phrase occurs, your Outlook program will respond with your specified template (and hence the correct attachment).

You can check it works by clicking on the link yourself.

A few points to keep in mind…

Outlook only auto-replies once to each sender for each open session. So if a reader makes multiple requests, they will only receive the first request automatically. You will need to reply personally to the other requests. This feature is a little limiting when checking whether the system works. If there is an error the first time you do it, you will need to close and re-open Outlook to check it works after making corrections.

Allowing only one response per sender avoids potentially circular email responses, which could get out of hand otherwise. However, to avoid further risks of circular emailing, it is perhaps safest to avoid using the phrase or code in your response that is used to trigger the auto-reply. For example, your reader might respond two days later with a query or comment. You don’t want to auto-send the paper again simply because the relevant phrase is in the message – you want to read and respond to their comment.

Outlook will only auto-respond when your computer is on and your email is open. So overnight requests will be delayed if you turn off your computer at night.

This auto-response can appear impersonal. I use it so that the reader doesn’t have to wait, and I am assuming that they just want the paper as quickly as possible. I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t want to enter into a conversation. It is probably best to mention that you would be happy to discuss the paper if the reader is interested, or somehow make the response seem less impersonal.

A major limitation of this approach is that readers need to arrive at your website to make the request. It would be extremely useful if this auto-request feature were enabled in Google Scholar.

I imagine Google might have difficulties in facilitating such auto-requests (they would need to essentially publish email addresses, which would seem problematic). However, a system where authors opt-in to auto-requests via their Google scholar profile might work. Those folks at Google seem smart – can they figure out an efficient system that works?

A similar auto-request system via university repositories for papers where copyright restricts free download would also be helpful.

Some email systems cannot respond automatically with attachments. They can respond with a links to a website where the paper resides, but then you may as well just include the link rather than set up the auto-reply machinery. But then I thought, can you put your papers in a DropBox folder, and then allow access to that via an automated email request? I’m not sure where that would sit with regard to copyright. I assume the copyright holders might be concerned, but is it any different from sending a paper by email?


About Michael McCarthy

I conduct research on environmental decision making and quantitative ecology. My teaching is mainly at post-grad level at The University of Melbourne.
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3 Responses to Automating reprint requests

  1. Noam Ross has a method that uses gmail and Dropbox. That might help get around the limit of one auto-reply per person within each Outlook session. He has written a post about it here:

  2. Hi Mike,
    Just tried all this, but I think my version of Outlook inhibits things (for Mac 2010 14:2:2). I can get things all the way to automatic reply, but cannot attach the paper.

    Will keep trying,

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