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Occasionally we get questions that are about the on-topic areas listed in the help center, but that are considered off-topic here because an expert answer to such a question would come from an expert in something else (not academia.)

For example,

Should we add another item to this list in the help center

However, please do not ask questions about

  • Undergraduate-specific issues that could not apply to graduate or post-graduate academicians
  • Suggestions or recommendations for a university, journal, or research topic (a "shopping question")
  • Preparation for a non-academic career ("What graduate degree will help me get a job as X?")
  • The content of your research, rather than the process of doing research

specifying that this kind of question is off-topic?

For example, we might add

Subjects that require expertise from another domain, that could not reasonably be answered by experts in academia. For example, questions about affecting academics that require expertise in law to answer should be asked at Law Stack Exchange, not here. Similarly, questions about affecting academics that require medical expertise to answer should be asked at Health Stack Exchange, not here.

9

In general, I think an on-topic question on this site should at least have a significant component which can be answered by those with expertise in academia. While abstractly it need not be so, in reality this site is populated by a relatively temporary community of questioners and a relatively permanent community of answerers (I would like it better if there were more give and take, by the way, but the SE model seems to push things in this direction). If the answerers, as a group, answer most questions well (as I think we do) then over time the site itself acquires a reputation of legitimacy and expertise in certain areas.

When we get asked questions which are set in academia but academics are unqualified to answer, I think everything is set up for much worse answers. SE is designed precisely to condition people to participate more, rather than less, and so such questions are very likely to attract answers anyway...just with the absence of expertise. When the locus of expertise is too remote, it becomes difficult even for the community to evaluate answers, which is a key step of the process. When it comes to, say, legal and medical advice, it is hard for me to tell the difference between someone with knowledge and someone who googled the keywords and is reporting the search results.

I think that these issues should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and it is the serious users of the site who should determine what is on-topic. (I strongly doubt that most users determine what questions they should be asking using the help center, but let met not digress.) For the two sample questions above, the first one looks like it requires both academic and legal expertise, and moreover academic experts -- enough of us, anyway -- should have some level of professional expertise in the law as it pertains to academic publication. I think the second sample question is a clear mismatch for our site. I don't think it is about student life in an essential way: the way a graduate student goes about determining if he has a learning disability is the way any other educated adult goes about determining if he has a learning disability...right? By the way, I don't really know: as a lifelong academic I have precisely zero training in diagnosing learning disabilities in myself and others. Rather I have been trained not to pretend that I know how to do this but rather to refer interested parties to the appropriate resource centers on my university campus. I think we serve our clientele well by making a similar referral rather than taking a shot at answering questions like this.

3

Half in response to a comment:

It seems a little unfair to me that we close these questions without saying anywhere in the help center that they're off topic. That is what I perceive as the "gap" in the current system.

You cannot specify a site’s scope so precisely that you list everything that is off-topic somewhere. What we do list in the help centre is (boldface mine):

If you have a question about...

  • Life as a graduate student, postdoctoral researcher, university professor
  • Transitioning from undergraduate to graduate researcher
  • Inner workings of research departments
  • Requirements and expectations of academicians
  • University-level pedagogy

... then you're in the right place!

The argument for closing the example questions (whether you agree with it or not), is essentially, that they are not about any of the above but about crafting a copyright policy or psychiatric assessment, respectively. With other words: Boat academia.

Of course, drawing a clear line between on-topicness and off-topicness here is impossible, as the questions are not entirely not about academia. But this would be the case with your proposed extension as well. Therefore closure is eventually opinion-based to some point.

I thus do not think that we need a line in the help centre covering such questions as it could rather do harm in form of people feeling obliged to close questions with this argument, even though nobody actually considers them off-topic and they are best fit on our site (rather than, e.g., Law or Health). (On German Language SE, we had a some quarrel and confusion about a close reason that said that some specific type of question was off-topic under certain conditions, which most people did not really agree with, and eventually solved it by making the close reason more fuzzy and less prescriptive.)

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I feel like these are fairly rare cases, and that each tends to be unique---they're just very perceptually prominent to us right now because we happened to get two in close succession. As such, I think that the current system (identify as off-topic, migrate if well-formed) is fine for dealing with them.

Complementarily, I would worry that a scaring off people who have a good question to ask on topics like law and health, since many times there is sufficient practical expertise to handle these questions, as can be seen when browsing those tags.

In many cases, in fact, I believe that the highly technical questions of these types are XY problems. For example, this question on legal rights to demand information from a university drew many strong answers that pointed out that the legal approach was not the right way to approach the problem and suggested better ones instead.

In short: let's leave them be and see if they accumulate enough that it's actually a critical mass demanding action.

  • It seems a little unfair to me that we close these questions without saying anywhere in the help center that they're off topic. That is what I perceive as the "gap" in the current system. – ff524 Nov 29 '15 at 5:59
  • @ff524 I would be concerned if they don't end up migrating---if they do end up migrating, then I feel it's entirely reasonable. Is failure to migrate a pattern? – jakebeal Nov 29 '15 at 6:09
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Just because we cannot answer them, does not make them off topic. I think we should leave them open. I think we should also help get them answered, possibly by posting in another SE site's chat or even someplace like REDDIT. If they remain unanswered for a while, we could offer bounties to try and help get an answer.

  • 1
    I agree with "just because we cannot answer them, does not make them off topic" in cases where the answer is expected to come from someone who is an expert in academia - if someone asks a questions that requires expertise in an area of academia that isn't well-represented here, that question shouldn't be closed just because we can't answer it. But I disagree with this when the question mainly requires expertise in some other domain (not academia.) – ff524 Nov 30 '15 at 2:14
  • Finally some common sense. – Franck Dernoncourt Jan 14 '16 at 18:35

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