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Are questions on features offered by a website related to academic research on-topic?

Some are closed, some are open, so I wonder what the scope of this Stack Exchange website is on that kind of questions.

Examples:

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    downvotes mean yes or no? – Franck Dernoncourt Feb 14 '16 at 5:24
  • On meta, downvotes typically mean "disagree with proposition made by question." You have not articulated your position in this post, but your linked Sci-Hub post and comments here seem to indicate that you believe these questions should be on topic. – jakebeal Feb 15 '16 at 13:43
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    @jakebeal If no opinion is expressed in the question, which is the case here as I wanted to keep it unbiased, then downvotes are supposed to reflect that the question is of no interest. – Franck Dernoncourt Feb 15 '16 at 16:27
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What I have observed in this community's collective judgement is that the axis that you propose to consider ("Is this question about features offered by a website?") does not appear to be a useful discriminator for question quality.

The problem is that both "feature" and "website" cover way too broad a spectrum:

  • "Website" can mean anything from and (clearly considered interesting and useful) to the details of a specific graduate program's online application form (clearly a "too specific" closure).

  • "Feature" can mean anything from the DOI question above to the transient and proprietary details of how a particular search engine is currently ranking its results (clearly a "too specific" closure) to obvious boat programming like "As a visually impaired scientist, how should I access arXiv?"

Instead, I would propose the following three-prong test with regards to questions related to the use of academia-related websites, apps, and similar systems:

  • Is the website academia-specific? (e.g., Google Scholar is, Yahoo Answers is not)
  • Is the website well-established and widely used in a significant number of disciplines? (e.g., arXiv is, CrazyEddiesPreprintShack.com is not)
  • Is the question about functionality that is both long-term stable and academia-specific? (e.g., curating one's publications on arXiv is, search-engine result orderings are not)

If a question passes all three of these tests, then it is likely to be on topic (though it may fail in other ways); if it fails any of them badly, then it probably should be closed as off-topic.

Now, as with every judgement of on-topic-ness, there will be boundary cases in which the judgement is not obvious. I think that the two arXiv questions that you link are a little bit toward that boundary: they obviously pass the first two tests, and while the functionality is long-term stable, it's a bit questionable whether it's necessarily academia-specific. On balance, though, they were simple enough questions with simple enough answers, and there's no reason to be nit-picky.

For your Sci-Hub question, on the other hand, while I believe it can pass the first two tests, for the third test both the stability and the specificity of the functionality seem extremely dubious. You are asking how to yank many, many terabytes of data from Sci-Hub or from the organizations that it pirates. That's not a scientific problem, that's a rather blatant abuse of shared network resources, and any method for doing so will likely soon be defended against by Sci-Hub.

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    Sci-hub seems fairly specific to academic papers, and it has recently received enough publicity to make it notable. – Federico Poloni Feb 14 '16 at 15:06
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    If what the asker wants to do is a bad idea, in my view the correct thing to do is answering with an explanation of why it is a bad idea. Closing the question and refusing to answer looks a lot like a poor attempt to censor the website, instead. – Federico Poloni Feb 14 '16 at 15:09
  • @FedericoPoloni Please note that I said "specificity of the functionality": I do not dispute that Sci-Hub is academia-specific, and it certainly has gained much publicity ("well-established" may not be quite so clear, given its current legal challenges). My contention is that it is the third point that is problematic. – jakebeal Feb 14 '16 at 15:53
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    You mean stability? Scihub has been around since 2011, and personally I don't think it is going to disappear soon. It is going through several lawsuits, and has had its main domain blocked in several countries, but similar sites like the pirate bay or library genesis have survived much worse in the past. As the meme says, one does not simply take things off the internet. – Federico Poloni Feb 14 '16 at 17:21
  • @FedericoPoloni I mean stability of the particular functionality of mass-downloading 40+ TB of material. This functionality does not appear to be something Sci-Hub is interested in supporting, and which there is good reason to believe it would not want to support. – jakebeal Feb 14 '16 at 21:15
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    This functionality does not appear to be something Sci-Hub is interested in supporting, and which there is good reason to believe it would not want to support. I think this is incorrect. Sci-Hub (itself being only a proxy interface) stores downloaded papers in the Libgen library. And the Libgen library offers to download its SQL dump (libgen.io/dbdumps/) and one should be able to set up the torrent client to download all the library items in the dump. This is, I think, how one is supposed to set up a mirror of Libgen. – amoeba Feb 16 '16 at 16:45
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Questions on websites

Yes, in my view, questions on the usage of websites that target academics should be considered on topic on academia.se. Using websites such as arxiv.org, google scholar, and article submission systems is a part of the work of a professional researcher, and questions on this aspect should have full citizenship here.

Of course, there are other conditions for a question to be acceptable: if a question is too localized (for instance, a very specific website on a single research topic with a tiny audience, or an unknown startup), then it should be closed, and the same if it has nothing specific to academia (for instance, if it is a general question on the usage of a browser --- these are known as "boat programming" questions in the stack exchange culture).

OP's question mentions sci-hub.io, a website which has gained much popularity recently, despite its dubious legal nature. It is 100% targeted on academics, and it satisfies the notability criterion, so I find little justification to close it on the basis of its content.

If any, the only reason for which I could consider closure is if we agree on a very strict policy on questions involving copyright infringement. But this is a different issue than the one on "on-topicness".

Questions on copyright infringement

Since the discussion in the other answers and comments has diverged into legality and copyright infringement, I should probably give my opinion on this part, too.

Lots of sites can be used to infringe copyright, including Twitter and Google. Some of them are used prevalently to infringe copyright, but ultimately the guilt lies with the usage, not with the website itself.

In addition, some forms of copyright abuse are widespread in academia, and a non-negligible part of the community recognizes them as illegal but does not consider them ethically wrong.

My stance is: if a user asks a question on how to infringe copyright, we leave the question open, and point out that it is illegal and/or wrong in the answers and comments. Closing questions does not make the asker aware of the legal and ethical issues; it only creates an illusion of control and censorship, and drives the user away.

If, as @MassimoOrtolano wrote, "the only possible ethical answer to a question about how to bulk download Sci-Hub papers is: You don't.", then we leave that question open and answer You don't. We don't say sssh, we don't speak about this sort of stuff here, because it sends a wrong message.

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  • Can you please elaborate your reasoning on the matter a bit more, in particular, how you draw the distinction between on-topic and off-topic for website usage questions? – jakebeal Feb 14 '16 at 15:54
  • @jakebeal I have tried to elaborate. – Federico Poloni Feb 14 '16 at 17:14
  • Thank you, @FedericoPoloni: I am still wondering how you suggest drawing the line on whether the functionality in question is on topic. For example, do you think that it is on-topic to ask: "How does Google Scholar weight number of citations vs. keyword matches when computing the relevance of articles when I search?" – jakebeal Feb 14 '16 at 21:29
  • @jakebeal I consider that on topic. But I agree that every possible criterion that we can set is going to include a grey area with borderline questions. – Federico Poloni Feb 14 '16 at 21:46
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    Your thinking is much more inclusionary than mine, then: I would consider it to be off-topic in the same way that "How does the Stanford Computer Science Department in particular weight publication records vs. recommendation letters in graduate applications?" would be off-topic, since it's about the undisclosed and changeable policies of a particular organization. If the community prefers your interpretation, I think that we may end up with many unanswerable questions, but I will certainly respect that decision. – jakebeal Feb 14 '16 at 21:58
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I think that we should not publicly support, in any case, the usage of services that are at the edge, or beyond the edge, of legality, however widespread they are in academia, and even if we privately think that they are ethical because they might constitute a form of protest against the publishing industry. Doing otherwise would open to a number of shaky possibilities that probably Stack Overflow Inc. would not be willing to support (e.g., linking papers or books on the SE sites directly to Sci-Hub or Libgen).

Thus, I think that the only possible ethical answer to a question about how to bulk download Sci-Hub papers is: You don't. Other answers can be interpreted as a tacit, public, support of such a service.

We can then discuss what is the more appropriate close reason for such questions or if we want to put a canonical answer, but I think that the above should stand.

For what concerns clearly legal services, instead, I agree with jakebeal's answer.

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    Stack Overflow admins have clearly stated it's not up to users to judge the content's legality. Also, users may have different ethics. – Franck Dernoncourt Feb 14 '16 at 19:05
  • @FranckDernoncourt Do you have a link from the SO team that says that is ok to support, through the SE sites, services with unclear legal status? – Massimo Ortolano Feb 14 '16 at 19:08
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    I can't recall where the message from SO team was. But very related: meta.softwarerecs.stackexchange.com/questions/116/… or meta.softwarerecs.stackexchange.com/questions/739/… – Franck Dernoncourt Feb 14 '16 at 19:19
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    @FranckDernoncourt I don't see those as very related: those softwares are perfectly legal, it's their usage that might (or might not) be illegal. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 14 '16 at 19:23
  • Same for the use of sci-hub. – Franck Dernoncourt Feb 14 '16 at 19:24
  • @FranckDernoncourt I don't think so, but I'm not lawyer: I'd be happy if someone proves me wrong, but with a solid reference. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 14 '16 at 19:26
  • E.g. it's legal to download an article that is public domain. Sci-hub also contains articles that are public domain (or permissive license). – Franck Dernoncourt Feb 14 '16 at 19:29
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    @FranckDernoncourt ... and it also contains a lot of material that is not public domain or permissive licensed, and that is the point. It doesn't matter whether you think that mass-scale copyright violation is a good thing or a bad thing: it is extremely dishonest to pretend that massive copyright violation is not the point. Sci-Hub themselves proudly declare that they are a "pirate website." If you want to advocate around Sci-Hub, please have the courage to be honest about what you are supporting and why. – jakebeal Feb 14 '16 at 21:20
  • @jakebeal I was just explaining why the two links above were relevant. This thread is not about me but the scope of this website. Do not make it personal. – Franck Dernoncourt Feb 14 '16 at 21:31
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    This argument sounds very hypothetical: if we say that this question is ok, then other questions with "shaky possibilities" may appear, and then Stack Overflow Inc. may want to take action against them. This seems a lot like a slippery slope fallacy. Why worrying now? If a "shaky question" appears, we can close it on grounds if its issues. if Stack Overflow Inc. has concerns, they can speak up and delete what they don't like. – Federico Poloni Feb 14 '16 at 21:56
  • @FedericoPoloni On what grounds we could close those other questions, once we start to support such kind of service? Though there can be reasons to support services like Sci-Hub and Libgen, this support, I think, shouldn't pass through a community site, until legality is established. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 14 '16 at 22:16
  • @MassimoOrtolano Can you please make one example of these "other questions", so that we know what we are talking about? – Federico Poloni Feb 14 '16 at 22:32
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    Also, I am curious to know what is your opinion on questions discussing this website that can be used to get papers illegally. – Federico Poloni Feb 14 '16 at 22:34
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    @MassimoOrtolano You mean linking to illegal copies of articles? It is already well established how to deal with this case in practice: the copyright holder sends a DMCA takedown request, the website owner complies and deletes the link, and everything goes on. – Federico Poloni Feb 14 '16 at 23:12
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    @FedericoPoloni A last note, because I don't want to go on forever: my opinion is the one expressed in my answer, but if the community agrees otherwise, I'll adapt, and I won't cast close votes for questions such as Franck's. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 14 '16 at 23:31

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