Is a "What are the attitudes of academics towards X?" question on or off -topic?

The question in question: What are the social norms associated with stealing free coffee?

OP says:

Note: I'm not 100% sure that this belongs on Academia Stack Exchange, but this is not a question about the ethics of stealing coffee; I am interested specifically in the attitudes of academics towards stealing free food.

To me this question seemed off-topic and I flagged it as such, as per

The fundamental rule is you can't just stick "for programmers" on a question to make it programming related.

At the time, SO had a lot of questions that were, essentially, "What is as a good such-and-such for programmers?" (e.g. "What is your favourite food, as a programmer?", "What is the best movie for programmers?") After a long debate on the SO blog (since Meta didn't exist at the time) it was eventually decided that all questions like this are not programming related.

in What is the boat programming meme about?

but what do others think?

  • 9
    Your last line should have been: “What is the attitude of other Academia users towards this?”
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 18:50
  • Would asking the harmfulness of the action X to academia be on-topic?
    – Ooker
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 5:59

3 Answers 3


I voted to close the coffee question because:

  • It is not specific to academia and in fact none of the answers found an academia-specific angle to answer that question. All the ethical considerations can be equally translated to other contexts.

  • Apart from the title, the question is essentially a poll, which are not a good fit for Stack Exchange in general:

    • So, how do you think people judge the stealing of free food, and how have you formed these perceptions?

    • I am interested specifically in the attitudes of academics towards stealing free food.

    • […] I was wondering what others' experiences have been as regards stealing free food.

    One could consider this as a request directed only at answerers who are very knowledgeable about the norms in question (professional conference organisers?) or asking for surveys of this issue (which probably don’t exist), but the way the question was written, it was inevitably taken and answered as a poll, leading to the plethora of largely redundant answers that we now have.

  • There is a clear ethical dilemma (stealing vs. wasting) without an apparent solution, on which people will inevitably have varying opinions, which makes the question attract opinion-based answers, unless carefully warded against those.

In general, I think that ethics questions can only work on this site (and SE in general) if they refrain from poll-like elements altogether and instead ask for an ethical analysis of an issue in an established framework (such as authorship ethics, codes of conduct, etc.) or under clear paradigms (such as fairness or neutrality). Any question containing a sentence along the lines of “What are the attitudes of academics towards X?” fails to do this and should be edited early or closed.


This kind of question is just "outside" of what I would consider to be "Academia," but I believe the ethical sentiment behind it has merit.

A slightly more on topic question would be an ethical question directly related to Academia: for instance, "what kind of content usage would Academics consider plagiarism, even though it technically doesn't violate copyright laws?"

Confucius did say in his "Analects" that "goodness was the chief of all virtues (followed by wisdom and courage), so questions about ethics that routinely (as opposed to incidentally) affect Academics are probably good things.

  • I agree - I think one significant difference is that academic ethics is a field of its own with authorities that can be quoted - e.g. ethics codes and policies - and even research e.g. link.springer.com/journal/10805 . So the questions "according to generally accepted academic ethics, would X be permissible?" (normative) or "in what proportion of academic institutions would X be in breach of the ethics code?" (descriptive) seem to me a whole lot better and more relevant to this site than "according to generally accepted academic tastes, which ice cream flavour is best?"
    – A E
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 14:59

If X is part of academic life or relates very closely to academia (e.g. X = "The notion that the US federal government should should more/less of the budgestary burden of higher education"), then on topic. Otherwise generally off-topic.

But - if the poster can spin the question well enough, it could become on topic, e.g. X = "The claim that the Turkish coup attempt was a false flag operation" would be off topic, but if you add "in light of its use in a blanket travel ban for academics" then it becomes borderline on-topic. Maybe.

  • 2
    I don't understand the example given in the first paragraph. As for the second, I'd consider it definitely off topic, even with the additional specification. Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 19:13

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