I frequently see questions from this stack in the Hot Network Questions list (the network-wide list of questions in the right sidebar) that I find interesting. I sometimes answer them and have acquired a small amount of rep from a couple of upvotes per answer.

However, I'm not a scientist, student, professor, teacher, researcher or university staffer. It has been about 7 years since I last was in a school in the capacity of a student. Because of this, I'm not sure whether it's wholly appropriate for me to answer these questions.

On one hand, I have no experience with academia, so I don't know any of the established procedures and rules from Academia. What I suggest might be completely inappropriate for someone who is active in Academia.

On the other hand, I have no experience with Academia, so I might be able to provide a unique perspective from someone with a minimum of preconceptions. In some notable cases in the past, such perspectives has led to stuff like unsolvable conjectures being solved, impossible machines being invented and generally major advances in a number of scientific fields.

From reading another meta answer, I have seen at least one person explicitly mention

  • A user that, based on her/his bio and SE habitus, seems trustworthy to answer the question

as something they typically upvote and

  • Answers that seem to fall into the "uninformed opinion" category ("I don't have experience with this, but clearly ...")

as something they typically downvote, with this answer getting over a dozen upvotes. Does this mean that this community does not want answers from people who are not part of the scientific community?

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    Have you considered that the upvotes you got on your answers to questions in the HNQ may have come from other non-academics who also found the question through the HNQ? It's a feedback loop. I think the HNQ is easily one of the worst parts of this website, but it engages users, and SE is a private company looking for profit...
    – user9646
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 16:53
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    Eh, I think the 'HNQ tourists' should just not be allowed to vote. It skews the system. Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 17:56
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    @Discretelizard Can they upvote at all if they haven't earned enough legit reputation on another site to get the free bonus rep? I actually find it more problematic that this bonus rep lets you upvote, but not downvote. That's where it skews things. It discourages the down vote mechanism. If I can be trusted to give meaningful up votes, why am I not trusted on down votes? They should both be accessible simultaneously or not at all. Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 12:37
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    @zibadawatimmy No, they can't. But 200 rep is trivial on sites like SO, so the 'positivity' is heavily biased to the knowledge/preference of programmers. Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 12:39
  • Many times common sense should be welcomed. Laymen may provide another viewpoint, sometimes unbiased. Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 13:06
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    @user1420303 But on the other hand, they may also misinterpret the context or the specifics of a question based on excessive generalisation from their own experiences
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 3:53
  • As I comment on Pete Clark's answer below, a particular bugbear of mine is users wandering in from StackOverflow with a whole load of unexamined prejudices and blithe assumptions about the world based on their own experiences, making comments about pedagogy or power imbalances or systemic problems in academia with very little solid basis; then -- and I think this is the real problem -- we get lengthy arguments in comment threads, where inevitably oppposing sides both get upvotes due to a ratchet effect
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 2:00
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    "In some notable cases in the past, such perspectives has led to stuff like unsolvable conjectures being solved, impossible machines being invented and generally major advances in a number of scientific fields." This is very rare. Notable, yes, but rare.
    – Turion
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 8:40
  • @Turion I wouldn't exactly call it rare. Maybe in the case of things that have long been seen as unsolvable or impossible and as such stand out more to the public, but it happens more often often if you look at the stuff that's not even close to unsolvable or impossible. This mainly tends to happen in the more tangential stuff: not finding a solution to the problem itself, but rather optimising or debugging the solution.
    – Nzall
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 9:09
  • There are definitely questions where it's not necessary to be an active academic to provide a useful, complete answer (see e.g. my top-voted answers), non-academics can be experts (e.g. questions about psychology, didactics or technology), or being an academic is even actively harmful (e.g. questions on didactics, and I'm only joking a little). That said, I'd expect those to be the exception.
    – Raphael
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 11:51

6 Answers 6


Excellent question! Thank you for taking the time to ask it.

Academia is a subculture. Like almost every other subculture, it has its own social mores and norms. Many of the questions here are asking about those "you have to be there to know it" aspects of academia. To that extent, (in my opinion,) if the question seems to requires knowledge of the field, its probably best to leave those for other academics. What may seem to be good advice from the outside may actually be harmful to those familiar with the culture.

That said, a good chunk of questions more broadly defined as, "is this a good idea?" We've had some very good answers from outsiders to some of those questions[citation needed], and I would welcome anyone to contribute there.

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    Agreed. There are plenty of questions where perspectives from the outside are valuable. It will often be good to mark the answer as such though (so many answers with bad advice on what goes in a CV and what employers "really" want to see from people not in academia). Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 8:53

I have a pet peeve about nonacademics answering questions on this site. But not with all of them; only with those evincing a certain kind of behavior. Namely, what irks me tremendously is those who answer questions about academia but refuse to comment on or acknowledge their lack of academic expertise.

(In fact this is not limited to non-academics. I am just as bothered by e.g. academics who have never left Continent A but answer questions about academia on Continent B without acknowledging -- or even knowing, perhaps? -- that these answers may well be negatively useful.)

If you want to answer a question as an academic outsider, please include in your answer that you are an academic outsider. As others have pointed out, this does not automatically disqualify or discount your answer: for some questions it will actually improve it. But readers deserve to know this information, whatever they do with it.

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    "If you want to answer a question as an academic outsider, please include in your answer that you are an academic outsider". I disagree. I think that answers should be judged on their content, not on their provider. Unless you're answer is based on personal experience, I see no reason why the author should matter. If someone from outside academia gives bad advice, we can simply downvote. I don't see why readers 'deserve' to know this information, just as much as readers don't 'deserve' to know any information at all from me, other than the questions and answer I provide! Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 14:55
  • +1 for pointing out that the situation is similar across cultures within academia
    – cbeleites
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 10:06
  • +1 for first para, prehaps changing "comment" to "recognize" or "be aware of".
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 12:16
  • The latest answer on academia.stackexchange.com/questions/107777/… is an illustration of this kind of thing, and seems to support the comment of @Discretelizard academia.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/4079/… about the site's tendency to get techbro comments
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 12:18
  • @YemonChoi Although I wouldn't use that name, this does seem to be a relevant example, yes. But do observe that there is no need for that user to display affiliation here, as it is clear that the questions ignores the context and is bad and therefore is currently at -2 (perhaps it has also been upvoted, but I lack the reputation to see that.) Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 12:40
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    @YemonChoi Also, "the latest answer at" isn't a very convenient reference as this specification vanishes once there are later answers. Also, the answer in question seems to have been deleted. Note that you can directly link to an answer by using the 'share' button at the bottom of the answer. Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 14:09
  • @Discrete lizard: On this site, the majority of answers are based on personal experience to at least some extent. Moreover, a lot of answers here are neither inherently "good" nor "bad" but rather context-dependent; removing the context is a disservice to the reader. Sometimes really wrong-looking advice turns out to be dead-on for a part of academia very far away from mine. Sometimes it turns out that someone is bringing in anti-academic biases of one kind of another. Again, context is very helpful. Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 18:46
  • @PeteL.Clark Yes, but not all answers. Hence, the blanket statement to always include affiliation seems a bit strong to me. Furthermore, why is the author always relevant context? If there is an anti-academic bias, then why can't this be seen from the text alone and if it can't, then what is the problem? I really don't see why you give so much importance on the author of answers. Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 19:49
  • @Discretelizard Thanks for the good points (I am somewhat torn between the position Pete advocates and the counterarguments you raise). Incidentally, given what seemed to happen in the comments to that deleted answer, and given what happens when you look at the user's Linkedin page, I think "techbro" wasn't so inaccurate a guess on my part ...
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 1:58
  • @YemonChoi It's not so much that I thought the term wouldn't be applicable, it is just that I dislike the term as it has often been used to demonize all males working in 'high tech' jobs, not just for those behaving badly. Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 7:24
  • @Discretelizard: You're right that I don't mean that this kind of disclosure would be necessary or helpful for all questions on this site: a minority of questions ask for purely factual information. Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 14:27
  • @PeteL.Clark But not all non-'just facts' questions demand disclosure of academic experience, see some of my answers, for instance. I think the minority of questions that for which such a disclosure is meaningful is still sizeable enough that it cannot be ignored at least. Still, while I understand that you may want this, I highly doubt that it reasonably possible to 'enforce' this in the current format, so the entire discussion is moot, really. (I also don't think you want to enforce it either (though I could be wrong), but I at least wanted to show some points against it) Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 17:43

Just in peeking through your answers on the site so far, although you've gotten a lot of upvotes on some (likely through the HNQ bloat, as others have pointed out), lots of your answers don't answer the actual question, and are more like extended comments on other answers.

Some of this might be because you lack the "insider information" necessary to answer the original question, or it might be just a style in your answering that is outside the normal guidelines for what make good StackExchange answers. Given the topic of this meta post, I'll assume the former:

I think that laypeople who are not part of Academia should not use partial answers to address only parts of questions when they are not prepared to answer the whole question. There may be some questions here that can be answered by anyone, but in most cases those questions either belong on a different stack, or the user answering them may not have sufficient understanding of Academic culture to recognize when an question actually has an academia-unique answer.

As just an example, completely independent from your personal answering history, the role of an academic advisor as both a "boss" and a mentor is completely different from that of a boss in the outside world. Advice for how to deal with a bad boss at work is often completely inappropriate for an academic context, even if the interpersonal problem is the same.

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    what is HNQ? Can someone explain for users that are illiterate?
    – SSimon
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 5:01
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    Hot network questions - the ones that appear on the sidebar. They get a lot of nonspecific traffic that overwhelms a specific stacks normal viewership, especially for smaller stacks.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 21:14

Well, I'm just a Masters' student, so most of my academia knowledge is very basic.

However, note that all answers are judged by their content (and form), not their creator. Hence, as long as an answer that is useful, but not necessarily from an academic perspective, it can be accepted.

One example of such an answer could be this one:


No academic knowledge required, yet still an useful and well-received answer.

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    "Well, I'm just a Masters' student, so most of my academia knowledge is very basic." your humility is incredibly refreshing; you'll go places with that attitude (and the insight you displayed in the answer).
    – msanford
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 17:06
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    @msanford Thanks for the kind words. I guess my main point is that some questions from within academia can have answers from outside of academia. So, as long as you know what you're talking about and write an useful and clear answer, your affiliation shouldn't matter. Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 12:52

As a user can obviously garner several hundred rep or more without a direct or deep or active involvement in academia, there are obviously questions you can answer successfully and appropriately.

However, being aware of the lack of direct experience means you must carefully consider whether, by virtue of not being involved, there are things you don't know that critically undermine your answer accuracy and relevance.

Given the number of academicians that fail to do this (a small but still identifiable superminority), and given an apparent awareness of the issue, you're probably fine as you are.


Some question actually can only be answered from an outsider's perspective. Applying for industry jobs is a prominent example. Many PhD students will have questions related to this topic but a typical academic career path does not include leaving academia.

If you post stupid stuff, you will be downvoted. Similar to other SO site, bad answers will move down, good answers move up. Your answers with upvotes were considered helpful - write more of these!

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