In light of the recent Stack Overflow post on being more welcoming to newcomers, I believe it is worthwhile for us to explore what we can do to help new visitors ease into the site.

While I do not believe we should relax standards for what is considered an acceptable question, nor should we answer repeat questions "just to be nice."

However, it does seem appropriate that we do a better job explaining why we have issues with questions that are posted in a way that helps users try to improve their question if possible, or be a clear explanation of what's wrong.

Are there any other suggestions for how we can implement this initiative here on Academia.SE?


Something that was pointed out in a recent answer on another question here on meta:

Often a newcomer will ask a question which turns out to be a duplicate. This question will then be marked as such, and often nothing further will happen.

While this is all as it should be, it may leave the newcomer feeling like they did something wrong for not finding the duplicate themselves.

For this reason I propose that when we mark such questions as duplicate, we also make some remark indicating that this is not a fault with the question, and that the existence of this new version will help future visitors to find the answer they need. Hopefully, this will make the newcomer feel more welcome and they will be more inclined to stick around and ask other questions or even answer some.

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    Are you suggesting an automated note, or something like creating a culture where individual users leave some comment to the newcomer? If automated, I think what would be best is if the user gets notified with a message (rather than this just getting automatically posted in the text of the question), but is this possible on SE? – Kimball May 1 '18 at 19:02
  • @Kimball To be honest, my thought on the matter did not really go any further than what I wrote in the answer, so I have no idea what a good implementation would look like. – Tobias Kildetoft May 3 '18 at 7:39
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    An automated note would be nice, but that requires a higher level of implementation than we have access to. In the meanwhile, we can certainly leave a note. – aeismail May 10 '18 at 14:47

Adding to Tobias' plea for better explanation of duplicate flags, I suggest we give an explanation more often (whenever we can?) for any close-votes.

Sure, we already have "canned" explanations that come with a close-vote, but since they are necessarily phrased in general terms, the OP may have difficulties to understand what specifically makes their question (for example) opinion-based.

In fact, we should always be able to explain how the general close-reason relates to the specific question. Such a reason-giving requirement would not only "be nice" to new users, it would also help safeguard borderline off-topic questions and make us less "trigger-happy".

I sometimes find myself wanting to close questions for being "too broad" just because I can't think of an informative answer, or for being "unclear" just because I don't quite understand what the issue is. But that doesn't mean that someone with better expertise cannot give a useful answer to a somewhat broad or (to me) opaque question. If others here have similar impulses, it might be a good idea to ask for specificity or clarification, wait if edits are made or useful answers are given, and only then, after a while, decide whether voting to close is actually helpful.

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    Another good reason to explain the closevote is that if the question gets closed, only the 'majority reason' gets stated. So, in that case all advice you give for improvement is lost if you've voted for a 'minority reason'. – Discrete lizard Apr 30 '18 at 10:15
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    There does seem to be an exception: if multiple Q’s are selected as duplicates, they all get listed. – aeismail Apr 30 '18 at 13:19
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    Sometimes what I try to do is leave a comment stating that the question is not appropriate but suggesting how to refocus their question so it is more appropriate (and not vote to close or wait to vote). Unfortunately, I think the OP has rarely listened to these suggestions (for reasons I suspect alluded to in the Stack Overflow post linked to in the present question). – Kimball May 1 '18 at 19:06

Lighten up on enforcing rules for the sake of enforcing rules. This is a problem all over StackExchange, and academia.SE is no exception.

Comment deletion is a good example. Newcomers may not remember that comments aren't for answers, and may think comments are for short responses. But their (possibly highly upvoted) comment may get deleted for no other reason than too many other comments accumulated below it, so a mod moved ALL the comments to chat. Which is the same as deleting them, for people who have no interest in using chat. A lot of thought goes into some comments, and nothing discourages new users more than semi-arbitrarily deleting the content they contributed. (In fact, I am not a new user, but I still struggle with this. Sometimes, the thing the OP most needs to hear is not a direct answer to their question, so it wouldn't fit as an answer. I have had such comments removed without even getting a notification, and it makes me want to contribute to the site less.) At the very least, there should be an upvote threshold above which comments aren't removed so willy-nilly. (Or maybe they can be automatically converted to answers in some situations?)

We should also not be such sticklers for whether something is on-topic. Blatantly off-topic questions should of course be removed, but there seems to be a culture of "when in doubt, say no" just because people like to be sticklers for rules. It's not hard to see how this discourages newcomers. If we're not sure, why not leave the question up and see if any good answers result.

We need something like "Rule 0" which would roughly state "ignore the rules when following them would make the site less useful." This would not only make the site more welcoming, it would make it better.

(The obvious response would be: if the rules are hindering us, we should make better rules and follow those. But life is not so simple. We know good content when we see it, but we can't always write down a finite set of rules that will reliably sort good content from bad.)

  • As a moderator, I do try to go through comments and keep high-voted ones before deleting them. They can't be converted into answers, though—we don't have that level of control over comments. – aeismail May 2 '18 at 21:41
  • As far as the notifications for deleted comments, that's a problem with the SE design—comments are not meant to be permanent. For off-topic questions, we have tried to make sure that the close reasons are as narrow as possible. We want to answer any reasonable question, but letting certain kinds of questions in will dilute the site. That's why we don't have shopping questions, or questions related to undergraduate coursework. But the latter caused a problem because people were spontaneously closing anything with "undergraduate," so we tried to fix it. – aeismail May 2 '18 at 21:46
  • FWIW: I have often flagged comment chains for moving to chat, but usually when I think someone is creating noise with wild or inaccurate or argumentative comments. Since comments can't be downvoted, even when they are clearly demonstrably misguided or incorrect, low-quality comments can lead to threads getting out of control. YMMV – Yemon Choi May 3 '18 at 1:22
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    @YemonChoi Sure, but I've seen many babies thrown out with the bathwater when all of the comments under a question or answer are moved to chat. Sometimes comments contain the most valuable insights on the entire page. It doesn't make sense to me that comment purges seem to usually be all-or-nothing. – user37208 May 3 '18 at 2:50
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    @aeismail: That's why we don't have […] questions related to undergraduate coursework. – Those are clearly on-topic and (at least according to my exegesis of the convoluted old rule) always were. – Wrzlprmft May 3 '18 at 8:25
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    Newcomers may not remember that comments aren't for answers, and may think comments are for short responses. – From my experience, this is not a newcomer problem. Not only do you need 50 reputation to comment in the first place, but most answers as comments are written by users with reputation in the thousands. – Wrzlprmft May 3 '18 at 8:26
  • Sometimes comments contain the most valuable insights on the entire page. It doesn't make sense to me that comment purges seem to usually be all-or-nothing. – If comments contain the most valuable insights, something is wrong anyway; there are many people who do not read comments at all or last. Moreover, many comment threads moved to chat contain mostly answers as comments and replies to them – where would be a good line to draw here that doesn’t lead to further problems (“Why was my comment deleted, but this wasn’t?”, “Now this comment is separated from my reply”)? – Wrzlprmft May 3 '18 at 8:26
  • Which is the same as deleting them, for people who have no interest in using chat. – I honestly fail to see this as a problem. Even if you do not want to use chat actively or even have any SE account, you can still read all of the comments. Now, if you wish to reply to a comment, you need to use chat, but then we have a case were chat is really the more appropriate platform, as it has more capabilities than comments, namely allowing for targeted replies. – Wrzlprmft May 3 '18 at 8:26
  • @Wrzlprmft Then I guess my question is what to do when the best response to OP is not a literal answer to the question as asked? (This includes, but is not necessarily limited to, challenging the premise of the question.) If I post it as an answer, it may get removed for not answering the question. If I post it as a comment, it may get removed for being too much like an answer, or just because too many other comments were posted under it. – user37208 May 4 '18 at 0:54
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    @user37208: If you ask me: Challenging the premise to some extent is totally fine (please do not challenge information the asker cannot provide for some reason like: “are you sure that what you do not want to repeat was really offensive?”). Use a comment for things that only apply to some detail that is not relevant to the general question (i.e., to others with a similar problem). Yes, those may be moved to chat, but I think at least an asker can be bothered to look at moved-to-chat comments of their own question. Either way, we probably should have a separate Meta discussion on this … – Wrzlprmft May 4 '18 at 5:33

Is it possible to change the minimum reputation to unlock the chat privilege? Or changing it from "privilege" to a "basic right".

If new users had the opportunity to be redirected to the chat they would feel more welcome, having the opportunity to discuss opinion-based questions or being helped by others when facing some confusion/misunderstanding.

Recent example: Should I do BSc in mathematical physics or theoretical physics?

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    Reputation requirements are SE-wide, so that means it would need to be done at a higher level than here. – aeismail Apr 30 '18 at 13:20
  • But pointing the poster to chat may not be such a bad idea for these kinds of questions. I tend to not use chat too much, so I forget to point other users there. – aeismail Apr 30 '18 at 13:21
  • @aeismail Thank you, I didn't know that. However, for users with more reputation it is still a good step forward for integrating them with the community. There are several users daily active in the chat or, at least, visiting it to see if there is any discussion going on (including myself). – The Doctor Apr 30 '18 at 13:34
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    Besides this being a SE-wide requirement, I think it would also solve issues SE-wide (I can see the use on the sites I frequent, at least). Perhaps it would be good to raise this on Meta Stack Exchange, but I have no idea where. I don't really like SE-staff's 'behind doors' survey+ 'hidden chat' approach to solving this problem, why not do everything in the daylight, as we usually solve the problems on SE? – Discrete lizard Apr 30 '18 at 13:45
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    Sadly, I am guessing that moderation problems would go up substantially in chat if no reputation was required to enter, or at least that this fear is behind the minimum reputation. I agree, though, that something in this direction might help new users. – cactus_pardner Apr 30 '18 at 17:11
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    Mods can invite users to chat. Perhaps we need to flag questions where it’s appropriate for mod intervention in this way. – aeismail May 2 '18 at 15:20
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    What would help is if room owners could invite users (without the required reputation) to chat (feature request on Meta SE). Then we would just need to make a few interested and reputed users room owners of the Ivory Tower. These users could then also perform any ensuing moderation if required. – Wrzlprmft May 3 '18 at 8:36

As a relatively new person here, I think the response about duplicates up above is a good one. Just to add to that, I feel like there are times where a question has maybe one answer, and it's not at all comprehensive or directly relevant to the new question being asked, but close enough where some would automatically close it.

I know this is basically asking for more lax standards in closing a duplicate, but I really do feel like there are sometimes pretty unsatisfactorily answered questions from a few years ago and it would be nice to seek a fresh and more relevant (and hopefully comprehensive) response.

Last point (and unrelated to the first)... I was directed to SE by a few colleagues, and they warned that it's mostly for STEM/comp people, and if you're humanities, social science, etc. you won't get much out of it. I guess I don't have an explicit suggestion here, but that feeling has certainly rung true for me so far.

Edited to add: I don't intend this at all to be snarky, but one relatively simple fix would be to figure out how to incentivize more people to answer more questions. I was searching through the first few pages of recent questions just a moment ago, and most questions had 0, 1, or 2 answers. If someone asks a question for the first time and gets 1 answer, they may not think it worth it to return and engage further.

  • Given the nature of SE, it's not a surprise that the majority of users are in STEM fields. That said, we are not exclusively a STEM site, and welcome all disciplines. – aeismail May 2 '18 at 21:35
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    Also, the solution in the case of wanting better answers for duplicates is to provide a new answer to the older question. – aeismail May 2 '18 at 21:50

I think users should have some better way of selecting tags or some tags should automatically be assigned to a question rather than the user having to explicitly search for a tag that may not necessarily exist.

Also, off-topic questions by new users should be automatically migrated to the suitable SE site rather than closing the question or deleting it which may leave a bad impression on the new user.

Downvotes for answers and questions should be attached with a 'reason' for the downvote so that the user knows what went wrong , this might also help avoid random downvoting.

And i personally think , questions from low reputation users who are fairly new should be put on hold for 10 minutes at a checkpoint once the user submits the question so that the moderators and bots have a chance to filter out very far off or inappropriate questions rather than having to clean up later , also to make up for the 10 minutes , new users can be allowed to post every 30 mins and all the questions that the moderators didn't get a chance to check will get posted automatically after the said 10 minutes.

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    Automatic tagging requires a level of AI that the system probably doesn't have. Perhaps they could offer up a list of the most frequently used tags on a given site as a set of starter choices, but you can't go much further than that. Migration is also a similar problem: how do you decide which site to send it to? – aeismail May 10 '18 at 14:51
  • using a large set of distinctive keywords for each site and comparing with those in the question , the system can suggest the user if that qn is better off in this site. – theenigma017 May 10 '18 at 15:45
  • @theenigma017: Given that human beings blatantly fail to apply tags or suggest migration targets, I strongly doubt that an automated system can do it. – Wrzlprmft May 10 '18 at 16:12
  • i mean if you see "research" and then you see "thesis" and "professor" in the question, it is headed over to academia-related sites and not something like health or chemistry @Wrzlprmft – theenigma017 May 10 '18 at 16:17
  • @theenigma017: Take a look at this. – Wrzlprmft May 10 '18 at 16:23
  • @Wrzlprmft not just one keyword, match 3-4 distinctive keywords and you will end up with a narrow topic, there might be exceptions, but in the long run , it might work. – theenigma017 May 10 '18 at 16:28
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    there might be exceptions – yes, but then people posting on the wrong site are exceptions right now. You would at least have to be that accurate – actually much more accurate to outweigh the frustration if your algorithm incorrectly suggests the wrong site. Take a look at some some migrated questions and consider whether an algorithm could have done this. – Wrzlprmft May 10 '18 at 16:58
  • @Wrzlprmft then how about using such an algorithm to suggest a group of possible tags, that would be really useful and have less chances of going wrong when the user can decide rather than searching for a tag... – theenigma017 May 10 '18 at 18:02
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    Leaving a comment explaining downvotes is already one of the good practices recommended by SE. I didn't understand why the "holding time" would help new users to feel welcome. The other suggestions are based on the site framework, while the human interaction plays the key role in this issue in my opinion. The moderators already have been migrating several questions to other sites (I think that I saw three questions migrated in the past week), so I don't think we need an automated system. – The Doctor May 11 '18 at 0:04

Please don't overcomplicate yourself. We just need to answer their questions, and they will feel welcome. What about this? We force our lovely moderators to answer each and every newcomer question, no matter what they ask. The new users will see exactly 5 answers from our moderators, they will feel very happy.

I think it will work as our moderators spend most of their awake time on this site anyway.

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    Yeah, not going to happen. Even if we had the time, we don't always know the answer. – StrongBad May 13 '18 at 3:35
  • Haha, I think forcing the mods to do it might be a bit much, but encouraging people to be chattier than usual in comments when screening first posts might help. – cactus_pardner May 14 '18 at 0:38

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