Every so often we get a shopping question (e.g. this one) about finding a suitable journal to publish some specific paper in. It's a good thing to close these as off-topic. However, can we also point the asker to the on-topic question about ways to find suitable publication outlets in general? Could this serve as canonical answer, or should we open a new thread from scratch?


Short answer

I would vote no. I think "canonical answers" only make sense when the canonical answer addresses (a) the user's actual question, or (b) some generalization of the user's question. Telling askers that their question is a "duplicate" of some vague, seemingly-unrelated question will only infuriate them. If we want to improve the status quo, we should provide the asker with a clearer explanation of why their question will not be answered.

Long answer

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I think the particular "shopping questions" you identified are a good example of the sort of issue identified by the above cartoon:

  1. Someone wants to know where they can publish their article about jubjub birds.
  2. They post here in the hope that we have an ornithologist or even biologist can recommend a well-regarded journal at the appropriate level of selectivity. They take the time to write out a clear, detailed, specific question.
  3. It....does not go well.

So what should we do in step #3?

I think the best thing we can do is to say "sorry, this forum does not recommend journals." In this way, the asker clearly sees why their question, no matter how reasonable or well-posed, will not get an answer here. They may not understand why we won't recommend journals, but there is no miscommunication or ambiguity.

On the other hand, closing as a duplicate of an unhelpful question is infuriating for the asker. Common reactions will be:

  • "It is not a duplicate; this is super broad, my question is super specific. Did you even read what I wrote?"
  • "Of course I could ask my advisor! Do you really think I hadn't considered that? But my advisor doesn't know / is a jerk / does not exist!"
  • "I'm a professional researcher with decades of experience, of course I know everything on this list. What I need is subject matter expertise. Are there really no biologists on this forum?"
  • "Argh. How can I rephrase my question to get an actual answer?"

Now I have nothing against canonical questions in general, but the key point, in my opinion, is that we should only close as duplicates of the canonical question if the wiki actually answers the asker's question.

  • For questions like "how do I get into grad school?" or "Is it true that your degree can be revoked after the fact?", it makes perfect sense to close as a duplicate of the corresponding wiki.
  • For questions like "can I get into X school with Y GPA" or "will my degree be revoked because I __", it's OK to close as duplicates of the wiki. Yes, askers might still be annoyed ("I already read this, but I was hoping for an expert opinion on my situation!"), but the wiki's potential helpfulness outweighs the asker's potential annoyance. It's a good practice to add a comment explaining why the question was closed ("sorry, we don't assess candidates or recommend schools, but the linked question might be helpful").
  • But I think we should avoid closing questions as duplicates of the wiki when the wiki doesn't actually address the answerer's question. In my opinion, there are too many "how does X affect grad admissions" questions closed as a duplicate of the wiki, when X is not discussed at all in the wiki.

In this case (requests for journal recommendations), the community seems to be against creating a giant ontology of journals, so we don't have anything helpful that we can link them to. So, I would suggest that best practice should be:

  • Close as a shopping question.
  • Add a comment explaining "sorry, we don't recommend journals".
  • If OP is a student, it might be worth further saying "sorry, we don't recommend journals. But this is really the sort of thing you should discuss with your advisor." In fact, perhaps we should have a canonical meta question about "When and why do we refer students to their advisor instead of just answering their question?" that commenters could link to.
  • 1
    I like your last bullet – Azor Ahai -him- Oct 31 '20 at 20:40
  • That makes a lot of sense. Thanks! – henning Oct 31 '20 at 20:46
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    "Close as a shopping question." This is the main reason why we should not have such a canonical question. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 1 '20 at 1:27

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