This critical answer on Academia.SE from Meta.mathoverflow deserves some attention, in my view:

The problem with academia.SE is that it is very different in style from MO and other SE sites. The paradigm of SE is that the questions are well-defined enough to have a correct answer, and the answers, well, attempt to provide it. Academia.SE is more of a discussion forum. Opinion-based questions, as well as non-questions flourish. Popular questions tend to have many answers repeating various talking points in different ways; it is telling that the answers almost never have any references/citations. The answers get upvoted not because they offer any useful insight, but because the upvoters agree with the opinions expressed there. Often, the highest upvoted answer is quite short and simply states an opinion.

My opinion is that this strikes an open wound and identifies an area where we need to improve.

I don't mean to strike down on subjective answers overall. Subjective answers can still have a positive role, when they identify good practices or suggestions, or are in areas that are not so well documented. And we are clearly not the only SE site with this concern; for instance, I would guess that most of Interpersonal.SE is subjective questions and answers where it is difficult or impossible to give a reference.

SE has some advice on good subjective and bad subjective questions, and suggests that these answers become a lot better if they share experiences over opinions, and are backed up with facts and references rather than just "because I'm an expert".

It seems to me that we often disregard these good practices on subjective topics, and do not worry about making our answers as data- and experience-backed as it would be possible, in many cases. Looking back at my post history I am myself guilty multiple times of this sin, so I do not claim to be better than the rest of the community. But I think that we should reflect on this feedback from an external user and try to improve in this area.

(Important: please do not go and downvote that Meta.MO answer --- it is difficult to get constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement if we mass-downvote those who provide them.)

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    do not go and downvote that Meta.MO answer --- it is difficult to get constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement if we mass-downvote those who provide them. – That answer basically says: “I don’t think Academia SE should exist, so we should not migrate there.” It’s not addressing the asker’s concern at all. Sorry, but that’s not constructive criticism.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 10:59
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    That answer on MathOverflow superficially misjudges the situation here. Following MO, I actually downvoted it when it appeared. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 15:03
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    @MassimoOrtolano Why do you think this judgment is mistaken? Personally I think it looks on point and we need to do some critical self-evaluation before dismissing it. For instance, on the last thread in which we both participated recently, that advice made me add some references to my answer, and I think the effort improved it. And surely there are many other answers that can be improved similarly if one tries actively to back up one's point and not sound like "because I say so". Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 15:16
  • @FedericoPoloni As soon as I have time to write an answer, I'll explain a bit better. In general, in my answers, I add references whenever I think that are needed (examples: 1, 2, 3, 4; for yesterday's answer I didn't have the time to add the references, but the sentence "there are guidelines [...]" means that I have those guides in my bookshelf and I checked them in the past exactly for cases like that one). Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 15:34
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    I have been wondering for some time if we should make wider use of the "needs citation" post notice (which would require a clearer policy on when citations are required). For example, the intersection between academia and law is fraught with complications (and few of us are qualified to answer), but such questions tend to attract low-effort, common-sense answers.
    – cag51 Mod
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 16:19
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    For many questions here, folks are sharing experience, often in terms of a hard-won opinion. (And, for fun, I still recall an early answer of mine that gave a personal example and then a final summary paragraph - one user downvoted and said the personal story was irrelevant and should be deleted.) As far as I can tell, many folks who answer here have been-there-done-that and are trying to give useful pointers to often complex human problems.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 16:33
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    @FedericoPoloni Have you spent much time on IPS? I'd say they have policies more in line with what you're suggesting here. Personally, I respect what they are doing but find the rules a bit onerous and strongly prefer the environment here. I'd be in favor of a more narrowly targeted citation requirement though, such as for questions bordering law like cag51 mentions.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 16:34
  • @BryanKrause No, I haven't spent much time on IPS, so my opinion is formed on a limited amount of data; if you have a pointer to this policy or some recent examples to share I'd appreciate it. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 16:50
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    @FedericoPoloni interpersonal.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/2993/… and interpersonal.meta.stackexchange.com/search?q=back+it+up are places to start. I think it's hard to get a picture of how it actually works on the site in practice without just participating, though (or at least following new questions/answers and see how the moderation/voting plays out).
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 16:53
  • Do you have any suggestions for writing a good experience-backed answer? I could imagine answers depending on several unrelated experiences, and citing all of them might make things quite messy.
    – GoodDeeds
    Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 3:04
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    I actually removed my account from ipse, although I was among the earlier users, once they began to single-mindedly enforce the "back it up" rule and started to demand useless anecdotes for common sense answers. If you work or have worked in academia, you have experience with it's rules and culture; there's no need to make that very explicit in most cases. Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 13:12

2 Answers 2


I don’t think we can be much more objective in answers than we currently are.

Many of our questions are about problems that are far beyond the reach of studies or are far too individual for somebody to have relevant personal experience. Hence, we are only left with basing our answers on good arguments, which is what we often do. Often “as data- and experience-backed as it would be possible” is “not at all”.

Why arguments are not listed as possible ways to back up an answer in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective always eluded me and I don’t think we can ask the author now. Maybe he simply didn’t think of questions that can be answered by argument as subjective at all.

What I consider the key to avoiding being overly subjective is to close or edit questions that can only attract too opinionated answers and guide askers to ask better questions in the first place.

Some specific replies to the cited post:

The paradigm of SE is that the questions are well-defined enough to have a correct answer, and the answers, well, attempt to provide it.

This does not even apply to the original Stack Overflow or Math Overflow. There are many questions which have multiple solutions. And Math Overflow appears to welcome questions such as this. Stack Exchange has a successful history of exploring what topics can work in its format under reasonable constraints. And our site is one of the results.

it is telling that the answers almost never have any references/citations.

See above: There is nothing reasonable to cite in most cases.

Often, the highest upvoted answer is quite short and simply states an opinion.

While concur that the opinion should be backed up by some argument, opinions are all we have. The importance is to distinguish between well-founded opinions and others.

  • Have you read the linked page on "good subjective and bad subjective", in particular the paragraph on "Great subjective questions invite sharing experiences over opinions"? I think it explains how we can improve even on questions that look hopelessly subjective. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 10:59
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    @FedericoPoloni: I know that page very well, but you asked about improving answers, not questions. (It also for some reason doesn’t list (reasonable) arguments as one of the ways to back up answers.) We do a lot to avoid hopelessly opinion-based questions or edit them and I think that’s the most important route to avoid becoming an opinion cesspit.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 11:06
  • Especially in this day and age, I find it very important to differentiate between well-funded opinions and well-founded ones. [The latter are harder to come by!] ;-)
    – user96809
    Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 1:27
  • If a question can only be answered with opinions, you can vote to close it. I often do. Example: "What is the best basket weaving department?"
  • If an answer is unambiguously an opinion (Example: "University A is better than University B."), you can downvote and leave a comment asking for the answer to be made more objective (Example: "If you are looking for a university that employs many professors of basket weaving, University A will suit your needs better than University B."). If you do this, keep in mind that answerers are not obligated to do your literature search or homework for you. If you want referenced answers, use Skeptics. Answerers are also not obligated to try and earn your upvote.

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