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A question was recently asked about the gender distribution of the 2021 Nobel Prize laureates. I cast the deciding "close as off-topic" vote on this question. I felt this question was off-topic for two reasons:

  • There are many a number of Nobel prizes, some of which are only very tenuously related to Academia. Similarly, there are many areas of Academia for which there is no Nobel prize.
  • Nobel Prizes are awarded to individuals working in all sectors, including government, academia, industry, and individual work. - Mea culpa... research-adjacent fields are on-topic
  • The Nobel Committee is in no way "academia"... it is a small set of people who make decisions based on their own set of criteria, and their metrics don't necessarily align with academia's idea of success.
  • The specific question asked above—asking about gender distributions—is clearly off-topic, as that has nothing to do with academia, academic achievement, or the award. It's a general critique of a decision-making process for a specific non-academic award-granting committee.

I'm posting this here to start a discussion on whether I was wrong to close this question and to solicit reasons in both directions.

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  • Do you want to ask about “a question” in general or “this question” specifically?
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Oct 11 at 18:46
  • I'd definitely like to ask first about this question, which I think is much easier. The title question is definitely more broad and worth answering as well.
    – eykanal Mod
    Oct 11 at 18:53
  • What is "academia's idea of success" anyway?
    – Anyon
    Oct 11 at 20:22
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    The question wasn't about "gender distribution". I was about what the Nobel Committee has to say about its choices. I think you've made a mistake here.
    – Buffy
    Oct 11 at 20:32
  • @Anyon - As I wrote that I realized its not the best sentence. I dunno... Pubs? Tenure? Making an actually useful discovery? Abusing grad students? Very few, if any, academics would list "getting a Nobel" as a typical goal for an academic [citation needed].
    – eykanal Mod
    Oct 11 at 21:37
  • @JoelReyesNoche The question was closed and then reopened after some discussion here. There's a record of it in the timeline. Not sure why you don't see it.
    – Anyon
    Oct 12 at 2:28
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    @eykanal Yeah... "getting a Nobel" isn't a very realistic goal to pursue. Anyway, my comment was somewhat rhetorical as academics make for an eclectic bunch, with diverse goals and desires. Still it's interesting that you mention "an actually useful discovery" since that's quite close to the criterion Alfred Nobel stipulated for the science prizes. I think there is some common ground there, in the pursuit of important and enduring work.
    – Anyon
    Oct 12 at 2:52
  • @Anyon, I can see the timeline now. I misunderstood how to view the timeline. Thanks. Oct 12 at 6:17
  • @Anyon: I'm assuming Joel was confused by the question not having a revision history displayed (which is because it hasn't been edited); however, as you mention, the closure and reopening is still noted in the question's timeline.
    – V2Blast StaffMod
    Oct 12 at 9:31
  • @V2Blast yes, exactly. Oct 12 at 11:40
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My two cents....

To the title question: yes, absolutely. When in doubt, we should try to accept questions, not try to close them.

There are many a number of Nobel prizes, some of which are only very tenuously related to Academia. Similarly, there are many areas of Academia for which there is no Nobel prize.

Physics, economics, literature, medicine, and chemistry covers a wide swath of academia.

Nobel Prizes are awarded to individuals working in all sectors, including government, academia, industry, and individual work.

So is this site.

The Nobel Committee is in no way "academia"... it is a small set of people who make decisions based on their own set of criteria, and their metrics don't necessarily align with academia's idea of success.

This is perhaps the strongest argument; how much "expertise" can we offer about Nobel prizes? I doubt we have any laureates among us. Still, I suspect that we have enough expertise to handle many questions...and if not, the fact that none of the academics here were able to answer a question is probably also a meaningful outcome.

But, it is less clear to me what we should do with this specific question. This is a Q&A site, and the Q in this case was:

I'm wondering if the Nobel Foundation has said anything about this.

I guess this is answerable, but the only way to find out is to Google around and then report "I found something" or "I couldn't find anything." So, this does not seem like a great question to me (what can we do that OP couldn't do themselves?). On the other hand, it's possible that this question will lead to some interesting answers from which we all learn something; if so, then great.

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    I agree with your take here. I disagree with your last paragraph, though... if a question is bad, I would rather close it sooner than wait for it to accrue bad answers.
    – eykanal Mod
    Oct 11 at 19:45
  • On that, we do not disagree. I personally am not sure whether the question should be open or closed; I don't plan to vote either way. But if we decide to close, I agree sooner is better than later.
    – cag51 Mod
    Oct 11 at 19:51
  • what can we do that OP couldn't do themselves? Because the topic is relatively new + topical, it's something that I would expect articles to be written on. Not at once, but eventually. Other people searching for the same issue would 1) find articles written after I searched and 2) possibly find things that I would not have found, because they use different and possibly better search terms. I did find something before I asked the question, but it didn't answer the question.
    – Allure
    Oct 11 at 23:33
  • Also repeating the search now, I clearly should've used Google instead of Ecosia, and searched only for results in the past week.
    – Allure
    Oct 11 at 23:35
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    "Physics, economics, literature, medicine, and chemistry covers a wide swath of academia." Hmm, I'd argue that - in the specific context of the Nobel prize - "literature" is actually less directly related to academia than the other disciplines you've listed. The reason is that the prize in literature is not given to people who study literature (which would clearly belong to the realm of academia), but to people who produce literature (as opposed to, say, physics, where the prize is given to people who study physics). Oct 12 at 2:50
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To repeat my comment here: awards are on-topic. We even have an tag. If awards are on-topic in general, major awards like the Nobel prize surely are on-topic as well. Regarding the individual points raised in the meta question about why the Nobel prize should be treated differently:

  • there are many Nobel prizes that are "related to academia". Those are on-topic
  • Nobel prizes are often enough awarded to academic researchers and they carry huge prestige in academia (as well as outside)
  • award committees and other bodies that matter for academia aren't always populated by members of academia, but that doesn't mean questions about their decisions are automatically off-topic (e.g. publishing companies, accreditation bodies, government agencies in education)
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    My argument against this is pretty much that this is a bad question. Questions in the "awards" tag tend to discuss more practical aspects of awards (listing on CV, flying to receive, application), not a general critique of the process. This specific question is more of a societal complaint. I highly doubt we'll get a member of the Nobel Committee answering here.
    – eykanal Mod
    Oct 11 at 18:42
  • Yes, I see where you're coming from. Perhaps not a question that will attract a very satisfactory answer. Still hardly off topic.
    – henning
    Oct 11 at 18:51
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    Users argue all the time across StackExchange that their very obviously off-topic question should be allowed because there is a tag for it... it's not a particularly convincing argument in my view. There is an awards tag here not because awards are on-topic in general; there is an awards tag here because some questions that are on-topic because of the site's scope happen to be related to awards
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Oct 11 at 20:28
  • @Bryan Krause regardless of the tag, I don't see how awards are not generally on-topic here.
    – henning
    Oct 12 at 6:18
  • Simply having a tag, especially one used so little, is not a good argument. Someone could request to burninate the tag and then it could disappear, or it could be renamed, or probably a dozen other things that eventually eliminate this as an argument at all. That's a pretty shaking foundation. Oct 13 at 18:37
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This is a bit of background only. I hope it is more appropriate here than it would be for the question it refers to.

The Nobel prizes have a couple of problems, the first, at least, recognized from the very beginning. The first issue is that Nobel's original intention was to award it to young researchers at the start of their career, who showed promise, in order to give them funds for their research. But it was immediately recognized that there were a lot of old academics/scientists/etc whose work was so important that it was decided to first start with them. But it never changed back to the original purpose. Note that the prize is only given to living persons and so Stephen Hawking never "earned" one in spite of his contributions to physics and the understanding of the universe. Some of what he theorized was only verified after his death.

The second problem is that the prizes are heavily, though not entirely, biased towards the sciences, and it is the sciences themselves that have a problem recognizing women's contributions. The imbalance in STEM fields is well recognized. There have been examples of prominent scientists (I think a Nobel winner) whose reputation was due to the work of an female member of his lab and he just appropriated her ideas as if they were his own. Clear plagiarism, unrecognized at the time.

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  • Perhaps you are thinking of Francis Crick and James Watson, with the excluded contributor being Rosalind Franklin? Although I don't doubt that they are the only example. Oct 11 at 21:05
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    Franklin is best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA while at King's College London, particularly Photo 51, taken by her student Raymond Gosling, which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix for which Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.[10][11] Watson suggested that Franklin would have ideally been awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with Wilkins but, although there was not yet a rule against posthumous awards,[12] the Nobel Committee generally did not make posthumous nominations.[13][14] Oct 11 at 21:06
  • Her contribution was poorly recognized, the Nobel prize exactly a bit less clear (see above). Oct 11 at 21:07
  • The most clear-cut case of a someone stealing a student's Nobel-worthy discovery was Anthony Hewish claiming credit for the discovery of pulsars by Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
    – Buzz
    Oct 12 at 0:33
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    @Buzz She wasn't treated fairly, but her case still seems to fall short of the "clear plagiarism" line mentioned in the answer, since she still was on the papers. I wonder who Buffy has in mind.
    – Anyon
    Oct 12 at 2:39
  • Lise Meitner also deserved one, but this wasn't plagiarism either en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Vladimir F
    Oct 14 at 7:16

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