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Fellow Users of Academia.SE,

Recently on academia.SE and meta.academia.SE, I wrote that I was unwilling to have longterm participation in a site for which content -- specifically comments, although my own perspective is more of a blanket one -- which is on-topic for the site are being deleted. My feeling is that this is a mild form of academic censorship. I am very passionately against the encroachment of academic censorship, however mild, and I think the SE model is in some ways a credible threat to making inroads on this.

Although the moderator who deleted my comment apologized very nicely, two moderators found a statement of mine similar to the above "unconstructive", "vacuous" and "distasteful". When I pointed out that comments are treated the way I want them on mathoverflow.net and math.SE, the response was that this site is very different from those sites. [Added: The original comment was "Suffice to state, Math.SE is run far differently than any other SE site, this one included." I believe this comment to be inaccurate, which is why I did not repeat it exactly. If it is seriously intended that experience built-up on math.SE and mathotherflow is somehow a priori inapplicable here, someone should certainly speak to that.] That seems to be true, but also this site is in the "beta phase" because there is not enough involvement, so questions about what future course the site could take seem maximally on-point.

In other words: maybe academics don't like participating in a site which has such a highly gamified / follow-the-rules approach to what is largely volunteer work / networking on their part. This is certainly not a hypothetical question: this was the main tension in the decision of whether to move mathoverflow.net to the SE2.0 model. This was finally done only after many concessions from the SE developers, and the whole thing happened at least a year after the "negotiations" were first started: in the end the SE people agreed to several things which at the beginning they were adamant would not be possible.

Also a colleague of mine tried to start a math-education stack exchange site. I told her that this could be a good idea but also warned her that there were a lot of strange-looking (to us) rules and hoops to jump through, especially at the early stages. She tried it anyway, and the site didn't make it past Area 51: the cultural disconnect between interested math educators and people who like and enforce the SE platform was a little too high. More recently she -- assisted by my PhD student -- made an independent site which is similar to the SE platform but adapted to be less gamified and rigid: this is the Mathematics Teaching Community.

I am very interested to know whether other academics feel that there any cultural mismatch between the mainstream SE model and the goal of getting academics involved in such a question and answer site. Please let me know how you feel about the censorship question above and/or also this broader issue. I would appreciate answers from users who identify themselves with their real name and academic affiliations (past or present), although that is certainly not required.

Added: I remember now that I did once before raise the issue of censorship with respect to comments here. The practice I was talking about was different but, in my opinion, less severe than deletion.

Added on November 27, 2014: A comment of mine was recently deleted without warning or acknowledgment. This comment was pertaining to a question that was unilaterally closed by a moderator. My comment expressed -- wholly civilly -- an opinion about in what circumstances moderator closure was appropriate. It included the information that I had been typing an answer while it was unilaterally closed (another user had just said the same). Thus my comment about how moderator intervention literally wasted my time and nullified my actions on this site was deleted by a moderator. I have made my views on this clear in this question. When moderators delete relevant comments which pertain to them, they participate in the most troubling form of censorship. At the present time I will take a break from this site to reflect on these issues.

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    Actually, to make sure the record is accurately reflected, it was said that Math.SE is run in a very different manner than all other SE sites, not that Academia.SE is run differently from Math.SE. – aeismail Feb 18 '14 at 23:03
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    True, that's what's said, although these comments repeatedly ignored mathoverflow. Aren't the two sites math.SE and mathoverflow run in very similar ways with respect to the present issue? Or am I missing something? – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 23:17
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    No, they're not. Math.SE is notorious for being unruly in a way no other SE site is—including both Academia.SE and mathoverflow. I haven't seen enough of mathoverflow to have an informed opinion about how they moderate things. – aeismail Feb 18 '14 at 23:23
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    If you don't know how they moderate things on MO, how do you know that it is different from the way they moderate things on math.SE?!? Anyway, we were not discussing "unruliness", we were talking about the attitude towards comments. It was claimed that this attitude is unique to math.SE; I say that the attitude is similar (and probably more extreme) on MO. It seems to me that this makes the claim in question factually inaccurate, which is why I didn't repeat it in that precise form. If it is important to you to make this claim, maybe you should, and we can talk about whether it's true. – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 23:25
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    Observational experience from the dozen or so SE sites I've moderated, used, or visited suggests that Math.SE operates on a very different model in general. However, my goal was only to make clear that one of your statements didn't reflect the actual record of what was said. – aeismail Feb 18 '14 at 23:39
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    Please reread your first comment above (don't delete it!). There is a universal quantifier there. I think you know what that means. – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 23:48
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    I know what an absolute qualifier is. I am also saying that you're twisting what was said—the original comment said that Math.SE was the outlier; you're making it seem as if Academia.SE was the one that was being singled out, which it wasn't. – aeismail Feb 18 '14 at 23:54
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    Your lack of expertise with MO is somewhat disappointing to me by the way, since in terms of the clientele, MO is much more similar to academia.SE than other SE sites: namely, most of the people answering the questions are or have been graduate students, postdocs and professors. My understanding is that on other SE sites with a similar clientele (e.g. theoretical physics), the moderation style is similar to MO. Can you speak to that? – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 23:56
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    Now you're worrying me a little bit: an absolute qualifier is not the same thing as a universal quantifier. But this seems not to the be point: I was paraphrasing your words to try to make what you said more factually correct. But of course I support your right to your own words (!!), so I have edited in a direct quote. Is the proposed exceptionalism of math.SE (which I disagree with) actually important here, or is it just a distraction? – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 23:59
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    I'm an engineer, not a mathematician; the distinctions between the two aren't large enough for me to worry about. And my comment was meant as a correction, which you have now provided. If you want feedback on moderation on other sites, F'x can provide more useful comparisons, since he actually moderates another SE site. – aeismail Feb 19 '14 at 0:11
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    "I believe this comment to be inaccurate, which is why I did not repeat it exactly." Your disagreeing with a statement is reason to misquote it?!? You're an academic! What type of academic integrity is this? – eykanal Feb 19 '14 at 12:41
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    @eykanal: I didn't quote the comment; I paraphrased it, assuming that the inaccuracy was minor and unintentional. In this case the matter is not serious since it is trivial for anyone interested to see exactly what was written. But I take the point nevertheless; even before your comment I had edited in the precise quote. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 18:23
  • @PeteL.Clark I think your most recent edit is probably a different enough issue to be raised in its own post - see this post – ff524 Nov 28 '14 at 3:33
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    The Mathematics Teaching Community is down. Is this temporary or does it not exist any more? – wizzwizz4 Jan 6 '18 at 16:37
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First, thanks for raising this issue… though I do not exactly like the choice of words in your title and some of your post, it is an interesting issue of site policy, and something we should indeed discuss as a community.


I'll add a short answer here, as moderator of two other sites somewhat related to Academia SE (similar clientele): Chemistry SE (which I currently moderate) and French Language & Usage (of which I was a moderator for a year).

The “comment moderation” on both sites is somewhat more strict that it is here, and certainly not like MathOverflow at all. The policy, on both sites, is as follows:

Comments should be used to comment on a question or answer, and in the longer term, all information in these comments should be integrated into posts: integrate new information into the question, improve the existing answers, or provide an expanded point of view as a new answer. The only comments viable in the longer term are short ones, which do not necessarily warrant full new answer.

(it's not an actual quote, but since it concerns other sites, I wanted to clearly mark it as such and used the “quote” formatting).

 

As others have said, there are plenty of places to discuss about academia in general: forums, discussion boards, mailing-lists, chat rooms (including StackExchange's own chat server)… but the SE sites were not designed for that purpose. That's factual. That's what the SO and SE designers tried to avoid.

Now, whether this situation should be changed is a matter of discussion. In my opinion, it shouldn't. We shouldn't have SE sites become mainly discussion-based, because their different nature plays a big part of their success. I love the community here, I chat sometimes on the chat room, but if the site were to turn into something closer to a discussion board, I would not invest time in it any more.


PS: yes, part of moderation (not only by diamond moderators, but by all power users on SE sites) is censorship in its broader definition. I believe that your question would be more appropriately titled “What should the community's standard censorship/deletion of comments be?”.

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    F'x: Have you looked at the Mathematics Teaching website that I linked to in my website? It is much more chill about the distinction between "discussions" and "questions and answers", and yet it still seems to function quite well under essentially the same purpose as the SE model. Do you think that an analogous site for academics would be plausible, or do you think that having a "stricter SE standard model" is beneficial in the end? These are honest questions... – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 23:15
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    @PeteL.Clark I've looked at the linked site, yes, and it seems to have little traffic (few comments & answers per post, for example)… I think if it had the traffic we currently have on Ac.SE (or more), it wouldn't work as well. In fact, it would probably be a noisy chatroom, with little structure and no long-term curation of information, and I probably wouldn't participate in such a site. In my opinion, the current Q&A model of Academia is simply the one that scales the best, which is why I like it over existing discussion media. – F'x Feb 20 '14 at 8:44
  • Again, thanks for your answer. You may well be right... – Pete L. Clark Feb 21 '14 at 6:15
  • @PeteL.Clark I hope I am, because our traffic is increasing quite rapidly :) – F'x Feb 21 '14 at 8:54
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I'll repost here as standalone post (not a good practice in general, but we're on Meta!) a comment I left earlier when Pete asked “is the site doing just fine?”.

By all the metrics we have, yes… growing user back, growing number of frequent flyers, very good self-evaluations, me being very happy. Like all metrics, these should be take with a grain of salt (e.g., the last one), but I generally consider this site quite successful — though we should still strive for improvement! In fact, the site has been ready for graduation for a few months now, and is held up (along with a few others) because there's a queue at the “site design” stage.

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    I was wondering why it hadn't transitioned out of beta yet. – Suresh Feb 20 '14 at 16:44
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    Thanks for this answer. – Pete L. Clark Feb 21 '14 at 6:11
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SE is an information system, which means that information is structured in certain way. It's by nature different from a message board or a link sharing website. Comments are structurally volatile in the way the site work because they don't appear in the search, they cannot be downvoted, and only the top-voted appear at first, regardless of their initial position in the thread.

You can argue that we need some kind of persistent comments, and I will argue that there are plenty of other sites offering that possibility (e.g., reddit). SE is a Q&A website where the point is to have questions answered, in the most understandable way possible (i.e., without having to parse a thread of 20+ unstructured/unformated comments). Now, if enough other users are willing to change the way SE works, then so be it, and let's bring the SE developers on this. As long as the comments are managed the way they currently are, they should be considered as ephemeral.

Also note that, since you mention that I found a statement of [yours] similar to the above "unconstructive", I was referring to this statement of yours:

Deleting this comment because you personally think it is "irrelevant" is a bit offensive. If this happens again I will have to reconsider my activity on this site. (https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/17053/102)

But if you delete my communication while I'm communicating, then it is very disruptive and does not make me want to volunteer my time and expertise on a site like this (which would clearly like to have more involvement from career academics, not less, unless I drastically misapprehend the situation). (https://academia.meta.stackexchange.com/a/796/102)

Discussing about what is on topic is on topic. Threatening to withdraw your time and expertise is not constructive.

I also take the problem of censorship very seriously, and I'm trying to be as inclusive as possible. You don't want your content to be removed? Here is a simple trick: don't put in a comment! Update the answer accordingly. If it doesn't fit in the answer, then create the question for which such an answer fits. If no such question can be created on this site, then it's off-topic.

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    "You don't want your content to be removed? Here is a simple trick: don't put in a comment! Update the answer accordingly. " Editing someone else's answer to insert your point-of-view is also potentially problematic. If something comes up in a comment, it is easiest and most natural to respond in a comment. Yes, I certainly agree that I could post my content elsewhere and it would not be deleted. The question seems rather to be whether comments comprise "content". Since I often (as e.g. in the deleted comment) do scholarly work in order to make an accurate comment, I say they do. – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 23:15
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    Also, in this case adding a new question was appropriate, and was done, and it was a good question. But deleting our comments was an impediment to this process, not an encouragement of it. Sometimes though content is judged not to require a new question or a new answer. What is the motivation for deleting it? Not to clutter up the page? That just seems silly: sometimes you have to scroll down the page to read everything. Should we delete answers to questions to make scrolling down easier? – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 23:21
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    As Charles mentions in his answer, comments are not considered the equal of questions and answers. If somebody stumbled across the discussion two weeks from now and marked it as off-topic and recommended deletion, it probably would have been deleted, and that would have been the end of the matter. As I've said before, the goal is preserving the questions and answers for future users. If a comment has served its purpose, it can (and should) be deleted. – aeismail Feb 18 '14 at 23:28
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    "If a comment has served its purpose, it can (and should) be deleted." You keep saying this as though it necessarily had to be that way. It is not that way on the other two SE sites I am familiar with, therefore it does not have to be that way. Whether it should be that way on this site depends on whether the users of the site want it to be that way, right? It is part of the point of the question to explore that, so giving this as answer doesn't really make sense. – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 23:33
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    Moreover, I will grant that most comments are not eternally useful. It does not therefore follow that it is a desired practice that they be deleted at any time. If you think that my comments may be out of date and/or not useful, you can say so. Deleting the comment without consulting the author about it is the most extreme possible practice. I don't want my comments to be deleted by moderators just because they feel like it. Do others feel the same way? Let's see... – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 23:35
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    I'm not willfully going around deleting comments on my own. I respond to flags from users of the site. In general, SE mods are responding to flags on comments like "Fixed it. Thanks for the catch," and so on, where it is clear that the comment is no longer necessary. Off-topic comments are a different issue. It should also be noted that a comment doesn't "belong" to the commenter. If the answer or the question gets deleted for whatever reason, all the associated comments get deleted along with it. Is that also censorship? – aeismail Feb 18 '14 at 23:45
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    "I'm not willfully going around deleting comments on my own. I respond to flags from users of the site." Just because one person wants something deleted doesn't make it worthy for deletion. You're exercising your will as to whether the deletion is justified. "It should also be noted that a comment doesn't "belong" to the commenter." Let's not equivocate: every single comment is submitted by a particular user, is editable only by that user (or moderators) and is signed by that user. So there is a very reasonable sense in which comments belong to the commenter. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 0:02
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    Deletion of questions and answers is totally different: it is not permanent deletion. It takes several users to make this decision; this decision goes on record, and the decision can be reversed at any time by other users. Comments which disappear (to some) because the question disappears (to some) are not actually deleted; they reappear with the question. So the situation is much different. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 0:05
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    Exactly what the situation with the Creative Commons license and deleted questions/answers is a good question. In my opinion the fact that sufficiently high rep lets you see additional is clearly in the spirit of gamification rather than in the spirit of CCL. I presume that it a lower rep user specifically requested access to deleted content it would have to be granted. But anyway, these are some of the good reasons why the deletion process for questions and answers is more controlled and more reversible. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 0:07
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    @PeteL.Clark: Yes, if you request access to deleted content, and if it's justified (for instance, it's yours or you were involved in the discussion), it will be provided. And yes, deletion/downvoting for questions/answers is more controlled and reversible, which is exactly why useful content should be in them, not in comments. – user102 Feb 19 '14 at 8:23
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    Now, you might want to disagree longer, but I haven't seen any of your arguments particularly convincing to change our de facto policy on comment deletion (i.e., they can be deleted unilaterally). I'm therefore no longer interested in keeping this discussion going on. – user102 Feb 19 '14 at 8:24
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Every site that allows contributions from the community has to remove content occasionally if that content violates the rules of the site. The only difference is how many rules the site has and how strictly they are enforced. Never removing any content from contributors under any circumstance is not a viable strategy, you need the ability to deal with spam, offensive content and abusive behaviour at the very least.

Stack Exchange is a more rigid format than most comparable community-run sites like forums. A significant part of the value of the Q&A format is due to this rigidity and the rather strict rules attached to it, but it is certainly also a source of frustration if you use SE sites for something that does not fit well to the SE model.

The Q&A format is simply not possible without what you consider "censorship". Non-answers for example are routinely deleted, and the sites would be worse if we didn't do that. The attitude towards comments varies a lot between SE sites, MSE and MO are on one extreme of the spectrum here.

But I'd like to use MO as an example, because they actually do a significant amount of what I'd count as "censorship" under your view. They don't remove comments like other SE sites, but they are very strict with non research-level questions and with crank posts. As a mathematics professor you're very unlikely to be censored on MO, but someone posting "too easy" math on MO is very likely to have their contributions deleted quickly.

There is still a lot of room between the extremes in terms of comment deletions, and this is something that each community can discuss and come to their own conclusions and policies. I'm personally very strict in removing any comments that are likely to escalate or that attack other users personally, as a Skeptics moderator where we tend to deal with controversial topics this is simply necessary to keep the peace on the site. And dealing with those often causes collateral damage as the least problematic action is very often to remove all comments on a post. I'm far less strict with unproblematic, but also not that useful comments.

There are many valid postions between the extremes in terms of retaining or deleting comments, but I'd also like to add that I consider the MSE extreme to be harmful to a certain extent. I think this changed somewhat, or maybe it is simply more quiet on MSE now, but there were many very heated discussions on MSE meta including personal attacks in the past that were not deleted or only deleted much later. This lead to a rather hostile atmosphere there which is something I consider much more harmful than the removal of all those comments would have been.

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    There's a crucial difference between what commonly goes on on MO and what Pete is complaining about here: lots of non-research-level questions are closed, but not deleted. – Mark Meckes Feb 19 '14 at 9:07
  • @MarkMeckes The questions are also deleted, I can't provide any numbers as you need to be a mod on MO to see those, but I'm pretty sure that there is a very large number of deleted non-research-level questions on MO. – Mad Scientist Feb 19 '14 at 9:10
  • @MarkMeckes I found some data in this MSO post, Math Overflow has around 1000 posts deleted by the community or the moderators, around 4500 deleted automatically (mostly closed, unanswered questions) – Mad Scientist Feb 19 '14 at 9:20
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    The MO data is partly skewed by the transition to join the network, which led to a very large amount of automatic deletions. There was also a much larger amount of community deletions on MO before the transition because there was no automatic deletion mechanism then. – François G. Dorais Feb 19 '14 at 12:40
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    I will also add that a lot of the deleted posts on MO were not good faith posts (there's one person who writes a lot of rants about aliens, frogs in a well and when we're going to send his salary). – Ben Webster Feb 19 '14 at 12:44
  • To be clear, I am not saying that one should never delete "posts". I don't know any SE site that runs this way or could run this way. I am talking about deletion of content: i.e., what people agree is on-topic for the site at large but choose to delete for other reasons. The line is sometimes subtle, and in case of subtlety people should be more careful about deletion...as is certainly the case on the two math sites I mentioned. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 18:28
  • Keeping up the level on an academic site, as MO does for example, has nothing to do with censorship. It is their right to keep up a high level! – Dilaton Dec 15 '14 at 17:00
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I have always found the active comment deleting policy at many SE sites rubs me the wrong way. I understand that it's the usual policy so I don't usually complain about it, but I do think it's misguided. In particular, I don't like that comments can be deleted with essentially no record that they were ever there and no way for high rep users to evaluate whether the moderator was behaving reasonably.

Part of this may be mathematician culture, where it's natural to think of answers and comments as being at different levels of formality and so comments play a more crucial role. Part of it is also that as an academic I'm used to having more control over my speech than one would have in industry.

One thing MO does, is that when comments are deleted from the main page, a record of them is kept and linked at the meta site (well actually at tea.MO, but a thread on the meta site with an answer for each time this happens would work just as well).

I'd be very curious to hear from anyone who knows about cstheory.SE. My guess would be that since they're academics they have a similar policy to MO on comments, but I'm not sure. If it turns out that all the academic sites (MO, cstheory, the late theoreticalphysics) have a different policy from all the non-academic sites then it might be worth academia considering having a policy environment more similar to the academic sites than the non-academic ones.

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    As someone who deletes a lot of obsolete, useless, comments, I'm not sure I want to have a page linking to such comments. Of course, we could only link to the good comments, but then, who decides whether a comment is good? Without voting/editing mechanisms, it could be complex, whereas updating the questions/answers is much clearer. Note that comments are never really deleted, and are accessible to moderators. – user102 Feb 19 '14 at 20:28
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    Also, I'm downvoting this post only because I don't want to see Ac.SE becoming a conversation board, but I value the constructive input. – user102 Feb 19 '14 at 20:29
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    @F'x: Those sites are like m.SE and on all of them academics are a small minority of the site users. – Noah Snyder Feb 19 '14 at 21:50
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    @PeteL.Clark: The argument that academics behave differently from the general population is not particularly supported, and I certainly don't buy the argument that the user-base on Ac.SE should behave like that on MO. What is true for "professional mathematicians" (as indicated by MO) is not necessarily true for "academics of all levels" and of all fields. I, for one, do not care of how MO is managed or how SO is managed, I only care about how Ac.SE is managed. Let's change the policy because people here wants to change it, not because that's the way it's done on MO. – user102 Feb 20 '14 at 0:13
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    @CharlesMorisset: Fair enough, except that the main argument I've seen for deleting comments is "that's how it's done on SO." – Noah Snyder Feb 20 '14 at 0:27
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    "Let's change the policy because people here wants to change it, not because that's the way it's done on MO." Let's consider changing the policy if that's what the majority of people here want and if we feel that it would attract a larger portion of the target audience of the site. Again, I keep mentioning this and getting nothing in response. My feeling is that the site has significantly less participation from actual academics than it could or should have. Most of the participants here (including me!) are rather those who were attracted from some other SE site. – Pete L. Clark Feb 20 '14 at 3:41
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    I'm very confused (and a mod on cstheory). First of all, why would comments ever be deleted unless they're obnoxious ? as a mod, the only time I've ever deleted a comment was when someone was crossing the line into really bad behavior. – Suresh Feb 20 '14 at 6:17
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    @Suresh: In a nutshell: because they are not searchable, a thread of comments is not necessarily consistent (users can delete their own comments, making the conversation not understandable), which means that there should not be any useful content in them, and if they are not useful, they could be deleted. To be clear, we don't go around and delete all messages, but if a comment is flagged as off-topic/unconstructive w.r.t. to the question/answer (which was the case here), then according to SE policy, it will be removed (possibly asking first the users to move their content themselves). – user102 Feb 20 '14 at 7:43
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    But I don't see a serious harm in leaving comments as they are. It's not that often that comment threads get baroque (except this one :)). And frankly, even though I'm a mod and probably should care, I care two hoots about "SE policy" compared to my community standards. – Suresh Feb 20 '14 at 8:26
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    @Suresh we have many examples of “comment threads” with 20+ comments on the main site… a few comments replying to each other is usually OK, but large numbers make the information hard to find – F'x Feb 20 '14 at 8:37
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    @Suresh: The harm is the same as keeping off-topic questions. Individually, it's not a big deal if one subjective, off-topic question is on the site, but as a whole it clutters the site and make the useful information less accessible, possibly driving away contributors. The problems with comments is that they can only be deleted by the author or the moderators, which is why we need to have a clear policy on what to do with comments. Or we introduce a downvote/deletion mechanism for comments similar to that for answers/questions. – user102 Feb 20 '14 at 11:20
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    I don't think it's the same as off-topic questions, since questions are much more visible on the site. I have the same point of view as Suresh, and also find it a bit annoying sometimes to find that comments have been deleted, when an edit in the question or other comments refer to it. Of course, the author of the commented could have deleted it himself, so this is not only about moderating. In addition, I don't find that many comments make the "real" information hard to find, since they are collapsed to only show the most highly voted comments by default, when you open a questions page. – Pieter Naaijkens Feb 20 '14 at 11:42
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    In addition I sometimes find the discussion in the comments more interesting than the answer, even though it may be only tangentially related to the question or answer. I don't see the point in removing such comments only because they are off-topic (not with respect to the scope of the site, but with regard to the question or answer). – Pieter Naaijkens Feb 20 '14 at 11:43
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    @PieterNaaijkens: If it's really more interesting, why not creating the question and/or answer that brings this content into light, so that other users can benefit from it without having to scroll an unstructured thread of comments? That's the whole point of having a site with curated content. The point is not to remove comments alone, but to transform them into constructive/editable content. – user102 Feb 20 '14 at 12:28
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    @CharlesMorisset that's a valid point. But that still doesn't require anyone to delete comments. Merely nudge users to convert comments to answers: we even have a template for this on cstheory. – Suresh Feb 20 '14 at 16:37
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As Charles mentions in his answer, comments are not considered the equal of questions and answers. If somebody stumbled across the discussion two weeks from now and marked it as off-topic and recommended deletion, it probably would have been deleted, and that would have been the end of the matter. As I've said before, the goal is preserving the questions and answers for future users. If a comment has served its purpose, it can (and should) be deleted.

Ultimately, it's a matter of utility. While some commentary and feedback related to the question is always useful, off-topic feedback left as comments don't help users. Moreover, your helpful information is going to get lost, since it's not indexed and not searchable. So unless it's in an appropriate venue for the topic, it's going to get lost in the ether. Without the other question, nobody would know to look in the question on excluding authors to see your comments about the best math journals. You can put it there—but why would you want to have it stuck there where it's going to be almost guaranteed to go unobserved?

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    "You can put it there—but why would you want to have it stuck there where it's going to be almost guaranteed to go unobserved?" Great. That's what I want: that I can put it there. To aver opposite, you seem to be claiming that you know better than I do what is in my own best interest. Some of your answers seem to implicitly claim that, but I presume that is not your intent. – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 23:45
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    As for unobserved: my comment was going to be observed at least by its intended recipient. It is obvious that deleting a comment makes it less observed rather than more. As I have already said: if someone wants to suggest that I move my content elsewhere, that's more than okay. If you suggest that I move my content and I am unresponsive to that, then maybe at some point deletion is in order. But deleting the content first -- and remember, that from my perspective deletion is permanent -- is incredibly disrespectful. You are literally wasting my time, and that's not collegial behavior. – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 23:47
  • 1
    My job and my intent is to uphold SE and site guidelines. Your issue is with SE guidelines: any user with enough reputation can flag a comment as off-topic, and moderators are empowered to remove off-topic comments. I agree with you that deletion of comments shouldn't happen immediately—but you shouldn't expect off-topic comments to remain indefinitely, either. – aeismail Feb 18 '14 at 23:52
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    "My job and my intent is to uphold SE and site guidelines. Your issue is with SE guidelines: any user with enough reputation can flag a comment as off-topic, and moderators are empowered to remove off-topic comments." Your task is to enforce the consensus will of the site users and of SE employees. You describe not a guideline a(n unsurprising) site mechanic: moderators have the power to delete site content. They are not empowered to remove off-topic comments: they are empowered to remove all comments. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 0:12
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    I don't believe I ever said that I expect any comments to remain indefinitely. There is almost nothing that I expect to remain indefinitely: that doesn't mean that I am necessarily okay with nearly unilateral decisions to remove those things without any warning. The bottom line is this: when you remove my work without informing me that you are going to do it, you devalue my work and waste my time in the most severe possible way. That is not the way that professionals treat each other. It may be the way SE wants us to treat each other: those are not one and the same thing. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 0:16
  • 2
    I don't really know why we're still arguing here. I've already made the argument that it's wrong to delete informative comments from ongoing discussions. After a certain amount of time, though, it no longer serves any functional purpose. You agreed to my viewpoint. – aeismail Feb 19 '14 at 0:43
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    All I'm arguing is that content need not be permanently archive-worthy in order for it to be only polite and collegial to ask the author about it before deleting it. According to the SE party line, asking the author before deleting comments should not be necessary. According to me, doing so is impolite. If we can agree on that, then we indeed agree on everything of importance. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 2:34
  • @PeteL.Clark: We agree on the fact that asking before removing is better. But in cases like yours, it will be removed, because it's off-topic (and as a matter of fact, I just removed it, since the question has been asked). The point was to ask a new question, which has been done. Comments are never lost, and are always accessible to moderators if needed, so if a comment of yours has been deleted and you want the content back, we are happy to give it to you in the chat room. – user102 Feb 19 '14 at 8:16
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    @Charles: deletion of comments occurs without any automatic notice to the user whose comments are deleted, and the comments of mine that Jeff Atwood deleted were done without any comment about the deletion. That is maximally disruptive. Are you saying that whenever a moderator deletes my comments, s/he will inform me that this has been done? That would be a big improvement...but I suspect that that's as much or more work as just asking me to delete my own content or justify its relevance. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 18:31
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    @PeteL.Clark: I'm not sure what Jeff has to do with anything here. In your case, eykanal left a comment: "@just-learning While I appreciate your trying to reach out to these mathematicians, please don't do so here. It clutters the question with lots of text. Pete Clark lists his website on his page, and there you can find an email address and other contact information. Please use those for direct communication.", to which you replied, so you saw it. So yes, when Ac.SE mods delete content, they try as much as possible to leave message explaining why. – user102 Feb 19 '14 at 18:57
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    For people not aware, there's a history here were Jeff Atwood behaved very poorly on m.SE in deleting stuff of Pete's. It is also worth pointing out to Pete that the behavior we're discussing here is just not in the same ballpark as what Jeff did and that perhaps you're overreacting here due to your experience there. I think what happened here was totally within the normal range of moderator error and even though I disagree with it, I don't think it's a huge deal. – Noah Snyder Feb 19 '14 at 19:21
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    @Charles: Yes, the behavior by the moderators here is much, much better than what was done by the cofounder of the entire system. (The reason I bring it up at all as that many of the "standard", though odious to me, ideas about content are due to Atwood.) It is not even totally clear that the moderators made a mistake in the case at hand, although there was a gracious apology which I appreciated. I am sorry that my response is being viewed as making trouble. I am rather trying to probe deeper on what I honestly think is an issue that could be preventing many people from using the site. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 19:40
0

Ok, so here's the disclaimer: I am not really up-to-date on the discussion at hand so take my answer with a pinch of salt. I am giving my $0.02 to the question: "Is deleting comments a form of censorship?"


TL;DR:

Yes, it is... just as removal of any spoken/written communication would be censorship.

And, no it is not a deal-breaker for communication exchange. It might not suit everyone but it works in the bigger picture, evidently.


SE sites have a very specific structure and they attempt to reinforce a community moderation in a very specific manner.

I recall the first time I decided to ask a question on SO I was very frustrated with all the expectations that were put on a new user all of a sudden. It is also very hard to not take immediate and strict moderation personally.

But, if you can pass beyond that SE sites are amazing, in the sense that they connect people that would not, in a million years, be able to find one another and exchange ideas. In my day-to-day work, I am never scared of technical (i.e. programming) problems as I trust in my skills of searching, and reaching out to others with significantly greater expertise in the matter at hand; whether that is the proper use of a library, programming language or algorithm. That's is both a lifesaver at times and a miracle of the modern internet, in its own right.

However, much like all awesome things in life, internet has its downsides. Trolling is one for instance. Another one being people going off-track. There will always be clutter on the interwebs, and without moderation of weeding out things it would be a complete jungle out there. At SE sites, there is community moderation, meaning other users get to tag, retag, edit and even remove questions, answers and comments. It's not a water-proof way of doing things, but it is a valid way of keeping it tidy. If you feel that you have been unjustly treated, you take up your case with others in the community in meta (which is exactly what we are doing right now), and I have yet to meet a moderator that has been utterly and completely unreasonable.

Sometimes the structure imposed on a SE site might hinder the progress of the site, or your own participation in it. A relevant example I can give from my own experience is Sports.SE. I was thrilled when it started, and was very active for a while. Later on I had some disagreements with the way things are done there (with respect to scope, subjectivity and discussions) which I took up on meta, and the community did not have a clear opinion on the matter on way or another. So things were kept as they are, and I just realized that I did not have much to gain in sticking around. I check the site occasionally to see if there is anything that tickles my interest but more often than not I do not spend beyond 15-20 mins a week on Sports.SE.

So the take take-home message: if the community moderation principles do not work for you, then noone is forcing you to participate. It would be sad to lose users based on personal issues however it is also inevitable to some degree when so many people are communicating purely through textual messages (i.e. all other "cues" like body language, intonation etc are missing).

One advice, if I may, is to see to discourse here on SE sites as if you'd have a serious conversation with peers in real life. Nobody likes ever-branching discussions, and have the subject trailing off to other subjects when the matter at hand is yet to be answered.

Again, I am not sure what got you so frustrated but I hope you don't take it personally and choose to stay around for a while longer anyways. :)

  • 3
    I honestly can't tell from your answer whether you are aware that I have been one of the most active users on MO and math.SE over a period of about four years. I had a hand in creating the contemporary culture of these sites. I know for a fact that many academic mathematicians would not be interested in participation in MO if it were run in the more standard SE way. There is a big cultural difference between sports.SE and MO: people have different needs and expect to be treated in different ways. I suspect that many potential users of academia.SE feel similarly to those at MO. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 18:42
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    @PeteL.Clark No, I wasn't aware, and I don't see why I should be... I took the question and the OP as I would with any other user. I don't see why anyone's opinion is worth more than others. I do however agree that experienced users usually have better formulated opinions that have developed over time. At any rate, I am not a part of MO or Math.SE thus I cannot comment on what they have got going on there is good/bad/better/more fair/... What I can say however is that you are getting worked up about a relatively small thing. It's not worth getting frustrated over – posdef Feb 19 '14 at 19:24
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    It's not a question of "should": I thought (but wasn't sure) that in your answer you were trying to give friendly advice to a new SE user. That's not the perspective I'm coming from, so I wanted to give you information about my perspective. I am not personally agitated at all anymore (but only mildly dismayed that some people do not seem to want to see that there are legitimate things being discussed here): the action that was taken against me was reversed, and I got a very nice apology. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 23:00
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    @PeteL.Clark: Please support "inherently unappealing to many academics" with data properly sampled. MO is not representative of many academics. – user102 Feb 20 '14 at 0:41
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    @Charles: If I look through the samples of serious users (say with rep greater than N for some agreed upon value of N; N = 500 would probably be sufficient) of MO and academia.SE and count how many of them identify as tenure-track faculty or postdocs, I suspect that we will find that there are at least three times as many on MO as on academia.SE. Saying "please give data" is easy and gathering data is less so: do you actually want me to do this? – Pete L. Clark Feb 20 '14 at 3:47
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    I think though that your intended meaning is that mathematicians represent a relatively small percentage of all academics, which is certainly true. Areas which are very far away from mathematics / engineering / cs are very poorly represented on this site. It would be a much larger production to poll the larger academic populace and find out whether and under what circumstances they would participate in a SE-type Q&A site. That could be a very valuable thing to do, though. Are you interested? – Pete L. Clark Feb 20 '14 at 3:53
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    @PeteL.Clark two quick points; i) I think that it's a legitimate concern you took up, one that was not discussed as much before (AFAIK) and I don't think anyone has been trying to dust the subject under the rug. So, no need to be dismayed. ii) I am not sure your statement regarding the site being inherently unappealing is sufficiently supported. I'm not asking you go acquire data, but rather acknowledge that there is a growing community here as well. The fact that the format here may or maynot fit mathematicians is irrelevant since there are two sites for mathematics anyways. – posdef Feb 20 '14 at 7:57
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    @PeteL.Clark As for academics in general, I'm really not sure how you came up with the conclusion that the current format of moderation is inherently unappealing to the masses. I agree to several different limitations of the format, but I suggest to work around them instead of running at them head-on. For instance I, for one, am very interested in being able to discuss the subjective matters which isn't really a good fit with the Q/A format, thus I proposed: meta.academia.stackexchange.com/questions/532/… – posdef Feb 20 '14 at 8:00
  • 1
    @PeteL.Clark: I'm not particularly interested in such a study, because I believe the point of this site is to provide high-quality content, rather than an environment for a specific clientele. Up to now, I'm happy with the way to community has grown, and as a chosen moderator, I will not change the policy based on a hunch. As you said yourself, there are other places with less strict policies, so I don't feel the urge to change ours, people are free to choose. But please run for moderator election when it's on, to propose your view on what Ac.SE should be through your own moderation policy. – user102 Feb 20 '14 at 8:07
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    @Charles: The quality of the content is dependent on the clientele. To be entirely honest, I think that the site currently represents "people who are interested in academia and are active on other SE sites" rather than "academics". Your use of the word "hunch" is strange: I'm not primarily asserting whether something is true; I'm asking whether people feel that it's true. Have you noticed that several users and one moderator have replied by answering that they feel that it's true? – Pete L. Clark Feb 20 '14 at 8:39
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    Also, you asked me to supply data, and then I talked about it, and then you said you were not interested. I pointed out that I had already supplied a link to another site which may be relevant data and asked you whether you visited that site. You have not responded. You say that you are not interested in gathering data but call my provisional statements "hunches". You are coming off as rather intransigent. Are you saying that you are in principle not open to changing your moderation policies in the face of users asking for it? – Pete L. Clark Feb 20 '14 at 8:43
  • 1
    @PeteL.Clark: My bad, I meant "I'm not interesting in conducting such a study", if you come up with it, I'd be interested in reading it. Yes, provisional statements are "hunches". And yes, I'm not open to change a policy simply because a user asks for it. I'm open to change a policy if there is a clear benefit for the site, or if the clear majority of the community wants this change. The burden of proving the benefit is not on me, but on the user requesting the change. Again, please feel free to run for moderator when the elections are on. – user102 Feb 20 '14 at 8:54
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    Moreover, here is why I think the word "hunch" is off: a hunch is an assumption. You seem to think that I'm assuming that the site should be run in a certain way, and at first your answers were categorically denying that it would even be conceivable to run the site in that way. (That was frustrating.) Rather, I know that a small number of people would prefer the site to be run at least slightly differently, and I'm asking how many people feel the same way. I think that's a "hypothesis", not a hunch. – Pete L. Clark Feb 20 '14 at 9:07
  • 1
    And again, I really do not like the idea of site moderation where moderators compete with each other on the basic philosophies of the site. That happened on math.SE and it worked out very badly. Rather, the basic philosophies of the site should be made clear by the users, and ideally the moderators will do their best to enforce them. – Pete L. Clark Feb 20 '14 at 9:09
  • 1
    Anyway I guarantee that I will not become a moderator if there is the reasonable expectation of conflict with other moderators. I have a PhD student with substantial programming experience who made a SE-like site for my colleague. At this point it would be easier for me to ask him to create a similar site for me. In fact, I think I might have hit upon something here. If done in the right spirit -- i.e., not a Cartmanesque "...you guys, I'm going home!" but to see what actually works out the best for various people, then that sounds like an ideal experiment. – Pete L. Clark Feb 20 '14 at 9:11
-2

"Censorship" is a loaded word. It's not like anyone is stopping you from expressing the thoughts you expressed which were deleted here in some other forum.

But that said, I agree that deletion of comments should be VERY limited. If someone posts a comment that is clearly totally irrelevant to the purpose of the site -- "I make $10,000 a week working at home" or some such -- sure, that should be deleted.

But moderators on many of these StackExchange sites are way more aggressive than that. They talk a lot about "this isn't a discussion board, we are trying to build a database of quality questions and answers that can serve as a reference". Well sorry, but that's never in a million years going to happen.

The whole structure of the site is that questions are posted by random visitors. So there is no pattern or organization to the set of questions. This is not a well-organized FAQ carefully put together by a team of experts. The moderators do not create the questions and do only limited work to organize them.

The rules say that questions should not be general reference. That is, if you can find the answer by searching a dictionary or Wikipedia then you should not post it here.

So we have a stated goal: We are trying to build a database of general reference questions. Then we have a rule: No general reference questions allowed. Hmm.

Questions are then answered by random visitors, not by a team of certified experts. This practically guarantees that there will be contradictory answers, or at least answers that run at tangents to each other. i.e. there will be discussion in some sense.

So again, we have a stated goal: No discussion, no controversial opinions, just straightforward answers. Then we have a format that only makes sense if we expect contradictory answers.

So is this site for posting of alternative answers to questions, i.e. to discussion and debate ... or not?

  • As a moderator I would like to point out that while we are the only users who can delete comments, we generally only delete comments after they have been flagged (potentially multiple times) by other users. The one exception is when the community bot detections lots of comments and gives us the option of moving them to chat. As the comments only get moved, and not deleted, we generally do this when it seems like a discussion is occurring. – StrongBad Dec 31 '15 at 19:50
  • "The rules say that questions should not be general reference" - where is this rule? I am not aware of it. We have lots of general reference questions here. We also do not have any rules or stated goals regarding contradictory answers - they are allowed and encouraged. The only relevant rule I'm aware of is about engaging in extended discussion in comments. Extended discussion is allowed in chat. – ff524 Dec 31 '15 at 20:11
  • 2
    Honestly, I think this is an answer to a question which is rather outdated. It has been almost two years since I posted this question, and my feelings on the matter now are: the core users of this site (including the moderators) have gotten to know each other better and to understand and respect each others' point of view. I have had such a small number of negative reactions to moderator actions in the last year -- for sure I am happy with more than 99% of what they do. The fact that if I strolled into some random other SE site I would not like it as well is not lost on me. – Pete L. Clark Dec 31 '15 at 20:32
  • @PeteL.Clark that is nice to hear. The question is still useful. I think comment deletion and migration is something that we as a site need to continually think about. – StrongBad Dec 31 '15 at 20:36
  • @StrongBad Maybe a new question should be opened about it, then? – jakebeal Dec 31 '15 at 20:37
-6

I have a very hard time taking this seriously.

We have here a user who has only been really active in our community for about two weeks who was upset about comment deletion. He posted as such, a meta thread was made discussing the point; the community had agreed that the comments should have been deleted at a later date instead of immediately, apologies were made, and the matter should have ended.

However, instead of accepting the community's approach, this user posted a long, grandstanding thread about censorship, and started questioning whether the community—which the user had just joined two weeks prior—was well-run. Never mind that, by all measures, this community seems to be doing just fine; never mind that the bit of moderating in question is performed numerous times daily; never mind that the moderators of this site have been pretty willing to engage the community when taking moderator action.

This all seems to be the grandstanding of a new user who is unused to the way our community is run and doesn't like what he is finding. While we are still in beta and the community can change, we've just passed the two year mark; this community has definitely matured significantly since inception. I fail to see any direct, convincing arguments being put forth in favor of change.

  • 2
    Not taking people's concerns serious is certainly not going to help. And what does it matter if someone has been very active only recently? On the contrary, it may hint at issues that deter people from contributing to the site. – Pieter Naaijkens Feb 19 '14 at 15:56
  • 1
    @PieterNaaijkens: The initial concern has been taken quite seriously (meta.academia.stackexchange.com/questions/795/…). The global attitude of the user, which is basically "do-as-I-say-or-I-will-leave" is harder to take seriously, especially when it goes against the SE-wide policy. – user102 Feb 19 '14 at 16:19
  • 2
    I don't understand why you feel this is not serious; that's disappointing. Concerning my membership: I'm not sure why it's relevant, but I have been a member of this site for almost two years. I have been much more active recently, to the extent that after two weeks of activity I have one of the highest reputations on the site. That's a sign of SE site which has relatively little activity (although it also means I suppose that my answers are relatively highly upvoted). – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 18:34
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    I am especially disappointed that you view my asking the community to explain its feelings about an important issue as "grandstanding". (I was also asked to start a new question by a moderator.) Isn't that the core purpose of the meta site? Whether you find the arguments convincing seems much less important than whether the majority of the community agrees with them or not. That you don't seem to fully agree with this is also distressing. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 18:36
  • 1
    And also: is the site doing just fine? After about two years it is still in beta, with provisional moderators. Many of the questions come from very confused students who are not talking to their advisors. The site would benefit from an increased presence of academic professionals. In my question I explained concerns about why the site administration may be turning off such people, including giving examples in which this has definitely happened on other related sites. I am sorry if you are not willing to engage in these issues; I think there is something here. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 18:39
  • 3
    It's understandable for anyone (moderator or not) to be upset when they feel they've been unreasonably criticized, and I understand where you're coming from here since your experience is with sites where this is settled policy. That said, part of having a diamond is that you're promising to stay above the fray and not say petty mean things like this answer. – Noah Snyder Feb 19 '14 at 19:10
  • @PeteL.Clark: You're starting to show the signs of trolling, which are not particularly welcome here. This thread is not about you raising the issue of how comments are managed on the site, and what we can do to improve them, it's about you complaining that you have been censored. There is a clear difference that I'm sure you should be able to perceive. Perhaps you're having fun keep arguing about this topic, but I don't think others are. You have had your answer, please accept it. – user102 Feb 19 '14 at 19:11
  • 1
    @Charles: I strongly disagree with your last comment, essentially from start to finish. First, I am not trolling: what I am doing is motivated by a desire to improve the site. Second, my question is motivated by something that happened to me personally, but is much broader than that. Finally, we are having a discussion and seeking involvement from community members. We are getting such discussion and involvement. That's a positive thing. I am sorry if you don't want to be involved in such a basic discussion about the future of the site, but it is certainly your choice. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 19:44
  • 2
    I'll just short add a comment about “is the site doing just fine?” — by all the metrics we have, yes… growing user back, growing number of frequent flyers, very good self-evaluations, me being very happy. Like all metrics, these should be take with a grain of salt (e.g., the last one), but I generally consider this site quite successful — though we should still strive for improvement! In fact, the site has been ready for graduation for a few months now, and is held up (along with a few others) because there's a queue at the “site design” stage. – F'x Feb 19 '14 at 20:14
  • @PeteL.Clark: I'm not particularly looking for your agreement, I'm letting you know that your behavior looks like trolling. Then, this is not a discussion, this is you arguing against everything that is said, and yet we are still at the same point than aeismail's answer on eykanal's original thread. Thus, this is not a constructive discussion. – user102 Feb 19 '14 at 20:17
  • @NoahSnyder - While I disagree with your "stay above the fray" comment—as mods are by definition the ones wading into the fray—I understand your viewpoint. I apologize if this came across as petty. I'll delete this answer after the discussion is over, as it doesn't seem to add anything to the discussion. – eykanal Feb 19 '14 at 20:20
  • 1
    @CharlesMorisset: And I'm letting you know that it isn't. That seems like the most important part of a conversation: if you doubt that I am proceeding in good faith, we are not succeeding in communicating at all. I have not argued against everything that has been said, and I do think that the conversation has had its constructive aspects. One thing that I find it strange is that no moderators have addressed the issue of whether site-specific features may be specifically antithetical to the academic culture, although three users have upvoted Noah Snyder's comment along these lines.... – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 22:44

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