There are already a couple of questions from non-professionals, like this question about action potental, for example. This question is likely to be closed soon, there are already some closing votes there.

But shouldn't we also encourage non-professionals to participate and ask the questions they can't find an easy answer? The question is common, I have heard it already many times from my friends who don't have any biological background and if in the future the question and answer are easily found on our site this will only support it.

So, I would encourange these questions. They are easy for every bio professional and might lead to popularization of biology as science.

  • $\begingroup$ These aren't problems that people need resolutions to for any reason other than personal interest. $\endgroup$ – Nick T Dec 15 '11 at 23:48
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    $\begingroup$ @NickT, are you against personal interest? Keep in mind that even though the interent is vast and (frequently) informative, there comes a point where getting answers to questions of a certain level of specificity, even if they're from laymen, becomes highly burdensome. This seems to be a terrific place to encourage such questions. Obviously there has to be a fairly high threshold for what constitutes relevance, but I think if you limit this forum to Q&A strictly by and for professionals, you're likely to have very little usage of any kind. $\endgroup$ – Dr.Dredel Dec 17 '11 at 7:29
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with Dr.Dredel. I'm not a biology professional, nor do I have any extensive education in the subject, but I do read a lot of biology reference. This site would be a wonderful place to clarify things that I can't get my head round. Limiting it to professional-level questions only would be a debilitating blow for people like me. $\endgroup$ – Polynomial Dec 18 '11 at 22:05

This is something that comes up often during the private beta. I'm not going to discourage things or say what the current state of the site is, but I will say, encourage the high level stuff as much as you can during the private beta, not the non-professional stuff. Naturally, you should still encourage high level material when we exit private beta, but during private beta is where it strikes hardest.

Remember that during the private beta, you are among the very few who have access to the site at the moment. Being accomodating to new visitors isn't quite all that necessary because you won't have new users. The ultimate goal of the private beta includes holding up a large amount of high quality and professional content. It's easy to attract non-professionals, but much harder to attract experts. Gathering this content is a lot easier while you still have a controlled population of experts in the subject matter.

New experts are more likely to come to the site if it the professional material is not overwhelmed by the "school level" material. We should still have room for lower level, but make sure not to sacrifice the professional level in the process. You can wait until the public beta to start encouraging the non-professional stuff, as quite frankly you'll get it then anyway.

On the subject of closure. Unless we aim to flat out outlaw the presence of non-professional questions (which I would consider a very bad move given how long it took for this site to get off the ground), I don't see a point to closing what is otherwise a valid question. It's not the kind of thing we want to make up with the population of the private beta, but really all it means is that it should be balanced by higher level material. Not closed. That's my personal thought pattern on that.

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    $\begingroup$ The question is closed now, I voted to reopen again. I agree that we should try to keep the level high in the private beta, but closing it is not the right way to do that. I'm not a fan of the two-level split, I see no problem with having questions from researchers and students or laymen side-by-side, as long as we manage to keep enough experts here on the site. $\endgroup$ – Mad Scientist Dec 15 '11 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ I agree. @Nick T makes a good point that the issue is how broad the question is, and that little to no prior research was done. Recommending/requiring more focused questions is good idea. But I don't want a community made up exclusively of people who already know what everyone else is talking about. I quite like the idea that there would be room on this site for laypeople with serious interest to get real questions answered. $\endgroup$ – yamad Dec 16 '11 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ @yamad I tried to reword my position to make it more clear which probably aligns it with your stance. Laypeople are welcome to ask questions here so long as they demonstrate some effort in understanding whatever beforehand (and ideally specify what they're caught up on). $\endgroup$ – Nick T Dec 16 '11 at 2:08

I am an expert (sadly not in Biology). I voted for this site because I love to learn and am always curious about what people who actually know stuff have to say, on most topics. Over on SO (where my expertise actually counts for something) things have been going downhill. There is a great deal of spiteful down-voting, questions being closed because united teams of "fanboys" shut them down, and the whole enterprise is moving towards something that is much less open and inviting than what it was 3/4 years ago.

I would strongly encourage you guys (and gals) to not stifle layman participation. There is room for everyone, and if you look at the questions you currently have, the vast majority of them are exactly what you've said you want... highly technical and entirely on-topic. The bottom line is that you WANT people like me here. I promise not to pollute the space with mindless drivel, and I was already able to offer a reference to a study that was relevant to the questioner, even though I picked it up reading a popular science book (Incognito, by David Eaglman).

If nothing else, I'd wait to really get engaged in this whole concern until there was something to actually be concerned about! At the moment there's no evidence that anyone is coming here to post questions about what hormone they should be taking to sound (and look) more like Justin Bieber. My advice (as a long time Stack user) is to not overreact and just see what sort of participation you get. Ultimately, if the experts you're so hoping to woo don't see the value of using this format, I seriously doubt it will have been because of the occasional question that is just slightly too broad!

And lastly, the question in question (that was closed and re-opened)... it's a GREAT question! And I challenge you to quickly and easily find an answer to it, online. Keep in mind that in order to find a good answer, you have to be able to ask JUST the right question, or the search engine won't know what you're after. And it's not a generic biology question. I seriously doubt the average biologist knows the exact mechanism by which the brain's neurons communicate and how the electrical impulses are generated. I suspect (and I'm entirely prepared to be wrong here) that this is something that biologists who don't specialize in neuro-science, would have to look up, just like anyone else.

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    $\begingroup$ To comment on the last part, this was a very basic question I'd expect every biology student to know. That the electrical impulses in neurons are generated by ion channels is something every biologist learns, it's probably even high school level knowledge in many areas. $\endgroup$ – Mad Scientist Dec 17 '11 at 12:06
  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't want to stifle "layman participation", but I still strongly urge that we focus our efforts on expert level material while we're in the Private Beta (which, on average, will only last for 4 more days). There'll be no shortage of incoming material once we open to the public - free season, as it were. $\endgroup$ – Grace Note Dec 17 '11 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Mad Scientist, we could go back and forth for 20 years arguing about what is or isn't "basic". I totally get what you mean. You want this site to be for those of you who are actually educated in various Biology fields, rather than to be a general purpose Biology reference board, for people of all stripes. I would argue that the Stack format is as effective as it is because it DOES invite everyone to come and participate. Over on SO there are tons of questions that are clearly posted by non-professionals and people just getting their feet wet. That makes it better, not worse :) $\endgroup$ – Dr.Dredel Dec 17 '11 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not opposed to questions from laymen, I'll probably write a bit about my opinion later. You might notice that I voted to reopen the question this is about. But there is a certain danger during the early beta when too many non-expert questions are asked, as Grace noted. I don't mind non-expert questions personally, but we need to be a bit careful during the early beta. $\endgroup$ – Mad Scientist Dec 17 '11 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ Wikipedia actually provides some great explanations and if the answers here basically end up copying that, then the question doesn’t play to the site’s strength. But apart from that I would also encourage layman participation, at least as long as there is no “popular science” SE site. If for no other reason then because biology is actually damn interesting for many people, and a place to ask questions and get great answers currently doesn’t exist. $\endgroup$ – Konrad Rudolph Mar 1 '12 at 16:39

What is a non-professional? Biology is studied by all sorts of scientists from all different backgrounds. My training is in Chemical Engineering so I would know little to no evolutionary biology. However, if my research requires me to understand basic concepts in biology then I will ask basic questions in biology.

It is much more important that experts answer the questions rather than experts ask the questions. An amateur answering an expert question is much more of an issue than an amateur asking a question. Isn't the point of participating on a Q&A site because we aren't all experts?


I'm a non-expert and I want to:

  • ask questions on this site and
  • ask questions that experts find interesting

Who knows if I am capable of this. But I'll keep trying.

  • $\begingroup$ The questions that we promote should be those that experts have in order to help each other, not simply be a one-way passing down of information. This exchange will keep people invested in the site. $\endgroup$ – Nick T Dec 15 '11 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ @NickT My hope would be that non-experts have something to offer experts at some point. I agree this can't be done without education, of course. No one should ask anything out introductory biology at minimum. $\endgroup$ – AlanSE Dec 16 '11 at 1:24

No, you shouldn't encourage questions from non-professionals. Remember Joel Spolsky's advice:

StackExchange sites are for experts. . . The only kind of questions that should be on this site are questions you might imagine a professional. . . asking another professional. REMEMBER: a pro site WILL attract amateurs, but an amateur site will PUSH AWAY the experts.

In Stack Exchange Podcast #19, Joel said that his father, a professional linguist, was repelled http://linguistics.stackexchange.com . The show notes say "Joel's dad thinks it's full of amateurs."

http://biology.stackexchange.com gave a similar impression to my wife, though she's too nice to call people amateurs. She said she doesn't see any value in answering a bunch of basic questions. I pointed her toward someone on your site who I think is doing a great job answering questions, and she agreed, but said the site has too many questions that are too basic. (Personally, I think the site is too broad. All of biology and related fields?)

Then we looked at the web sites she does get value from professionally, the places where smart people are asking and answering tough questions in her field. Unfortunately, they are members-only LinkedIn groups:

Look, I know this is hard. I'm sure you're trying. I don't know you people. But don't let a walled garden like LinkedIn win! :)

And before you suggest that my wife sign up 200 friends or propose a new site on Area 51, please know that she's too busy for that.

Hopefully, time will solve this problem. Hopefully, professionals in biotech will propose a Stack Exchange site and make it awesome. I don't mean to be pessimistic.

  • $\begingroup$ In response to your claim that “the site is too broad” – I think that’s good! Only like this can we get a critical mass of participation. Stack Overflow actually suffers the inverse problem at the moment, with too many specialist sites budding off. This has the consequence that experts tend to cluster around their specialist sites and don’t frequent SO any more, but people coming from Google (i.e. non-regulars but not necessarily non-experts) don’t know where to search and ask. $\endgroup$ – Konrad Rudolph Mar 1 '12 at 16:42

I was trying to draw parallels to SO about how people there don't ask very broad questions on "how things work", but occasionally they do, and they're tolerated to a limited degree. There, things are generally self-limiting as the tremendous volume of technical questions drowns them out, and the askers are generally programmers themselves, who could also be answerers. The bar to being a programmer is low (not that that's bad...it's good, but it's just the way it is).

Because of the nature of this site's topic, virtually anyone could come up with dozens of general-interest questions which could rapidly precipitate many more. If these are prominent, they could take over and the biologists that we wish to attract may not come, or worse, be driven off, leading to the rapid death of the site.

I believe the question in question as it stands currently is toxic to the site and prototypical of what should not be allowed here. It is too basic and demonstrates little-to-no effort on behalf of the asker. It is neither helpful to those we wish to attract to our community nor best asked of them (a link to an encyclopedia article would be a better use of everyone's time).

If the question was more specific, referencing some part of a Wikipedia article or other paper or review and saying "I don't understand X", that is totally different and perfectly acceptable.

  • $\begingroup$ Another approach could be to try and improve the question, if you have the time and patience, into something that can stand as a good question and answer to redirect duplicates to in the future (assuming it's a common enough amateur question) $\endgroup$ – Lisa Dec 16 '11 at 3:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Lisa I am the first to try to improve a question if I think there's something there to be salvaged, but that one is far too general $\endgroup$ – Nick T Dec 16 '11 at 3:34

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