We're nearly 100 days into the beta now, and we have accumulated some nice content here on the site. But one aspect I'm a bit concerned about is the amount of laymen questions compared to expert questions.

My subjective impression is that the largest block of questions are from laymen, asked out of curiosity. We also have a significant amount of student level questions, some homework question and quite a few about textbook-level biology. Questions by biology professionals seem to be the smallest part, and I also have the impression that we're often struggling to get good answers to them because we don't necessarily have a second expert in that field here.

We don't want a site exclusively for experts here, but we need enough experts to ensure the quality of the site. And I'm doubting a little at the moment how attractive the site currently is for experts that view it.

Am I worrying about nothing here, or do others share my observations and my concerns? And should we do anything about this?

  • $\begingroup$ I have two suggestions which could aid this... First we encourage experts in to the site by sending links to the biology.stackexchange to email mailing lists which biologists use telling people about the site and inviting them to join (e.g. evoldir mailing list for evoltuionary biology). Secondly we can start getting experts to ask and answer their own questions, for example, my work involves using hemiclones, I could post a question saying "what is a hemiclone?" and then post a detailed answer. $\endgroup$ – rg255 Nov 21 '12 at 14:49

Since it's been asked, here are some statistics concerning your beta.

The whole process is carried out by a small Mathematica program. The youngest betas are at the top of the barcharts. So Biology is older than Poker which is older than Mathematica.

Have fun!

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  • $\begingroup$ That's great, I was going to do it myself manually on Google Spreadsheets but never got round to it xD $\endgroup$ – Rory M Apr 4 '12 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ Not to brag, but Mathematica makes this process a breeze. $\endgroup$ – CHM Apr 4 '12 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ Nice! It seems we have to work on the percentage of answered questions. Some unanswered questions are perhaps too localized, and since the questions asked per day are not that bad (on 42 older beta sites, only 8 are better than us), we can probably encourage questions with wider interest so that it will be easy to find someone able to reply. $\endgroup$ – Gianpaolo R Apr 5 '12 at 9:38

100 days is a nice round number, but it is too early for a critical review. But good opportunity for some thoughts. I agree with Alexander, more patience. This site has many high rep users with academic background near or in biology when you look up the users page. I like the level of questions between popular science, textbook and research-related. Having the opportunity to get answers on research-questions would be fine, but this is very hard for experimental branches. Look on physics.se, there are nearly zero questions on experimental research questions or tricks. This type of questions are often too localized and tricky so that you cannot promote a coherently interested community with it. Even theophys.se (despite many phd and profs post there) has a hard time to produce enough good questions. This is more caused by the nature and scientifc questions of this discipline better fitting a discussion than a Q&A format than some mismanagment/moderation or failed area51 process. Mathoverflow or cstheory.se work because a single smart mathmetician or programmer can understand and solve a much broader spectrum of problems and questions in that branch (similar language and methods in many math. subfields), while experimental/natural sciences disciplines need a lot expertise and experience in distinct subfields.

The chemistry.SE is going to start soon, also over 50% academic commiters, which looks very promising for such a much less popular scientific branch than physics or biology (I dont know a good chemistry blog :) ) So this will add additional expertise and questions to biology.se and physics.se. I havent seen many user from physics.se here, but this will probably be different for chemistry, which has stronger overlap with biology.

There is always the problem of finding a common denominator between popular science and research level. And it is known now, that research-level questions are better put to a new proposal (tcs.se or theophys.se) when you have attracted enough students and professionals on student-level sites like physics.se or stackoverflow. Why not make a theoreticalbiology.se proposal when the time has come? Patience, this site looks very promising and computationalscience.se, chemistry.se, physics.se will probably create quite some synergy effects in near future.

Something I'm unsure about is if questions on experimental methodology (like NMR, scanning probe techniques, microscopy, there was recently a question) should be migrated to physics/chemistry.se. These questions are often tricky, but also these experimental measurement methods are often strongly adapted to specific experimental questions in a scientific branch. Most physicists (I am one) dont have background in these highly tricky methods, it's more likely a physicist working in biological research and surfing this site or a good biologist with experimental experience can give you a answer on biology.se. You wouldn't ask about biomechanics of a cheetah on physics.se, although it is plain physics, only biologist are interested and teached in this stuff. Maybe somthing that should be discussed in another meta thread, but belongs to the future and scope of this site, so seems good opportunity to mention it here.

The cognitivesciences.se is currently imploding (a lot of meta discussion, very bad stats and a failed area51 process). So trying to answer some interesting neurobiology questions here rather then migrating them there is also something I want to point to. Neuroscience/-biology is a interesting topic. But gathering experts for these type of questions will IMHO only work with a high quality biology.se and theobio.se site. SE fails to attract user with serious background in humanities (psychology, philosophy) as a site for mainly STEM and Programming students & professionals. This is no surprising thing looking at what proposals work and not work on SE.

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    $\begingroup$ Theoretical biology is a discipline between biology and mathematics, not just a "biology for professional". $\endgroup$ – Marta Cz-C Mar 22 '12 at 6:59
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    $\begingroup$ I know plenty of chem blogs. Does In the Pipeline not count? pipeline.corante.com. I actually have a hard time finding quality non-ecology biology blogs. Perhaps we should discuss in chat? $\endgroup$ – bobthejoe Mar 22 '12 at 8:02
  • $\begingroup$ Really good commentary :) $\endgroup$ – Rory M Mar 22 '12 at 8:48
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    $\begingroup$ Excellent summary here I think. This site is looking promising. Focused, non-open ended cutting-edge research questions can be tricky to ask and even harder to answer. In my case, I can count the number of experts in my field on one hand! What we need is to continue to ask and answer a range of questions from "layman" to "expert" until we get a critical mass of good users. I think we are on the way. $\endgroup$ – Poshpaws Mar 22 '12 at 11:54
  • $\begingroup$ @jonsca I'm employed, "married with childs" :) and lacking time. I participate/contribute mostly in meta's to improve and speed up good content sites on SE I'm hoping for. I did on cognitivesciences.se, but I'm sure this site will end like philosophy.se, I'm not investing time in it. On main sites I'm more a passive reader of interesting (higher level than reddit/quora) Q&A. $\endgroup$ – Werner Schmitt Mar 22 '12 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Marta I know, you are also allowed to ask questoins on exp. setups on theophys.se. The point is more that mostly master or phd students will learn advanced theoretical biology in courses, not suited for bachelor students afaik. Similar to bioinformatics, which is in Germany implemented in special master courses where students begin doing research. $\endgroup$ – Werner Schmitt Mar 22 '12 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ @bobthejoe thx, will take a look, I'm regular reader of german sci blognetwork, mainly physics and biology, unfortunately. It's not sexy topic for a large audience. So many chemists dont write one $\endgroup$ – Werner Schmitt Mar 22 '12 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ @poshpaws as long as we dont create popular science one liners without specified context like reddit/quora, this site will do fine, but this would be my criterion to downvote/close questions. $\endgroup$ – Werner Schmitt Mar 22 '12 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ @WernerSchmitt You may certainly invest your time as you wish, but if you're not directly involved with the site (looks like you visited a month ago) you really don't have the justification for making blanket statements. Last time I checked, Meta process was a healthy thing for a site, and we're all still in Beta here. $\endgroup$ – jonsca Mar 22 '12 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ @jonsca the SE super mods make all the time comments and answers on meta to advise SE newbies, although they dont participate directly in main section, because we (who followed older successful betas) know what goes wrong sometimes in beta period. You should be glad we share our knowledge. SE logs you out after distinct time (week or so), I frequent a site every 1-2 weeks, I follow sites im interested in. As you see, I dont have to do a lot q&a here to contribute insightful analysis and points to think about where some high reps agree on or at least consider points to discuss... $\endgroup$ – Werner Schmitt Mar 22 '12 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ @WernerSchmitt Your reputation record does not afford you that right. If you haven't participated, you haven't been on the site as far as I'm concerned. You're certainly not a "super mod" or even in the neighborhood. $\endgroup$ – jonsca Mar 22 '12 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ @jonsca I mean users like SE employees robert cartaino observing and trying to advise beta sites. I dont care about my rep, you dont have to have high rep or mod status to be allowed to contribute to meta, Im even allowed to upvote on all new sites I join (for distinct reasonsons with 100 rep) It seems more like you have a misconception about the democratic nature of SE or why we have that right. Moderation/Improving sites is right and duty of every user, not only 10k reps. Lets quit here, it seems you want to misunderstand me,because my facts damage cogn.se, which already had serious problems $\endgroup$ – Werner Schmitt Mar 22 '12 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ The cognitivesciences.se is currently imploding Speak for yourself. $\endgroup$ – Ben Brocka Jul 26 '12 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ because we (who followed older successful betas) know what goes wrong sometimes in beta period. You should be glad we share our knowledge. I don't see a single site to which you have contributed significantly and don't feel any reason to be glad to hear your knowledge. $\endgroup$ – Artem Kaznatcheev Jul 26 '12 at 2:11
  • $\begingroup$ @artem the many user here who upvoted this any many other of my meta-posts and also downvoted many ones obviously disagree with you. Welcome to science, where it is not important who says something or how much reputation he has, but only arguments count. Seems a lesson you still have to learn as a phd-student, if you only allow positive critcs, you should really quit science $\endgroup$ – Werner Schmitt Jul 28 '12 at 23:46

Perhaps, this depends also on the kind of visitors landing on these pages. Do we have statistics about this? We should have. From the analysis of keywords and referrals one can discriminate non-expert vs expert content demand and take corrective actions.

To increase visits from professionals, I wrote a Biology.SE review in my blog: Biology.SE - the first 100 days. Reportergene blog is mainly read by researchers. I'm accepting suggestions: I can edit the review to optimize the visits here. In addition you can write similar reviews or share this one with your colleagues. Hope this helps.

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    $\begingroup$ like this review, good objective advertising $\endgroup$ – Werner Schmitt Mar 22 '12 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ Really encouraging to see more promotion! If you're interested in getting a small reward for your efforts you should replace the standard question link with your referrer link for the questions/answers to count towards Publicist and other promotion badges :) $\endgroup$ – Rory M Mar 23 '12 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Rory, I've done thanks. I was not aware of the referrer links... $\endgroup$ – Gianpaolo R Mar 23 '12 at 21:26

I would agree that we have a very few questions that target professionals and, that is more important, have a research-level answer.

But I don't see any problem here. We keep accummulating the questions that are common for many "popular science" forums and really scientific questions are rare in nature, for scientists prefer ask them directly during meetings and conferences (this is what people later reference to as "personal communication"). Besides, every publication today contains emails of the corresponding author so you can clarify your question without going to a web forum.

Generally we are slowly completing all the requirements for a beta SO project, but the growth is slow and we will need a lot of time to reach the "excellent" values in the number of visitors and questions per day. Anyway, we are growing and that is important.

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    $\begingroup$ I disagree. "This is a free, community driven Q&A for biology researchers, academics, and students." It should not be another "popular science" forum. $\endgroup$ – Marta Cz-C Mar 22 '12 at 8:02
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    $\begingroup$ This is a strong point, but we can't grow into a researchers' portal without going through this stage: the questions from non-professionals encourage the academics and professionals to come here and as long as they feel home here they can start asking questions too. I don't see any other way to this goal. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Galkin Mar 22 '12 at 9:41
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    $\begingroup$ There's a large amount of possible questions on the PhD student or Master student level, about experimental methods and laboratory stuff. Those are topics that are important for scientists working in a lab, and those topics should be able to attract experts. $\endgroup$ – Mad Scientist Mar 22 '12 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Marta I think the type of highly popular science one liner questions you read on reddit.com are the ones we want to avoid here. Many good scientist write popular science books and attract students this way to university (Lubos Motl, Peter Shor are SE members). So a well-scoped popular science question asking for overview or link between different subfields is IMHO ok and advertising. I think researchers will often stay here if they see other known scholars have joined the community. No reddit/quora one liner. Keep them in a minority. I think this is a easy criterion we could agree on. $\endgroup$ – Werner Schmitt Mar 22 '12 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ I also disagree. It is possible to make a research-level Q&A without going through popular-science (for instance cstheory has done this). I also don't think you can attract experts just by making a popular science site, you have to actively target experts in order to attract them. This doesn't mean you can't entertain popular questions, but it does mean that you have to go beyond that to attract experts. $\endgroup$ – Artem Kaznatcheev Jul 26 '12 at 2:16

I think the issue is more the lack of quality answers. I'm scanning through my previous questions and it seems that people have plenty to say about my "laymen" questions than my "expert" questions.

If anything the best course of action is to simply ask more questions that are expert.

"Expert" Questions

"Laymen" Questions


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