I was thinking earlier of a reason why we don't get many questions. There are clearly quite a few researchers on the site, yet not many (if any?) ask questions they are currently interested in (research-wise).

This is no doubt a bit of healthy(?) paranoia kicking in, and the authors not wanting to be "gazumped" (beat to publication/ideas stolen by another researcher). Is this completely unavoidable? Is this even a problem?

I can't think of a way round it, as all posts are immediately in the public domain. I take it there are no features to limit posts to users with X amounts of rep? (although this would make the site quite cliquey, researchers may feel more inclined to trust recognized members).

  • $\begingroup$ I would also expect researchers to encounter difficult questions in their work that aren't directly related to their publications or thesis', or even to daydream and think of questions they can't answer themselves. All disciplines of science are interconnected after all. I personally don't see "the problem" discussed here, or see why these types of questions can't/aren't being asked. $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2012 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ You raise a good point that the research question or method that a researcher may want to keep under their hat for the time being can be skirted around when asking questions here. When I asked this I was thinking of a particular research question that I did not particularly want to share, because it is not conceptually or methodologically that difficult, but I couldn't find evidence for it. In this case I was loathed to put it in the public domain prior to my own publication. I just wondered if this was thought to be a common occurrence or problem. Clearly not, given the lack of interest here! $\endgroup$
    – Luke
    Jul 19, 2012 at 16:06
  • $\begingroup$ You are certainly right though: I could definitely understand one's hesitance to ask questions directly related to their new ideas or "hot" research. And any method to fix this is problematic at the least: any public exposure can be risky (also keep in mind that those with the highest reputation are likely those that are more capable of "jipping" your ideas D: ). I was just making a slightly off-topic remark about the general lack of questions from those with higher reputations when our Area 51 site stats show the need for it, and when asking relevant questions is definitely possible. $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2012 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ One solution is try to attract some of the researchers with less paranoia. Scooping paranoia is very sub-field dependent, and I would expect mathematical biologist to have less of it (mostly since mathematics and cs-theorists have less of it as shown by the success of MO and cstheory.SE). $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2012 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ physicists have been putting unpublished data on Arxiv for ages without fear of being scooped (quite the opposite, in fact)... Unfortunately most biologists are really paranoid about this. $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Jul 22, 2012 at 9:00
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    $\begingroup$ @nico I would say that the field of biology is (at the moment) one of the most competitive and heavily invested fields in research. There has never been so much patenting of a scientific discipline, which includes everything from specific nucelotide sequences to whole analysis pipelines! Basically, there is a hell of a lot of money in these areas, and this quite naturally causes people to be very protective of their own data and ideas. I am not endorsing the commercialization of science - it forces people to be protective, and this is not conducive to good collaborations and ideas sharing! $\endgroup$
    – Luke
    Jul 23, 2012 at 9:48

3 Answers 3


I think this is a question of returns on investment:

Writing a good question about a cutting-edge research field is in itself quite an effort. From my experience on other Stack Exchange sites I can say that writing a good question can easily take over an hour. At least one question took me much longer than that.

On the other hand, the chance of receiving a good answer to such a question is … slim at best. In that regard my above example isn’t representative because on Stack Overflow, the chance of an answer is actually quite good because the community there is positively huge, and teeming with experts (many of which are small celebrities) from many specialised fields.

But on other Stack Exchange platform it’s much less likely to get a good answer on a specialised question.

To be honest, so far I hadn’t even thought of posting questions about my field of research here. I might change that in the future, but for now most of the questions that are answerable are easier to find directly in the literature than posted here. And for those where I don’t find an answer in the literature I wouldn’t expect to get an answer here either.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting view point. There will hopefully come a time when a 'critical-mass' of users are active here that we can begin to do this, but as you say we all seem to have different fields of interest and expertise, so whilst we can help and answer more general questions, we are unlikely to know the ins and outs of each others research area. $\endgroup$
    – Luke
    Aug 21, 2012 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with this - the only reason I post questions here is because I want to grow the community. If I wanted to know something about my own field I'd look it up in the literature. $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2012 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ It may depend on field (e.g. in mathematics and computer science it is easier to ask a well-defined question), but here are my impressions from now dead TheoreticalPhysics.SE meta.stackexchange.com/questions/130361/… (it was purely research-level). $\endgroup$ Dec 17, 2012 at 22:31

I think there are 3 explanations why you don't see many "cutting edge" research questions on internet communities

  • If a scientist finds a really good question, he should and will try to solve it and this should only be a matter of time and earn him a publication, it's his job to develop and answer good and interesting current research questions. That's why you see most top rep user on SE mostly answering questions in their field of expertise and asking questions in their hobby fields

  • Some months ago, theoreticalphysics.se was closed. There were a lot phd's and professionals registered, but they didn't generate any questions. I made a longer analysis here. One important point is that older but also younger scientists mix up asking a question with ignorance. On biology.se I saw also many good questions from the top and professional user related to research (more interesting to me than reading physics.se with many reddit one liners). This is probably due to the fact that biology is a even broader and more diversified topic than physics and its even harder to be a master of all underlying factors and theories like genetics, biochemistry, bioinformatics, biophyiscs etc for exploring biological systems. So it's a more interdiscplinary field where scientist have to rely on knowledge of other experts and it's normal to ask sub and side-questions to progress with your own main question. Many physicists work in biology research groups, but not the other way around. So there are fields like biology or theoretical computer science (programmers love forums ;) ) that have probably a culture of asking each other research or related to research questions. Personally I think the quality of questions on biology.se is pretty good for such a broad topic, raising the quality means you have to make a sub-topic site and community

  • It was clear to me that chemistry.se (as a not popular science and in between branch of physics or biology) will have a hard time to fulfill the SE beta metrics, the stats don't look very healthy currently. A lot of the theoretical questions in chemistry are already answered on physics.se (as chemistry is basically only a expansion of physics, a lot of overlap in study courses apart from mathematics). The remaining questions on chemistry.se are therefore very localized and relate to practical problems of chemistry students and need very special expertise to be answered. There aren't many practical questions on physics.se, it's hard to drive a community with such questions, maybe with 5000 or more contributing user. But you cannot attract this amount of experts with current AREA51 system. A community can only grow with common interests, if the topic is big, but the questions are very localized, it does not work if there aren't enough experts for such niche subtopics. For example a site like biostar dealing with bioinformatics seems more healthy and useful than bioinformatics-tagged questions on biology.se or stackoverflow. Normally the AREA51 system should show if there is enough interest to start and maintain such a community, but currently it only works for programming and programmer's hobbys. Even if they increase the requirements metrics for non-programmers topics to guarentee a healthier community, after some months they loose their interest or knowledge of commiting to a proposal. A proposal like chemistry or cognitivesciences lasting over 12 months has probably lost most of its commiters when starting beta. They should auto-kill such proposals and the whole process has to be restarted to gain interested user in a maximum period of time (around 6 months). Without initial dynamics sites like chemistry, theoreticalphysics and cognitivesciences are doomed to not fulfill the beta graduating requirements.

The theoreticalphysics.se user wanted to start a Q&A forum on their own with qsqa software after the closing. It seems they abandoned the idea and no one of the many former registered user is complaining. Seems there is not really a demand for a research questions site in physics, setting up a server cannot be the problem for couple of smart guys. I currently think the best you can do here is a expert site with very localized questions relating to research, but no research questions, but this isn't really enough to build a healthy community.

The logical progression would be, take a site like phyiscs.se, wait till it has 1000 experts, than start smaller healthy proposals with those experts. The problem, a site like physics based on reputation and voting is unlikely to attract 1000 experts, this a problem of limited attention, you only participate in a gamification system if you can earn much rep with reasonable effort, so competing with 1000 other experts on the few questions is pointless and a waste of time for most. 100 experienced user are enough to answer most questions on physics.se within an 1 hour!

The conclusio of this whole analysis is that you will never see healthy highly specialized knowledge forums on the internet for experimental sciences. There is no working community growth model for such sites. The competition on reputation doesn't allow more than 100-1000 user on such sites which is below the critical mass for broad experimental natural sciences. 100-1000 seems to be enough for high quality questions in programming and bioinformatics, but not for much broader topics like physics, chemistry and biology.

I'm eager to hear counter-arguments, I really try to find them myself as a advocate of open science. I think the best we can achieve as scientific community is open access journals with commenting function below online published articles where people can exchange information, questions, answers to very localized problems. Trying to get such scientists together via a very broad internet community site like quora or SE seems impossible to me currently. A content filtering problem besides the attention problem of such gamification sites.

  • $\begingroup$ Werner, when it comes to communication in expert fields (and other exchange of information of high quality), I'm trying to start Hacking Science (wiser by some TP.SE experiences, what works and what does not does not). If you are interested, leave an e-mail at pmigdal at gmail.com. $\endgroup$ Dec 17, 2012 at 22:34

Hoping we can have a conversation here.

I was thinking i'd post a question like 'why can't we have more exciting questions?', but I found this discussion.

I feel like open questions like this definitive guide to web forms are not 'appropriate' and would get closed for biology but for other stack overflow sites they are the most interesting and most referenced questions.

I like this example because there is resource discovery and a window into best practices from someone who really doesn't need to be asking a question about something that they already know a lot about. What is becoming hot in biology? Where are things going? what are the ramifications about an important new paper? I just don't see these discussions and it seems they are not appropriate for biology. Its too bad really.

I've watched our moderators send open questions to quora where they ping for days with new additions and comments. While I agree that we need moderation, I feel like the moderation policies of the site are too strict and biased against more interesting content. That is why we tend to have evolution 101 and fewer resource questions. I'm don't like popping up and saying things like 'we've answered this question before', but even the ones we get are starting to look familiar.

Topics related to biology like NMR and physical methods and material sciences which are quite hot in some biology departments are sent to other sites. I wish we had a broader view of biology here. Keeping it narrow means keeping content restricted and the draw to the site smaller.

I would like to post some questions on synbio but feel like they are not welcome - I already have an opinion and they would not be requests for information per se. So yes as @WernerSchmitt says I just sit at home and pile up a few articles and read through them and form my own opinions. I don't mind reading casual questions like 'who would win in a fight - a grizzly bear or an orca?' but I wish the mix was better. Helping the scientists on the site become more interested and engaged doesn't seem to be of interest which is too bad considering the talent in the profiles I see.

Nothing succeeds like success. If we aren't getting the questions we want in the volume we want, we should change the policy to see what works IMHO.

  • $\begingroup$ On the related topics part, everything that relates to biology even if it is a purely physical or chemical method is on-topic here. If you do NMR or X-Ray crystallography on a biological macromolecule, it's on topic here. There aren't any migrations like you describe in the history, except for a few where the user that asked requested the migration himself. $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2012 at 7:07
  • $\begingroup$ There's certainly room for more subjective questions here, but I don't think a question like "what is hot in biology" will ever make sense on a Q&A site. There have to be some criteria for evaluating the answers, if every answer is equally valid it becomes a popularity contest, and those questions don't fit the Q&A model. More subjective questions are possible, but the answers have to be more than opinions, they should be backed up by facts or personal experience. $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2012 at 7:15
  • $\begingroup$ we have had nmr relaxation questions transferred to physics. as far as the other point, there are so few examples that meet these criteria and your example is so vague, its not really helping. positive examples would be better. i think there is a tendency to err on the side of kicking things out, which tends to make the site a little elementary. maybe science doesn't fit the Q&A format so well and we should allow more homework questions. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Nov 8, 2012 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ You could just try some of the questions that you think would be closed. It's hard to discuss this entirely in the abstract. And you can always challenge closures on meta, if a mod closes a question that doesn't have to be the last word on it. My suspicion why we have so many elementary questions is that the "amateurs" just outnumber the experts on this site by a large margin, especially due to influx from SO and other SE sites. $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2012 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ i guess what i'm getting here is that the site is fine the way it is. you are asking others to make an effort and see if they get closed - not sure if the site currently seems worth the effort? lots of meta questions about things we should kick out, very little interest in things that might prove attractive - the selection process here has a direction and its a little on the pedantic side $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Nov 8, 2012 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ I've seen a fair number of questions on Quora that would be a great fit here and we've certainly sent a good number of questions over where they see a nice spike in activity. $\endgroup$
    – bobthejoe
    Nov 21, 2012 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks everyone - I like what's being said here. I think that we can look at stackoverflow as a guide. I think beginners and novices are tolerated better there. Here's an example: maybe we can help suggest edits to questions like this one... it had over 500 views and it was closed. biology.stackexchange.com/questions/2744/… $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Feb 21, 2013 at 4:59
  • $\begingroup$ As for trying to do more interesting questions - I guess I'll try a few experiments. I may ping you all for some help to suggest edits. I actually emailed a PI today to follow up on a question and it felt good. It might have helped me see some light here. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Feb 21, 2013 at 5:01

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