@Terdon made an interesting observation in the chat room recently:

The simple truth is that we've never been a site for biologists. Those of us who answer are usually biologists or in similar fields but in my experience, the vast majority of questions have always come from laymen.

This is supported by this figure, showing the relationship between rep and questions asked: enter image description here

There was also a response from @James noting that graduate-level questions generally get fewer upvotes and less attention, although I acknowledge that's only anecdotal.

Recently, this proposal was closed due to an apparent substantial overlap with Biology.SE. When I asked the proposer about this, their reasoning appeared to be that questions on Biology.SE were mostly by laymen and they wanted to create a community for more 'hardcore' questions. Since the proposal was closed, the originator of this proposal has not become a contributor to Biology.SE and I'm not aware of any others from that potential community who joined, so the SE network lost a few dozen professional biologists.

I think both Biology.SE and the SE model in general are great. However, it seems that the fact that a high proportion of the community using Biology.SE consists of laymen could be discouraging professional biologists from joining. This does not affect the value of Biology.SE as a tool for public engagement but could limit its value as a tool for knowledge exchange.

Does anyone else think this might be the case, and if so have any thoughts about what, if anything, we need to do about it?

For example, one solution (although I don't really think it's a good one, it's just the first one I can think of) would be to set up a separate SE for biology professionals (ProfBio.SE?).

I have only arrived here recently, but it looks to me as though this has been a recurring issue: Shouldn't we be more tolerant with newcomers and non-biologists?, Should we encourange the relevant questions from non-professionals?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This is as you say a recurring theme. "Is our threshold for expert questions to low?" It's been discussed in the context of homework, trivial questions, and relatively pointless musings. Let us use SO as a successful example of SE. It must be asked how many questions on SO are far below the knowledge of a programming graduate, yet highly are voted up and tolerated. I suspect it's a lot. There will always be more students than experts, and when they're given equal voting rights, the expert questions will get outnumbered by student-ish questions. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 16:01
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ During the ecology proposal the proposers definitely perceive Biology SE as trivial and amateurish with the example question for Biology SE being "were neanderthals as hairy as us?". Whilst that's not entirely fair, I see their point: look at our "recent" page on any given day and it's mostly garbage. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 16:06
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @James exactly. In theory, SE could be either knowledge exchange or knowledge transfer/public engagement; in practice, at the moment Biology.SE is more the latter. That said, I think one characteristic of a professional biologist is that they can often work out how to find the answer to their own questions; it just takes time. $\endgroup$
    – arboviral
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 19:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @arboviral you did not take note of the fact that most "professional"/"expert" biologists, such as those enrolled in PhDs or working in companies have a highly specialised skill set and knowledge-base. This also relates to the point you made above, that they are capable enough to research and obtain answers to questions they may have, or the questions they may have are so specific that no more than a few handful persons in this world are capable of answering it. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ Just a note: our idol should be Physics and not Stack Overflow. However, even Physics and Mathematics gather a lot of trivial questions but there is something about biology that makes it accumulate crap easily — direct relevance to people's daily lives and biology being a current "hot" field. Also, it can be noted that some users with decent rep in Stack Overflow ask really silly questions in Biology. Stack Overflow users are not really scientists. I guess the only highly professional site in the SE network is MathOverflow. $\endgroup$
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 8:18
  • $\begingroup$ @koustavpal I am aware of that; I'd be interested to hear why you think I wasn't. It's the main reason I don't ask many questions on here. $\endgroup$
    – arboviral
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 8:45
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    $\begingroup$ What exactly is the blue line in the graph supposed to be, and what are the grey regions around it? I would assume it is some kind of best fit and error bar plot, but there doesn't seem to be a decreased error for <1000 rep users, which make up the vast majority of users. $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ @MarchHo Just realised I forgot to attribute it in the question, but it was Terdon's graph, not mine: chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/31680292#31680292 $\endgroup$
    – arboviral
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ Many of questions here just "tolerated" here, are pieces of jewels. Even many low-voted questions just surprises me. Many questions those considered as "bad questions", and thrown-away, those questions is glory on this site. Not seeing kilos of reputations and badges of moderators, I get attracted seeing the questions. If a professional do-not want to "think" but tries "fill-up-the-brain", then none else can do anything, but this-way professionals will cheat ownselves. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 16:57
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I've seen too many times in this website when a professional don't know about a thing, can't answer, they do-not continue further research, well, they don't leave any place for some-other's notice in future. They often start to give bad excuses, like unclear/ off-topic etc. and try to put on hold/ close/ move etc. A lot of argument require to provoke them.biology.stackexchange.com/questions/51468/… this was an example $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ It is unfortunate that biology as a subject itself is very specific in its topics. The higher level questions, therefore, can only be answered by few people with research expertise in those respective areas. $\endgroup$
    – Liu Tianyi
    Commented Nov 1, 2016 at 16:29

6 Answers 6


Good question. It's always a good idea to now and then reflect on what our purpose and target audience is, as it often changes over time. Basically, I agree with the OP that biology SE is not really a site for professionals, at least not in the sense that professionals can come here and resolve actual research problems. But I'm not sure that will ever be feasible, and I don't think it means we need to change the site, because it does serve a function as it is.

I'm a cell biology / biochemistry professional and joined Biology SE a year ago. At the time I was curious if it might be a good network to shoot some out-of-the-box questions to other scientists, broaden my horizons a bit and discuss issues outside my own field of expertise. I have got some interesting feedback on my own broad-audience research questions, but mainly I have been engaged in answering more basic questions from students and the general public. And I think this is fine --- today I mainly view Biology SE as outreach activity, which I feel is a very important but often neglected task for academics.

I don't think we have critical mass as a forum for research-level questions from scientists, and I doubt we ever will achieve that. Biology is too large a research field, and fractioned into so many subfields, that asking a research-level question in any of them requires access to the handful of world experts that really knows what they're talking about. Most professionals ask those questions within their own network --- if I have a question on, say, mechanism of transcriptional regulation of the glutaminase enzyme by c-myc, I pick up the phone and call the local c-myc expert at the department next door. I don't expect to get an informed answer by shooting a question to a web forum or googling wikipedia. Most of the interesting answers (or rather advice and discussions) are not found in the published literature. A StackExchange site for the actual scientists might work for mathematics and computer science, but I think biology as an empirical discipline is quite different. (I think this is what Koustav Pal is saying as well in the other answer.)

This doesn't mean that Biology SE is not useful for scientists. While it is not a good channel for my own research questions, it is a good site for asking more general-purpose biology questions outside my own field, where I don't have expertise, out of pure curiosity. For example, I'm delighted to learn about weird species like the seemingly immortal hydras, or that some women have a fourth color receptor in their retina. On Biology SE I encounter biology facts and ideas I otherwise would not have come across, and I think that is important for professional biologists today, as the subfields become ever more specialized and people risk losing sight of the larger questions.

But again, mostly this site handles rather basic questions from students and the general public, setting facts straight and clearing up fundamental misconceptions. And I think that's a worthwhile activity, and we should continue doing it. I think the description from the tour page that Koustav Pal is quoting, that Biology SE is "for biology researchers, academics, and students", is not really accurate in describing who is asking the most questions (that would be students and laymen, as the graph in the question suggests). But it is probably fairly accurate if it describes who is giving the most answers. And perhaps that's more important to describe, as it signals to a new would-be member that this is a site where he/she can get some informed answers to his/her questions. And most of the time, they do get well informed answers --- better than they would find otherwise --- and for free. That's not a bad outcome.

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    $\begingroup$ today I mainly view Biology SE as outreach activity, which I feel is a very important but often neglected task for academics. +1 I liked the practical optimism in this answer. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 8:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Well written, so now I don't have to write this myself :-) I see it in the meantime also more as an outreach thing and also the fun to learn and research new things. $\endgroup$
    – Chris Mod
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 9:22
  • $\begingroup$ Yep, I agree with most of this and have accepted it. I've edited the question slightly to make it clearer that I don't necessarily see the 'mostly laymen' issue as a problem, I just wanted to poll people to find out what function they think the site should be serving. $\endgroup$
    – arboviral
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 9:14

Let's be clear on this, Biology SE is (from the tour page):

Biology Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for biology researchers, academics, and students

Coming to your first question

I think both Biology.SE and the SE model in general are great However, it seems that the fact that a high proportion of the community using Biology.SE consists of laymen could be discouraging professional biologists from joining.

Does anyone else think this might be the case, and if so have any suggestions to help?

I would like to highlight the part about the presence of layman questions discouraging professional biologists from joining. First of all, I think it is safe to say that professional biologists are already very capable of unravelling any conceptual dilemmas they may have. Secondly, conceptual dilemmas they may have are not always directly related to biology per se, but to related fields, such as statistics (cross validated SE), bioinformatics (SO, SU). Indeed, someone mentioned in the linked proposal that ecology was one of the top tags in Biology. I think this has a very strong relation as to why ecology questions are not scavenged anywhere else.

After all, if I have a possibility of garnering more views from more people working in the same or related field, then why shouldn't I post these questions there. Example are the tags Phylogeny and blast on SO. Their existence on SO shows that questions which may be on Biology can get scavenged by some other site.

So I am of the view that "Professional" Biologists if they did join, would join for the fun of it (sating their curiosity) rather than asking questions whose answers they are quiet capable of figuring out for themselves. I visit the site for the same reason. I am not saying they will not ask questions, but them asking questions would not be the first reason for joining.

So no I do not think that the presence of layman questions dissuades experts from joining.

@James considers SO to be a successful SE example, and also states that Biology SE contains mostly garbage on the recents page. Because I visit the awk tag on SO, I would point you to the same. That page as well at any given time of day contains mostly garbage by an expert's standard.

For example, one solution (although I don't really think it's a good one, it's just the first one I can think of) would be to set up a separate SE for biology professionals (ProfBio.SE?).

As I stated above, I think most questions professionals may have about their own fields will be highly specific and specialised, but others which they may have will be commonplace in a different field. For example I work in Chromatin Architecture, a question I may have on ProfBio.SE regarding Immunology will be rudimentary to an immunologist. So then should we have separate sites for Immunologists and Chromatin Architecture? No, that hardly makes sense. They should all be on biology SE.

I think this same problem is very commonplace in the other scientific communities. So If you ask me, I think there should be a super-category for the Sciences, such as Science SE, where laymen can ask their questions alongside students and other questions which may be deemed as "stupid", while Biology SE is renamed to

Biology Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for researchers and professionals working in biology

Furthermore, I think using SO as a reference for biology is not correct. Because, I think being fluent in a programming language is much easier than building up pure academic knowledge and experience in an academic field.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. While I agree with some of this, as I illustrated in the original question, the presence of layman questions is demonstrably discouraging professional scientists from joining; this isn't a matter of opinion. Also, you say "Professional" Biologists if they did join, would join for the fun of it" - there are some of us on here already (and I notice a well-known professor of ecology joined us a few days ago). I'd like to encourage more, since as @James notes, postgrad-level questions don't always get as much appreciation on here. $\endgroup$
    – arboviral
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 7:54
  • $\begingroup$ I do not know if academics would think differently, my answer is based on the premise that they wouldn't. But, being a well versed programmer and taking SO as an example I can say that the presence of simple minded questions should not dissuade experienced people from joining. My example on awk stands as an example, and I know this will be the same case on other tags there. But we do not see a dearth for experienced and famous people on SO. Then why is it that biology would be any different from SO? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ @arboviral while it may well be true, I have seen no hard evidence supporting it and would hardly call it fact. Actually, most of the top users by rep are professionals or, at least, graduate students. They (we) just don't tend to ask expert level questions here. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 9:47
  • $\begingroup$ Those who determine certain questions "garbage" may wish to remember how Einstein's musings were first received by the scientific community, mainly because he was just a patent clerk and they were all professors. He was, of course, completely right. Especially in a field like Biology, today's "garbage" might be tomorrow's paradigm. Are we really so fixed in our ways that we honestly cannot conceive of one day seeing the headline "Neanderthals not hairy after all, new research shows". $\endgroup$
    – Isaacson
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 9:18
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    $\begingroup$ @arboviral I don't see where you show that the existence of layman's questions discourages professionals. Reputation isn't indicative of "professionalness" (e.g. a Nobel Prize winner asking his first question would have a rep of 1, whereas a dedicated amateur can rack up the rep). Moreover, questions aren't really in Malthusian competition - having a large number of layman's questions doesn't in and of itself prohibit expert questions. -- The key hurdle is more "will my expert-level question get a response?", to which the answer is mostly "no", but kicking off the laymen isn't going to fix it. $\endgroup$
    – R.M.
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ @R.M. I was specifically referring to the Area51 proposal and subsequent discussion. This proposal came out of a decision by a community of evol/ecol scientists (some of who I know) at the end of a meeting in the US to start using SE for continued collaboration. When I asked the proposer why not just use Biology.SE, his reasons were mainly related to the signal:noise ratio (see discuss.area51.stackexchange.com/a/24035/157242). For what it's worth I agree with your point, which is why I suggested they join Biology.SE - but they didn't, presumably for the reasons given at the link. $\endgroup$
    – arboviral
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ Link to the tweet in question: twitter.com/_NickGolding_/status/748558488876380162. The meeting was the International Statistical Ecology Conference (ISEC2016). $\endgroup$
    – arboviral
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 13:31

I agree that the number of very basic questions ( discourages professionals from joining.

How did I get here? I am a professional and only landed here because I do IT work, noticed SE Biology while using StackOverflow (where I generally go for answers to questions) and had a little time to kill. I am certainly not here to ask questions, as I can generally find the answers myself and those I couldn’t I would go to specialized forums for. (The only question I asked was in an area I know nothing — entomology — about the moths that invaded the Euro 2016 Final. Voted down immediately, despite it turning out to be a question with a very interesting answer. Actually, just this minute, got its first upvote.)

What did I think of the site when I arrived? Very poor overall — indeed awful compared with StackOverflow.

Why did I stay? Mainly because there were a few good question, and some other — even if naïve — that provoked me into thinking about some more basic aspects of areas I may have been involved in or taught. I also like to show people the wood when they are only looking at the trees.

But the key thing is that I am semi-retired, so I have the time. Given the general standard and the lack of practical utility I wouldn’t have spent time on this when I were still an active researcher. In my opinion, you will only get more professionals involved if standards are raised.

What to do about it? No really good suggestions. I do my bit both by voting to remove bad questions and by trying to help the posters find the answers themselves (and try to teach them how to write a proper title for a question) but some users of similar or higher reputation think I am too harsh/opinionated/arogant in this.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you think to identify a moth is an unprofessional, easy, swift, casual work? Biology is a very big subject with various work. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ The attitude of "try to teach how to write proper question" is less important. Catching what the asker is trying to tell , is the most important. Many questions which were considered as unclear at some or some time, I found useful and clear-cut enough. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ @AlwaysConfused — The question is about the attitude of professionals (such as me) to this SE site, with the objective of identifying measures that might encourage more to participate. There is no way my comment about my own posting can be taken as disparaging towards entomologists — it was merely an illustration of the fact that I don't ask questions about my professional field here. If, on reflection, you feel that the reasons for your comment do not relate to an interest in this question, but perhaps lie elsewhere, you might consider deleting it. Remember the SE injunction: Be Nice! $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ @AlwaysConfused — It is natural that people who receive criticism become defensive or aggrieved, but they must learn to accept it or they will never learn. This is especially important in science where even after obtaining a PhD and a position in a University one's work or ideas will be criticized in seminars, by journal referees and even by one's students. One must learn to grit one's teeth and regard it as criticism of one's writing or ideas, not of oneself. And learn from it. If you can't do this, science is not the place for you. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ I'm yet nice, (just a bit terrified) and I've gone through the page about it. But identification questions not necessarily for "encourage participation", but thy are literally challenging. To a hardworker in fields like zoology or botany, an unidentified organism is something like an unidentified flying object or a new element that wasn't in the periodic table. Moreover, identifying what groups inwhich the organism may belong; is very wonderful. We wait for when a specimen will come. Yes sometimes people upload really bad photoes and there should be a guideline about it of course. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ You wrote "One must learn to grit one's teeth and regard it as criticism of one's writing or ideas, not of oneself". I understand that, but I found in many cases a question (some-others' , not mine) which is already interesting enough, kept under-rated. If I ask a question, and someone show an attitude like 'it is a poor question', then don't think I take it as a personal question, but rather start think why I'm failing to explain it properly? that is good for me, but when a visitor can't understand a simple thing, then they should keep that for future users, or more scope to re-open. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ " — it was merely an illustration of the fact that I don't ask questions about my professional field here" ... but why you don't ask? You could ask obviously. Biology is a very broad subject. If something is not from your professional field, that is someone else' s professional field. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ Tell me? If I'm wrong anywhere? $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ I could understand, the problem is about information sorting, not professional vs. unprofessional. Someone can start think about new beta se branches for so-many different branches of biology, and for interdisciplinary question, this general biology website could be used. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 5:53
  • $\begingroup$ I'm sorry from heart if my conversations look like any form of 'personal-attack'. With complete respect to you and everyone, I just had 'criticized' the idea about the trouble as 'professional vs unprofessional', because I felt the problem is actually about information-sorting, due to largeness and diversity inside the subject biology. for say a simple looking question like biology.stackexchange.com/questions/5018/… or biology.stackexchange.com/questions/51603/…, expert-interventions required. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Sep 17, 2016 at 6:26
  • $\begingroup$ After this question on what is definition of biology I could realize the situation now. However I think identification question is not an example of too-basic question, because though senders could be non-expert, the solver need to be expert on that field otherwise it is too-easy to make wrong-identification. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ Yes you are harsh, but we need that now and then, David. +1 $\endgroup$
    – AliceD Mod
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 7:32

I would like to point out that the existing data, while interesting, requires a few more pieces of information before we can make any conclusions about it.

Firstly, do we have any control graphs from other sites that are generally considered as "professional"? I gather that Math Overflow and Stack Overflow generally consist of professional programmers and mathematicians, so we should control for a known-professional site and a known-unprofessional site (Movies? SFF?) before we can make any conclusions.

It could be the fact that the SE model simply attracts many low-rep users to the site, especially if the site caters to a subject taught in schools, and there doesn't appear to be any causal link between a high-rep user and a professional.

Secondly, I feel that the graph has too low of a horizontal resolution. There are only a small handful of users with >10000 rep, myself excluded, and it would probably make more sense to plot the X axis as a semilogarithmic axis to show greater resolution.

Finally, the mere observation (as others have pointed out) that there are many unprofessional "junk" questions doesn't turn the site into a site for amateurs. Any SE site for school subjects would naturally attract large numbers of lazy schoolchildren looking for others to do their homework, and (as FoldedChromatin has pointed out) this applies to students of programming too. We should, again, control for known-professional and known-amateur sites before we can make any conclusions.


To add another quality: Very tricky scientific questions usually seem met by a very opinionated belief that something is not possible (without people providing support for that belief).

Moreover I just looked at the chat and realized that some of the people with many points are using a very unprofessional language.

Also I am a bit grumpy that people (including a moderator) mistook a question of mine, which is quite close to a field of mine, to reflect ignorance or lack of understanding.

As I conclude that this site is not for professional (non-methodological) biological questions, I will discontinue using biology exchange, and discontinue recommending it to peers.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes absolutely agree with you. I've seen not here, but many other cases, some established heavyweight professional fail to notice or explain simple things, and they don't even feel what they're teaching, could be so simply explained . They nurses-up their students their-way, and selects those with their quality. It is much like a social process $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ I did not mean they intentionally do it. But they fail to realize they're doing so. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 17:08

I don't believe a boundary between professional-people's science and students, beginners, laymans and common-peoples' science.

A beginner/ out-of field people/ even kids can see amazing something, that a expert, super-skilled giant professional usually never notice (or even fail to understand). Mature brains differentiate to think in one way.

However I don't find any reason to split the community . There are lots of 'simple-looking' question requiring expert's analysis.

There is problem with information sorting (especially for busy peoples), because biology means a very vast subject with many diverse branches of different aspects. So I think there may be reasons to open separate new (beta) branches and keeping present-branch for more inter-disciplinary questions. But I think 'professional' vs 'nonprofessional' questions is not the cause.

EDIT: I'm changing my opinion due to practical reasons; our site is facing a tough period. If this step of branching the community based on professional and newbie can save the site; then let's try it.


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