It has been quite some time that I visited Bio SE. But I have noticed that the number of answers lacking any references to their content have considerably increased.

Well of course there are so many new users joining this SE and considering that most of them are beginners or just interested in Biology but not experts like a few users, it's very disappointing to see unreferenced answers upvoted or not given enough attention to.

Does it not hamper the quality? Simply put, is there any solution to this?

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    $\begingroup$ I will say that I've left a few unreferenced answers lately in places where I felt like the OP just needed some different explanation rather than new information; I'm in most cases happy to edit with some references but I think there is little point to reference textbook-level knowledge, most people have access to completely different sets of textbooks that all contain roughly the same info. But for my own answers, I find it helpful if someone points out in a comment when something should be referenced but isn't. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Oct 8 '18 at 20:57

Good point and referencing is not only appreciated, it's necessary on a scientific stack and vital to maintain this site's quality.

  • Commenting and downvoting are the primary means to go about this. Downvoting seems to be done sparsely at Bio, but I always highly encourage it; it gives a slight nudge that something is wrong. A comment helps a lot, especially for newbie users. The voting system is the SE approach of expressing answer merit.
  • Mods can place banners that state that [additional] references are needed. Hence, flagging may be an option in exceptional[ly bad] cases (note that the community should moderate this site; mods cannot keep a track of every question or answer - hence, flags are necessary to put a post to the attention of the mod team). However, flags should only be used where mod intervention is necessary. Even plain incorrect answers are not flag-worthy; downvoting and commenting and voting for deletion is the way to go. But again, a banner may also do the trick to nudge a user to improve their answer, but only flag after comments and downvotes don't help. Flags are a last resort.
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    $\begingroup$ I'd add that I feel like flags are most appropriate when the lack of references means someone could actually take the answer in a harmful direction, particularly in Q&A related to health, nutrition, etc. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Oct 8 '18 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ @AliceD thanks for the reply...but just a follow-up question- after leaving a comment how much time should we give to the user who wrote the answer to provide references before we flag it? In This Q&A for example, an unreferenced answer got accepted but from the upvotes it is understandable that other users are actually accepting the content of the answer. $\endgroup$ – user 33690 Oct 14 '18 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause I agree the banner is most appropriate in that case, but I also think they remain appropriate in all cases where there are no references supporting the answer. It's a quality control issue, and if this answer is correct (references are necessary), it's a standard we've set for the site. Downvote bad answers add the banner to answers that need references. I personally downvote answers I think are wrong, and comment/flag answers that need references, regardless of whether I think they are wrong. $\endgroup$ – De Novo Feb 26 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ @DeNovo I was referring to AliceD describing flags as a last resort, and adding my two cents on when that last resort is appropriate; users should not be flagging answers just because they are wrong or they disagree, they have other tools for that. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Feb 26 at 19:38

I'd like to see if we can revisit this discussion again. The participants in the highest voted meta question about this topic have all been absent for over a year, and I don't think the issue has gotten much better since October. Since making a commitment to spend more time helping this site, I've been reading through more questions and answers over the past few days. There are quite a number of answers with no references, references unrelated to their claims, and even references quoted but not cited.

Here's my opinion:

I agree strongly with @AliceD that references are necessary on a scientific stack. On SO you post the code, which is verifiable. On Biology, you include a reference.

The one exception, I would think, would be questions like this, where the asker already has the textbook and is asking for help understanding it. In this case, though, I think we should consider requiring the asker to reference their textbook, as the OP did in this case. (should I suggest this in an additional meta post?). Then the answer can refer to the same textbook. Even in this case, I personally like to include suggestions for additional reading, i.e., "you can read more about this here: source".

Textbook level information in general can be easily referenced with an authoritative textbook. E.g., this answer, is both correct and easily referenced. I would personally have chosen Thompson and Thompson Genetics in Medicine, Ch. 8, Complex Inheritance of Common Multifactorial Disorders. As experienced biologists, referencing textbook level information is not as hard as we think it is. If you can't remember where you learned something, you might not be remembering the thing you learned either. Not only do textbook references give the answers more credibility, they keep us honest and help reinforce the importance of references for new users.


One way of improving things (fond hope) might be to revise the Help. If you look at the ‘How do I write a Good Answer’, you will see that providing references is not even mentioned. The only reference to citing external sources is the valid exhortation to provide context for links. I have noticed this gap when I have tried to help new users by quoting from the help, and have usually have had to wave my hands a bit to justify my suggestion/criticism.

It might also be made clear in the Help that people posting answers should expect to get comments asking for clarification or pointing out any perceived flaws, and that responding to such comments by replying “if you think you can do better write your own answer” is not acceptable.

  • $\begingroup$ I was just looking at the help section and was very surprised by this. I agree there needs to be at minimum some discussion about how an ideal answer includes references $\endgroup$ – De Novo Mar 1 at 1:54

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