Recently, I've provided answers to questions about the meaning of plain English words in a biological context.

Questions about the etymology of biological terms are decidedly on-topic, but the above questions do not deal with scientific jargon. Rather, they ask about the meaning of non-scientific words and phrases in the context of literature or science communication pieces. Of the linked questions, each is sufficiently detailed and the askers provide statements of preliminary research (therefore satisfying the minimal requirements for a homework question). However, my gut feeling is that such questions are off-topic because they do not directly relate to biological concepts, mechanisms, or techniques.

On the other hand, it is likely the case that the askers are not native English speakers. Answering trivial questions about the interpretation of idioms and figurative language in biological texts is consistent with the popular view that we should encourage users to participate in Biology.SE regardless of their comfort with English, re: this meta post --

I firmly believe we should be encouraging non-native English speakers to participate and use English to the best of their abilities.


Related: Are medical terminology definitions considered off-topic?


2 Answers 2


I think this is a very good question. In the examples provided, I would consider them both to be on-topic. The first one is about a process basic to energy metabolism in cells and has a physiological aspect to it. The second one on first sight pretty much screams 'close me, please', because of the title

What are the stretch of amino acids?

Like, 'duh, use Google Translate'. But on second consideration, OP introduces a more specific question, namely

'What is the "stretch of amino acids? Is this different from "amino acid sequence"?

This question in the body refers to the fundamentals of the genetic code. This genetic element in 'amino-acid sequence' is not present in the term 'stretch', which gives the question content, and provides the answerer the necessary handles to come up with a biological answer, relevant to the community at large. The same can be said for the first question. In this question multiple biochemical terms are coined, providing the background to open up a proper, informational answer that serves the whole community.


I'd like to see users that ask these sorts of questions demonstrate some deeper attempt at the dictionary approach, although I do think it is important to allow them because indeed sometimes science uses completely separate meanings for words than everyone else.

For example on the "mobilisation" one I found it a bit lacking that the user concluded "mobilisation means capable of movement". No, it really doesn't. (In this case, I think it's still overall a good question because the user has put in other effort, including providing a quote - also very important in these questions, and proposed some direction of their thinking.)

The four definitions at Merriam Webster (for 'mobilizing') are:

  1. to put into movement or circulation
  2. to release (something stored in the organism) for bodily use
  3. to assemble and make ready for war duty
  4. to marshal (something, such as resources) for action

The 1st, 2nd, and 4th all can apply, and the 2nd is even explicitly about biology. You can understand "easily mobilised" by copy pasting these definitions into the sentence:

Glycogen is a readily (put into movement or circulation) storage form of glucose

Glycogen is a readily (released for bodily use) storage form of glucose

Glycogen is a readily (marshalled for action) storage form of glucose


Glycogen is a readily (assembled and made ready for war duty) storage form of glucose

makes some metaphorical sense.

I'm in favor of allowing these questions, but maybe we should have an explicit policy about the type of research we expect to avoid questions that should really be English language questions rather than biological terminology.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Putting examples of what constitutes "research" on the Homework Questions help page would be nice. I see many homework questions that summarize their attempt at research as "I Googled it but couldn't find anything." Then again, users who consult Google as their first and last source likely aren't the same users who read the help page before posting a question... $\endgroup$
    – acvill
    Dec 17, 2020 at 14:43

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