I feel that many SE communities are starting to encourage precisely and unambiguously defined questions with cute solutions, and discourage original, unpolished questions. The former questions usually come from textbooks or homework, and the latter ones are usually from original research and studies.

Of course, everyone would agree that a polished and original question is the best. However, research and studying new things is a lengthy process of rigorizing concepts. So, let's assume that many questions are either:

  1. Rigorously defined homework-like questions, or,
  2. Less rigorously defined original questions.

Which type of questions do you prefer?

This is a general discuss without tagging specific questions on this site. Examples of (2) include but are not limited to:

2.1. A topic not well-covered by the major textbooks.

2.2. A phenomenon or a concept that not all researchers reached a consensus on its precise definition.

2.3. An area with debate and disagreements, such that different people may have different interpretations.

2.4. A topic that currently lacks data or evidence.

Personally I don't usually assume that the askers have bad intentions, ask XY questions, or are cranks.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Partly I think that depends on how “original” is defined. Also, this bifurcation implies that there are only two options. That’s misleading. $\endgroup$ Jun 27, 2022 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate that English is not your native language, but your use of the word "cute" in this context is strange to me. Could you edit the question to explain what you mean in other words. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Jun 30, 2022 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ I see that you have never posted a question or answer to the main SE Biology site, but that you are a seasoned member of other sites such as Academia and Mathematics. As this is a general question about SE sites, why did you not post it to one you have more involvement in? $\endgroup$
    – David
    Jun 30, 2022 at 22:46
  • $\begingroup$ @David Hi David, I will try to explain the word "cute". $\endgroup$
    – High GPA
    Jun 30, 2022 at 22:57
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ As this is the Bio.meta site, I feel this question needs links to examples from Bio.SE of both "rigorously defined homework-like questions" and "less rigorously defined original questions". As it stands, this questions is better suited to meta.stackexchange.com $\endgroup$
    – acvill
    Jul 15, 2022 at 16:01

2 Answers 2


SE has always emphasized specific, focused questions. The model is designed such that every answer is addressing the same question, unlike discussion forums where one posed topic may go in many different directions of conversation. When questions are unfocused, answers tend to emphasize different aspects of topics tangentially related to the question, and it turns into a mess. Closing a question is often used to provide time for the question to be modified and focused before it attracts answers, because it becomes harder to adjust a question once it has been answered without invalidating the existing answer(s).

I disagree wholly with the dichotomy between rigorous homework-like questions and less rigorously-defined original questions. Questions need not be borrowed from a textbook to be rigorous and specific.

I do think that it may be easier to write a question based on textbook learning for a couple of reasons:

  1. Use of appropriate terminology. Learning biology is as much about learning mechanisms and concepts as it is learning language. A student asking a question based on the textbook they are reading may not understand the concepts, but at least they see the words in front of them that are appropriate to use. If askers come at a question without background knowledge and use the wrong terminology, they may introduce things to their question without realizing it. For example, the word "transcription" in biology specifically means making RNA based on a segment of DNA; if someone uses it generically to mean "copy", the question is likely to seem confused from a biologist's perspective.

  2. Many of the people answering questions here have taught courses in biology. Most of the places people get hung up are not particularly unique - we've seen dozens or hundreds or thousands of students struggle with exactly the same thing. That means that when someone asks a question about membrane potentials, I can usually pick up on exactly where they need help even if they aren't perfect at expressing themselves.

That doesn't mean these sorts of questions are better or preferred, just that they are easier to write.

There are additional difficulties with writing questions "from original research and studies", assuming I'm interpreting your meaning of those questions correctly:

  1. Often the person asking the question lacks the requisite background to understand an answer or know what they need. They may be not even wrong in the sense that correcting them really requires re-teaching an entire course or series of courses that people with formal education in biology (even with degrees in other subjects) would already have. We don't expect answers to fill textbooks, and questions that require these sorts of answers are not a good fit for the site.

  2. They may be asking an XY question, where their motivations are hidden by starting not from the practical problem that they face, but from their expected solution. This leads to confusion between both answerers and the asker, where an answer to the question that is written doesn't actually help OP solve their problem, and where the circumstances of the question don't make sense to people who could have answered the actual question, so they end up wasting time critiquing aspects of the question that are not actually important to the asker.

  3. Often 'original' questions are really invitations by the asker to discussion. They don't actually have a specific question, but rather want to learn more generally about the topic or discuss next directions. The help specifically states:

If your motivation for asking the question is “I would like to participate in a discussion about ______”, then you should not be asking here

One of the reasons that we encourage "prior research" to be included in questions here is that it helps mitigate these problems. If askers read about their topic before asking a question, it helps them find the right language to use, identify where specifically they remain stuck, and pose a question in a form that is useful to people with the same problem. Providing context makes it clear that a textbook-length answer is not needed.

I don't see "rigorously defined question in a textbook" vs "a less rigorous original question" to be an appropriate dichotomy. A good question is one with a clear scope and sufficient supporting material, where the asker has demonstrated the thought they've put in (demonstration is key here; it doesn't matter how much prior work someone has done if the text in the question doesn't show it) to constrain what they are asking, whether they're struggling with something in a textbook as part of formal study, or are formulating a fresh idea.

  • $\begingroup$ 2. Do you at least agree that "researching and studying new things not already covered in textbook is a lengthy process of rigorizing concepts"? $\endgroup$
    – High GPA
    Jun 1, 2022 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ 1. Give me a chance to clarify. I did not say that "all questions fall into the two category"; I merely say that a considerable amount of questions fall into those two category, and focuses the discussion between those two. $\endgroup$
    – High GPA
    Jun 1, 2022 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ Which part of the edit do you think your points are invalided? If you mean my last sentence, that sentence is just my personal opinions; you are free to hold other opinions. $\endgroup$
    – High GPA
    Jun 1, 2022 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think any of your points are invalided by my edits. I agreed and agree with you that "the best questions should be both original and asked pointedly". $\endgroup$
    – High GPA
    Jun 1, 2022 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ @HighGPA Okay, I've removed my comment. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Jun 1, 2022 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ @David Presumably you meant that comment to be on the original question instead. But in any case, I take "cute" in this context to refer to answers that are neat and tidy and clear, perhaps the exemplar would be those math questions where solving a seemingly complicated system of equations leads you to a round number answer. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Jun 30, 2022 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause — Apologies. Yes. But as a Brit “cute” is a word I would never use except ironically. It conjures up in my mind the cultural pits of small children with big eyes and fluffy animals that one would gladly barbecue. I disagree entirely with your interpretation. A “cute” answer would be one that is overly clever. Something that would provoke my worst antagonistic impulses. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Jun 30, 2022 at 21:05
  • $\begingroup$ @David Yeah, I suppose that would be consistent with the usage on this side of the pond in terms of "don't get cute with me". Perhaps I've invented a meaning to make the usage here make sense to me. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Jun 30, 2022 at 21:14

I prefer — and generally only suffer — questions that conform to the SE guidelines in the Help. They explain the essence of the site and are the reason why I and others contribute to it.

Any tendency you think you have detected is just random variation in my opinion. For example, at the moment there are few questions in my area of interest, at other times there have been many more. Likewise with close votes for being off-topic. If you have seen a general increase in closures on other sites it may be because, unlike us, they only need three, rather than five, votes to close.


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