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Moderation considerations and why Stack Exchange is not the right place for free academic communities

Disclaimer: This post is intended to further explain why a new physics site as a home for an academic community interested in doing physics at an advanced level is needed, which moderation practices (that may have there legitimacy elsewhere) should be avoided, and discuss a bit how the future community might want to govern the new site. Existing communities with different goals should not feel insulted, attacked, or anything like that by naming what the futere site might not appreciate and try to avoid.

Even though I suspect that many (most)  of the readers here agree, that the strong political over moderation  practised on Physics SE since the elections back in December last year, is detrimental to establishing a nice academic expert community,  some moderation tasks certainly will  needed to be done on the new physics site too, for example to keep trolls out, deflect spam, and guarantee and keep up the desired level of the site.

From my observation and experience of more than two years, the basic problem with establishing research-level sites in the Stack Exchange network is the fundamental incompatibility between the purpose the Stack Exchanges owners, stuff, managers, and many community moderators ascribe to an SE site and the needs of a free academic community. Differences between the two almost orthogonal points of view manifest themself for example via the following issues.

What is a successful Stack Exchange site?

From the Stack Exchange point of view, the success of a site is measured almost exclusively by criteria that focus on its traffic and growth rate, such as the number of questions per day,  the percent of questions answered, the number of users, the number of answers per question, the visits per day, the overall growing of the user base, etc … The actual content of the site is secondary, as long as certain numerical values of  these criteria , that measure the success rather by quantity than quality do not fall below a certain threshold.  Smaller high quality sites can get closed in beta for lack of traffic, which clearly proves that Stack Exchange puts quantity above quality. If graduated sites can be closed for the same reason too is something that I will  investigate further on MSO later.

Who should mainly benefit from a Stack Exchange site?

The main purpose of a Stack Exchange site and the answers one can obtain there, is as often stated by people endorsing and strongly representing the Stack Exchange point of view, NOT so much to be helpful for and friendly to the regular members of the community who actually do the work by writing good questions and answers. Rather is the official purpose of the site to be useful for a very large, broader audience consisting of people who  browse the internet by search engines such as google for example. So there is the paradox situation, that from the Stack Exchange point of view the site has not to be particularly useful and welcoming to the people who actually invest work, time, and engagement into building up the content of the site. This goes so far, that Stack Exchange reserves the right to ban and/or drive away valuable contributers for political reasons, as can be seen by the two horrible controll questions they ask the candidates on any site in every moderator election. I suspect that candidates that give the wrong answer there would be rejected as moderators by SE, even if the local community wants them.

Disrespect of the contributing community and experts

The strange point of view that an SE site does not mainly serve the needs of the community of contributing regular users,  leads for example on Physics SE (but on Maths sometimes too),  to a brutal enforcement of the “higher goal” and needs of the so-called “SE model” (whatever that is exactly) or point of view.  Some people who strongly adopt the Stack Exchange point of view even explicitly state the notion that the people who contribute the useful content to a site and put in a lot of love, time, and work are just “accounts who post stuff”, instead of humans and valuable appreciated members of a community that should be treated with the corresponding kindness and respect. The needs and opinions the community and experts (such as University professors) are neither respected nor taken serious. Even very knowledgeable about a subject people have absolutely nothing to say which questions are allowed and on topic, and it happens too often that top contributors and by the community highly  appreciated and respected members are banned and driven away by external forces against the will of the community.

Who determines the rules and policies of the site?

To enforce the SE point of view, there exists  a large body of  so-called network wide (to the needs of an academic community often detrimental) rules, guidelines, and policies, figured out on MSO and sometimes even implemented into new software updates.  These rules for example forbid to ask about any study material needed to learn a new topic or prohibit to request references about the current state or newest developments in cutting edge research topics. The unilateral shooting down of such questions is explained by invoking the notion that these are “recommendation questions” and therefore strictly forbidden.  An additional policy often abused to close good interesting questions in a very ambiguous and subjective way, is a policy against so-called list questions. The formation of  independent, focused expert communities is intentionally hindered by  facilitating the impact and interference of the whole Stack Exchange network with the policy of each individual site. There exists for example an  Association Bonus, which gives people privileges to take part and vote for example on a particular site, without having to be knowledgeable about the corresponding topic. The reputation barrier to vote in an election on any Stack Exchange site is, taking the association bonus into account, ridiculous to say the least. This makes many people rightly so suspect that the moderators on any Stack Exchange site are not only elected by the local community. Indeed, during the last elections on Physics SE, the site was overrun by politically interested kibitzers who were neither knowledgeable nor seriously interested in physics.

Lack of democracy and transparency and enforcement of rules by iron fists

Since the last elections the political over moderation of the site has largely increased, many experts have left after the éclat last December, the site is flooded with very basic and low-level questions, whereas at the same time technical questions about advanced topic get no longer much love and attention by the community which has completely changed and is now more interested in very basic and popular questions. Meta is completely dominated by people who are rather interested in policing then physics, and the same cold, unpersonal, and at times even unfriendly up to hostile atmosphere, well-known from MSO, is dominating Physics meta too.

To make Physics SE more attractive for researchers, experts, and generally people interested in learning physics at a technical level, measures to improve the site and counteract the flood of low -level stuff should urgently be taken, the needs of knowledgeable people should be taken more serious, etc … But people in power do the converse: they ban decent members of the community for no good reasons, any discussion or resistance against bad and unjust things is brutally suppressed, whole discussions are deleted to shrug things under the rug, and to make things worse (the contributions) of renowned up to famous physicists are questioned with respect to their legitimacy or outright attacked by powerful and high rep users who should know better. The only thing that would help to improve the site again would be to replace some of the current moderators against physicists who vigorously support and strengthen the position and needs of the originally targeted audience (researcher, academics, and (university) students of astronomy and physics), and relax the political over moderation to attract more experts and make them feel at home again. This can unfortunately not be achieved, as even by community moderator elections no moderators are replaced (they have no terms of service but are elected for life), and recalling a moderator can only be done by fellow moderators; there is no direct possibility for the community to put up a public vote of no-confidence against particular moderators who don’t violate any (Stack Exchange) rules but act repeatedly against the will of the community.

I (and probably other’s) don’t know what Stack Exchange is really up to, but the zero tolerance enforcement of the particular Stack Exchange point of view and way of thinking makes Physics SE rather inappropriate as a place to be for an academic community and the site has become more and more hostile to people interested in seriously doing and learning about fundamental physics at a technical level. So considering to restart a higher-level physics site on Area51 (which was considered as a possible way to go first too) is now clearly pointless.

Moderation of the new physics site

… can only be definitively discussed and decided when the site is up and running and has attracted a large enough community, but it should certainly avoid the things which are currently going wrong on Physics SE as described above. The community should rather be governed by the nice, collegial academic atmosphere that was observed on Theoretical Physics SE for example and still prevails on the mathematical SE sites.

Some preliminary consideration can be discussed here I think. So let me just write down some points that could be important to address:

  • First of all, I think the moderation of the new physics site should be done by trusted experts, who know how an academic community works, are knowledgeable enough to judge what are good questions and answers from a physics point of view, what is accepted mainstream physics, etc  … as it has nicely be done by Moshe and others on Theoretical Physics SE.
  • No so-called “niceness-rules” to supress freedom of speed.
  • No deletion of content, closing of good questions the community likes, etc for superficial political reasons.
  • Conversely to what is presently done on Physics SE, where the needs of the community are neglected and sometimes even suppressed, what the community wants and likes should be considered as good and allowed by definition.
  • Nice community members and their valuable contributions (including comments) have to be treated with the due respect.
  • Trolling about by the real world community of physicists accepted mainstream physics, as it happens to often on blogs and in comments below popular science articles in particular about fundamental physics, should not be tolerated.
  • How should the moderators be chosen?
  • Do we prefer community moderation, moderation only by the trusted moderators, or both?
  • What content should be deleted, maybe with a time lag?
  • Do we like (physics) discussions in comments too, conversely to Stack Echange?
  •  … ?

Now the discussion about moderation on the future physics site is officially opend 😉 !

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9 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post. I was about to post something similar in a comment when saw this post : ) .

    • Dilaton says:

      Thanks 😉

      It is not yet perfect, I will have to underlay some of the claimes with citations I have seen but was not able to find again efficiently enough …

  2. Ron Maimon says:

    It’s better to put up a site, and start programming to get it up. One can do this if you have a host, I’ll contribute programming time. One can modify existing free things, but it requires a good server, and a guarantee of stability under traffic. I have some ideas if you are interested regarding academic participation.

    • Dilaton says:

      Hi Ron thanks 🙂

      Yeah, that with the hosting is a bit a problem…
      The easiest thing would have been, if a Prof., such as Arnold Neumaier could be found, to convince his university to provide hosting for such a site. Maybe I will write Arnold Neumaier a mail, if he has an idea for this. Another question is if people would be willing pay a reasonable fee, if free stable enough hosting does not pan out …

      Concerning the software, Q2A seems to look not too bad, many features are similar to what is available with the SE software, the most important issues such as installing LaTex / Mathjax, and importing the theoretical physics data dump, etc seem doable from a technical point of view. I have a nice retired informatics Prof. in my family, and we will test certain things on a laptop as soon as I visit him for a view days or weeks next time.

      What are your ideas concerning academic participation? This sounds exciting :-). If you are interested, you could write an article here (or even help with the site because I am not very experienced to say the least, too).

      Anyway, it is nice to see you here !

  3. Some more suggestions:

    – Slightly Discussion – y posts should be allowed.
    – So called “Uncivility” should be definitely allowed.
    – Flagging as wrong should be allowed.
    – Book requests should be allowed, too .
    – Those who meaningl=ess-ly troll about physics should obviously be banned by the second time.
    – Debate – y posts[ should be allowed .
    – …

    Another idea I have is that editing should not be restricted to people with a certain reputation points. I think it’s best to allow all users to edit, like a wiki, and rollback when necessary. I guess this will be a more open community.

    This obviously cannot be applyied to close/reopen ing, though.

    It seems, that Q2A has no revision history facility . . . : (

    • Dilaton says:

      Thanks for these good thoughts, I mostly agree…

      The only thing I am not sure about is how much people agree with that everybody can edit their stuff. However, if their are only reasonable people, things can be rolled back, trolls are efficiently kept out, etc this might not be a large problem.

      I do not understand what exactly you mean by the lack of a revision history…?

      If it is possible to roll back (several times?) there must be some kind of revision control underlying the system, as I understand it (?), or rolling back to earlier versions of posts would not be possible.

  4. let me enter a test to see if I can at least now post a comment…

  5. Never mind about the revision history; question 27862 on q2a indicates there is a plug – in for this. (I think the comments don’t appear due to the links.)

    The main reason why I suggest this “wiki”fication feature is that suggesting edits is impossible.

    Of course, there could be a 100 or 200 rep barrier to discourage trolls, since ideally, trolls shouldn’t get too much (rep > 1) reputation on this new site, anyway.

    As for the rolling back, good point. The revision history is essential for rollbacking, of course : ) …

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