There have been a number of assertions that this site is aspiring to be an "expert site". I take that to mean that it is catering for experts in the fields covered, to the exclusion (to some extent) of non-experts. To that end, lots of basic level questions have been closed recently. I'm wondering when and how this decision was made, as I don't remember any discussion of this in the definition phase.

Here is a couple of examples of audiences targeted by a few similar stack exchange sites:

  • Physics: "for active researchers, academics and students of physics and astronomy"
  • Astronomy: "for astronomers and astrophysicists"
  • Chemistry: "for scientists, academics, teachers and students of chemistry"
  • Biology: "for biology researchers, academics, and students"
  • Stats: "for people interested in statistics, machine learning, data analysis, data mining, and data visualization"
  • Maths: "for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields"

I don't think it is a requirement for science stack exchange sites to cater preferentially to experts. Of particular note, only astronomy specifies that it's for experts (e.g. they don't include students, or "people"). I thought I'd open up a discussion so that we can make a decision about this as a community.

Edit: as SimonW says, there should be different standards for questions during early Beta and when we are a full site. This question is intended to address what we want to be when we are a full site.


6 Answers 6


Having posted the impassioned wall of text that I just did (sorry!), I figured I should also answer the question that was asked:

I think that when mature this should be an expert site that also welcomes more basic questions. I would favour going for a similar strapline to the maths or the biology one, something like "For earth scientists, people studying earth science at any level, and professionals in related fields".

That implies to me that the site is mostly aimed at scientists and professionals, but that simpler questions such as from lower-level students are also welcome. I think it's quite important to include professionals as well as academics, as they are a large proportion of the practising earth science community.

  • $\begingroup$ I was also wondering how many fields represented by this site have active amatuer communities. Paleontology, I guess, but I probably no others as big as astronomy... kind of odd that the astronomy SE is the only one that deals exclusively in experts... $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Apr 20, 2014 at 8:45
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    $\begingroup$ astronomy-se is for experts only in their description. I just looked at the first two pages of questions and a lot of those would be answered by the first astronomy course at the Uni. $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2014 at 9:22

If you want any quality to the site, you definitely want to have mostly experts, not just for the questions and answers, but primarily for voting.

I just saw that cool video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LpGA2fmAHvM where Joel says the interface to SE should be Google. By which he means SE collects the good questions with the correct answer and acts as an archive. He goes on to describe the mechanisms for getting the good questions and best, correct answers. The primary method is voting. Therefore, the strategy should be to attract (in addition to questions and answers) the kind of voters who can recognize good questions and answers.

If the site is frequented by people with a general interest in science, then in my experience those people will vote up (or down) based on what they "like". If they find something interesting or fun to think about, they will vote it up. If they think someone is jerky, they will vote them down. What you want are "experts" to vote up the best correct answer, not the nicest, coolest, friendliest answer.

For an example, see this question on butterflies causing weather Is it true that a butterfly flapping its wings can result in a tornado in a distant location? I'm the only one who answered "no" (which is the only expert/sane answer) and I got voted down. I suspect it's partly because the chaos theory answer is interesting and fun to think about, but I also made a bunch of negative comments about the question and the other answers. No one likes a sour-puss.

Joel also says, and I agree, you want the site to be a turn-off to the non-experts. You want them to go "yuck" and leave, going back to getting their answers through Google.


NB: this answer is not relevant now that the intent of the question has been clarified. I'm leaving it here at naught's request, but no more votes please!

I think there are two fairly seperate concepts being conflated in this and some of the other current posts on meta.

One is what level of questions will be welcome on this as a mature site, should it succeed. That is a very good conversation to have, and personally I think that "popular science" level questions should be encouraged, so long as the site is not flooded with them. However, I don't think most of the recent close votes have much to do with that.

The second concept is the one that I raised a concern about here (note: I think that things have got a little better since then), and that it the level of questions that we should be encouraging during private beta. My reasoning for this is thus:

For the site to work in the long run, it needs to attract a community of experts1. This is because even basic questions need experts to answer them, otherwise the site would simply be a group of interested people quoting Wikipedia at one another ;-) While some experts may be willing to give up their time to answer basic questions on site that they don't otherwise visit, many (most?) people working in the field are only going to stick around here if it is useful for them - if they can use it to get answers to things they want to know, and if the other questions and answers are interesting to them.

When the site leaves private beta and is promoted, by us, in expert communities, we have a one-off opportunity. People will, hopefully, come and have a look at the site. They may stick around, and help it to grow, or they may leave and, probably, not come back. So at that early stage, the site needs to be dominated by questions that can interest and retain this expert audience. If the site appears to be dominated by popular science questions when it enters public beta, I think there is a strong chance that the experts that we need (many of whom may not be experienced StackExchange users) arrive, conclude that it's mostly a popular science site, and go away again. If that happens, I think that the odds of us ever reaching critical mass and making it out of beta are substantially reduced.

That is why I've been vocal about trying to limit the number of very simple questions that could be answered by a quick google or a look on Wikipedia.

This post on the StackExchange blog is very relevant: "Your New Site: Asking the First Questions". In particular, the following paragraph (emphasis in original):

It has long been established that no question is too entry-level nor too basic. Everyone is welcome. But, in these earliest days, we are DESIGNING a site for experts. To attract experts, you need a site where people are asking very interesting and challenging questions, not the basic questions found on every other Q&A site. Remember, the pro sites WILL attract the enthusiasts, but not the other way around!

> The earliest questions on a site will set the tone and topic of the site for a long time.

I realise that this perhaps doesn't answer the question here, but I hope that it answers what I think is the intent behind the question.

1 I realise we already have a number of experts, and I am not disparaging them. But the people we have now are not enough in the long term.

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    $\begingroup$ If a site says its for people interested in Earth Sciences, there should be some onus on the asker to actually put some thought into what they are asking: that might be reading a few webpages/articles about it and then asking about misconceptions. IMO. I 100% agree with your post. $\endgroup$
    – Neo
    Apr 20, 2014 at 6:41
  • $\begingroup$ You are right that there are two separate questions here. I was going for the long term, what-do-we-want-after-beta question, but thank you for making the distinction. $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Apr 20, 2014 at 8:42
  • $\begingroup$ I have edited the question as per my previous comment. The edit makes your other answer more relevant than this one, but it'd be good if you left both up. $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Apr 21, 2014 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ @naught101 I've put a note at the start to that effect. Sorry for having a >1 screen answer blocking the view of more relevant stuff! $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2014 at 6:10

You may want to focus on the quality of questions and answers rather than some prescribed level of 'expertise' - which can be difficult to define in practice. I would choose to participate on a site that 1) is interesting to read, 2) promotes science awareness, and 3) is informative about modern research in the earth sciences. I would choose not to participate on a site that was primarily a 'stack-overflow' for geo-technicians, became dominated by non-scientists, or just answers homework questions.

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    $\begingroup$ Question quality is orthogonal to the level of the question (e.g. pre-requisite knowledge). You can have an excellent beginner question, and you can have a useless expert-level question. I'm not so familiar with the field, but can you explain why geo-technician questions would be off-putting? $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Apr 21, 2014 at 22:54
  • $\begingroup$ With all respect to geotechnical engineers and technicians, their forums seem very focused on practical solutions, which I don't have much experience with, so I would not spend lots of time on a Q&A site about that. I expect that the technician community's goals may be different than what I perceive this site's becoming. I think we agree about 'level' that 'quality' may be more important. So my suggestion was to focus on promoting the quality rather than the level - but these are just suggestions. $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2014 at 23:13

I'm going to offer an opinion contrary to most of the answers: This should be a site for all. It should gladly accept non-expert questions, preferably answered with expertise.

The Earth sciences typically represent the first exposure to science received by young people. In many parts of the world, science education is geology first, then biology, then chemistry, and then physics. If done right, this site will help those children develop an interest in the sciences as a whole.

Done right, this site will help keep people, even those without a scientific education, interested in science throughout their lives. The Earth sciences address the scientific topics that impact everyday people the most. The Higgs boson? What impact does that have on people's lives compared to the cold front that's about to hit them?

I'm a physicist by training, yet the sciences that affect me most personally are the Earth sciences. I check the weather every day because it has a direct impact on me. Can I take my dogs for an hour long walk without getting soaked halfway through? Do I need to pack up and drive out of town because a hurricane is going to hit?


Because our site is for professionals and those interested in Earth science, we should encourage questions that would attract both (A) professions AND (B) those interested in Earth sciences. Therefore both professional and lay questions should be encouraged to attract both types of audiences our site is aiming to cater for. If we only allow lay questions, we won't attract professionals, if we only allow technical questions, we won't attract people who are interested in Earth science.


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