One of the major downfalls of some Stack Exchange sites is a lack of quality, expert level questions. I have seen sites fail because the questions were all essentially "too basic" or "general reference", and the site ended up not adding a a lot of value to the internet, and was closed.

What level of expertise is required on Cognitive Sciences? What topics are too basic? How will we define "general reference"?

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Shouldn't there be a distinction made between 'too basic' questions and 'too basic' answers? A basic question can expect a very scientific answer. –  Steven Jeuris Jan 19 '12 at 13:31
    
@StevenJeuris I hope so, because it means the site can be opened up to a wider audience. But that's up for the community to decide. If we decide that questions about E.G. psychology 101 are "too basic" then that severely limits our audience. I'm trying to start a discussion here. Thoughts welcomed! –  Josh Gitlin Jan 19 '12 at 13:35
    
As an example, is this question "too basic"? (Before you flame me, I really did know the answer, I was trying to help seed!!!) –  Josh Gitlin Jan 20 '12 at 16:29
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4 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

A problem with "too basic" is that often experts in a field have a much easier time "just googling" a problem than non-experts. I have for example easily found answers for questions simply by googling "Cognitive Psychology Incubation" and "Threshold Theory Creativity". The problem is no one would actually think to search in this way without a fair background in the relevant concepts.

In addition, novices may fail to critically evaluate "general reference" material. They may dismiss a perfectly accurate Wikipedia article because "anyone can edit that" or accept some random guy's blog without looking for references. Our subject area is one where a real background in the field is needed to evaluate the answers. Due to the format of the site we can assist that evaluation; Google can't.

Even if a question is "basic" as in a beginning Psychology student would know it doesn't mean it's "too basic"; decades or centuries of research, thought and philosophy built up what we now consider "basic" facts.

As long as a good, well supported answer can be provided I don't think there is much of a risk in "general reference" questions that are explicitly on topic. Cognitive Science is a difficult issue to grasp, we should be an open and helpful community to provide answers for these questions.

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I love this answer because it, to me, means we can build the site I hope we can. That is to say, something more like Stack Overflow, where there are lots of experts asking and answering expert level questions, but also anyone is welcome and as long as a question is good, even if it's basic, it will receive good answers. –  Josh Gitlin Jan 19 '12 at 16:02
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I thought I'd pitch in a few ideas, particularly picking up on the concerns about being inviting to experts raised by @ArtemKaznatcheev.

  • So-called non-technical questions are often quite interesting. They can be answered in scientific ways. As an academic, I still see value in a site like cogsci.se in helping to bridge the world of scientific journal articles with everyday interesting questions that exist in peoples mind and on the internet (e.g., this question about leg jiggling was a bit of fun to answer, and based on the view count, it interests a fair few people). Of course, non-technical is different to easy.
  • It may take time to develop our capacity to handle highly specialist questions. I think even after two weeks a fair few specialist questions have been answered, but over time as the user base grows, we'll have more collective expertise to draw on.
  • I don't know if "easy" questions are really a major problem at the moment. If I have a quick look at the home page, there is a spread of questions of varying difficulty. Almost all involve more than a quick Google search to answer properly. If we've got a reasonable spread of questions at different difficulty levels on the front page, and we have the capacity to answer expert-level questions, then I think we'll be both inviting to experts and to non-experts.

General thoughts about encouraging expert level content and participation

  • Ask expert level questions (and if you get no answers, do a little research and try to provide your own answer)
  • Help askers to mould their initial question into good scientific question (this is often more about scoping the question and framing)
  • Provide expert-level answers (this should highlight to visiting experts, the quality of the content on the site)
  • Vote up questions and answers that you like
  • Actively promote the site to experts you know
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Once again a really great answer. Thanks! –  Josh Gitlin Feb 3 '12 at 13:05
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Just one more argument in favor of Ben's "Nothing is too basic" answer: I've been programming for over 15 years. When reading StackOverflow questions about programming I find many "Too Basic" questions. The thing is, I almost always learn something new from the answers to those questions!

(Here's one example: A Too Basic question with over 500 upvotes, and an answer with 1100 upvotes).

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I think in the early stages of the beta we should be aggressive in closing and discouraging basic questions. If a researcher looks at the front page and sees only basic questions then they will not join the site (even if there are hidden gems elsewhere in the site, since they simply won't take the time to search for those gems after seeing a boring front page).

After we attract an okay number of active researchers, professionals, and academics in the field, then we can consider relaxing the guidelines of what is "too basic".

Remember, it is much easier to attract novice users to an expert site, than it is to attract expert users to a novice site.

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I disagree with this. I have already experienced professional psychologists shying away from the site because it was "too scientific", and I fear that we'e walking a fine line here. We need experts on this site, no doubt, but I worry that we can easily scare people off if we're not also welcoming to non-experts. –  Josh Gitlin Jan 19 '12 at 15:31
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Do you have an example of a real stack exchange for this? cstheory.SE is ruthless in closing basic questions, as is TP.SE. Both have managed to maintain a high level of expert participation (look at their top users, they are pretty much all professors and late-stage PhD students), while sites like physics.SE did not follow this strategy and mostly have basic questions and few active academics. –  Artem Kaznatcheev Jan 19 '12 at 15:44
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I don't @Artem, and possibly the community / history may disagree with me and you may win this argument. But I do know that I won't be able to participate in the site if it goes the direction you propose (I am not an expert) and psychologists I have tried to refer to this site have already been turned off... –  Josh Gitlin Jan 19 '12 at 15:49
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@ArtemKaznatcheev While layman questions on TP.SE are being closed (and it is very good), I have very strong impression that we scared of a lot of potential users (of TP.SE). actually, I heard a few times that fellow PhDs and researchers are afraid of asking sth too simple. While now here there are many questions of poor quality (and they should be closed or elaborated carefully) I think that overzealous perfectionism may do a lot of harm. –  Piotr Migdal Jan 24 '12 at 18:45
    
@PiotrMigdal I don't keep up much with TP.SE, but cstheory has done a good job of keeping interesting questions while aggressively closing simple ones. Although there is often discussion on the meta about these practices. –  Artem Kaznatcheev Jan 24 '12 at 18:53
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