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I'm asking this because of a recent string of questions*:

These are certainly reasonable questions that appear to have been well-received, judging by vote counts, presence of good answers, and lack of closure votes**. Yet they do not seem to be about matter modeling. While they (especially the first) will be relevant to many working on such topics, they are also far from exclusive to topics in matter modeling. In my opinion, the more natural destinations for those questions would be Academia.SE, TeX.SE, and StackOverflow, respectively. Note that this is not itself a reason to consider those questions off-topic here, see this post from the main meta.

Instead, the real question is where do we draw the line? Is the site open to all questions about scientific/academic publishing? All about LaTeX and other software that might be used to author manuscripts, e.g. MS Word? All about various plotting tools that might be used in a matter modeling context? All about any topic that might conceivably be useful to a "matter modeler"?

Or should each question have a clear connection to the topics the site is supposed to be about? This connection can either be innate (e.g. questions about the use of VASP are presumably on-topic) or made explicit in the question when dealing with something proximate. Under such a standard, questions like How to use gnuplot to draw Bandstructure and DOS from VASP outputs? would still clearly be on-topic, but merely asking about how to set the size of gnuplot's output might not be. Similarly, questions like What are good resources to learn to code for matter modeling? appear to be more directly connected to the site's purpose than "How can I learn LaTeX?". (Although we should also keep in mind that some questions framed this way may approach the territory of boat-programming questions.)

Can we reach a community consensus and maybe settle on some guidelines for the site's scope? I think it's better to do so relatively early in the site's life, because adjustments later on will be more difficult to manage.


*These questions were in fact asked by the same user, but I don't think that is relevant to the question. There may be older questions of the same type.

**Personally I haven't yet voted on these questions one way or another. I hope to see some discussion here first.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1. Not a full answer, but a related answer by Robert Cartaino back when he was a Stack Exchange staff member: meta.stackexchange.com/a/4713/391772 $\endgroup$ Sep 11 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ To me, the question on LaTeX clearly belongs to TeX.SE , which I've also found to be quite friendly. $\endgroup$ Sep 12 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ Somewhat tangential, I just wanted to tip my hat to the moderators on MM who seem to always go out of their way to be friendly to every question, even when the poster shows zero evidence of having put effort into figuring out the answer by themselves. Your patience is commendable. $\endgroup$ Sep 12 at 16:43
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Thanks for contributing such a well-written, well-researched, and well-considered question here!

I'm still unable to come to a very strong opinion either way. My hope with this site is that we can help people. There's been questions which were less about matter modeling and more about scientific or , and they never concerned me too much because someone here was able to answer it (i.e. to help the user).

I'm far more concerned about the questions we have which remain unanswered, for the following reasons:

  • If people come here to ask a question, and it doesn't get answered, they are less likely to come back and ask their future questions here. If they are new to the SE network, I would also then feel bad about them getting a negative experience with their first attempt at asking a question on SE (I personally want more of the world to participate in SE, since I know/understand SE rather than Reddit/Wikipedia/Quora/etc., and the more people here the better!).

  • The bigger the unanswered queue gets, the harder it is to defeat it. I've personally experienced this myself, having found the size of that queue to become very "overwhelming" sometimes, though much more "manageable" at other times.

A post can be migrated away after a maximum of 60 days. On multiple occasions, when we were nearing the 60-day mark for an unanswered MMSE question which I thought may be appropriate at a different SE site, I talked to the Engineering.SE moderators and then flagged the MMSE question for migration after getting permission from the Engineering.SE mods:

enter image description here

I think we can take the same approach for that gnuplot question. StackOverflow does seem to answer gnuplot questions quite quickly (at least in recent times), and overall only 1286 of their 6194 gnuplot questions remain unanswered (79.24% have been answered). The answers to the only other question we've had here: How to use gnuplot to draw Bandstructure and DOS from VASP outputs?, seem to demonstrate that the MMSE community has some very capable gnuplot users who have written extremely details and valuable answers, so when I saw the new gnuplot question I wasn't too worried that it would remain unanswered for very long, but I'd totally support migrating it to SO if it doesn't get an answer within about 50 days.

For the other two questions: I don't think they are as off-topic as for example "What is the difference between civil law and criminal law in the USA?", since they are questions that have come up for Matter Modelers while they were attempting to do their Matter Modeling research, and evidently our community had the right experts that were happy to answer the questions quickly and thoroughly. I see the following benefits to allowing such questions:

  • Perhaps most importantly, the user that asked the question, got their (very good!) answer very quickly, which means they got a very positive experience on the SE network
  • They gave many of our MMSE users opportunities to participate and share the knowledge that they were keen to share with people when they signed up for this site. Some of these users wouldn't have got those opportunities to participate if these questions were asked elsewhere, because they simply have not (yet) chosen to join those other SE communities or to participate there often enough.
  • They have brought in a lot of traffic to our site, and have increased our volume of Q/A in the MMSE database, which will help attract more people to learn about our existence via search engine results (for examples): Let's not forget that in order to achieve our goal of being the most helpful site for matter modelers, we need more people to know about our existence.

I can also brainstorm some possible disadvantages to allowing such questions:

  • Perhaps not being "laser-focused" on matter modeling can lead to some matter modelers losing interest in the site? I'm not sure how convinced I am of this point, because surely a lot of matter modelers come here because they're avid users of Gaussian, and they have absolutely zero knowledge or interest in VASP, yet they see far more VASP questions than Gaussian questions, and this I see as being an even bigger problem for such people (who would lose interest in a site because there's questions on it that aren't part of the laser-focused topic that they came here for) as having an occasional question about scientific publishing which may or may not benefit from matter modeling knowledge in the answers.

  • Perhaps these questions are not related to mater modeling enough, which means they are susceptible to occupying space in the unanswered queue which can be detrimental to our goal of having all the MM-related questions in the unanswered queue answered ASAP.

I think after writing that last point, I see where I might want to draw the line: If the question is likely to be harmful to our site/community by occupying extra space in the unanswered queue for long, I'd definitely like it to be migrated away if there's another site that would be welcoming enough to the question (so as to make sure our MMSE user doesn't get a negative experience such as having their question relegated to a site that gives them a bad experience).

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    $\begingroup$ I certainly agree that these questions are not as off-topic as the law question you mention - hence "proximate to". But I'm not sure I fully share your views of unanswered questions - to me whether a question is answered (by which I mean ideally actually answered, which a question sometimes isn't even when someone has posted an answer) is at least somewhat orthogonal to its "on-topic-ness". It is easy to imagine both really difficult insightful questions that no doubt are on-topic and easy questions a lot of us could answer even on non-matter modeling topics. $\endgroup$
    – Anyon
    Sep 15 at 3:26
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I had somewhat the same thoughts as @Anyon when I saw the first of these (I follow the software-recommendations tag). But it seems to me that a community policy of "sometimes it is easier to just answer than to move it to another SE site" seems very reasonable to me. However, it might be worth encouraging a practice of such answers including something along the lines of: "We're happy to give you an answer here, but if you have detailed questions about academic publishing, Academia.SE is a great place, and if you have detailed questions about using TeX/LaTeX, the folks at tex.SE can help you more than we can."

I'd add one advantage to the ones that @NikeDattani lists: Slightly off-topic questions can lead to more on-topic questions. The image format question linked above is what specifically inspired me to ask What LaTeX tools for code snippets are best-supported by matter modeling journals?, (which I think is suitably on-topic, since I'm particularly interested in journals relevant to this community -- CS journals may be a completely different experience.) I've participated here for several months, but only by answering questions from others. This is the first time I thought, "oh, there's a question I would love to ask this community!"

As for Nike's disadvantages -- I think the first should be a non-issue, because I think the ability to follow specific tags allows a contributor to be involved as much or as little as desired. Personally, I'm very interested in a small set of topics discussed here, and I have a workflow that keeps me exactly as involved as I want to be (or really, as I have time for).

The second disadvantage is key, and the reason I recommend a gentle "maybe there are better forums" comment even in quick answers. I think everyone's experience would be better if that user asked their first question here, got a friendly response that helped them ask the other questions in more a appropriately specialized forum, and then (I hope) came back here when they had questions that were more specific to matter modeling!

(I'll slightly disagree with @Anyon that the fact that these are the same user isn't relevant. As @NikeDattani points out, a rapid and friendly response encourages more participation. In this case, it encourages some further off-topic participation -- the SE network as a whole is a great resource for this user, but we aren't the best resource for specific questions about LaTeX or gnuplot.)

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    $\begingroup$ The point that slightly off-topic questions can lead to more on-topic questions is an interesting one. I suppose I worry it'd be more likely to lead to even more off-topic questions, due to that being normalized. But maybe some would be sufficiently off-topic that they go beyond the fuzziness of the borders. $\endgroup$
    – Anyon
    Sep 15 at 2:58

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