Let's sit down and have a talk.

Recently, we're closing a lot. 1 A good portion of the "offending" posts have been questions that

  1. either touch very basic concepts of chemistry, or
  2. are ones that you can get an answer to by inserting in a magical machine named Google and watching the page load.

It's debatable whether category one can fit in two very well, but most SE sites treat these two types of questions the same way.

It's notable that the current meta consensus on a site like ELU favors becoming more intimidating and in other words excluding trivial or basic questions by-design. However, they're the only site I know in which everyone more or less wants this "bluntness". We're still a little community and we're growing, and nothing we do should hinder that, unlike them who are tired with so much unwanted growth.

For what that matters, my first posts are of shameful quality, and I only learned the ropes (read: tricks) of writing a better question eventually. Well, you are the community. You decide what you want, and what you don't.

The aim of this post is to reach a consensus on what we should do with basic or Googleable questions. Please provide your insights in comments or answers. If you're going to post an answer, please specify exactly what needs be done about a "basic" question. If convenient, draw a distinction between "Googleable" questions, easy questions, and possibly "Googleable questions that need some search-master voodoo".

It's allowed to post examples in your answers to further illustrate your points, but let's keep the discussion general, since, well, we're looking for a post to link to.

Here are possible things we could do:

  1. Just leave them as they are and answer them if we can. Whoever doesn't think they show research effort could use the tool they're provided: The down arrow.
  2. Close them. Might maintain quality in the long run, but will make us look angry and harsh.
  3. ???

1: How's 23 questions closed out of the first 50 at the "newest" tab I'm looking at right now for a number?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "You are the community." -- And mods are the overlords. Do as instructed. :P Sorry, I couldn't get a post done without this. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 18:03
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ A lot of these low quality questions are homework questions about basic concepts. I am in favour of closing to maintain quality. $\endgroup$
    – bon
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 19:00
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Bon noted. But should we close them as homework? We might need a different reason, since the HW reason wasn't meant to address that. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 19:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I have been thinking the same. Not sure what the reason would be though. $\endgroup$
    – bon
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Bon no reasons fit all of the cases well, and this is something that comes up more frequently everyday; since more fame means more of these. The ask-another-meta-post-for-a-new-custom-close-reason in me is itchy. We first need to see how many people do like to see these closed. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ Can you pop in a couple of examples that should stay open? We have had an influx of "repeat offenders" lately. The system takes care of some of those automatically, though. $\endgroup$
    – jonsca
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 23:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Jon I'm not on either side and I don't want to prove anything, so there's no real need for any examples in favor of any arguments. I want this post to be something I link to when I comment "have you tried Googling? This post may get closed/downvoted/answered/whatever per our policy on <link to meta post>". It's just that bluntly saying that any basic question warrants closure is a bit too big to chew for me. Shrug so can we get some answers on this now? $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 7:38
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know if my opinion matters, but I am in favor of taking a closer look at these types of questions. Some questions might have solutions available on the internet which might be too difficult to understand for a newbie like me and several others. I think such questions deserve a well-written answer instead of a down-vote. $\endgroup$
    – ShankRam
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 3:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Shank do you have examples of any such questions that shouldn't have been closed/downvoted? $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 9:24
  • $\begingroup$ @IͶΔ, no i have not come across such questions, but something like that may happen $\endgroup$
    – ShankRam
    Commented Feb 13, 2016 at 12:32
  • $\begingroup$ Here are some questions that should not have been closed IMO: chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/44513/… chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/44772/… $\endgroup$
    – Curt F.
    Commented Feb 13, 2016 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ #1 is pretty much what I was aiming at with this meta post: meta.chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/3078/…. It didn't get a lot of traffic. $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Commented Feb 13, 2016 at 23:40
  • $\begingroup$ Here is another question that should not have been closed, at least not for the reason given "unclear what you're asking". chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/45280/… $\endgroup$
    – Curt F.
    Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 4:12

1 Answer 1


These sorts of questions touch on the fundamental identity of the community. What do we want to be on- and off-topic here?

Do we want to be a resource that extends to educating raw beginners? Do we choose to take on the responsibility to guide every misinformed, misguided, or confused individual that comes our way to a sound path of chemistry knowledge?

Or, not? Are we only interested, say, in questions clearly asked from some base of accurate chemical understanding, the answers to which require knowledge beyond what one would acquire in, e.g., the first year of a "typical secondary-school education"?

As well, do we want to be, among other things, a curated repository of whatever mishmash of data happens to be asked about (this molecule's enthalpy of formation, that crystal's specific heat capacity, ...)? Or, do we want to say to those asking such questions, "Sorry: Chem.SE is not a reference/handbook -- the data is out there, go find it yourself, here's where you might start looking"?

My thoughts on the particular types of questions raised by [I-square-Delta] follow.

For #2:

Straightforward informational questions for which the answer turns up on the first page of search results (e.g., pulled out of thin air: "What is the specific heat of methanol?") should probably be closed with extreme prejudice. I don't see value in trying to curate a dataset of chemical properties: our format is poorly suited for doing so, and there are many other resources out there that a halfway-dedicated searcher can reach relatively easily. That said: I think a dedicated "close reason" might be warranted for this, something like "off-topic because we don't curate chemical data here". Whatever the reason given, a comment to the question with a link or two to a suitable resource seems like plenty of assistance.

(Related: some sort of reference page richly filled with links to freely available data of all sorts (NIST WebBook, etc.) would be a fantastic companion to this... even to the point of including a link to such a reference page in the above proposed new 'close reason'.)

Similarly, questions for which a careful reading of the relevant Wikipedia, ChemWiki, etc. page would provide a sufficient answer should also be closed promptly. While there may be some value in having redundancy of information at various locations around the Internet, it's soul-sucking to contemplate writing up an answer here when there's a perfectly good exposition a few clicks away. As above, a comment to the question with a link to the relevant external page seems sufficient.

Questions for which a quick search turns up the desired answer, but where it takes someone sufficiently knowledgeable in chemistry to be confident that it is the answer, should be left open. These seem like great questions & answers to have on the site, because they provide a helpful clarification of information available elsewhere. Each such question does represent a judgment call by the community, though, because the evaluation of it takes someone sufficiently knowledgeable is not an objective thing.

Questions requiring extensive searching and aggregation of information from multiple sources should obviously be left open, as these are IMO part of the key value proposition of Chem.SE: aggregating, analyzing, and reporting information from other resources to answer interesting questions.

#1 actually seems pretty cut-and-dried, but we could use a broader toolbox:

The matter of "basic questions" is more or less the same thing that I was getting at with this meta post. Despite a lot of upvotes, it didn't really get very much discussion going. <glares around>

Anyways, I've come across at least three categories of questions that I'd call "basic":

  1. Questions regarding material one would learn in a secondary-school chemistry class, from chemistry students who know very little because they're just starting to learn.
  2. Questions that are nonsensical due to being based on flawed premises, from chemistry students or others with just enough basic chemistry knowledge to make them dangerous.
  3. Questions that are waaaay out in left field, from non-scientists with minimal chemistry knowledge

Questions of type (1) almost always fall under , and I think our current policy of aggressive closure is appropriate. I have to imagine almost everyone asking these types of questions has access to an educational/academic context in which they could ask them (teacher after school, office hours, classmates, etc.), and they will be much better helped by talking to someone who can sit down with them and work with them point-by-point. There may be some small number of self-learners asking these sorts of questions as they're just starting out, and it would be nice to be able to be a resource for them, but a Chem.SE Q&A is a terrible format for such help.

Something like a 'homework help chat room' would probably be a lot more effective, but demand would probably overwhelm the community about thirty-eight seconds after such a thing was instituted. I feel like we just have to accept that such help is something we're not positioned to provide effectively. Really, linking to the relevant lecture on Khan Academy or similar is probably the best thing to do.

Questions falling under (2) are probably the ones that aggravate me the most, and I think aggressive closure is warranted. The SE Q&A format is not the right context in which to clear up someone's fundamental confusion. Given sufficient time and interest, inviting such questioners to chat is probably the best approach.

The big question in my mind is, what reason to mark in the closure dialog? 'Unclear what you're asking' is probably the closest match, but it's not a great fit because sometimes the questioner lays out a very specific thing they want to know, but it's absurd to answer the question because there's a huge hole in their understanding. I guess another alternative would be the 'low-quality' reason, but I hesitate to use it because it feels like I'd risk insulting the questioner. I would actually propose another closure reason here, something like "question is formulated on incorrect premises".

Questions of type (3) I think should generally also be aggressively closed. They are unlikely to be relevant to a broad audience, and run into a number of the same sorts of unsuitability for the SE Q&A format. We're not here to teach a full chemistry curriculum, and sometimes even just the process of explaining to a questioner why their question is absurd can require a lot of background information.

But, here again, which closure reason to use? While 'low-quality' fits like a glove, I hesitate to use it because it feels like I'd be insulting the questioner.

A further point, relevant to (2) and (3) especially, quoted from a Meta StackOverflow answer by Robert Cartaino (emphasis in original):

At the very very core of why Stack Exchange was created was to create a safe haven from much of the "random" mis-information and poor content posted on the internet. We accomplish that by assuring that all posts are vetted (and improved where warranted) by a peer group of fellow experts in the subject.

To sum up: I think that our relatively aggressive stance on closure is probably where we want to be. It may put off questioners who come asking things like the above, which is unfortunate, but in the end I don't think we or they would really be all that well served by expanding scope and attempting to answer their questions. Some of the intrinsic limitations of the SE Q&A format combine with (IMO well-chosen) boundaries defined for site-scope to make where we're at, where we want to be. I would love to have a couple of new closure reasons implemented, though.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "Low quality" is not a closure reason, it just puts the question in the review queue where the reviewers have to choose the appropriate reason. This is just postponing the problem. We need to find a more elaborate reason to facilitate the closure, which might be done if or while we discuss a successor to the homework policy. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 7:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Martin-マーチン "just puts the question in the review queue" Oy, duh in retrospect, but I never actually made that connection. $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 11:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Mart I think we should all annoyingly stare at you until you're persuaded to write the new HW policy meta post. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 18:54
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @IͶΔ or we could not do that. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 9:46
  • $\begingroup$ Re' type (3)... though I agree that it's not an SE purpose to teach broadly... does "agressive" closure mean you just close it without reply or comment? I'm just FEELIN' all the weak information I run into (esp. the pseudo-biochem in some nutritional contexts), and APPRECIATING those who at least attempt to engage the informed, in the conversation... so, yes, close, but (for the sake of the planet ;) please SAY something clarifying to them / give some kind of direction suggestion. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 21:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Doug_Ivison To note, after The Experiment I'm less sure of my above answer. $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 0:18

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