Loong’s questionnaire answers
- homework is a topic that has been hanging over our heads for some time now and we as a community still have not found a solution on how to effectively handle such questions. What is your opinion on the various types of homework questions and how should they be handled? What do you think about our current homework policy? Do you think it needs to be improved or would you deem it sufficient? If you have not weighed in yet, what should be closed as homework and what not? What is your takeaway from our not-closing experiment?
First of all, any policy concerning the boundaries of on- and off-topic questions is not made by moderators; it shall be based on community consensus. The moderators only enforce the given policy.
Concerning homework questions, however, the situation is not clear. The actual voting behaviour of the community partly deviates from the written homework policy. Tentative attempts (including my own) to revise the policy did not find consensus. The incessant discussions and the large fraction of closed homework questions show that the current situation is problematic and that no clear solution for the problems has been found yet. Remarkably, the problem is not limited to Chemistry; similar problems are discussed on Physics, too.
Tragically, apart form the homework aspect, homework questions would be a perfect fit for the format of the site: They are on topic, express a clear question, have a limited scope, include a working example, include all the relevant data, can be answered in a few paragraphs, and could be interesting for other readers.
The part that is usually missing is the presentation of the own effort of the author of the question. This part is critical for the decision whether the question is closed or not. Therefore, the important but unsolved problem for any revised homework policy is to find effective means to get the author of the question to make an own attempt to do the homework and show this work as part of the question.
- How would you handle a user that has blatantly plagiarized material for use in multiple answers? Assuming you have dealt with the matter appropriately, what would you do if the user continued to offend in this manner?
Plagiarism is very much frowned upon in this community. When plagiarism is discovered in a post, the full extent and age of the problem should be analyzed first (see also What to do when plagiarism is discovered). If only a small part of a single post consists of material from external resources without attribution, we may ask the user (by leaving a comment on the posts, where also other users can potentially benefit from it) for proper attribution or (if possible) add the attribution ourselves by means of an (direct or suggested) edit. (Note that it may be useful to flag the post for moderator attention, even if the problem can be solved without intervention of a moderator. This can help the moderators to identify any larger pattern of plagiarism.) In any case, we should also point the user to the corresponding section of the Help Center and the meta post with recommendations for citing references. If proper attribution isn’t possible, the plagiarized material or the entire post may be removed.
If the user does not react to comments or edits, or if a larger pattern of plagiarism becomes apparent, a moderator may contact the user directly via a private moderator message based on the appropriate template for plagiarism.
Depending on the severity of the problem, in particular if the behaviour does not improve, i.e. if the user continues to post plagiarised material, the user account may be placed in timed suspension. The purpose of the suspension is not to punish; it serves to enforce the rules and to prevent further damage to the site and its community. Therefore, if a user is currently posting a number of plagiarised posts, it may be necessary to place the account in timed suspension immediately in order to stop this behaviour and limit the resulting damage.
- How would you deal with a user who produced a steady stream of valuable answers, but tends to generate a large number of arguments/flags from comments?
As long as the user adheres to the rules, there is no reason for the moderatos to intervene just because a user generates or provokes many comments. Arguments may be acceptable if they are constructive, on topic, and in accordance with the be nice policy; however, long discussions are usually better moved to chat. The comments can easily be removed when they become obsolete.
A typical reason for a large number of comments and related flags (“not constructive” or “too chatty”) may be a misunderstanding about the purpose of comments on this site. In this case, it can be useful to point the user the corresponding section of the Help Center. However, if a discussion in comments is already too long, the moderators may not want to add another discussion on the purpose of comments. Instead, a moderator can contact the user directly via a private moderator message based on the appropriate template for excessive discussion in comments.
If a general problem with comments on the site becomes apparent, the topic may be put up for discussion on meta where also other users can potentially benefit from it.
In the rare event that the comments and related flags (in particular “rude or offensive”) indicate clear rule violations, a moderator will decisively take measures that are appropriate to the circumstances and suitable to stop the behaviour. In any case, it is not relevant that the user produced a steady stream of valuable answers.
- How would you handle a situation where another mod closed/deleted/etc a question that you feel shouldn't have been?
If another moderator acted on a question, I assume that there was a good reason for this action, even if this reason might not be obvious for me. Therefore, I would never simply undo the action of another moderator. Nevertheless, we all make mistakes; hence, I would ask the other moderator to explain the reason for the action. The preferred place for this would be the moderator chat room. If necessary, other moderators could easily be involved in the discussion. In the unlikely event that the moderators cannot find agreement about the concerned question, the issue may be presented to the entire community on meta since the moderators are essentially only representatives of the community.
- Is there something you think the current community moderators are not doing or doing wrong? How would you fix it, or what would you try to do to fix it?
A significant part of the activities of the moderators is not transparent for the users. Therefore, I am not in the position to judge whether the current moderator are doing something wrong. Nevertheless, I have no reason not to trust the current moderators.
If we look closely at the individual issues in retrospective and out of context, we might always find something that could have been handled in a better way. However, taken as a whole, the moderation of this site appears to be well balanced. The moderators do not edit or comment every single post, they rarely use their privileges to close or reopen a question with a single vote, and they do not have to justify each individual action on meta. This is in accordance with the Theory of Moderation, which reads that the ideal moderator does as little as possible. And the results prove them right: the site is not flooded with funny comments or other non-constructive discussions; the tone is usually civil and respectful; most issues are quickly reviewed and handled by members of the community; the community seems to have common intentions even without written policies; and the site is not plagued with persistent problem users.
- As the site grows, how do you intend to keep the quality of questions and answers high - not just in terms of weeding out bad Q/As, but also attracting good Q/As?
It is usually not effective when a single user tries to attract many good questions and answers actively (see also the fate of many proposals on Area 51). In order to increase the number of good questions and answers, this site needs more active users. The most new potential users find this site in Google search results. Therefore, the existing good questions and answers should include relevant search terms so that they can be found (for example, many posts have ambiguous titles or rely on pictures; we should edit such posts to include relevant keywords).
Furthermore, the post should be useful and attractive; i.e. the content should not only be correct but also presented clearly (including correct spelling, grammar, terminology, nomenclature, quantities, units, symbols, and typography). New users usually do not read the guidelines given in the Tour, in the Help Center, or on Chemistry meta; they read existing questions and answers. Accordingly, new posts tend to adapt to the quality of existing posts. Therefore, the seeding of the desired contents can attract more contents of this kind and avoid the empty restaurant syndrome.
For the same reason, the elimination of bad contents can also help to attract the desired contents. However, that does not mean that nonconforming posts should always be deleted. Many posts can be reworked to make them conform to the requirements. Therefore, we should encourage all edits that improve (new and old) posts.
Although new users usually do not read the help texts and experienced users have many common intentions and do not need any written recommendations for most edits, it may still be useful to standardize and write down the best practices for this site in suitable meta posts. Then we could easily point interested users to these posts. Furthermore, the guidelines could help to harmonize the efforts of the growing number of active users and to make edits more thorough so that all potential issues with the growing number of posts are efficiently covered by a small number of edits. Of course, this idea is not new; we have already gathered many useful meta posts for various topics. Currently, however, the available information is scattered over many different meta posts and still does not cover all aspects. Hence it may be desirable to clear up and organize the existing meta posts and fill in the missing information.
- Have you ever been in an argument with another user (on this site)? If yes, how did it come about and how was it handled in the end? Have you ever flared up on this site? If yes, how did it end? As a moderator how would you handle an argument/ someone being rude if it came to your notice?
The topic of the site and the framework given by the Q&A format usually provide a clear basis for the communication and the corresponding expectations of the users. Therefore, the probability of misunderstandings is relatively low. However, since I have answered hundreds of questions and also made hundreds of comments, a few minor occurrences of unusual situations cannot be ruled out. Such deviations from the usual dialogues may be caused if users have a different background and a different point of view on the concerned topic (for example, an experienced professional chemist who knows that he knows almost nothing about chemistry with only a limited exception, and a student who has just thoroughly studied a chapter of a book and now has the impression that he knows everything about this topic) and this difference is not obvious to both users, or if a user deviates from the format of the site (for example, when a user changes the original question, asks further questions in comments, or tries to discuss a topic that is not directly related to the question). Unfortunately, it may be too late to fix the situation when the irregularity becomes apparent. As a user, I would preferably completely disengage and (if necessary) flag the problematic comments and let a moderator handle the situation (in most cases, it is sufficient to delete the non-constructive comments). As an involved or biased moderator, I would explain my point of view but not use my moderator privileges (for example for deleting any comments). As a neutral moderator, I would try to understand the situation in its complete context; if necessary, I would point users to the relevant sections of the Help Center. In any case, I would act decisively on violations of the be nice policy, remove the offending contents, and take measures that are appropriate to the circumstances and suitable to stop the behaviour. Depending on the severity of the problem, these measures may include a private moderator message or even a timed suspension in order to stop the offending behaviour.
- How would you handle the situation if you had a user whose questions were being received negatively by the community for being "out in left field" or not based in scientific truth? At which point would you intervene, if at all?
Generally, the community does not need a moderator to handle such situations. Questions can be flagged, placed in a review queue, and closed if they are considered off topic. The main mechanism to indicate bad questions or wrong answers are downvotes. Users may also recommend or vote to delete answers that do not try to answer the given question.
If a larger pattern of problematic posts becomes apparent, we may comment on the posts and point the user to the relevant sections of the Help Center (for example: What topics can I ask about here?, or What types of questions should I avoid asking?).
If the user does not react to comments, a moderator may contact the user directly via a private moderator message based on the appropriate template for consistently low quality questions over time.
- Do you have any specific focus in moderation duties (or otherwise!) you intend to bring to the table?
No, I do not have any personal focus in moderation duties. There is no cherry picking, although a few duties may be unpleasant. During my service of more than a year as a moderator on German Language, I have done all kinds of moderator tasks. When I look at the statistics, I may see some patterns (for example, I have a relatively high rate of edits and deleted comments), but I would be hesitant to give a reason for these numbers.
Most moderator duties are of a reactive nature. In particular, moderators react to flags (from users or automatic processes). These duties usually have the highest priority; however, some flags (for example “not an answer” and “very low quality”) are effectively handled by the community and do not need moderator intervention. After that, moderators can easily find other things to do (for example answer questions on meta, guide new users, edit posts, delete old comments, or simply read questions, answers and comments to understand the situation of the site).
- The Stack Exchange model can be challenging for new users to grasp. Exposition of various details of what users can/cannot do, what moderators can/cannot do, how the internals of the SE sites work, etc. can be difficult to find, except by trial and error or by happenstance conversations with other users. Imagine that you have encountered a user in the transition from just learning the ropes to becoming a stable, upstanding member of the community. This user is frustrated by their inability to find detailed information about aspects of the inner workings of the SE site model. Do you engage with them and try to help them out? If yes, how would you go about it? What sorts of tucked-away resources would you direct them to?
Indeed, the complete picture of all internals of the Stack Exchange network is complex, complicated, and also constantly changing. For successful participation, however, users essentially only need to understand the topic of the site and the Q&A format, which is focussed on questions and answers with limited comments and edits.
If users have further questions, we can answer in comments, on meta, or in chat as appropriate – preferably so that also other users can potentially benefit from it. I would like to approach users that are faced with a problem before they become frustrated, but in most cases the intentions and problems of users are not obvious until they ask. For most problems, we already have a section in the Help Center, on Chemistry meta, or on meta; therefore, it may be sufficient to point the user to the relevant page. Nevertheless, I would be interested to hear about the problem and especially try to understand why the available information was not found or did not help, so that we may improve our documentation.