# Encouraging better questions: the topic challenge

As discussed many times previously, there can at times be a severe lack of 'non-homework' questions here on chem.SE, meaning that it can be very difficult to actually engage (which has, I admit, made me grow bored of the site at several periods since I joined).

Several things have been doing in the past to try and solve this, namely the bounty dance, aiming to resurrect good quality questions that never received the answers they deserved.

Informally, its been suggested in the past that regular users should make more of an effort to ask rather than just answer, and indeed this does happen to a certain extent (I've certainly been making an effort since I've noticed the lack of new questions here), but there could potentially be a more formal solution to this in which we actively try to make more good-quality questions.

There was a post on meta.SE about 'weekly topic challenges' to encourage users to post high-quality questions.

The essential premise is that we have a meta post where users can suggest a that they think there should (or could) be more good quality questions about.

These then get up/down-voted, and every so often (at some regular interval), one of the mods here on chem.SE initiates a featured meta post inviting users to think up and post their questions related to the given .

With good quality questions, hopefully, we end up with good quality answers (and any bad questions will necessarily end up down-voted/closed). There could also be some mechanism of incorporating the bounty dance so that the 'best' of the questions has a bounty applied, to further encourage people (not that its needed...).

This has been happening on several sites across the network, often with good results (graphic-design.SE is a good example of a relatively low-throughput site doing this to good effect, see the linked meta post here for their discussions).

Aside from the obvious benefit of getting more high-quality questions, it could potentially also help us define the scope of tags better. This kind of challenge could be used to expand the number of questions for tags that we deem useful but that are currently under-represented, as a start, and purely selfishly, i'd suggest (theres enough possible questions and enough people around here to answer them.

I think one crucial thing here is to not make a load of awful Q&A because nobody knows anything about a very narrow topic, i.e. .

Some other possibilities that could benefit from more questions: , , .

• This sounds good. How about something like: Week 1: Challenge 1: Ask a well received (>5 votes) question on insert-tag-here. Challenge 2: Answer a question on insert-tag-here with (>5 votes)? – Pritt says Reinstate Monica Jun 19 '17 at 4:50
• Good questions don't need to be encouraged. Genuinely good questions come from the curiosity of users. Well... in my opinion, the reason why some topics lack "good questions" or questions at all is because they are less popular, in a sense that they are more specialised and are less studied in educational institutions as part of the chemistry syllabus, compared to others. Perhaps, if you want more questions to be generated about these "under-represented" topics then maybe resources should be provided for them, to at least allow users to learn the topic and then ask questions out of curiosity – Tan Yong Boon Jun 21 '17 at 17:23
• Good questions are few and far between imho. – NotEvans. Jun 21 '17 at 22:00
• In terms of "good" questions, maybe it is confirmation bias on my part, but there seems to be a strong organic + computational slant here... On my part I will try to ask more stuff, I guess, now that it's summer and I'm not stuck reading rubbish for exams. – orthocresol Jun 24 '17 at 19:00
• @orthocresol. There is an organic bias generally (yay!), but I guess my feeling is that there is enough knowledge around here that we could explore some of the less used tags without causing a tonne of unanswered questions. I dunno. Questions are good, theres only so much editing that can be done and its nice to be forced to think about new things. – NotEvans. Jun 25 '17 at 22:51
• I think summer is generally slow since there aren't as many students studying for exams who happen to genuinely have questions – NotEvans. Jun 25 '17 at 22:51
• Also, even within organic chemistry, I don't know that there are that many questions which couldn't be answered by a quick flick through Warren – NotEvans. Jun 25 '17 at 23:14
• Same. Finding things that aren't in either the peer-reviewed literature or some reference/textbook is difficult. Most of the questions I've enjoyed answering are at roughly the 1st-year graduate level, but that audience here is tiny. That makes it discouraging to even think about self-answers. – pentavalentcarbon Jun 26 '17 at 1:43
• Hmm, I feel that even something that can be looked up in a textbook is OK. Maybe not Clayden (that's undergrad level stuff and if we really wanted that kind of stuff I could just regurgitate everything I studied), but something more advanced, perhaps. – orthocresol Jun 26 '17 at 14:03

## 1 Answer

Question quality is something that I've always wanted to see improvements in. In fact I do think that it is one of the ways that might help to reduce the usual flood of homework questions.

I think the only real way to discourage such questions is for people to submit enough high-quality Q's, so that when somebody visits this site and sees the average quality of stuff, they will realise "oh, this isn't the place for me to dump my homework". - orthocresol, 1/4/2017

So, I just wanted to drop some thoughts. Warning: not all of it might be relevant. TL;DR at the bottom.

Good questions don't need to be encouraged. Genuinely good questions come from the curiosity of users. - Tan Yong Boon, 21/6/2017

I really don't agree with this sentiment. First of all let's tackle the idea that "good questions don't need to be encouraged".

Let's say I'm doing my PhD on topic XYZ. If I run into a problem in topic XYZ, Stack Exchange is probably the last place I'm going to try and get an answer from. I'd probably try and first ask my supervisor, or the postdocs in the group, or search the literature, or go to the library.

Even as an undergraduate, whenever I ran into an issue, my first thought wasn't to ask here. Usually I'd have checked the library and literature first. 99% of my undergrad organic chemistry questions could be solved by plugging the reaction into Reaxys and reading the journal article.

And you already know why those kinds of questions aren't asked here. [...] It's in the "job description" to do your best in finding out the answer on your own. You learn more that way. Especially so because those questions are likely within your personal "research wheelhouse". - pentavalentcarbon, 1/4/2017

And what's worse is that, perhaps, we sometimes encourage this attitude towards asking questions. SE is supposedly the place that you only go to after exhausting every other possible avenue. Of course people will always tell you that after finding something out you can do a self-Q&A, and indeed, some of mine have been quite successful. Lately, the Jahn–Teller one seemed to be received quite well, so I assume that that was a good question. But really, who has the time to do this sort of thing on a regular basis?

So IMO, of course questions need to be encouraged. In fact, even if we know the answer (e.g. by reading it in a book), it shouldn't stop us from asking a question. Often, other people can provide different perspectives. See, for example, my questions on heat capacities and the uncertainty principle. And if nobody else actually answers, we can write up a self-answer, once time permits.

Apart from that, there's also another issue with the "genuinely good questions come from curiosity" argument. Without pulling statistics to back up my claim, I'd say that many of the regulars, especially those who frequent meta, are at least PhD level. I'd assume that my level of education (starting my Masters in September) is below the average. As such, what kind of questions would the average regular be genuinely curious about? There's a very good chance that it's something that is too niche to get a good answer, or something that is too complicated for others to understand - say, asymmetric ruthenium photoredox chemistry in aqueous solution - and those probably aren't the stuff we are looking for, at least not at this point in time.

Instead we should try to come up with stuff that may be helpful to others, that isn't easily found by a cursory Google search - that's probably my best description of what a "good question" is. This doesn't have to be something you read about yesterday and haven't figured out yet. It could be something that you wondered about a month ago. It doesn't matter if you actually found an answer to it a month ago - why not ask?

My only concern, though, is perhaps the number of users. Let's say that we go through with this idea, and that for Week 1 we focus on . How many people here who read meta actually know enough to ask interesting questions on pericyclic reactions?

Of course, that's somewhat beside the point and somewhat pessimistic. I'd say, why not give it a shot. What's the worst that could happen?

Heck, even if we have one or two extra questions as a result then that's a good thing. - Cai, 20/4/2017

## TL;DR

• I support the idea of encouraging people to come up with more good questions.
• It doesn't have to be a problem that we encountered in our work (it would be nice, but not necessary).
• It doesn't have to be something that we don't know anything about (again, nice but not necessary).
• Why not start with one or two tags this week? I suspect just one tag might be too narrow.
• Agreed. I contemplated with myself for weeks before asking the question about Staudinger's experiment. I wanted to be sure to not miss anything beforehand, but I guess I should have just asked it right away. Anyway, I think we're not loosing anything with trying, but I think a week window is too short. – Martin - マーチン Jul 2 '17 at 8:09
• @Martin-マーチン 2 tags per 2 weeks, perhaps? My only concern with 1 tag is that if it's too narrow, few people will be able to take part. I don't have much of an opinion on the time frame. – orthocresol Jul 2 '17 at 8:13
• btw, I think the other sites got around How many people here who read meta actually know enough to ask interesting questions on pericyclic reactions? by pinning it to the sidebar for the duration of the week it was active. Not sure how many more people actually read the sidebar, but perhaps gains a little more attention – NotEvans. Jul 2 '17 at 11:56
• @NotEvans. Nice idea. – orthocresol Jul 2 '17 at 11:57
• @orthocresol, in response to your other post, maybe we can just give this a go and stop talking about it ...? ;) – NotEvans. Jul 3 '17 at 21:25
• @NotEvans. I'd say try it out once and see how it goes. I don't see any immediate problems with it. – orthocresol Jul 4 '17 at 3:51