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Looking at the question feed on the main chemistry site today, it seems like more than two thirds have a negative score. Have the questions gotten worse, or have the voters become more critical? Or is there something else going on?

Maybe we should have a week where everyone considers adding a comment if they think a post can be improved (I just learned from @andselisk's comment that users with less than 2K reputation get a prompt to this effect when they down-vote). It must be discouraging for folks who have questions, even when they do their best to ask them in a way that follows all the rules and customs of our site.

Quantitative update

I found a SEDE query to check monthly upvotes and downvotes. Here are the results. February 2021 looks like an outlier, even when seasonally adjusted:

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Even though downvotes don't have to be explained, I suspect constructive criticism and voluntarily explanations here on Meta won't hurt. For this kind of feedback and for the historical purposes (in case this sort of question rises again in an year or two) I think you might want to pick a set of questions every day for a week (since you suggested it:) ), say, from 2021-02-08 to 2021-02-14, which you think were undeservedly downvoted. This extracted sample is then going to be discussed. $\endgroup$
    – andselisk Mod
    Feb 8 at 5:34
  • $\begingroup$ I added plots of the SEDE data to my answer. It would be interesting to compare to the closing frequency and number of new questions per month. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Feb 17 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ What I learned from this discussion is that I should vote more, no matter whether it is up or down. If I take the time to look at a question, I might as well state whether I think it is "useful and clear" or not (in which case I could leave a comment on how to improve it, or down-vote it if I don't think the OP would/could improve it). So I challenge myself to at least double the number of votes I have cast so far by the end of the year. $\endgroup$ Feb 17 at 23:26
  • $\begingroup$ I think it might just be that the site has been around for a long time, so there is a lot of questions, both good and bad. Just look at stackoverflow, the questions barely get answered nowadays, lost in a sea of other questions. The way this site is going is not healthy at all, everytime I log in, I see that the top question are all either heavily downvoted or closed. This wasn't the case even last year, or any of the 4 years I have been on this site. $\endgroup$
    – S R Maiti
    Feb 27 at 21:37
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Re andselisk's comment: I agree that talking about individual cases helps to elucidate possible recurring problems. However, it's impossible for us to exhaustively explain downvotes/close votes on every question, and honestly it gets tiring after a while; and lately I've been feeling increasingly uneasy about the possibility that by focusing so much on specific cases, we may inadvertently be denying the existence of a systemic problem.

I brought up a similar issue before, about closure rather than downvotes: Recent close statistics. The gist is that more than half of all questions get closed, which I couldn't (and still don't) see as a sign of health — although I realise that a lot of commenters seem quite fine with it. For what it's worth, that was 3 years ago, but today the close rate in the last 90 days stands at 51.52%. I can't help but feel that if we attract so many questions that we don't like, then we're attracting the wrong crowd...?

One difference, though, is that closure (usually) needs 5 people. On the other hand, downvotes rarely hit −5, except for the worst of the lot which I presume is not the type of question we are interested about here. I wonder, then, whether one possible explanation (or part of it) is that we're seeing some kind of bias, where many questions are actually "borderline" but people who want to downvote simply have a greater inclination to do so than people who want to upvote?

If that is the case, then there is a potential answer which is simple to state though not necessarily so simple to execute: let's be more generous towards questions. If we feel that a question is not yet worthy of an upvote, let's not instinctively downvote it, but instead let's edit it into a state where we think it is.

I think many of us (myself included) tend to focus too much on OP's efforts, thoughts, writing, etc., when in fact this is secondary to the raison d'etre of Stack Exchange: Q and A. If there is a good question lurking inside, we should seek to bring it out. Yes, it's far easier to open a question, tut, click downvote, and move on; but putting in the effort — even for just one question a day, or one a week! — will lead to better questions and a healthier site, in my opinion.

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    $\begingroup$ I appreciate the seven separate links in "and honestly it gets tiring after a while". $\endgroup$ Feb 8 at 16:42
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I now realize that theoretically a single community member could be responsible for the frequent -1 votes. On the flipside, I as a single community member could change that by upvoting all the questions I would like to see on this site.

While I like andselisk's idea of monitoring questions for a given time-period in the future, I am afraid I tainted the sample with my meta-post (not a bad thing, though). I collected the questions asked up to about 24 hours before my post, together with the current score and some thoughts about the nature of the questions through my eyes. Now that some time has past and more than one vote per question has been cast, there is a bigger range of scores, perhaps reflecting the quality of questions better.

question score my comments
Can G, H, and S be negative? 0 basic question with tentatative answer by OP, got an answer
Comparing bond strength by IR frequency: symmetrical modes 1 well-conveived, with example (OP has 20K reputation)
Use of powder of kernel of tamarind seeds for water purification 0 unanswerable without more detail
Why does contaminated brake fluid conduct electricity? Using a voltmeter to test for water contamination in brake fluid 1 real world question, got an answer
Elementary derivation relating Gibbs energy with equilibrium constant -1 trigger word "biological conditions"
https://chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/145990 -4 pasted problem, edited later to included thoughts
Are we comparing Resonance hybrid while comparing different compounds having resonance? -2 about resonance hybrid, badly written
What is Resonance, exactly? 0 about resonance, 4 answers
Why are the "extents of reaction" the same for all reactants and products? 0 extent of reaction, got an answer
In electrolysis, why does each atom wait to turn into gas until they reach a particular electrode? 3 thinks about process at particular level, got three answers
Confusion between various formulas of Gibbs free energy -1 thermodynamics confusion (a trigger?), got an answer
https://chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/145999 -3 trigger word "sig fig", weird notation
https://chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/146000 -2 reworded problem set or real lab question?
https://chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/146002 -3 broad question without example
Free on-line dissociation constants 1 well researched, asking for reference
https://chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/146007 -2 copied problem with no question
How efficient is Zinc Acetate as an Oxygen absorber? 1 real lab question
Neutralisation reaction of HCl (aq) + NaOH (aq): How NaCl forms? -2 OP does not understand ionic compounds
https://chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/146012 -3 too short, trigger word "reactive"
Does a Proton Exchange Membrane let gas through? -2 too short
Question About Sig Figs 2 interesting example

If I remember, I could come back in a month and see what happened to the questions (did they receive answers, comments, were they closed or deleted by the OP to protect their reputation points).

For now, I have comments on two of the questions. If we look at this question, it suggests a fundamental misconception about ionic compounds, and a lack of understanding of spectator ions. If the question title could be edited so that others with the same misconceptions could find it, it would be nice to have an answer. I did not check whether there is a nice question with a canonical answer on ionic compounds, ionic interactions and ions in solution that would allow this question to be closed as a duplicate.

The questions about significant figures are a bit painful for me to read (e.g. this one) because time in the chemistry classroom could be spent learning some chemistry rather than learning rules that have to be unlearned once you look at real data. Again, I wonder if there is a canonical Q&A that shows the uses and limitations of the "General Chemistry Textbook significant figure rules". You would think if I divide a number by 2 (or 2.00000000000) and then add it to itself, the number of significant figures should not change. Yet half of 1.20 supposedly is 0.600, and the sum of 0.600 and 0.600 is 1.200, e.g. I gained a significant figure in the process.

So I guess I will try to pick one or two of these questions, look for duplicates or relevant existing Q&A, and write a comment or edit the question. Or if there is nothing to point to, write an answer and edit the question so others can find it more easily. All of this takes time, of course, so it makes sense to be selective and just leave the other questions for someone else.

Update

Here is what happened within a week (SEDE query): Six out of the 20 questions were closed, seven of them have at least one answer, and one rose to the top with the most view and upvotes.

enter image description here

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Following up on Karsten's SEDE query, the following is a plot of the fraction of votes that were upvotes, by month.

enter image description here

There isn't anything enormously surprising there. I would not expect the fraction upvotes to hold steady. It would be interesting to compare this data to the frequency of close votes.

The following shows vote totals:

enter image description here

Interesting is the large fluctuation from month to month, but the long-term average appears otherwise relatively steady.


I have concluded* that there are serial downvoters on the site. However, I have also concluded that serial downvoters are not necessarily pathological. The site encourages downvoting, in part because original questions become increasingly rare (at least the types of questions that are most commonly posted) and because of an excess of lower quality questions (those exhibiting minimal effort, going back to that precious term). Downvoting may be a useful reflex (see also voting as a duty below). Serial downvoting is therefore not entirely surprising.

More worrisome might be that bad actors who downvote out of spite are difficult to identify or block, and have a potentially outsized effect because of low vote counts. The problem is one of participation. Views for a question can reach 100+ within a few days, even without a question being broadcast to other sites on the network, but more usual numbers are <50. The number of people regularly voting to close and up-/downvoting are probably on the order of ~10, so cumulative votes hover around 0. Vote tallies are in general small because few people bother to vote. Question is whether most abstain because they don't care, don't have the time, or because they prefer not to cause unintended effects based on limited information.

Close votes are also decided by a dedicated cadre of fanatics. It is difficult to say whether they should be applauded or not, because to function the website needs people to perform these duties, but on the other hand leaving the fate of many questions to a small number of people cannot be good for the health of the site. Ideally a lot more people would participate in all voting activities.

Searching among heavily upvoted and unanswered questions also suggests additional explanations to voting patterns. Many heavily upvoted questions are very challenging to answer except for experts narrowly focused on very particular topics. This has multiple effects. The absence of answers for some difficult questions discourages participation. This further dilutes the number of good questions. In addition, the absence of "research-grade" questions can lead to a myopic reaction in which being answerable becomes equated with low quality or duplication.

Karsten's announcement that he is planning to deliberately increase his voting rate is perhaps a step in the right direction. In addition to reducing the statistical utility of vote tallies as measures of question quality, there might be a deflationary (cyclical feedback) effect involved in low voting rates. However, there are alternative ways of looking at this, for instance considering the "tragedy of the commons", in which some don't vote because they don't feel the need to. It makes for a fascinating topic of discussion. In the end a little common sense (such as remembering the "golden rule") and a friendly attitude is likely to benefit the site more than any profound analysis.

OTOH I think there need not be a rush to upvote or downvote in the short run if not convinced that a question is particularly good. The site does a good job of pooling opinion when questions are in fact liked, and in the long run popular posts do accumulate more votes, as it should be.

*(ok, I suspect) On various occasions (times of apparent low activity on the site) I've noticed many recent questions being downvoted - some not (imho) seeming to merit downvotes - and none receiving upvotes - even when they seemed to merit them.

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  • $\begingroup$ When you say “fanatics”, you are referring to the badge holders, right? Not slash and burn type fanatics... $\endgroup$ Feb 16 at 5:03
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    $\begingroup$ To be clear I meant definition 2 here: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fanatic $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Feb 16 at 7:29
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with you and have reached similar conclusions myself. I actually think that the site encourages downvoting more than upvoting: the notion of acting as "quality control", or "curators" of good content, lends itself more easily to rejecting things than accepting things. (I am not entirely blameless in this, of course: I have a ~2:3 upvote:downvote ratio.) This is kind of why I like to advertise editing: it's a more direct way of shaping content the way you want it to be, and also creates overall positive effects for the site (as opposed to DV/CV). $\endgroup$
    – orthocresol Mod
    Feb 16 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ All in all, there are two "big" questions to ponder about the site which you touch on. One is the fact that votes are dominated by a small number of people. Another is the fact that we don't like basic questions, but we also don't have enough chemistry "experts" to answer the tough ones (except in some fields), and we don't seem to want to ban basic questions. $\endgroup$
    – orthocresol Mod
    Feb 16 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ I'm the top fanatic for closing on this site, and in the top 4 of every other queue. Somebody has to take out the garbage, and there are probably 10 of us who do so: there's no shortage of it. As you note, it would be better if more people participated in the voting process, as it would be less biased. Also, they would complain less about the results, having thus become involved in it. Don't sit on the sidelines and shoot spitballs: get involved or accept the consequences of your own inaction. $\endgroup$
    – Todd Minehardt Mod
    Feb 17 at 2:40
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I think this question is somewhat equivalent to asking "do we appreciate questions from new members", since I'm guessing it's the new members who most typically ask the questions that get down-voted and/or closed.

[Aside: Can Karsten's query be filtered to look at downvotes for new members (say, < 1month and/or <200 rep, or however you choose to define it)?

Answer: Karsten ran queries for 200 questions each by those with <200 rep and >200 rep. The difference was striking. 50% of the questions from those with <200 rep had negative scores (mean score for negatively-scored questions = -1.97), while this was the case for only 7% of those from users with >200 rep (mean = -1.5).]

I think there is one key way in which new members (and their questions) are treated too harshly, and two key ways in which they are treated too hands-off:

  1. Too harshly: It's not uncommon to see certain individuals consistently respond to new member questions with unhelpful snark in the comments. I don't know why they do this. Maybe they think they're being clever and entertaining. In any case, if I were a confused student, and my question got that kind of snark, I wouldn't be comfortable staying on this site. I think this needs to stop. IIRC, I flagged at least one of these, and nothing was done.

  2. Too hands-off: Sloppy questions and homework problems are an issue. Shouldn't the system have a more clear and assertive default way of encouraging OP's to clean up their questions, accompanied by clear guidance of what's needed, rather than just notifying them of close votes in small gray text at the bottom? That way we get them to do the work they're supposed to do, and the questions are less likely to get downvoted/closed, which benefits everyone.

  3. Too hands-off: Many come on the site, ask a question, and never bother to hold up their end of the social contract, namely: https://meta.stackexchange.com/help/someone-answers. I think this site (like some other sites) should (for new members), after a period of time, email the OP a notification that their question has been answered, accompanied by a polite reminder of the contents of the above link.

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    $\begingroup$ Here is a comparison of what happened to questions of <200 rep users vs. the questions of >200 rep users: data.stackexchange.com/chemistry/query/1379310/… data.stackexchange.com/chemistry/query/1379311/… $\endgroup$ Feb 28 at 0:39
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    $\begingroup$ You would think that users with higher rep (or more experience, for those users who keep their rep low) know the site better and can ask better-posed questions. However, the newbies often have intriguing questions, some of which are not fully developed or well-presented. $\endgroup$ Feb 28 at 0:43
  • $\begingroup$ @KarstenTheis Thanks. See edit added to my post. Were these the most recent 200 questions from each group? And I fully agree with your 2nd comment. $\endgroup$
    – theorist
    Feb 28 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, those are the 200 most recent. The ones asked by high rep users go further back in time (because this is a smaller group of individuals, and they ask less frequently), so comparing views or scores is not an apples to apples comparison. There also might be some bias in terms of voting: I know about many of the 5000+ rep users, so I might be more likely to open the question and vote (usually +1). $\endgroup$ Feb 28 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ Just saw this... I feel like some of the snark is less than it was a few years ago. But there are occasionally some pretty brusque comments which I don't like. The other two points, sadly, can only be dealt with by the system. $\endgroup$
    – orthocresol Mod
    Mar 5 at 23:50

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