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I was wondering how can we help our newer users write better questions and refine them to meet our standards?

I am also new to this site, so please feel free to educate me, point me in the right direction, or tell me I'm plain wrong.

As an example, this question seemed reasonable to me with the interpretation that:

  1. It seems this is a new user.
  2. The question was more basic in knowledge (Probably a HS level or first semester College).
  3. The question did have a purpose "If X is true, then why does observation Y conflict with X?"

It would seem to me that this question hits at least some of the points in our "Tour" including: chemistry concepts and observed chemical phenomena:

Our tour page about what to ask about.

I'd like to be able to help users create questions we want to answer, so I'm looking for some guidance here.

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    $\begingroup$ chemistry.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5205/… $$$$ This post might give you a more clear idea of what you can do, outside of these answeres $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 11:07
  • $\begingroup$ @SafdarFaisal Thank you for this context, I really appreciate it. $\endgroup$
    – Avogadro StaffMod
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ Even if new users don't take the tour, they will also encounter this brief guide as they are asking their first question. See chemistry.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5242/… $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ I think the "tour" should be more prominent. It seems to just be an afterthought. Maybe I was click happy and just clicked it away, but after joining it should really land a user there. $\endgroup$
    – Avogadro StaffMod
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ The "tour" is an entirely optional thing. Most people notice it when they look at badges they earn. So yeah, that's something that can be taken up on Meta SE I guess. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 8:16

4 Answers 4

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TL;DR

The new user should be no different from others in terms of treatment, and it is mostly their responsibility to adhere to the principles of the platform they have willingly chosen to use. More knowledgeable users sure can and ideally should assist in each specific case their help is justified, but I find it unlikely that we can come up with a useful and somewhat complete set of tips that would help every entrant. It's just not how it works and in my opinion the root of the problem lies in a different place.

We live in a society

Probably not the answer you would expect, but I find the recent trend of seeking ways to provide special helpful assistance to newcomers rather troubling. This potentially creates a precedent for unequal treatment of questions from a marginalized group of individuals and eventually this exceptionality would lead to decline in overall quality.

Stack Exchange is not special in terms of basic requirements for the beginners. SE sites adhere to the same basic principles accepted on other knowledge exchange platforms, shall it be an online forum or a seminar course:

  1. Communicate clearly and competently.
  2. Respect other people's time and established codex of the platform.
  3. Show interest and effort in solving your own problems.

The first item on the list is almost entirely on the user, their parents and culture (predominantly, education system) which are responsible for providing a person with basic behavioral and linguistic skills. We cannot teach them all at once. We can only correct minor typos and errors as well as technical issues with chemistry-related notations and formatting. The latter pretty much never leads to a closure and is fixable in the background routinely.

The second item stems from the first one. Wasting man-hours because of laziness and unwillingness of doing rudimentary prior research is universally not accepted. In real life people are getting fired, fined or even prosecuted on their first day at work because of their incompetence. A closed question is nothing in comparison (and is easily reversible) — so one should get used to consequences of their own sloppy behavior and take ownership of their own actions beforehand, and closed question should be interpreted more like as a fail at a training ground to learn from, not as a personal insult.

I get that there are several issues with education systems around the world and not everyone has communication skills of Robert Shapiro or chemistry knowledge of Barry Sharpless. When I first arrived here, I spent about two weeks observing how the system works, and never had any issues as a newbie. Even without reading a concise and competently written Help Center — Asking section (which I consider the "codex of the platform"), the primitive "monkey see, monkey do" motto works just as well.

Wasting other people's time implies poorly-written questions with horrible punctuation, capitalization, blatant grammatical and syntactical errors requiring deciphering. A brief, not well-elaborated question requires guess-work, writing clarifying comments as well as double work when editing hastily posted answers. Both cases are essentially chaos and presuppose burn daylight.

The third part ensures there is a back-and-forth communication and a vector of effort coming from the beginner's side. After all, the site belongs to Stack Exchange network, not "Stack Solve-all-my-problems-4-me-4-free".

Metaphorically speaking, I think a more valuable advice than any other successful first post "tricks" would be not to be like a bike that rides while pedaling and comes to a halt when pedaling stops. Get an own engine. This "engine", as I see it, should be the discipline, which cannot be acquired from the internet site: it is something that a person needs to establish for themselves. Once it is done, everything else, including starting a conversation with strangers or posting the first question on the random website should not even be an issue that would be in need of discussion.

So, what was the question?

Getting back to Why do some hydrates need to be heated over 100 Celsius to evaporate the water?, I cannot really roast the question and I definitely would not single-handedly cast a close-vote here: it appears to lie within the scope of Chemistry.SE all right. However, I also see how closure by the community members is justified: the question is too laconic, OP didn't return to respond to the comment, and it is not clear what kind of answer is expected.

On the one hand, OP uses improper terminology (it is not evaporation), the question in the main text body is based on the false premise that all crystallohydrates decompose above 100 °C, and the unit name is missing "degrees". Should it all be addressed in the answer because OP could've benefit from learning, or not — because OP's writing was sloppy and they already know this and it would be a waste of time and an edit would suffice — is unknown.

On the other hand, OP makes an apparently correct suggestion about intermolecular forces being involved — so, again, what level of understanding are we dealing with here and what to what extent it should be addressed in the answer?

Without further input from OP, I personally have no idea what would make a good answer and how to marginally improve the question, so I left the question as is, for better or worse.

Conclusion

Should a new user brace for the impact? Absolutely. But whether the impact will be positive depends to the greatest extent on the pilot. We can only clear the path in our field [of chemistry].

Further reading

  1. SO Blog: Asking Better Questions
  2. SO Meta: How does a new user get started on Stack Overflow?
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    $\begingroup$ +1. "I personally have no idea what would make a good answer and how to marginally improve the question" I strongly agree with this statement. We can only help those who are willing to be helped. One's job as the OP doesn't end after posting the question $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 10:39
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for this answer! I appreciate this answer and the PoV it brings. Writing good questions is hard when it's not practiced and I do think there's some room for us to be reflective and help those people out. I presented this question as a starting point to consider the possibility of: 'Is there an objective way to measure and correct questions?' Which is probably in the space of unknowables. $\endgroup$
    – Avogadro StaffMod
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ "When I first arrived here, I spent about two weeks observing how the system works, and never had any issues as a newbie." - ahem... $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ @orthocresol …issues [with closed posts]. Besides, it is not entirely transparent and is arguably not at all evident from "observation" that upvoting numerous posts from one user because you opened list of their answer and go through them one by one could be interpreted as a bad thing. $\endgroup$
    – andselisk Mod
    Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ IMHO, it should be more important where users seem going (in their willingness, knowledge and skills) than where they are. Helping those who are trying and being hard to those who are not. The same rules for all - not to have the same response to different behaviour. $\endgroup$
    – Poutnik
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 16:56
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There are a few basic reasons posts are typically closed, all documented in the site help pages, the most important being

  • it has been asked before, or a question sufficiently similar and having an answer has been posted before
  • it is disorganized or unclear (poorly worded) to the point of confusing readers as to what is being asked, or requiring extensive editing
  • it asks too much at once and a good answer would require multiple posts or could not be answered in a reasonable amount of time.

Typically many of these features are observed simultaneously. Copy-pasted and very basic (typically one liners asking for the definition of something which could be answered through a quick online search) may also get a cold reception. Other reasons for closure include questions addressing personal medical or legal issues, non-mainstream chemistry, or leading to opinion based answers. The great site tour is clear about this and we often remind users to look at that or the help pages.

The tour includes the following statement:

Our goal is to have the best answers to every question, so if you see questions or answers that can be improved, you can edit them.

Participants on the site can assist with addressing the second and third bullet points by seeking clarification or suggesting changes through comments, or even getting their hands dirty and editing a post directly (if you do, aim to be thorough while respectful of the OP and the original intent of the post).

I should add that there are other unofficial grounds for posts to be sometimes closed, and that is their usefulness or universality. However, this is not in adherence to the rules, since the usefulness should be judged by voting on the post using up/down arrows, not by voting to close. The standard of usefulness is a reflection of the purpose of the site, and is related to the duplicate closure criterion, namely that it is intended as a repository of useful questions and answers. Usefulness of course can be regarded as highly partial, as it is in the mind of the asker/visitor, but this is where the democratic voting process plays a role.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for this clarity. As I am only a Q&A'er on this site (even if my badges say otherwise), this answer clarifies where and how I can help. Usually I try to avenue of comments on the OP's post in case I don't understand what's going on or feel that it needs more clarity. I believe the community takes care in making sure to vote/interact with posts that make the most sense, and as you said, democratically. $\endgroup$
    – Avogadro StaffMod
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 12:32
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How do we help new users that have a novice chemistry background write questions that don't get closed?

I think in the example question, the OP provided sufficient detail to uncover the misconception about hydrates.

If you think of a hydrate as a anhydrous crystal with some water on the surface, of course you would think it boils off at the boiling point of water. If you have that mental model, you would not be able to explain why many hydrates are stoichiometric, i.e. have an exact ratio of water to ionic components.

In reality, each water molecule in a hydrate has a different set of neighbors than in liquid water. Also, if you remove the water, there are holes in the structure (or entire empty lines or even planes, depending on the structure of the hydrate).

Here is the surrounding of a water molecule in sodium carbonate monohydrate, for example (purple is sodium):

enter image description here

And here is how it fits into the crystal lattice (the crystal structure contains two sodium ions in the asymmetric unit; one of them is shown with its coordination polyhedron to emphasize the horizontal layers of water and carbonate ions):

enter image description here

I don't think there is a way to improve the question substantially without breaking it. You could add on the edges (showing which sources the OP researched to better define the concepts hydrate and boiling point). If the boiling point were that temperature at which systems give off water in the vapor phase, boiling pure water, boiling salt water, conducting a condensation reaction and a decomposition of a hydrate should all occur at the same temperature, but the OP probably did not encounter these topics yet.

I'd like to be able to help users create questions we want to answer, so I'm looking for some guidance here.

I respect the community votes for closing. Sometimes, when I feel the question is important, I ask it again, from the perspective of a trained chemist. This creates a question (and answers) we can refer to when the misconception occurs in a similar question. In the case at hand, however, I think the question is clear enough. It is also clear that if your understanding of a hydrate structure is more developed, you would not ask this question because it would not make any sense.

Luckily, the OP got a good answer before the question was closed. If I thought there were no good answers yet, I would consider placing this in the reopen queue, perhaps after some gentle edits.

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  • $\begingroup$ This really dives into the question in particular, which leads me down the path of understanding; thank you! I too believe the community is probably more often right than not, and when a helping hand is needed, you (the mods of Chemistry SE) can step in a little more. To address a little more down this thought-path: It seems that understanding the asker's level of knowledge really could affect the response and depth of answer. I know this goes against one of the other opinions above, but would adding someway to say "HS", "Post-Doc", etc. to the question somewhere would help? $\endgroup$
    – Avogadro StaffMod
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 12:29
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    $\begingroup$ Askers with good writing skills routinely do that (the aquarium folks or sewage treatment facility guys). The problem is when you don't know much chemistry, aren't a good writer, don't pay attention to details and don't bother to get a feel for the site before you post. I wonder if there is a correlation between words typed (not copied and pasted) and chance of closure. Andselisk called these too-short questions "laconic". $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Karsten Poutnik does, I simply adore the word:) $\endgroup$
    – andselisk Mod
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ @andselisk I guess I was citing you channeling Poutnik. $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ @andselisk I think the word "lackadaisical" might be better. Laconic is often considered a positive trait, unless being so curt as to make a post mysterious and undecipherable. I'd argue that the point of the site is to provide answers that are just the right length, ideally as short as possible. If you want an extended answer you should search a textbook or primary literature. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 6:39
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I think the best way to help new users is to discourage established users from voting to close questions like this, especially for inapt or invalid reasons.

The question linked to, on boiling points vs. hydrates, was perfectly clear. It's an embarrassment for the site that the question was closed, supposedly for not having sufficient "details or clarity", when the question was so clearly stated, and has a clear answer that many, many users here would be able to easily provide.

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