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Sparked by this question.

Should software questions be on-topic? They aren't exactly expert-type questions. They're something which chemists know about, but unrelated to chemistry concepts. They can get good answers here--but are they good for the site?

Physics seems to allow them, though I personally would VTC offtopic there as well.

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    $\begingroup$ The issue of topicality aside, this was a very vague and poorly asked question and has been closed. But that action does not render this meta discussion moot. $\endgroup$ – Robert Cartaino May 5 '12 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ I'd like to vote for software questions being considered relevant. In specialised application domains it isn't always easy to find the right software just by googling. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel May 7 '12 at 18:53
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To me, these questions are problematic not in themselves, but because they tend to be very broad, suggestive or argumentative. By its nature, a question that can be answered by 15 equally valid answers is not going to be very useful. For example, I consider the following questions unsuitable for the site:

  • What Linux software can I draw 2D molecules with?
  • I can't pay for Accelrys Materials Studio, what is a free equivalent?
  • What planewave-based DFT software should I use?

I would think the following would be suitable:

  • I have issue X with drawing software Y, which doesn't export to format Z. What alternatives exist that fit this use case?
  • I can't buy Materials Studio and its advanced GULP version, how are its features different from those of the academic version X.Y?
  • I want to perform planewave-based DFT calculations for 13-C NMR prediction, does any free software package have this functionality?

So, my proposal would be:

  • not considering them off-topic intrinsically
  • being extra-careful about the other criteria for questions: fact-based, specific questions.
  • if a few answers pop up suggesting different software that could be equally valid, merge them into a community wiki answer.
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  • $\begingroup$ The problems with the questions you list in the beginning are that they all are recommendation questions, not that they are about software. $\endgroup$ – Mad Scientist May 5 '12 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ @MadScientist yes, indeed, I though that was clear in my answer: to me, software questions' specificity is simply that they have a higher risk of being suggestive/argumentative (just like book questions)… Thus, I argue for them not being off-topic, but that we be careful about respecting the other criteria. $\endgroup$ – F'x May 5 '12 at 13:21
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Questions about tools which are used mostly by chemists should be on-topic in my opinion. This is also a common position on many other SE sites, Stack Overflow for example allows questions about compilers, IDEs and other programming tools.

Software programs, e.g. to draw chemical structures, are tools that are used mostly by chemists. Chemists are the right people to ask about those tools, so I think allowing questions about them makes a lot of sense.

Your specific example suffers from a different problem, unrelated to the fact that it's about software, questions about software still need to meet all the other requirements we expect here.

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  • $\begingroup$ (I know the other problem--that was a given. I was concerned about what our policy should be.) Alright, didn't know about SO etc. I'm surprised, though.... $\endgroup$ – ManishEarth May 5 '12 at 11:30

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