Well, theoretical physics has failed (the site, not the discipline). We should make some effort to recapture whatever interest and audience it had. The easiest way to do that would be to introduce a "research-grade" tag. This idea has been raised many times before. It allows people who do not want to see pop-physics or physics 101 questions to subscribe only to this tag.

I would suggest we go forward with it.

The exact idea I would suggest is a tag for any question whose answer is not blindingly obvious to someone who has completed a graduate core curriculum. I think that this is basically the right criteria, rather than trying to say something about "current research" or the like. Remember, the point of this tag is to filter out questions that would be pure chaff to an active researcher.

The tag would be policed aggressively, but erring on the side of being over-inclusive, since there is little harm in that. It would also have to be added aggressively to appropriate looking questions.

Here is a suggested tag description


"Any question requiring beyond an undergraduate level of physics understanding to answer. Questions involving summaries of current research for the lay audience are not appropriate. Please attempt to find an answer to your question in textbooks, wikipedia and arxiv before using this tag."

I'm honestly not very happy with that description, but the main idea is just to scare people away from using tags for questions like "What if there is no Higgs boson?", "What if dark matter is (crazy idea)". These questions involve current research, so the asker might be tempted to use a "research" tag, but are almost exactly what people would want filtered out. I would be glad for other suggestions.

To demonstrate, the only questions on the front page that would obviously qualify for this on the front page at the moment are:

Gauge invariance and form of the vacuum polarization tensor

What areas of physics should a mathematician learn to understand TQFT

Note these are not very hard questions. The idea is not to collect the world's hardest physics questions, which would be useless since no one could answer them. The idea is only filter out the obvious chaff from the perspective of an active researcher, for those who would like such a filter.

This tag could also be reasonably applied to high level "engineering-type" questions such as Why are turbines built differently when a change of entropy or temperature is involved? . (I actually don't understand what that question is asking, but you get the idea). They are probably not what a lot of the theoreticalphysics crowd want, but it would be good for them to remember there is a real world. So I'm fine with that.

It's genuinely unclear to me why theoreticalphysics failed, when mathoverflow and cstheory have succeeded so well. Therefore I can't say that this tag will definitely be productive. It may simply be that no physicists want a Q&A site. However, the effort required to put such a tagging system in place is small, so it should be tried.

I am very interested in hearing other's opinions. Hopefully we can develop a consensus quickly and put something in place soon.


As dmckee points out this would be a meta-tag, which is frowned upon by the stackexchange system. But I believe this situation is exceptional as evidenced by the fact that there were two separate physics sites in the stackexchange system. If you read the comments to that post it is clear that they are not against meta-tags if they are performing a valid function. After all, if the meta-tags are performing a valid function, why shouldn't they be used? Further we actually have the meta-tag "homework", which is an extremely important and useful tag.

If the concern is that stackexchange would actively prevent the creation of such a tag, I find that unlikely, especially if there is some consensus about the issue. But that is a separate issue.

Added 5/01/12

I have added this as a response to David's comment and just to clarify. Although the tag is being called "research-level" or "research-grade" that is not is a good description of its function. The function of the tag is to specify questions that might be of interest to researchers. To that end, I have suggested a very specific criterion for the use of tag

a tag for any question whose answer is not blindingly obvious to someone who has completed a graduate core curriculum.

This definition is based on the one fact unifying the community of researchers - mastery of the core of known physics. The criterion is sufficiently precise, and definitely excludes the vast majority of questions on the site. It definitely includes the two questions I have linked, even though the answer to first one is contained in textbooks and is not a question under active research, and even though the second one is a purely pedagogical question. They are both not obvious to all researchers. That is the only criterion. I agree there is some ambiguity in the criterion with the definitions of "blindingly obvious" and "graduate core", but I would simply suggest that we be err on the side of inclusiveness since there is no cost to a small amount of overtagging.

I also agree that the tag description and tag name do not suitably capture what I have suggested. I had a lot of trouble coming up with something. I would be glad for improved suggestions, but keep in mind the main function of the tag name and description would be to discourage low level questions from being tagged by the asker, simply because they thought it involved some aspect of current research.

While I'm here, let me take a step back and try to argue why we would want such a tag, and justify the criterion I suggested. I realize that in the initial post I simply jumped straight into the specifics of the suggestion without explanation. I should put it writing.

The main reason is simply pragmatic. There is a group of very smart people who at least say they would like to contribute to a stackexhange site, but who do not like the crosstalk from the lay audience. Their participation in the site would be very good. Therefore the creation of a tag tailored to the "researcher audience" might bring them into the site at very low cost, and therefore such a tag should be tried. Moreover, even for those who don't mind the jumble of questions of all levels such a tag would be very useful. So why not introduce it?

Underlying the pragmatic reason are a set of issues that were discussed heavily when theoretical physics was proposed. The physics site has multiple audiences crammed together (lay people interested in physics, undergraduate homework solvers, and researchers). Using tags to help separate these audiences is entirely consistent with the philosophy of stackexchange.

With all that said, this post has received 11 upvotes as of 5/01, which indicates at least some support. I have not seen any fatal objections raised to the idea. I'll give it another 24 hours to stew. If nothing has changed by that point I will simply change the description of the existing research-level tag and start retagging old questions as appropriate. I believe that those changes will need to be approved because of my low reputation. Hopefully the mods will respect my initiative and let the idea play out.

  • $\begingroup$ Good idea this could make some TP survivors stay here if they can filter out what seems noise to them :-). Who would then dish out the tag, the mods or other high reputation users? $\endgroup$
    – Dilaton
    Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ As a sidenote, Math also has a Homework tag and it has worked quite well for their purposes. $\endgroup$
    – Zelda
    Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton: the tagging would be done as usual. More focus would be needed to make sure that this tag is used properly, but the people who are using it to filter would have the incentive to make sure the tag is used properly. My real concern is too few things getting tagged. But again, if everyone's on the same page it should work fine. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ Ah ok, I too think that it would work fine as you say. We already have some very knowledgable people here who seemingly like it to (re)tag questions appropriately ... $\endgroup$
    – Dilaton
    Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ I actually don't think the application of this tag would be that obvious. In particular, I don't think either of the example questions you listed qualifies for research-level - the answer to the first should be found in some textbook somewhere, and the second is about the educational progression of physics, which is not really an active area of research. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 0:29
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZaslavsky: I have added a section to my post which hopefully addresses your comment. $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2012 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ OK, I see what you're saying. I still have a hard time believing that those two questions would have found a home on TP.SE, but I suppose that isn't necessarily exactly the criterion we're going for... anyway, there does indeed seem to be significant community support so as far as I'm concerned there's no problem with you going ahead and doing this. I did write in another meta post that this would be delayed until after the migration but I'll change that. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 21:37

3 Answers 3


The argument of the StackExchange folks against meta tags is reasonable in most cases, but it doesn't apply here in my opinion. Jeff Atwood quoted 2 arguments against meta tags here, but neither applies very well to this proposal.

Shog9 wrote:

I think the [subjective] tag is useless at best and actively harmful at worst.

Useless, because for all the talk about filtering by or filtering out subjective questions using that tag, it’s a poor tool for the job simply because the criteria for its use are, well, subjective. I can tell you what a poll is, or a FAQ, or a list, or a getting-to-know-you (GTKY) question… But where the border lies for subjective I cannot say.

And harmful, because there are some users who actually believe that, like community wiki, it’s some sort of magic that allows you to ignore the normal posting standards.

It’s been used pejoratively and defensively, without any real consistency, for a long long time now. Time to go.

This does not apply, because what is and is not research level is generally well-known to a large number of people. There's nothing subjective about it. There are borderline cases, but regardless of how these are treated, it would be useful for filtering.

You might claim that it will lead to a lot of mistags that mods will have to deal with, but I don't think this is a good argument. People incorrectly tag other things all the time. For example, I can think of a fair number of times on Math.SE where questions tagged as algebraic geometry were actually about high school level geometry. I can't see how this would be any different.

Aaronut wrote:

There’s been a major uptick recently in tags that are not useful and just add noise. I want to stress that these are usually added in good faith, and I am not questioning anybody’s motivation – I know that they all mean well. But this particular category of tags is one that has been historically referred to as meta-tags on MSO, and these tags cause a lot of problems.

The reason meta-tags are a problem is that they do not describe the content of the question. They describe some other aspect of the question, like the author’s skill level, or the author’s motivation for asking it, or generally what “kind” of question it is (poll, how-to, etc.).

Meta-tags are actually a subset of a larger problem that I usually call dependent tags. These are tags that don’t say anything by themselves – you can’t tell what the question is about unless they’re paired with some other tag (or several of them). These tags are a problem because people don’t realize this and will often use that as the question’s only tag.

The problem here is that one can tag a question with a so-called meta tag and nothing else. I can't imagine that this would be common with a research-level tag. TP.SE hasn't had any problems with undertagging. If someone is at the level to ask research-level questions, which require a lot of time to ask and answer, they are pretty invested in the question and will likely spend the extra few seconds to add descriptive tags. Unlike with low-level questions it actually does improve the chances of getting an answer quickly. The fact that tagging was rarely an issue on TP.SE should be enough evidence that the subset of people who would use a research-level tag would be responsible with it, which is already more than can be said for the homework meta-tag.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for a well supported answer. $\endgroup$ Commented May 5, 2012 at 9:10

Not to say I object against the tag in general, but current wording and practices seem inconsistent to me.

Let’s start from the upper constrain. First of all, where the wording “research-level questions should not require new or groundbreaking research and results to answer” came from? I quote the current (August 23, 2014) tag description, and I do not see where was it discussed. Of course, it would not be reasonable to expect that one would make a groundbreaking research only to answer a question posted at an Internet site. But using some amount of original research, or possibly results of some researches that are underway (but, say, are not published) shouldn’t be discouraged. Here is not Wikipedia.

Then the lower constrain.

[A]nswer is not blindingly obvious to someone who has completed a graduate core curriculum.

Certainly, “blindingly obvious” questions may not be labelled as research-level. But there are many questions, even about everyday life, that are far from being blindingly obvious even for a scientist with a degree. Should all non-obvious questions become research-level? I think most of them shouldn’t.

So I propose to change the formulation to something like:

An unambiguous answer to a research-level question cannot be easily inferred from the body of widely-known and available scientific knowledge expressed in literary form (I mean textbooks, research-level books and papers, Wikipedia and other reputable Web resources…)

I know my English is awkward, but I hope there will be wordsmiths who will improve the proposed wording.

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    $\begingroup$ This answer should be a new proposal (i.e., question), not an answer. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 0:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Kyle Kanos: there is one tag. Why there should be more than one thread? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 7:58
  • $\begingroup$ for two reasons: 1) this thread is 2 years old 2) your answer is a new proposal about an already completed task. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ Note also that there are like 30 questions here in Meta all about the tag "homework." Multiple questions about a tag is totally okay. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ Also, you'll get more discussion and attention if you make a new thread. Then if someone calls it a duplicate, just point to these comments and say "not my idea. Blame them!" $\endgroup$
    – Jim
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 13:29

would be a meta-tag. These are strongly discouraged.

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    $\begingroup$ I meant to address that point, so I have updated the question with why I think this is not a critical objection. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee remember, the main purpose of tags is for filtering. Most meta tags are useless there, so they are discouraged. But this one will be used by the TP community to filter, so it's useful. I still don't like it--though it might keep the TP community from leaving in a huff (their main concern seems to be being mixed up with high school problems etc, see chat) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 3:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Manishearth: That argument applies just as well to [beginner]. In fact it applies better to beginner, because it is possible to be a generalist in beginning physics, but there are vanishingly few generalist in research-level physics so there isn't anyone actually looking for a large fraction of research-level question, they are looking for research level questions in a field they're expert in. Dig through the mother meta and you'll find many more requests to [beginner] tags than for high level ones. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 4:41
  • $\begingroup$ @dmckee aah, didn't think of that. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 7:56
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    $\begingroup$ Ha ha jep, I want a "Beginner" tag to jutify my stupid questions ... :-) $\endgroup$
    – Dilaton
    Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 9:14
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee I would like to defend some meta-tags. First, they work very well on MO. Second, I benefited a lot of them, when I know the type of question. Third, [beginner] is subjective; but [homework] and [research-level] aren't. And they are important when adjusting the levels of answers (either hints or no common sense). $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 11:02

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