Some time ago I asked if we needed a tag to distinguish questions asked by beginners. The answer was no on the grounds that a layman or beginner tag would be a meta tag and these were frowned on. However we now have a homework tag, and it seems to me that a layman tag is no more meta than the homework tag (both of them being meta tags).

The problem remains the same as it was when I posted back in April 2012, or if anything it has got worse as the site has become more popular. People are understandably enthused by some mind blowing fact from a popular science TV programme and ask a question about it here. The questions are inevitably ill-informed and badly phrased. This is not intended as a criticism since I have been guilty of just the same when asking questions on SE sites outside my expertise - the guys at the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange were polite but quite firm in telling me so :-).

Nevertheless, the low quality of the questions inevitably irritates and frustrates even the most good natured of us. The temptation to be less than polite is great, and the result can be ill feeling and the departure of site members.

I propose we need a tag that means the OP should go off and do some Googling around the area then come back and ask a more focussed question. To call the tag beginner seems a bit derogatory, but layman seems reasonable.

  • $\begingroup$ Isn't [research-level] tag better? $\endgroup$
    – jinawee
    Oct 30, 2013 at 12:36
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I don't quite see how this is different from popular-science, though. $\endgroup$ Oct 30, 2013 at 12:49
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ we need a tag that means the OP should go off and do some Googling around the area then come back Why not close the question? $\endgroup$
    – jinawee
    Oct 30, 2013 at 12:57
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @jinawee, or allow lmgtfy links for some not-so-subtle sarcasm? :P $\endgroup$
    – pho
    Oct 31, 2013 at 4:35

1 Answer 1


Firstly, I have two ways of interpreting a tag. I may switch between both interpretations in this post to cover all bases, one interpretation is "questions in beginner physics", and another is similar to the one you ask "questions where the OP is in over his head"

Blast from the past

This reminds me a lot about all the discussions we had about . The major issue with such meta tags is that they're vague. So, allowing them means that each user applies the tag with their own definition of the tag. And it rapidly devolves into a "I-don't like this post" tag which each person uses differently.

For example, one user may consider the entire body of classical mechanics to be beginner level, one may not. The same goes for, say, newtonian mechanics. There are plenty of nontrivial problems that get asked in NM, too, and some may hide them with the tag while other tag users may not want that. Quoting Shog:

There's been an awful lot said here already, so I'm gonna cut to the chase: is clearly a meta tag, in the same way that is a meta tag - it can't stand alone when describing a question.

That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad or should be removed though. [popular-science], like [homework] has value in describing the sorts of answers that can be found on a question... or should be provided to a question.


After years of support and many thousands of questions, we had to burn [homework] on Stack Overflow because folks were using it as a club to beat others over the head with. When folks are regularly getting into fights over a tag, that tag has become a liability and must be removed - regardless of how nice it might be in theory. And before you say "it can't happen here", open your eyes - it already is happening.

While I sympathize with Jim and others who wish to classify these questions, Manishearth is dead right with regard to the ambiguities and potential for abuse: these are the reasons why meta tags are discouraged. If this tag is going to remain in use, three conditions must be met:

(see that post for the conditions)

The reason the homework tag works well is that the tag is well-defined. I personally am uneasy about having a meta tag like that on the site, but after thinking about it, it seems to not be causing problems and would cause far bigger problems if removed anyway :P

Close them!

However, do not despair, there are better solutions to this specific problem. I think.

The questions are inevitably ill-informed and badly phrased.


I propose we need a tag that means the OP should go off and do some Googling around the area then come back and ask a more focussed question

Ill-formed and badly-phrased? Flag/vote for closure as Unclear What You Are Asking1. And comment to try to get the OP to do the Googling, if you're in the mood for that.


If (and only if) the user asks explicitly for a layman answer (and I bet there is a significant amount of overlap between such questions and the type you dub "beginner"), then we have , which has the following excerpt:

Questions in this tag must be answered in a manner that can be understood by a general audience with at most a basic understanding of physics, mathematics and related sciences. Apply it to questions where the asker clearly requests such answers.

Individual tag ignores

If one is concerned about the level of questions, it's pretty easy to ignore tags like and company.

Come to think of it, we have many such tags. It may be good to have a meta community wiki post listing such tags in approximate increasing order of average expertise. Then, people can easily copy paste the tags they wish to ignore. (feel free to start this post if you wish)

Besides that (veering a bit off topic here into related ground), ignoring seems to get rid of a lot of the crap. Note that if you see a homework question that needs closing, vote to close and downvote. Closed posts that aren't downvoted still appear on the main page, and contribute to making our site look like a place to get homework help.

1. If you think that the closing system takes to long and have lost faith in it, let us know. Currently, the mods are holding back from the queue, but we increase our participation there as a temporary measure if there are problems. 3k+ users can help be part of the long term solutions by actively checking out the review queues and handling at least a couple questions from the close queue every day, if even 10 users do that we'd have a very fast system.


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