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In deciding whether a question should be closed, moderators and users of sufficient reputation refer to the official physics S.E. policy, and act accordingly. In law, if a particular decision is approved in a case, it may provide a precedent for future cases. Suppose a question on the physics S.E. is by the policy off-topic, but a previous question many years ago, which was upvoted, untouched by moderators, and answered is off-topic by the same argument applied to the present question. Does the fact that the question was allowed previously provide precedent? If not, should it?


Note: the question is purely a 'thought experiment,' or perhaps more appropriately hypothetical. I'm interested in hearing different perspectives on this topic.

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No, not necessarily, for two reasons:

  1. The scope of the site and our sense of what constitutes an appropriate question has changed over time. So if you find an old question that is not closed but seems like it should be, it's possible that the question was considered appropriate at the time it was asked, but our policy has changed since then. In a case like that, please flag the question so a moderator can close it (or you can vote to close and then ask in chat for other 3k users to also review it for closure).
  2. Moderators and 3k members don't necessarily see every question. Sometimes a question which should be closed simply gets missed by everyone and stays open for that reason. Again, in this case, vote to close it, or if it's an older question you can flag for moderator attention.

In general, I would say that decisions about whether to close any given question should be made on a case-by-case basis. Citing precedent can help guide that decision by clarifying the reason the question should or should not be closed, but it is not itself a reason to close a question.

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    $\begingroup$ Out of curiosity, in your experience, how often has the official policy been edited, and by what circumstances, if noteworthy? In addition, thank you for your swift response, +1. $\endgroup$ – JamalS May 24 '14 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ Well, that's tricky. We don't really have a formal policy on exactly what constitutes the site's scope. We have overarching guidelines, in the help center and a few questions here on meta (e.g. the homework policy), but within those guidelines, it's up to individual 3k members to vote to close questions they think are inappropriate. In this way the exact scope depends on the voting preferences of the high-rep community, so it naturally fluctuates a bit on a time scale of days or weeks. When there's a significant shift in voting preferences, then we can codify it into a meta question (cont.) $\endgroup$ – David Z May 24 '14 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ (cont.) but that is fairly rare these days. Maybe every few months, or less often. Back in the early days of the site, though, it was more frequent, and of course when we were in the first days of public beta we had practically no policy at all. The scope was determined "organically" based on whatever people decided to close. So if you look back at the very first questions asked on the site, you'll probably see a lot which would be quite drastically off topic by our current standards. (And yes, do feel free to flag them for closure, or for historical lock) $\endgroup$ – David Z May 24 '14 at 21:53
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So, David Z. covered the question about formal precedent pretty well, but I'd like to explore another aspect of the issue.

We do use precedent as the basis for arguing about what the policy should be. This has been done several times. That is someone asks meta "Do we have a policy about Foo?", and people with some memory drag out earlier questions that are more or less like the one under discussion and use those to suggest what the de facto policy has been and as a spring board for discussion what they think the policy should be.

Finally, if you want to re-open a policy discussion that has been established for a while it really helps to have some concrete examples to hang your arguments on. Looking at the existing precedents is a fine way to show what you think the costs of the current policy are.

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    $\begingroup$ Good points. I would just stress that the chain goes from precedent to policy to closure decision; you can't skip that middle step. $\endgroup$ – David Z May 25 '14 at 20:53

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