# Off-topic: what is it for?

I am a relatively new member of the site and haven't spent enough time to read through rules and meta posts yet to really understand how it all works. So when I see the occasional discussion in the comment section between highly ranked members of the site, I tend to make up my mind intuitively, keeping in mind that it should help the site remain an open forum, where reasonable questions about physics can be asked. Like I said, most people here have probably spent a lot more time thinking carefully about how to run the site and I appreciate that, but this is just how I generally think a forum should be.

Now I really enjoy this site and how it is run for the most part, but there are some questions where I simply can not understand why closing them is any good for the site. In particular the "off-topic" tag seems a bit off sometimes (sorry for the pun), since modern science is hardly ever part of a single subject (The most common overlap is gonna be maths, but increasingly biology etc.).

Now of course one needs it to prevent questions that are nothing to do with physics. My main question here is: when there is a physics component in the question and when in doubt wether it can be answered here, shouldn't the decision go in favor of the question? I am happy to get to know about how the actual rules are intended, but I'd also like to know from an intuitive perspective for a new member of the site.

There are some other supporting factors, e.g. when the question has a good vote reception. The reason I am writing this post is such an example: evolution/gluon question. I can not see at all how this is off-topic and @Nathaniel comments seem quite reasonable in this context. There was a similar discussion on this one, but it luckily stayed open. Unfortunately I can't make a more complete list of these kinds of questions because I can't figure out how to search for closed questions.

I have elaborated why I don't understand this type of off-topic closing of question, now I'd like to return to the title question and ask more generally than "is Math always off-topic" or "is Biophysics always off-topic": What is "closing as off-topic" intended for? And why when in doubt is the decision not necessarily for the question?

One further thing I'd like to mention is that I of course realize that bad questions that pollute the site have to be closed.

• Right here "keeping in mind that it should help the site remain an open forum, where reasonable questions about physics can be asked" you presume your conclusion. There is a wealth of information about what the active users of this site think it's purpose is in the tour, in the help center and all over the meta site. It's been a matter of debate repeatedly over the years, and indeed there is a corner of it under active debate right now. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Apr 15 '16 at 23:21
• "I simply can not understand why closing them is any good for the site" - good for the site according to whom? – Alfred Centauri Apr 17 '16 at 1:46
• "... there are some questions where I simply can not understand why closing them is any good ..." - Ha! Welcome to the Stack Exchange Network. I keep asking that myself every odd week (mostly on S.O.). It seems to be some universal law of some kind. Maybe asking here on Physics would be actually on-topic :-P – Martin Ba Apr 25 '16 at 7:37

Not sure if this will be a coherent answer, but let me comment on some points here:

[...] it should help the site remain an open forum, where reasonable questions about physics can be asked

Stack Exchange sites are not a forum. The intent is not to facilitate discussion. The intent is to provide a place where specific questions with clear answers can be asked, and where every response should be an attempt at answering the question posed (answers) or an attempt to clarify or add to the question (comments).

In particular, this means that things posted as question which cannot conceivably have an objectively correct answer are not a good fit for the site. no matter whether they actually are about physics or not. This might incur closing as too broad or unclear what you're asking, but it might also draw a custom close reason where the close voter more specifically addresses the question (usually detectable by the stock phase "I am voting to close this question as off-topic because" at the beginning), which, if chosen as the main close reason, will mark the question as "off-topic", even if the custom close reason gives a reason that is not, strictly speaking, saying it is off-topic in the sense that it is not about physics.

[...] I simply can not understand why closing them is any good for the site[...]

What is "closing as off-topic" intended for?

The main (and arguably sole) purpose of closing a question is to declare that it is not welcome here. Closing a question prohibits adding further answers, and is meant to discourage the asking of similar questions by communicating to everyone that such questions do not, in the view of the "community", belong here. It is crucial to realize that this is not necessarily saying the question is not about physics, or that it is a stupid question. It's saying that we do not want this question here. Physics.SE is intended to cover a broad range of physics, but the intent is expressly not to answer everything that has some connection to physics and ends with a question mark. Being somehow about physics is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for being on-topic.

Now "community" there is a rather nebulous term, and might arguably not necessarily reflect a majority position: A question is closed when five close votes are cast on it. To not let five users decide the status of a question forever, five reopen votes will reopen a question. Both types of votes are available to all users with more than 3000 reputation, and the first instance of such a vote will send a question into the corresponding review queue1. Three "Leave Open" votes in the close queue will remove a question from the queue, and three "Leave Closed" votes will remove it from the reopen queue.

[a]nd why when in doubt is the decision not necessarily for the question?

the "when in doubt" case seems rather well-handled to me: Closing and reopening is a perfectly symmetric process, no bias is made either way, and in the case of a 50:50 split of votes, the process defaults to the status quo. The reason for not generically being in favour of questions staying open is simply the signal-to-noise ratio. The primary purpose of the site is to provide a knowledge base of precise questions with precise answers. Leaving open all borderline questions just tends to drown out all the really good ones.

One further thing I'd like to mention is that I of course realize that bad questions that pollute the site have to be closed.

Well, the entire reason we have repeated and lengthy debates on meta about e.g. the homework policy is that users simply have differing opinions on what constitutes a "bad" question that "pollutes" the site.

Unfortunately I can't make a more complete list of these kinds of questions because I can't figure out how to search for closed questions.

To search for closed questions, simply add a closed:yes to your search query. To access a more comprehensive list of such search modifiers, click on Advanced Search Tips to the right of the search interface.

1The review queues are the most direct and most powerful way in which we, the users can shape this site. Use them! Don't only go there when you see a question you really like and want to stay open, go there whenever you find the time! The more users participate in reviews, the better the average results of the review queue will reflect the actual average opinion of the users here. I keep hitting my maximum daily amount of close reviews - which indicates to me that there is a less-than-ideal number of users doing those reviews. The closing and editing and reopening of questions does not happen by some miracle algorithm, it happens through us individual users.

• "The review queues are the most direct and most powerful way in which we, the users can shape this site." - if this is the case then in my opinion something is wrong. The reason it only takes 5 votes to close a question is that close votes are intended as a way to implement policy, not to vote on it. The formation of policy should take place on meta, and only on meta. ... – Nathaniel Apr 16 '16 at 2:11
• ... If people are using the review queues as a way to influence policy (which a few patently are) then it's obvious that we will become a very insular and closed community, since any question type that offends five or more people will effectively be banned. I've seen this happen on multiple Stack Exchange communities. This one is actually one of the least bad, I think because of the traditionally quite heavy-handed moderation that we've had here, but lately I think we're getting sucked into that hole and I'm worried about it. – Nathaniel Apr 16 '16 at 2:14
• If there is an active reviewing community than the consensus interpretation of the policy will be (by far) the most common outcome of review and individual will not be able to sway that without arguing their point on meta. But that is contingent on an active reviewing community. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Apr 16 '16 at 2:43
• @Nathaniel: The people implementing a policy will always be the ones shaping it. It lies in the nature of most of our off-topic policies - such as homework, or "too mathematical", or "primarily about something other than physics although physics is involved" and even the stock unclear what you're asking - that they involve some amount of subjective judgement. It is only through the participation of many users in the queue that this element of subjective judgement comes to reflect, on average, a consensus rather than the opinion of the few people actually bothering to review. – ACuriousMind Apr 16 '16 at 9:24
• @ACuriousMind thank you for your answer, it helped me understand a lot more about how the site works. if i may ask one more question: the whole system seems to be very well thought through, but based on the assumption that enough people are participating in the reviews. is this actually the case at the moment on this site? – Wolpertinger Apr 16 '16 at 11:53
• @Numrok: There are barely enough people reviewing, i.e. enough that we don't build up a back log, but few enough that it takes time until the required reviews are made. It would certainly be better if more people reviewed. – ACuriousMind Apr 17 '16 at 13:44
• @Nathaniel It's not true that "any question type that offends five or more people will effectively be banned." Once enough people click the "leave open" option on a question, it's removed from the review queue, so it becomes much less likely that the five offended people will find it. To get a question closed when many people believe it should be left open requires much more than "five angry men" because it essentially needs five close votes while it's still in the queue. – David Richerby Apr 29 '16 at 16:45

Ideally an answer in the Physics SE should make the reader a better physicist i.e. help them understand physics better. This doesn't just apply to the person posting the question. Other site members might find the question interesting and be helped by the answer.

A question is off-topic if no reasonable answer to it is going to achieve this end.

I appreciate this is a somewhat extreme view, and in practice I will usually stretch the point and answer questions from interested bystanders if I think it illustrates some point in physics, especially if that point is frequently misrepresented in popular science programmes. However our starting point should always be that this site is, and I quote from the tour:

a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics and astronomy.

We aren't the Discovery Channel and we shouldn't try to be.

I'll add a note for users who don't have enough rep yet to participate in the queues - if you want to express your opinion on opening/closing questions, use comments. I can't speak for all reviewers, but comments are the first place I look when I run into a question that's a bit of an edge case. If there's a well reasoned argument there for/against re-opening/closing a question I take it into account when casting my vote.

• thank you for your constructive approach! I was always a bit scared to leave comments about it because I thought it wouldnt be appropriate to discuss these matters given my reputation. – Wolpertinger Apr 19 '16 at 10:28
• @Numrok I view reputation as just a guideline to how much experience on the site someone has. This affects how much weight I might lend some types of comments, but I don't simply ignore low rep users... after all, I started with 1 rep too... Besides, with comments rep is invisible unless you hover, which is usually more work than it's worth ;) – Kyle Oman Apr 19 '16 at 10:41

I am a newcomer to the site. I am dismayed to see so many questions being put on hold which appear to me to be reasonable, thought-provoking and 'on topic' as defined by the criteria in John Rennie's post above. For example :

Aaron, URL (version: 2016-04-19): https://physics.stackexchange.com/q/250549

AdamG, URL (version: 2016-04-18): Spinning a string with a mass on the end. What makes the mass rotate parallel to the ground?

Whether these questions are homework or not, discussion of the conceptual difficulties which the questioners have would benefit the site's users. The problems might be pedestrian but the conceptual misunderstandings are fundamental and common. The questioners have clearly thought about their problems. I do not understand why these questions are 'on hold'.

I think such questioners are possibly being penalised simply because they are novices. Surely it is to be expected that they will lack the skill or understanding to be able to pin-point the source of their difficulty and to express it clearly in orthodox terms. What they need is help to refine and clarify their questions. That requires open dialog and time.

By comparison, questions tagged 'Quantum Field Theory' are rarely put 'on hold' although there is - in my opinion - less excuse for these academic questioners not fully researching and putting in sufficient effort before posting their questions. I appreciate that fewer moderators feel confident about judging such advanced topics. However, I don't feel it is right to treat novices less favourably simply because their questions are easier to judge.

• I agree! Thanks for your answer! – Wolpertinger Apr 24 '16 at 8:21
• There is no excuse for not putting effort into your question, regardless of level. I vote to close a QFT question that just asks for a standard calculation just the same way I vote to close an elementary Newtonian mechanics question. Also, please substantiate the claim that "questions tagged 'Quantum Field Theory' are rarely put 'on hold'", as this is crucial to your argument that "novices are treated less favourably". It's lazy and off-topic questions that are treated "unfavourably", and this should not correlate with their perceived level. – ACuriousMind Apr 25 '16 at 15:11
• @ACuriousMind : Fair comment. I have only browsed questions in advanced topics and gotten the impression that significantly fewer are 'on hold.' – sammy gerbil Apr 25 '16 at 19:37