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Prompted by this question:

Are there any examples of California gold rush prospectors becoming exceedingly wealthy due to their claim(s)?

There's a twice upvoted comment in 12 minutes as I write, asking what research got done. I'm one of those upvoters. I did so almost as if I was conditioned to do so. But I'd take it back if I could. The reason I'm asking this question is that upvoting felt wrong for some reason.

It's a valid question. It's an interesting question. It's a non-trivial question. By non-trivial, I mean something that someone who hasn't dug into the topic before will probably not know off the top of their head; and something that you won't know how to google directly unless you know enough about the topic. All of this makes it a good question.

Sure, the answer is probably a few well informed google searches away. Note the operating word: well informed.

But should requiring that OPs do those [well informed google] searches really be our "prior research" criteria?

Doing so seems to me like a recipe to turn the whole site into in the long run.

Which is to say, mostly unanswered questions that tend to require hours or more of research to answer. I'm struggling to imagine how we'd miraculously attract scholars on a website whose main means of attracting newcomers is StackOverflow HNQ visitors.

(For Aaron, as I certainly wouldn't want you to take this personally: I relish reading your questions. They're all wonderful, and they set a very high bar on the site. But let's get real here, only a handful of erudite scholars are able to answer many of them. And insofar as I can tell you actually end up answering them yourself on a regular basis -- which also make for great reading when you do. So please continue. My point is that there's little in the way of questions and answers by different people when we set the bar that high.)

Anyway, re-reading the question, it actually seems somewhat researched, if only to the degree that OP read something on the topic before asking, as demonstrated by the fact that they know "that the people who became wealthy from this event were the ones that were selling supplies to the miners, and not the miners themselves".

Even if we can't find a consensus on how well informed well informed should be, can we at least try to agree here on what we expect as a minimum research requirement?

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    I think this is a reasonable question. However, I would certainly like to know what research the OP had done before they post the question, if for no other reason that I then don't have to repeat it, or post an answer telling people what they already know. – sempaiscuba Sep 19 at 18:56
  • @sempaiscuba: please see the edit I was making while you posted this. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 19 at 18:58
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    Noted. But in response to that comment, the OP then cited their source for that (an article on sparticus-educational.com). Obviously, I would have preferred to see that in the question, with a link to the specific article, which would then have made my request for information about prior research unnecessary. Anyway, I'm interested to see what the community views are on the subject. – sempaiscuba Sep 19 at 19:05
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    Likely interesting. Only: This would benefit from explaining (to me) the jargon a bit better: "California"? (And below "Care bear"/SO to hell") / The angle on 'scholars/HNQ' eludes me. Is that a chicken/egg problem or advertising we should be content with what effects HNQ presents us? Option 1 makes no sense to me and 2 is not desirable, imo. If your answer means you want (mainly?) a 'standard comment' updated then clarify that in the Q. – LаngLаngС Sep 19 at 20:19
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    @LangLangC: The question is should requiring that OPs do those [well informed google] searches really be our "prior research" criteria? Along with an open discussion about if we can't find a consensus on how well informed well informed should be, can we at least try to agree here on what we expect as a minimum research requirement? – Denis de Bernardy Sep 20 at 5:37
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While I quite accept that the comment text may be seen as "too harsh" or "elitist" by some, I think that T.E.D. may have hit on the core of the problem in his comment to your answer.

I think different people mean totally different things with the research checks


The comment you think may be too "harsh" and "elitist" is mine, and I accept full responsibility for it. It is the form of words that I developed over time, and which have been adopted in a slightly modified form as the suggested 'boilerplate' text for questions from new users lacking prior research.

So, perhaps some background is in order.


The general expectation on SE is that SE sites work best if the questions are supported by preliminary research. This point is also made explicit here on our meta site in Mark C. Wallace's excellent post Why did my question get a downvote?.

I wanted to develop a form of words that would be supportive to new users by clearly explaining just what it is that we expect them to tell us when they ask a question. I wanted to point them at our Tour and Help Centre, so they would have some idea of what we expect and how SE is different from other sites that they may be used to. I also recognise that the length of a comment is limited, so brevity would be a good thing.


I was fairly clear in my own mind that I needed to know:

  1. Where have they searched

So that I don't have to duplicate any research they have already done.

  1. What they found

So I don't just post an answer that tells them what they already know.

  1. Why that wasn't sufficient to answer their question

This will generally tell me what they really want to know. Did they search, and not actually find anything? Or perhaps they searched and found a paper that they don't quite understand (both are perfectly valid questions for History:SE, IMO, but they do require very different answers).


By late 2017 I had developed & was using this as my basic "Welcome to the site, but where is your preliminary research" comment:

Welcome to History:SE. What has your research shown you so far? Where have you already searched? Please help us to help you. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and Help Centre and, in particular, [ask].

I originally included "Why was that not sufficient?" but was told that it sounded "condescending", so I've since been leaving it out in most cases.

I posted this as an answer to the meta questions Dealing with newbie questions - again and What should be the standard message for “Please document research”? early last year.

This was subsequently modified by LangLangC and posted as an answer to the Standard comment situations: suggestions for close votes and down votes meta question.


Now, obviously, I have been editing this to suit the circumstances. For example, if the OP has the 'Informed' badge, I cut the bit about the Site Tour. The fact they have that badge means that they have at least scrolled to the end of the tour. They may even have read some of it.

If I search for keywords from their question an get an answer on the first page returned by Google, or in a Wikipedia page, then I try to add something like:

When I did a Google search for xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx, the xth result on the first page was the paper xxxxx. Perhaps you could edit your question to explain what you think is missing from, or unclear about that paper?

or

Perhaps you could edit your question to explain what you think is missing from, or unclear about the Wikipedia article (with link).

either edited into the question or posted as a supplemental comment.


Unfortunately, that approach is often less than successful in dealing with questions that should probably be closed as 'Too basic'. All too often, someone will then take that comment and post it as an answer. Regrettably (in my opinion) these answers also often attract upvotes, occasionally hit the HNQ list, and/or get tweeted by our Twitter bot. This then sends the message that these are examples of what is considered acceptable questions on History:SE.


So, is the comment text "too harsh" or "elitist"?

I don't think so. But then I wrote it, so am perhaps the wrong person to ask. It reflects how I actually speak in life, and - more importantly - it asks the specific questions that I want the user to edit the body of their question to address.

I'm not wedded to that particular form of words, but I do want whatever 'boilerplate' text we adopt to ask explicitly for that information. It is important, and - again in my opinion - should be the minimum that we require for prior research.


However, if a majority of the community want something different in terms of what we expect from preliminary research, then maybe we need to settle that in another meta question before we agree on a standard comment text.

Preferably with a canonical answer that can be linked to from our Help Centre.

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    My key issue is with the wording, rather than the spirit. For instance, we could replace the very direct "What has your research shown" with a more inviting "Can you elaborate on what your research has shown". That alone makes it tremendously more welcoming. Followed by "And where" rather than plain "Where". It's a matter of tone. The way the current snippet reads, I tend to read it in my mind as whoever posts it as shouting and barking down newcomers, if you see what I'm trying to convey. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 21 at 22:50
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    Just to add, I'd be quite happy to accept your answer (which I agree with in spirit) if you suggest a more welcoming phrasing and edit the canonical comment accordingly. Though maybe a separate question might be in order just for that, to see what wording the community agrees is best. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 21 at 22:53
  • New discussion posted here: history.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/3965/… – Denis de Bernardy Sep 21 at 23:08
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    I may not be the person to suggest an alternative. To me, "Can you elaborate on what your research has shown" makes it sounds like it's optional ("Not really" would be a valid answer). I don't think it should be an option. It should be required. But that is just my personal opinion. – sempaiscuba Sep 21 at 23:08
  • Hence my additional question. s/Can you/Kindly/ makes it not optional. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 21 at 23:10
  • "what we expect from preliminary research, […] we need to settle that in another meta question" Could you please post one? – LаngLаngС Sep 24 at 11:40
  • @LangLangC Personally, I'd prefer it if the debate were initiated by, and involved, the community. That was why I initially held back from posting an answer to this question. If all the discussion on the subject is coming from just half-a-dozen or so people - half of whom are site moderators - then how can we claim that we are representing the views of the History:SE community at all? – sempaiscuba Sep 24 at 12:01
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    In one sense true. But then, what is meta for, if lots of regulars just do not participate here (all subjects!), do not read the rules or voice their opinion on policy, and post or upvote 'bad' on main as a result? Nobody excluded from hopping to meta and participating, if only with voting. Meta is better than democracy, it's anarchy. But even in anarchy things don't get going if the participants are just not even watching unorganised chaos. 116 'views' here, 23 votes since Sep 19? That needs improvement as well, but why is low participation a valid reason not to move forward the discussion? – LаngLаngС Sep 24 at 14:20
  • @LangLangC There is a help page on meta that explains what it is for. It is not anarchy. By my reading, a requirement for significant community participation is implicit if agreed site policies are to "... become part of the community-curated FAQ or codified as part of the site’s Help pages". Otherwise it is simply a discussion forum. – sempaiscuba Sep 25 at 15:05
  • As that requirement is never reached here, it is obviously all for naught and we're sent here to vent steam but otherwise dull the senses? Why else then ask me to post sth here? Isn't a mantra that "SE is not a 'discussion forum"? Is this just a time trap, a cruel simulacrum, opium for the members? Sure, but don't ask me to voice this complaint "in a separate meta post". That's getting too old now. – LаngLаngС Sep 25 at 16:03
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    @LangLangC Or you could generate participation by posting answers, and linking to those answers as the help page suggests? IIRC, at one point, "an active community on the meta site" was one of the criteria for graduation. Presumably, this situation was the reason that was included? But I am by no means an expert. I just try to work with the system as I find it, and gradually improve things where I can. I may have mentioned this before, but we live in an imperfect Universe. – sempaiscuba Sep 25 at 16:16
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Sempaiscuba said:

I would certainly like to know what research the OP had done before they post the question, if for no other reason that I then don't have to repeat it, or post an answer telling people what they already know.

in response to that comment, the OP then cited their source for that (an article on sparticus-educational.com). Obviously, I would have preferred to see that in the question, with a link to the specific article, which would then have made my request for information about prior research unnecessary. Anyway, I'm interested to see what the community views are on the subject.

I would then like to suggest that we change our message. Instead of:

Welcome to History:SE. What has your research shown you so far? Where have you already searched? What did you find? Please help us to help you. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and Help Centre and, in particular, How to Ask.

Can we try something less hostile, like a variation of:

Welcome to History:SE. Could you edit your question to clarify what you've looked into already, complete with links and references, and context if applicable? In particular, please let us know what you find missing or unclear about the Wikipedia entry on the topic, if one exists. This allows those who might want to answer to do so without needing to redo the work you've already done. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and Help Centre and, in particular, How to Ask.

You know... something friendly that doesn't sound too elitist.

  • Well, it's always nice to be quoted, and obviously I'm flattered that others have used my example as the basis for the suggested standard comment text, I'm not sure I'd characterise it as 'elitist'. But then, I guess that's how I talk in general, everyday conversations, so perhaps I'm biased! – sempaiscuba Sep 19 at 19:45
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    @sempaiscuba: Hehe. I am guilty of having used your exact phrasing a few times myself. It's nothing personal. ;-) Just, I think we should use a different/better wording. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 19 at 19:51
  • The existing "standard comments" are not elitist or unfriendly, imo. But then they are also suggestions. Yours is good as well, so one thing I'd like very much is you using this variant (or others if they like it), even if 'just for variation'. (Perhaps depending on how this A here is received) how about addingyour suggestion (my current preference; or perhaps even replacing/updating the old one) to the just linked to standard comment texts suggestions? – LаngLаngС Sep 19 at 20:24
  • @LangLangC: If I may suggest, would you kindly edit your own canonical answer with a native speaker's version of what I wrote if you even mildly agree with the sentiment expressed in this answer? If you do that, I'll happily raise it in an edit, accept this answer, and call it a day. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 19 at 20:51
  • @DenisdeBernardy To be honest, I'm not wedded to the wording, but I don't want to create the impression that showing evidence of prior research is optional. IMO, it should be a requirement when asking questions (but then I also think that citing sources to support non-trivial assertions should be a requirement, so perhaps that does make me an elitist?). – sempaiscuba Sep 20 at 0:07
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    I like this wording - with apologies to sempaiscuba I always felt the original comment template was a bit harsh. But I would venture to suggest that we should also include something to the effect of "Please let us know what you find missing or unclear about the Wikipedia entry on the topic, if one exists" since in practice, at least in my experience, prior research mostly comes from Wikipedia. – Semaphore Sep 20 at 5:41
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    @Semaphore: I penciled that extra line in. (You're most welcome to improve the wording.) – Denis de Bernardy Sep 20 at 5:46
  • @Semaphore The WP part may benefit from refinement. It's not always applicable (no WP entry, hence redundant to comment), or plainly OP did never bother to visit that page, or in no few cases has but didn't bother to read it. Can't put my finger exactly on it: but it's only good in situations where commenters don't know about the WP page either? Seems to me that makes commenters sometimes look a bit stupid? – LаngLаngС Sep 20 at 9:09
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    This answer points out something that's been bugging me lately, which is that I think different people mean totally different things with the research checks. Some mean "Did you at least check WP before firing this question off on a whim?" while others mean "What stuff do you already know, and where have you checked, so we don't all waste time duplicating that." Where there's 2, there's probably a 3rd and 4th meaning I haven't cottoned to yet. But when a research check is made, everyone piles on like they think they are all talking about the same thing. – T.E.D. Sep 20 at 13:28
  • @T.E.D. Intresting. For me the WP thing is implicitly wholly included in the "what stuff". And 'any prior' is what I'd strive for as minimum, while 'where' is just very nice to have… And if all that could be canned with differentiations into 'standard', all the better. But what do you mean with "pile on"? Commenters never satisfied? Like seeing no prior, requesting one, prior done, then further comments into the direction still? (Which absent examples for now I'd call 'refinement', although I see that that & how it could get out of proportion) – LаngLаngС Sep 20 at 14:43
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    @LangLangC - Kind of "commenters never satisfied", yes. Even if the poor question asker tries to engage with the comment, its going to be nearly impossible to satisfy it, because the people who upvoted the comment (and started close voting) are actually doing it for several different reasons. – T.E.D. Sep 20 at 15:00
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This is getting too long for a comment:

We can certainly rephrase the 'standard comment' on that. I didn't write any canonical answer there. I posted a suggestion for the wording, to be varied and adopted to the situation from the beginning, and the text/wording is an evolved, collaborative effort. If it can be made 'just friendlier', that's a good thing.

As such I still see problems here

  1. "well informed": we can't require askers to already have the answer, but I think we have to require that they opened a book, typed in a search, or something. Not only showing some effort, but also avoiding 'bad' duplicates, mere answers copying Wikipedia, or answers that require really nothing else than typing the keywords into the search field of a browser.

    How does anyone answer any question? By asking questions, sure – but first to oneself, then to resources, then to other people. Outside logic and pure thinking, these are the steps to be taken in succession. And we do want to help, indeed at any point in that chain. But always jumping to 'other people' is lazy and unproductive in the long run. In principle. But especially so if the answer is 'really easy to find'. If it is in fact 'not easy' to find, or problems arise along the way, then 'help' is the most useful. Always asking 'others' first is not 'please help' ("certainly, and gladly"), but "do my work for me".

  2. "elitist"/harsh": As said, if it is (often) perceived as 'too harsh', we might change the suggested 'standard comment' anytime, and everyone, now, can take the canned comment and rephrase it to personal preference. As I hoped to make clear in the other thread, personalised and situation aware comments are the real goal for the suggestion!

    Then I do not perceive that as 'elitist' or 'too harsh', in the sense of 'putting down a newbie'. That's of course a matter of taste as well. The suggested comment already evolved from inspiration found on other sites. And everywhere on SE these comments were discussed and improved to exactly that standard: welcoming, friendly, but also guiding and helpful. That process of perfecting is for sure not finished, nor perhaps ever finishable.

    If 'elitist' means: "we expect a certain standard, (please conform)" then that's not so good. But if 'elitist' means "we expect a certain standard, please conform, and here's how you do it", then we should all be much more elitist! Community moderation certainly does accept questions that aren't perfect now. But our standards and the quality of posts on this site should be raised, not lowered. Showing askers, newbies, the ropes and guiding and helping them to raise the standard of their own question and that of the site is a good thing.

Seeing how long this comment as an answer gets already: One of the reasons, apart from everything listed so far: the comment is what it is now is also found in the character limit of comments. The comment should at the same time be terse, avoiding redundancy, yet contain everything needed. As some of the links in it are needed to 'show how it's done', these often are so long as leading to exceed the imposed character limits.

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Upvote the question with vigor - important question to ask. This is where we determine the culture of our site and what community moderation means.

Having said that, I have a different opinion than Mr. de Bernardy.

I don't want H:SE to compete with Google or Wikipedia. I want this to be like the other SE sites where it is strongly expected that the question will demonstrate that the poster has made the effort to solve the problem. Asking a question on this site is an implicit request that the community do work on my behalf. I personally find it insulting when OP asks a question with no preliminary research.

I want the site to communicate the cultural expectation to new users - we're not here as a front end to google; we are not motivated to type your query into Wikipedia for you. We're here to do interesting research, to leverage what we know about history.

This also clarifies a bunch of X:Y questions, by revealing the assumptions OP is making about the time/location/culture/context.

I'd be perfectly happier with "nicer" wording. Unfortunately during the day I can only log in from my cell phone and I can't copy and paste the standard answers from the cell phone interface. When I get home, I try to replace the quick comment with the standard comment.

SO please give me a standard comment that meets the standard. But let's find a middle ground between "elitist" and "Bad interface to Wikipedia".

Thanks for voicing the issue.

  • "I want this to be like the other SE sites where it is strongly expected that the question will demonstrate that the poster has made the effort to solve the problem" As the infamous care bear answerer (answer which got heavily edited by mods since) I'd like the point out that where SO went to hell is when questions began to be asked without as much as googling the question's own title -- which all too often leads to another SO question with the answer. I'd also point out that the first search result on software questions often are SO questions. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 19 at 20:08
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    "we're not here as a front end to google; we are not motivated to type your query into Wikipedia for you" - In this age, this is akin to digging your head into the sand. There are people out there who are promoting counter facts, and it is our duty as a community to see to it that every sensible question that gets asked on this site gets an answer -- no matter how trivial, if only via a link tossed as a comment while casting a close vote as too trivial. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 19 at 20:34
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    @DenisdeBernardy Your point "There are people out there who are promoting counter facts" - couldn't agree more, it's very important that we deal with any such nonsense. 'Fake news' is widely recognized as a problem but it seems that there is less concern about 'Fake history'. – Lars Bosteen Sep 19 at 23:09
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    @LarsBosteen: unfortunately, there's also plenty of fake history (holocaust denial, reinterpretation of feminism, etc.) on 4chan or 8chan. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 20 at 5:31

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