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Are questions from non-professional historians allowed?

By this, I mean questions that may seem obvious to a professional, but not necessarily to a layperson.

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I think all the questions on the site are from history enthusiasts (read: non professionals) and I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case for most of the answers as well. I'd say it's safe to say that questions from amateurs are allowed and more often than not, enthusiastically welcomed.

That said, as T.E.D. noted, we do expect questions to show at least some amount of prior research. We really don't want a site that's full of obvious answers, that would get extremely boring very fast. However it's extremely difficult to define a common baseline for the amount of prior research required. Each and every one of us has different standards, expectations and skills.

How do we maintain sanity, then? Well, that's easy, by combining our different standards, expectations and skills. It takes five votes from high(ish) rep users to close a question (i.e. deem it unsuitable), one or even four persons' opinions don't really mean much. I'd go as far as say that if you don't agree with one person's opinion of your question, you can just ignore it, at least until it becomes obvious what the community's opinion is. There's one notable exception, the people with diamonds next to their usernames; they are moderators exactly because we trust them to single handedly do stuff.

Although I don't think I'm in any way a representative user, just to give you an example, my workflow for determining prior research is a five minute search. I take the more important keywords from the question, enter them into Google and:

  • If I find the answer, I'll downvote the question and move on (remember: a downvote's primary purpose is to show the post is ill researched or ill defined).
  • If I find relevant information (but not the answer), I will comment and share that information (primarily to help anyone else researching the question). If I feel that information would have made the question clearer and was relatively easy to find, I'll probably downvote.
  • If I don't find anything, I may upvote the question.
  • If I continue researching the question past the five minute threshold, I will most definitely upvote it. There aren't many questions that keep me interested for more than five minutes, and those that do deserve my upvote.

I'm guessing everyone has their own workflow, and I should note that (obviously) my workflow only applies to questions that aren't a mess to begin with. I wouldn't spend five minutes on rants (in disguise or not), extremely trivial questions and questions in broken English (on these, my five minutes are better spent in editing the question).

Both your questions pass my "five minute test". Obviously, the Australia one didn't pass someone else's equivalent test, but that's both understandable and expected. Some people on the site will be a lot more familiar with certain areas than others, and will be able to dig up relevant information and possibly the answer almost instantly. So what, as I've already mentioned, you shouldn't lose any sleep over what one person thinks.

Also, if you ignore the condescending tone of the comments, what remains is that someone familiar with the subject matter of your question answered it, almost immediately. I agree they could have been a bit nicer about it, but at the end of the day you found the information you were looking for. That's not so bad, is it?

Of course, I'm not suggesting that the ends justify the means. The comments, although not outright rude, weren't particularly helpful and you could have just flagged them. Or, just ignore them. But saying that "I do not think I will be able to write to the standards this site requires without getting an abrupt and condescending comment" is an overreaction. I'd strongly advise against letting a single bad experience shape your opinion of the site, especially since you have found at least some value on the site (more specifically, the answer to your other question).

Stick around, and give the site another chance. Keep in mind that it's extremely tough to convey emotion in comments. The person at the other end of the line might just be tired, or having a bad day, or whatever, and they screwed up with their comment. Or you might just be misinterpreting the comments. It doesn't matter, whatever the reason for a not so friendly comment, if it's just one (or even two), just ignore it.

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  • After reading the steps you suggest to cast a vote, it seems like a software can take the place of a person; which, obviously, is not, -1. – user2237 Jun 16 '13 at 22:23
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    There is a meme in Australia which involves baiting with precisely the kind of question that was put. The meme survives on a rejection of scholarly historiography, it is a denialism. The meme is also used to promote an active politics in Australian life. I think that I was very restrained in relation to a question that fit that meme. I'm sorry about the result of the commentary on the question in that the questioner has retired from activity. – Samuel Russell Jun 26 '13 at 0:40
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About the only time I see questions getting closed for being too simple is when they are something that could easily be answered by hitting the subject's wikipedia site and reading the contents therin.

You are expected to make some small attempt at research on your own before asking. At least enough to perhaps link to the wikipedia site in question and explain why the contents don't answer it for you.

For example, in the case of the comment you got on https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/9113/was-there-a-plan-by-axis-powers-to-completely-navally-blockade-australia-in-ww2#question, a good response would be to read the wikipedia material for Australia in WW2 and explain why that didn't enlighten you (assuming it didn't).

What we are trying to avoid is answers that are basically just a single naked link to wikipedia. A website full of those wouldn't be of much use to anyone.

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  • I guess that is the reason why I got a not-so-nice comment on my last question, even though I did so and the answer is not obvious to me - maybe I am an idiot. – user2434 Jun 16 '13 at 1:36
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With that in mind, I deleted the offending question, and upon reflection saw that the one I had before it (about ancient city planning) was as bad. Looking at it, the question about Arabic trade routes is also bad as it does not include a Wikipedia reference.

But, I do not think I will be able to write to the standards this site requires without getting an abrupt and condescending comment.

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  • the impression I have got is that 'amateur' questions are allowed, but barely tolerated. – user2434 Jun 16 '13 at 3:44
  • I haven't been actively participating here for long, so take what I say for what it's worth. If an "amateur question" means one not coming from a pro, everyone agrees that they are not only allowed but welcome. If an "amateur question" means I have to show no research effort and can ask just any old thing that pops into my head, then I (and maybe half of the users) say no, it isn't suitable. The other half say sure, anything goes, we need the traffic. Unless the makeup of users changes, I predict that this conflict will forever prevent History.SE from graduating out of Beta. – Eugene Seidel Jun 16 '13 at 4:06
  • What I found is that, rather than helping - I got a condescending comment on my now-deleted question (linked above) - not very welcoming at all. – user2434 Jun 16 '13 at 4:09
  • You can "flag" a comment if you think it is "rude and offensive"; you can give the commenter a piece of your mind in return; you can ask the commenter whether they meant to be harsh; you can address it as a general issue on Meta; you can shrug your shoulders and move on; possibly even you can reflect and say it may not have been friendly but the other person is right. If you want to quit, I'll be sorry to see you go. But it won't be just because of that one comment. If there were enough attractive features on HSE to counterbalance, you would stay. – Eugene Seidel Jun 16 '13 at 4:14
  • The comment was flagged, addressed above (in a way). I doubted anything would be done as the commenter is an established member and I am just a newcomer. I have addressed it as a matter here (hence the question above). It won't be a loss when SE action my deletion request, as all I have posted is of poor quality. – user2434 Jun 16 '13 at 4:18
  • Your question about Arab trading routes was not poor quality. It needed to specify the time frame but once you had supplied that there came a very good answer (8 upvotes). The question, too, received 8 upvotes. – Eugene Seidel Jun 16 '13 at 5:31
  • However, I did not consult the Wikipedia article, as per above and was written in the same vein as the one that copped the condescending comment, as was the unanswered one I did about ancient town planning... all have non Wikipedia links as part of the explanation, but all could apparently be explained by the same. So, hence why I am confused about the writing standard here. – user2434 Jun 16 '13 at 5:41
  • When people say, "check the Wikipedia article first before asking here," they don't mean this is mandatory. Rather, they mean, do the frigging absolute minimum that any 13-year-old could do. If, however, someone researches good-quality relevant sources instead (or in addition), that is potentially better! Remember, Wikipedia is what they call a "tertiary source", an encyclopedia that sums up what "secondary" or "primary sources" have to say. Often it does a good job of that, sometimes not. If you can do better, no need to pay token homage to Wikipedia. – Eugene Seidel Jun 16 '13 at 5:54
  • I believe I did do the "frigging absolute minimum that any 13-year-old could do" on all 3 questions, thank you. – user2434 Jun 16 '13 at 5:59
  • I have no doubt that you did. – Eugene Seidel Jun 16 '13 at 6:00
  • I did the same amount of research for all 3 questions - one was upvoted, the next ignored and the final one unhelpfully slammed. So it seems it would be potluck how any future question would be responded to - but that is a moot point, as SE are usually pretty quick with deletion requests. – user2434 Jun 16 '13 at 6:16
  • @Damien, I think your questions are/were interesting and, also, I think the actual problem really is "Are 'amateur' answers permitted/tolerated?" I think that the moderators, first of all, should remove a lot of such answers, but core-users, who are essentially no more that 'amateurs', don't have same point of view and therefore this site is collapsing under these contradictions. – user2237 Jun 16 '13 at 7:20
  • and of course, speaking to newcomers in a condescending way will drive them away.. why should people stay if they feel invalidated? – user2434 Jun 16 '13 at 8:41
  • Rude comments aren't helpful whether to newcomers or to veterans. If you see them, feel free to flag. On the matter of research, I would recommend including in the question what research you've already done and why the sources you looked at don't quite answer your question. This helps answerers to provide you with a more precise answer rather than just linking to inadequate sources that you've already looked at. – lins314159 Jun 17 '13 at 0:32

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