Please bear with me. I am throwing up suggestions, before writing my final question below. I am addressing the way we can answer questions, based on citations, linking answer style with question style.

Some answers require thorough research and well cited references.

There are many more "generic" questions, for want of a better word.
Like follows.
I answered Gaining and maintaining viewer sympathy for an anti-social protagonist.

To me, this one is not rocket science (well actually rocket science would be off topic for our site). I have pointed out obvious factors between television and reality and have drawn from real life to make a comparison and provide an example.

I find there are many questions I'd like to answer, but providing references can be time consuming for people who do not have access to journals (other than the free googleable ones)..
Having sat through lectures on neuroscience and psychology. Having read extensive articles. When I had access to journals, I did extensive reading. (Now I am not saying this means all the available and latest research is in my head).. what I am saying is; some things I know from learning. I cannot cite my lecture notes. I don't want to sift through "The Principles of Neuroscience" to find the exact quote. BUT I want to help the site by increasing our rate of answered questions.

To what extent do we have to provide citations? If I am using my knowledge from study.. can't I just state my case, with a disclaimer.. well I think.. or I was taught...? Surely if my logic is faulty to logic police will pounce and show where I am wrong??

Also: It is like this question What happens to a person's frontal lobes when they have a breakdown from stress?.

We want a quality site, but need a workable site that will encourage participation from a varying cross section of users. Does a question that demonstrates little thought and/or no research effort warrant a canonical answer? Yet the same question can still be interesting and add value to the site.

Can we strike a balance? thoughts?

**Edit: I will, personally, add a reference to all my answers. The community has spoken. **

  • 1
    There has been a LOT of research on how viewers relate to movie or television show protagonists. It is one of the better researched areas. There is really no need to answer this question without providing references.
    – user3116
    Aug 20, 2013 at 5:27
  • This is a central question for this site, and we need to find an answer that well all want to support.
    – user3116
    Sep 2, 2013 at 19:04

7 Answers 7


First, I sympathise with anyone who wants but can't get access to the scientific literature because it is locked up behind a paywall.

Arguments for citing research

  • I think we are looking for well-reasoned answers. Many of the questions on this site can best be answered with reference to empirical research that has explicitly examined a particular relationship.

  • Similarly I think that providing links to the published literature is a great aspect of this site. The site can provide a link between the everyday questions that people are googling and the answers locked up in journal articles that are often less accessible in search engine queries.

  • Part of the scientific method which this site aspires to is a skepticism towards common sense. Other question and answer sites often tackle the same questions we do, but they are often of the form: "This is my opinion."

That said, I think that if you have read the literature or have a reasonable understanding of theory, you can often provide a reasonable answer even without citations. Furthermore, in some cases literature is not necessary for a great answer let alone a good answer.

Improving answer rate

More broadly, I think that our answer rate and the number of answers per question is an area where out site needs improving. Ultimately, people will express their opinion about answers using votes and comments. Presumably having an average answer or a good answer is better than no answer. And ultimately it would be good if more questions with multiple answers such that we might have one great answer, and a couple of other good or average answers.

Integrating what you feel you know

Sometimes a user wants to provide an answer based on what they know or have learnt and are unable to provide fully referenced answer. The user then has decided whether to put something down or nothing. A few options:

  • Leave a quick comment
  • Explain your reasoning: For example, if what you are saying is based on your general understanding of a theory, then explain where the knowledge comes from. You might want to couch the answer not in absolute terms. E.g., "Based on what I've learnt x, it seems like that y would be the case".

That said, ultimately, you'll get feedback from others as to whether they think the answer is useful or not. If others think that what you are a saying is unfounded and untrue, then it is likely to be downvoted and receive negative comments. If it seems reasonable but perhaps is a little lacking in references, it is likely to receive a positive reception.

Whether to provide many quick answers or a few quality answers

I have also considered this trade-off. The simplest option is just to experiment. You'll soon find out through the voting and commenting what others think.

  • I think you've done a good job at tackling a complex question that would be difficult to write a complete answer for.
    – John
    Aug 20, 2013 at 13:10
  • With regard to your last point, I suspect the ability to provide quick answers usefully will depend on a lot of personal factors (e.g., experience, knowledge, talent), whereas providing a few quality answers is practically always feasible with enough time and effort. Then again, the tradeoff remains even for pros, who may also want to consider revisiting and proofreading their own answers once in a while. Feb 10, 2014 at 19:36

I think that Jeromy Anglim makes some good points and provides good exceptions for not citing research. I think there are more. For example, sometimes the answer is well entrenched research. It's OK to expect naīve readers to be able to do an internet search on something like, "Stroop effect," as long as it's use is generally clear.

However, I am a bit concerned that people are tending to mix humanities questions with scientific questions, and worse, open questions with non-scientific answers. The particular cited question, "Why do people have sympathy with characters like Walter White?" tends to be a humanities type of question. One could even imagine it appearing on a completely different question site perfectly legitimately. So let's consider it posted to two places, an art of film making question site and a cognitive science site that includes psychology.

The art of film making site would have answers quoting historical film and literature where various kinds of devices are used to generate sympathies towards characters in books and film. It might discuss how there is a psychology behind this but the primary focus would be about the film making per se. While there is a discipline to film making it's also an art open to a variety of interpretations and ideas. So there may be several opinion based answers without citation formed of cogent argument. These would all be perfectly acceptable.

The site devoted to psychology would have to somehow differentiate itself from that. I think the references are important, but not necessary, component. But personal anecdote or "common sense" answers do not make good scientific answers in and of themselves. The very fundamentals of where psychology and cognitive science come from are devoted to finding something better than that. Those kinds of answers diminish the reputation of the site for being about cognitive science and such answers rightly belong on a general internet discussion site and not a scientific question and answer site.

ASIDE: I'm not saying common sense and anecdotes don't have places in answers (or questions). They most certainly do. But they should generally be there to illustrate or explain scientific points, not be the answer themselves. Our answers should have logical argument and/or evidence bases as necessary.

Glossary: Science, very loosely defined as the domain of questions that can be tested with evidence and the answers that provide that evidence. In this particular case, questions with regard to the function of the brain at various levels of explanation.


I am glad to see this question brought up. I would like to take the opportunity to emphasize that our site is the Cognitive Sciences site on the Stack Exchange Network. Running the risk of stating the obvious here, this means two things:

It's a Scientic Site

For one, as the sciences are part of the name of the site, both, answers and questions should reflect that. I agree with what has being said so far, that the reference to a paper is not strictly needed (although generally desireable). But it is part of the scientific method to provide good reasons for any claim that is made. Personal opinion and anecdotal evidence do not fulfill this requirement. I know that I don't want an answer based on opinion or anecdotal evidence when I ask a question. Common sense is even worse, because it might lead to wrong answers.

Another important reason why some kind of reference is needed (even when it is not to a paper) is that it provides a starting point for further research. Usually when someone asks a question he wants to learn something but doesn't know where to start. (I personally doubt that a serious question can be completely answered by even the best researched answer on a Q&A-site, even if it's this one.)

It's on Stack Exchange

My second point is, that the Stack Exchange Network is explicitly geared towards experts. The FAQ in Area51 encourages expert questions that are not easy to answer, because they require highly specialized knowledge. People turn to a Stack Exchange site because they want that. Providing an answer based on opinion, anecdotal evidence or common sense is not in this spirit.

I would like to make a third point, which is:

There are no easy questions

The only way how a question can be easy to answer for someone, is when that person happens to know the answer. The research to answer the question in this case has already been done, in which case the person can be considered an expert. Note that before asking a question, people are considered to have done at least minimal research themselves. If the answer was easily found by doing a google search, there should be no question in the first place. If a question can be answered by common sense, it shouldn't be posed, either.

So to answer your question: I don't know how to put it in terms of balance. But I think we should definitely not lower the standards that a Q&A-site about the Cognitive Sciences on Stack Exchange is supposed to have. This means that some sort of reference has to be given. There are no strict rules about the way this is to be done, at least not so far (but it is being discussed here on the meta site), so everybody is free to do it in whatever way they like.

  • 2
    +2 if I could. Thanks for articulating that philosophy. Aug 20, 2013 at 17:54
  • +2 also if I could. This could apply to just about all of the science sites.
    – user3180
    Aug 21, 2013 at 7:42

I think the object is to provide correct answers. The fact that an answer has passed the "peer review" of intelligent people like ourselves should give credence to the fact that it is indeed correct to the best of our understandings.

If there is a particular point in which someone has doubt or it is suspected that someone else may have doubt, that point should be brought up in comments.

For example: "You're making the claim that 80% of widgets are made in China, how do you know that to be true? I mean, I could personally agree with you, but there may be some people who aren't sure about that."

Or maybe, "I noticed your claim that 80% of widgets are made in China is unsubstantiated, so here is a link I thought you might find useful in your answer to back-up your claim."

But instead what I often see is "Boo! Bad answer! No references! You stink! -1! I hope when you get home your momma runs out from under the porch and bites you on the leg!" Ok, that's a little dramatic, but you see where I'm going with that.

This site is so competitive that folks aren't eager to help each other, but rather they attack each other.

References are more often wrong than common sense.

I suppose you want me to reference that claim, huh.

Here is a university claiming you should water your lawn "deep and infrequently"

It is desirable to keep the interval between waterings as long as possible without allowing the plants to go into water stress. Deep, infrequent irrigations cause plants to develop deep, strong root systems that can extract water from a much larger volume of soil than the shallow roots associated with light, frequent irrigations.

Here is a university claiming you should water your lawn "light and frequently"

Light, frequent applications of water are much more productive than heavy (soaking) applications once a week. Remember that turf roots are naturally shorter during hot and dry weather and water moved past the root zone is wasteful and of no benefit. Research at Michigan State University indicates that damage from certain turf diseases and insects are reduced when light, frequent (daily) irrigation is used compared to a heavy, infrequent irrigation.

So who is right? Only common sense and logical reasoning can reveal it.

You can often find a "reference" to back whatever claim you make.

You want to traditionally claim women are better multitaskers? Ok, I have a reference for that:

We found that men's performance in a commonly adopted cognitive test deteriorated when they were required to coordinate this primary test with a simple secondary test. In sharp contrast, women's performance on the very same test improved upon the inclusion of the secondary test.

Oh, you want to controversially claim men are better? Well, I can help with that too:

In both experiments, males outperformed females in monitoring accuracy.

It seems almost anything can be spun using references. I often see answers voted all the way to the top and are accepted, yet are completely wrong. But they have references, so its all good!

By the way, what does the asker of a question know about "accepting" the right answer? If I ask a question and one of you answers it, how do I know its the right answer? I'm the dummy here, you're the pros. If I were in a position to judge correct answers, I wouldn't be asking questions. But that issue is tangent to this topic. I just wanted to throw that out there.

Some useful things can't be referenced

Common sense is one. If I make the claim that antibiotics are for the treatment of the underlying cause of illness rather than for the treatment of symptoms, I wouldn't expect to have to dig up a reference for that. Its common sense because its common for people to know what antibiotics are and reasonable to expect most people to know what they do.

Opinions can't be referenced. If I say "I think women evolved to have a multitasking advantage because they had to tend to multiple children while doing necessary chores. Yet men evolved to have a lot of focus which is needed in hunting and fighting." Obviously, I can't reference that except with a reference to someone else making the same conjecture, which isn't proof of anything except 2 guys thinking alike. Does it mean its not useful and worthy of consideration?

Anecdotal evidence. "I've noticed my tomato plants are healthier when I put lime on the soil." Well, I suppose I could post a study which says the same thing, for instance: "Our results indicate the application of lime decreased the incidence of blight X%". Or I could post a study which says the results are inconclusive. Now, I understand that a published study carries more weight than my anecdote, but sometimes we have no choice. Its either answer with an anecdote or no answer is possible. Sometimes an anecdote adds credence to the studies presented. See Anecdotal value

The reference issue has gotten way out of hand in my opinion. Answers should be judged on their merits of usefulness and not on the strict, anally-retentive adherence to some predetermind format. I think this is especially true with psychology because not a whole lot can be written in stone, as opposed to math or physics. Many answers will be "I think.." or "I've noticed.." and to exclude them is to stiffle progress to further discovery.

As an illustration of that point (and to echo Jeromy's), there have been many questions on cogsci that I have gotten an answer typed out, then decided not to submit it because "I didn't want to go out on that limb". Not to toot my own horn, but I feel that is a loss to the community. As I'm sitting here now debating if I should click the button... or stay out of this debate. Well, curiosity got the better of me.

In summary:

I believe answers should be judged like this: 1) Does the answer answer the question or help in any way at all with answering the question? 2) Is the answer true as best you can tell? 3) Is the answer useful? If the answers to these 3 questions is yes, then upvote and be on your way. If its no, then leave a comment on how the answer can be improved. If the author refuses to improve the answer, then you have no choice but to downvote.

I don't believe answers should be judged like this: 1) Does this answer have references? If yes, upvote. If no, downvote and leave nasty comment.

  • 4
    I think you raise a good point that it is not the reference per se which makes a reference useful. It is the evidence presented in that reference that provides the utility of the reference. While appeal to expertise is a form of argument that references to scientific journals provide, it is ultimately fairly weak evidence. Much more important is the evidence created by a study (e.g., these people went out and systematically measured the relationship between x and y and did or did not find that relationships). This of course requires a much more critical and nuanced interpretation of the ref. Aug 21, 2013 at 8:06
  • @JeromyAnglim Here is a comment by Strayer to the study by Mantyla (who concluded men are better multitaskers) pss.sagepub.com/content/24/5/809.extract which illustrates perfectly the scrutiny these papers need. Another problem, which I could have mentioned in my answer, is most of us only have access to the abstracts and can't properly evaluate a reference as Strayer has done. We can only assume because its published, it must be true.
    – Randy
    Aug 21, 2013 at 8:21
  • I totally agree that especially in psychology, there is a good chance to find a reference for whatever claim you wish to make. That's why usually there is no easy answer. @JeromyAnglim makes an important point about critical and nunanced references. In my opinion the "ideal" answer from a "real expert" would incorporate all of this. I also agree, that it can't be just about throwing in a reference, in whatever format. Aug 21, 2013 at 9:26

I wanted to add to the discussion from the point of view of an amateur to psychology.

In some of my questions, I have described a certain logical reasoning, mentioned a hypothesis that I reached, and then asked for a verification (or refutation) of the hypothesis posed.

Now, while answering with research papers and references is great, but in their absence, I have on multiple occasions received the response that "no research exists". I have even been told that "no research exists" is a perfectly valid answer to such questions.

While I agree, that "no research exists" or "this is a paper that tangentially relates to what you are asking" are appropriate responses, they are not helpful responses. They are not helpful either for me or for any future visitors to the question.

The fact that I am new to psychology and that most questions come up while learning/studying, I would find logical or experience based responses from experts/practitioners/users on this site much more useful*. If nothing else, any answers that verify or refute the hypothesis will form interesting analyses of the problem described and will help me as well as others improve their understanding and thinking. These responses will be helpful even if they are later proven to be wrong as they will force me to look at the scenario from an entirely different point of view, which is a very valuable experience for any student.

*Of course, this should generally be done only when the OP has done some research and demonstrates a minimal understanding of the topic.

So, for individuals like me who are just learning how things work in cognitive sciences, a no-reference logical explanation would be more helpful than no answers. It would make this site a much more valuable resource for many of us.


I think this site as reached a point where it must decide what it wants to become.

From an academic point of view, giving a "correct" answer would involve months of research and reading, resulting in either a meta-analysis, or a comprehensive review of published research similar to the introduction of a doctoral dissertation.

Everything else is never a "correct" answer, because if fails to provide all, often contradictory, current knowledge regarding a topic!*

Even many of my best answers here are just a summary of first hits on Google Scholar. That leaves me unsatisfied and feeling like an impostor. At the same time, I notice how I'm beginning to give lazy answers, quickly jotting down my opinion, because I'm getting tired of investing an hour or more into an answer.

The problem is that this high threshold is putting off those that might cross it.

Only hobbyists find the time to spend hours here on this site, but they often don't have the necessary basics (methodology, philosophy of science), and no access to the publications, that they need to provide a quality answer. And the experts are professionals, putting their time into their research, their publications, or their funding, not wasting it answering questions by anonymous passers-by on some random website.

But lowering the standards would turn this site into just another Yahoo! Clever, in fact many answers here (including many of mine) are already dangerously close to that level.

So, where do we want to go from here? What do we aim for? That goal will dictate the format of the questions and answers.

*Randy provided some examples in his answer, only failing to remember that contradiction is science! Science is not certainty. The desire for certainty is what makes the common man fall for pseudo-science or religion. The scientist is tolerant of ambiguity and never believes (sic!) to have achieved a final insight.

  • 3
    I see the aim of this site as "to make the internet a better place". When people search for quick answers to psychology related questions, many will not scour through google scholar. This site is a bridge. It can be refreshing to compare the quality of answers here to what you get from a google search: e.g., compare this rubbish wiki-answer that came up in a search, to this cogsci SE answer. Sep 3, 2013 at 0:41
  • 3
    So for me, the minimum benchmark is to create content that is better than what's being returned by google searches at the moment. When people have a question, they put it into Google. If we can improve the quality of answers that people are getting, surely that's a good thing. Currently we're getting about 877 visitors per day. In time, about 90% of these people are just those landing on a page following a Google search. So improving the lives of the googling masses is what motivates me to contribute :-) Sep 3, 2013 at 0:44
  • 3
    I like your attitude here, @JeromyAnglim, +2 :-)
    – user3116
    Sep 3, 2013 at 11:44

Many good points have already been made but I would like to present another view on this issue.

A good balance for me is “no common sense answers” whatsoever (and I am writing this even though my own answers have not all been up to this standard). Really, what's the point? The original poster, other contributors and occasional readers are humans with common sense too. Whether or not they explicitly cite empirical research papers, answers should be grounded in current knowledge from cognitive science.

At the end of the day, it's not even about “science” or anything like that. I would not be particularly bothered by knowledgeable answers based on philosophy, humanities or psychoanalysis (or film making to take an example that was raised elsewhere in the discussion) but simply sharing trivial opinions about everything is not worthwhile. The Internet does not need yet another forum to speculate about psychology.

  • 1
    If you apply this standard to answers, you must apply it to questions, too. Questions that can be answered by common sense must be deleted.
    – user3116
    Sep 13, 2013 at 20:09
  • 1
    @what Why? Most questions can receive both good (research-based) and bad (speculative) answers. The problem is the answer, not necessarily the question.
    – Gala
    Sep 14, 2013 at 5:19
  • 2
    So you would claim that there are no answers that don't need research?
    – user3116
    Sep 14, 2013 at 5:38
  • Why “so”? This is unrelated to what I said and the question at stake, really.
    – Gala
    Sep 15, 2013 at 14:20

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