I think it was Nick who suggested we reflect on the recent events and try to find a strategy to deal with similar problems in the future, as well as reconsider and define the purpose and underlying aims of cogsci.SE

So the questions we need to consider, in my opinion, are:

  1. What was the problem?
  2. How can we react to that problem in a way to minimize damage, to the content, the reputation and the members of the community.
  3. What is the aim of cogsci.SE?
  4. Are there problems with this aim?
  5. How can we solve these problems?

Feel free to edit this question to better reflect its purpose. A neutral, general descripton of the "recent events" would be helpful.


4 Answers 4


I don't really have the answers, but a few little points I'd add:

  • I think that downvoting bad content and leaving constructive and polite comments is the principal way that we should manage inaccurate or poor answers.
  • We've had a few users on this site over the while that have been very keen, but have posted mixed quality content. Then, the user gets told off for their poor quality posts. The user gets upset and conflict on the site escalates. I think it's important to do our best to be constructive, polite, and clear with comments. Thus, I think a challenge is to communicate why an answer is poor, while at the same time allowing the individual to save face. Thus, I'd emphasise the importance of both maintaining standards and being friendly.
  • Various behaviours on this site like systematic downvoting, bullying, spite comments, and the like are unacceptable, and should be brought to moderator attention.
  1. I think the problem happened because several things came together: (a) a user who was very excited and engaged in the community to the point where most of the site's activity was that of this one user, (b) a user who often misread and misunderstood the intent of questions and answers, (c) a user who became almost obsessed with the righteousness of his (or her) views, (d) a user who provided many low quality or simply false answers, (e) a user who verbally attacked and systematically downvoted posts by specific other users that had criticized him (or her). None of these things are a (huge) problem in and of themselves, but they become a fundamental problem when they happen together on a site that has a low level of basic activity (see 3.).

  2. Flags for spam or rudeness and downvoting are not enough. We need to be able to flag a systematic absue of the site by a user, so that moderators do not look at one post, but at the whole behavior of that user. And we need to be able to flag answers that are formally right and not against the site's guidelines, but contain severe falsities on a basic scientific level. The problem with the latter would of course be frequent abuse by the users we want to flag with it as well as the time and effort it would take to verify the flag's claim. But the first (flagging a user) is possible and seems necessary to me for quick action.

  3. The aim of cogsci.SE is to provide qualified answers to question on Cognitive Sciences and related fields.

  4. The problem with this aim is that qualified answers need expertise or time. The result is that activity on the site is low, that many questions receive only one or non answers, and that therefore one busy user can seriously damage the whole site. The same activity would never have the same effect on Stackoverflow, simply because there is so much quality content that a certain percentage of garbage simply does not matter. Here it matters, because it is much more difficult for the non-expert visitor to discern bad answers, and the effect on them is much more longlasting and severe. A programming answer that does not work, does not work. But a misrepresentation of psychological research creates misinformation that is perpetuated and distributed and affects the whole scientific community and may be dangerous to persons that need professional help.

    I'm all for starting a discussion about the site's aims. I see a basic contradiction between the high scientific standards and the public nature of the site. Many visitors are not even able to write comprehensible questions, most have no idea what "scientific" means and what standards psychological research follows, and the topics of the site draw a not insignificant number of people suffering from what for us are research topics.

  5. We could lower the site's standards, or limit site use to professionals, both of which is not what we want. We might communicate the rules more prominently and make understanding them a requirement for posting on the site. For example, we could ask every user to answer a simple quiz, before they can post their first answers (questions can be posed by anyone). That quiz would be a page that summarized the site's standards and then ask maybe three questions about those standards as a MC test. This would at least make it necessary for everyone to once read those standards and think about them for a few seconds. We could also chose and link to a short but examplary answer, so new users have an example that they can follow.

  • 2
    "We need to be able to flag a systematic absue of the site by a user, so that moderators do not look at one post" You can do so by leaving a comment along with the flag, which I always recommend either way.
    – Steven Jeuris Mod
    Commented Feb 5, 2014 at 15:21
  • 2
    "And we need to be able to flag answers that are formally right and not against the site's guidelines, but contain severe falsities on a basic scientific level." Down voting should be sufficient in that scenario. When the default voting system does not work (e.g. incorrect content is accepted/up voted), your flags are welcomed. Post notices requesting references can be added to answers which aren't rooted in any scientific publications but are still considered 'valid' according to up votes.
    – Steven Jeuris Mod
    Commented Feb 5, 2014 at 15:23
  • 1
    Aha! I still got a lot to learn about the flags. I rarely use them and have no idea what I can do with them. Maybe I should flag some more ... ;-)
    – user3116
    Commented Feb 5, 2014 at 15:24
  • 1
    As to your points 3-5, as stated in my answer, it would be more productive to address these in a new/old related meta question, rather than this topic about one particular instance.
    – Steven Jeuris Mod
    Commented Feb 5, 2014 at 15:29
  • Maybe you'd like to create that other post?
    – user3116
    Commented Feb 5, 2014 at 15:32
  • 2
    I added a list of existing questions on the topic to my answer, you could go through them and see whether you could provide relevant feedback there. If not, I'll consider addressing this issue somewhere this weekend. I agree now is a good time to resurface the subject.
    – Steven Jeuris Mod
    Commented Feb 5, 2014 at 15:34
  • 2
    I don't think that low amount of content is necessarily a killer, especially if one is aiming for a professional site. Professionals don't need answers 'right this second' and are willing to wait for good answers or pointers. Similarly, professionals don't have the time or interest to wade through a bunch of mediocre and poor questions to find a few gems (this has been my primary obstacle in getting my colleagues to contribute to the site). Of course, this is based on a premise of wanting a site with high quality content. Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 6:42
  • I did not say that low amount of content was a killer. The problem is that if one overeager user posts heaps of garbage, that low amount of content becomes obliterated. At the end of last week, the majority of the site activity I perceived was by that one user.
    – user3116
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 7:13

I think we just need a more clear distinction (a formal one, not the more informal one we have now), as to which content is allowed/acceptable and which isn't.

In order to do so we will first need to rethink our target audience, as often mentioned by Artem. The following points basically all answer your last question (5).

  1. The problem was simply a user who wasn't prepared to change his own views/ways of using the site to those as expressed by the existing community.

  2. You can't prevent this altogether, we will always encounter similar users from time to time, but please flag quicker when problems do arise!

  3. (+4) As mentioned before, I think this is the first thing we should think about redefining, I suggest creating a meta post about that, or digging up the old ones which might still be valid.

Currently related relevant posts:

Target audience

Scope of questions

Self-help questions

I suggest extending this list if you find more.


TL;DR: just read the bolded stuff...and resist the "TL;DR" impulse on meta!

If I was the most noteworthy one to suggest reflecting on it all, I'm very glad I did! I'm loving all the discussion here so far, and I'm probably running low on votes for the day as a result.

My point wasn't that we have any lack of strategy for handling single-user problems (not saying that's what you said, or that you would say that I'm saying that's what you said, and so on). I'm reasonably content with how it all went down in the end, though we may not have seen the end yet...My main concern was that I saw reason to sympathize with our friend "in the penalty box" (who has probably downvoted this very answer since returning, judging by a now-deleted comment), not just the mods and the mob (to which I belonged, so I mean "mob" in a sympathetic way too).

IMO, many of the problem actions resulted from good intentions that were expressed in dissenting ways with a majority that hasn't fully nailed down its policy preferences on a lot of things, or sufficiently addressed a number of valid concerns with policies as they are. A lot of valuable meta-questions have already been linked here that, ideally speaking, all of us would do well to visit, consider, and help resolve...but I don't know that I'm even going to put the necessary time into that myself. To some extent, we've all got more to bite off here than we can chew, mods included (that's one of the problems), and I don't know of anyone who's getting paid to dig in. We've all got to decide for ourselves how much we can afford to give, based partly on what we get out of the site (both for ourselves personally and for the causes we support). It's a labor of love, so it's wise to focus on improving what we love about the site and follow our own individual visions of what's going to keep people like ourselves coming back for more.

With what time and energy we can give, we should all decide largely for ourselves what we think will best add to what we and others like us can get out of the site. I hope that comes across as more than an empty platitude. I think it implies that we've got to respect the democratic process, keep the larger community's interests in mind, and do our best to serve them in ways that represent ourselves personally too. The democratic process takes time, doesn't always go our way, and works best when everyone gives everyone else a fair chance at changing minds and policy. These principles we all need to accept (FWIW, I'm sure most of us here have), because nothing much is going to really change them.

Nonetheless, sometimes being a radical, strident dissident is the most effective way to make a difference, but it comes with many costs and dangers. When users take that approach, I hope they'll consider the tradeoffs involved, and still be heard and respected by the rest of us even if they fail to return these good deeds. Failing that, I think we've seen that our mods will do what they need to do when they've got the right reasons and had enough time to deliberate on the right resolution. We've also demonstrated here that we'll do our part to support them and make the most of the situation, so for the most part, we're already doing the best we can, IMHO. Even dissidents and deviants do their part (our part? I sometimes feel like one myself), if only to round things out and help motivate the rest of the community to set its boundaries by testing them. I'm just as new as the other one who made all these waves, so I'm still having fun making some of my own. I'll have to settle into the flow sooner or later too, but in the meantime, I'm grateful to have both a voice and an ear for this open-minded dialogue with the existing community, and I hope the other will appreciate it all too.

Clearly, we have some rules and some limits. Yet it's also clear enough that we could use more clearly defined rules, and stand to be more knowledgeable individually about them, so that we can all co-moderate like SE intends. Know when to flag and do it sooner is a good tip, but I also try to add comments for the benefit of the user whose action I flag, to help communicate the concern regardless of what the mod does with it, preferably in a way that teaches the user how to avoid the problem in the future. When users don't listen or provide a coherent counterargument, I run out of patience for this, and just flag 'em and let the mods sort 'em out...but as @JeromyAnglim's answer implies, this shouldn't be our first reaction to a new user, even if he or she is just raising a tired old problem. Give each person a chance to hear you, even if others have already voiced the same concerns as you. Don't let people think that @ArtemKaznatcheev and I are "bullying" them just because we've already said what you think—it still helps to add your voice, not just your vote.

Certainly don't self-censor too much either. Respectful tone, constructive criticism, and care to avoid unintended offensive implications are all important, but none of this requires consensus. It's good to express dissent if it leads to systemic improvements, and the likelihood of this happening ought to inform the choice of whether to bother, but it's tough to estimate, because it's never just up to one of us. Every change takes a group, but every group needs a leader, so if you think you've got a cause worth leading, go for it. Don't be a groupthinker, be a leader. At the same time, know when to quit if you've got no support, and don't take too many causes on by yourself.

One of the benefits of paying more attention to meta-questions is that it builds the sense of where we agree and disagree, and on what issues. It's a great place to make a stand and lead the way (or try to, anyway), but paying attention to how others are doing so and figuring out how you feel about their causes is also a great way to reduce the need to act alone, and to mitigate the feeling of being singled out when these issues come up on the main site. Sometimes the gentlest and most persuasive way to point someone in the right direction is to link the relevant meta-question where a near-consensus has been reached; this is also a powerful way to deflect a critique, as I'd like to think I've demonstrated in one of my early comment contests (see also our most recent). In any case, visiting and linking meta-questions is a good opportunity to help define our rules by voting, commenting, and answering here.

As I've said, we've all got more opinions and knowledge to contribute than we have time we can afford to spend contributing them. I've spent a lot of time on this answer like I do on many, and I know they all take time to read, so I hope I've been succinct enough here in sharing my own opinions. I'll suppress the urge to scrounge up a long list of pet issues of my own to add to those linked here; @StevenJeuris' list addresses the OP pretty solidly already in that regard. The one issue I do feel is worth adding to the list is one that I think reflects some of the good intentions that went awry recently:

Link list for self-help questions?

This question is currently +10, and has one disputable (+3/-1) answer that hardly settles the issue. That being: can't we do anything for the individuals who need help? We've already got clear limits on what we want to do with self-help questions (see also), and a good set of General strategies for converting self-help into a useful general question for this site, but what about the inquirer? I think this is where I sympathized most: I wanted to do more too, even though I knew I couldn't. In the same spirit as above, we'd do better by our self-help seekers if we can make our critical response more constructive for their purposes too, and if we can all do this together by collaborating on a meta-question that we can link to, that seems optimal to me.

I've taken a moment while writing this to Google up some contributions of my own, so I'll go do my part in a minute. Follow suit if you like, let me know what you think there or here, or just keep doing whatever else floats your boat. All activity is at least partly good as far as I'm concerned; we mostly need as much as we can get. If most of this answer ultimately boils down to a general cheerleading sort of message, I'm all right with that, because above all else, I want to help this site continue to grow into whatever emergent shape it will, given the lifeblood to grow: activity! (I'm oversimplifying the "state of the union" a bit here.)

However, existential psychologists make odd cheerleaders. As such, let me leave a little twist on that message: don't get complacent. We must do as much as we want to, not more, lest we lose the love for it. Thus we must know our limits, live up to them, and respect them, but also remember what we leave undone, and not hesitate to care about that too. That is the anguish of authenticity in the existentialist sense as I understand it. That is what will keep us coming back to finish the unfinishable.


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