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This question was encouraged by @ChuckSherrington in relation to the question "What regulates the strength of motoric signals?".

The on- or off-topicness of neurobiology questions has been actively debated in the past in a series of meta posts dating back to 2012, most notably "Splitting up questions on neurobiology between cognitivesciences.se and biology.se?" and "Neurobiology Rivalries, part IV, A New Hope?" and "Are questions about neurobiology on or off topic?". Not disregarding the valuable ideas discussed there, it may be time to revive this discussion, as both CogSci and Biology have evolved since.

The motivation for this question (discussion really) is basically because of a series of over 10 close-votes on Neuroscience-related questions I initiated recently. Being a neuroscientist I regretted to close-vote some of them, notably "What regulates the strength of motoric signals?", as it is a good question and potentially answerable (I may do so actually, I retracted my close-vote on retrospect after discussion).

The thing is, various statistics on Area51 substantially improve when lingering, unanswered questions are closed. Most notably the %Answered and Answer ratio. Both are rated as "okay" at the time of this writing and could be improved by closing off-topic questions that will likely never be answered. At Biology.SE pretty aggressive closure strategies have resulted in both parameters becoming excellent. Although it may have tipped over to too aggressive close-voting to my opinion, Bio.SE has been cleaned up nicely since.

So, as others have been initiating a few closure sprees for themselves here at CogSci, I have done so in my area of expertise; Neuroscience. Many of these questions were themselves of good quality, but I close-voted because they were more suitable for Bio.SE (admittedly, many were too old to migrate). The close-votes were inspired mainly because of the very slim chance they would ever be answered here at CogSci.SE.

Some of these questions were put on hold pretty much instantly, such as "How does de-myelination occur in multiple sclerosis?" and "Diagram of the peripheral nervous system of different animals?". Indeed, both question have no cognitive aspect in it whatsoever and were pretty straightforward close-targets, apparently for others as well. However, as of now, in the same vote-for-closure-spree there were "What are the brain regions related to tinnitus shown in this figure?" and "What are the smallest neurons ever identified?", and these remain open as of now. Given the closure dynamics of CogSci.SE I strongly suspect these questions to remain open. Although the tinnitus question has a distant cognitive aspect given the question title, the question itself is solely about brain structure identification, which is neuro-anatomy (a more biological question is hard to imagine). The second, however, is pure histology and more die-hard Bio than anything I have seen here at CogSci. Given that the other peer reviewers have close-voted the "diagram of peripheral nervous systems", why would a (sorry to say - poorly researched) question on the histological aspect of small neurons be left open? Admittedly, I in fact tried to answer this question. But apart from some iffy wikipedia articles cross-referencing each other mentioning a subset of small cerebellar neurons being the smallest, there is nothing to be found in then scientific literature (afaik). It will never be answered.

Regardless of these specific illustrative examples, what it boils down to is:

  • What to do with Neurobiological questions?

and more broadly and more specifically to the situation just described:

  • What to do with questions with a strong Biology flavor that will likely never be answered?
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    Not a proper answer, but: I voted to close on all but one or two of these. It's worth noting that what I surmise are our two aggressive close vote campaigns has helped bring the %Answered from 77% to 81% in only a week and a half. I'm actually really surprised how many went through given how conservative we tend to be, but it's a very good thing. – Christian Hummeluhr Mar 27 '15 at 13:39
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    We're under 500 unanswered questions. :] – Christian Hummeluhr Mar 28 '15 at 10:54
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    @ChristianHummeluhr - The exact implication of that depends on the total amount of questions asked :) but 81% answer ratio is OK. Up to the 90% I would say. – AliceD Mar 28 '15 at 12:38
  • Does it? I've only been looking at questions per day. Closing old questions won't change that metric, I think. – Christian Hummeluhr Mar 28 '15 at 13:04
  • @ChristianHummeluhr - I always thought it does, as it has been a strategy adopted at Bio.SE for quite a while; Answer rate went up from <80 to 91% because of it, but this may be worth a meta, as I am not 100% sure. – AliceD Mar 28 '15 at 13:07
  • As I understand it, %Answer is the proportion of questions with no (upvoted) answer out of all questions (It's not, see below). %QPD seems to be the average questions per day over the last ... some time scale I don't know, but I'm fairly certain it's not the ratio between total questions and days since launch. I'll look on Meta. – Christian Hummeluhr Mar 28 '15 at 13:09
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    I am pretty sure %answered = questions with upvoted answers / total questions * 100 – AliceD Mar 28 '15 at 13:11
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    Er, yeah, derp. Of course. I found the relevant Meta article, apparently the unknown time scale is two weeks. meta.stackexchange.com/a/73245/217374 – Christian Hummeluhr Mar 28 '15 at 13:13
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I think questions that are strictly neurobiology with no connection to psychological/cognitive processes should be closed and we should encourage those questions to be asked at Bio.SE.

Questions that bridge neurobiology and psychological processes should be on topic. I think What regulates the strength of motor signals? is a nice borderline example, since it is mostly a biology question, but there are clear ways in which it is related to psychological phenomena.

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When deciding whether or not to initiate an off-topic close vote, I try to answer two questions for myself. This isn't specific to neuroscience or biology, but many/most off-topic votes are either philosophy, biology or difficult to place, and I find these are helpful rules of thumb.

  • Is the core question, to the extent of my ability to apprehend it, primarily based on cognitive science or folk conceptions about cognitive science topics?
  • Does the core question have a possible answer primarily based on cognitive science?

Rules of thumb

If the answer to both of these questions are yes, then I never initiate or support an off-topic close vote; if both answers are no, then I always initiate/support an off-topic close vote.

When the answer to my first question is yes and the answer to my second is no, then the original question is typically, but not always a biology question. When the reverse is true, it is typically, but not always a philosophy question. In these cases, I will also consider the quality and amount of answers given, the age of the question, how much effort it would take someone to answer and how likely I think the question is to be asked again if closed on a case by case basis.

Metrics

If in doubt, I tend to err on the side of closure. Note that closing old questions does not affect our %Questions per Day metric, while not closing old questions does affect our %Answered metric.

I find that these rules of thumb work fairly well, and that the community is good at correcting when I get a little too frisky with the close button.

  • In case of a "philosophy question", wouldn't it make more sense to close as "unclear what you are asking" or "too broad", rather than "off topic"? – Steven Jeuris Mar 30 '15 at 12:02
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    Seemingly over time we are more erring towards not accepting all neuroscience questions de facto, and hence specific guidelines like this are a great way forward to discriminate between closure or not less ambiguously. I suggest expanding on this post, and discussing it in comments until we reach some form of consensus. – Steven Jeuris Mar 30 '15 at 12:06
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    @StevenJeuris It's not unclear to me what they're asking, it's just that what they're asking is clearly a philosophical question. I have different rules for other close categories. – Christian Hummeluhr Apr 1 '15 at 8:56

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