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First: "Low quality" is subjective, and the usage in this question is based on my personal opinion. The community and every member thereof is free to agree or disagree on this judgement. I stress that my judgement expressed here concerns the posts, not the poster. A single user is behind many of the problematic posts, but they have also contributions that I consider very valuable.


We have had some low-quality etymological questions. Here is a good recent example. More of them keep coming in despite attempts to help. It is not a horrible flood of such questions, but still a pretty consistent flux. As high-quality content is important for the prosperity of our site, I see this as a problem. Question 1: Do you think this is a real problem? Such questions have attracted some downvotes and flags, but I don't know what the community at large thinks of it. Please do not be afraid to express it if you disagree with me; an open and civilized discussion is always possible. If there is no problem, then the discussion ends here.

It's a basic problem of the StackExchange design that there is no clear course of action for low-quality content. Many of the badly written questions are on-topic: they ask about the etymology or meaning (or shift thereof) of a Latin word. (If the question concerns the meaning of words in French or English with no connection to Latin, it is off-topic.) If such questions are to be ruled out as off-topic, we have to redefine our scope accordingly. That can be done, if we just know how to describe the restriction to be added. To enforce and communicate any new scope restriction, we can have a custom reason to close questions. But I stress that this is only one of many possible courses of action, one of them being doing nothing.

Question 2: If you answered "yes" to question 1, what makes it problematic in your eyes? The way I see it, the issue is not with the topic of the question, but with the way the question is asked. I can't find a good way to put this myself, and others can see the issue differently.

Question 3: What should we do? There are several options, not mutually exclusive:

  • Do nothing.
  • Vote down the questions that you find bad. Automatic question bans are triggered if a user asks too many badly received questions. (But be careful to vote based on the individual merits of each question, not on the user asking!)
  • Edit bad questions to improve them.
  • Find a wording to describe what is wrong with a common type of low-quality questions, and incorporate that to our scope. (There are attempts and ideas in the linked question about closing reasons.) The way I see it, these questions are not off-topic per our current definitions, but definitions can always be updated to reflect the views of the community.
  • Something else.

I will leave comments below if you want to leave a quick anonymous answer to question 1. Written responses in the form of comments and answers are very welcome.

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    To question 1: Yes, I do consider these questions problematic. (Vote here if you see a problem, no matter what you want to do about it.) – Joonas Ilmavirta Aug 13 '19 at 21:28
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    To question 1: No, I do not consider these questions problematic. (Vote here if you see no problem.) – Joonas Ilmavirta Aug 13 '19 at 21:28
  • I hesitate between these two options. I think the questions are not seldom quite interesting qua content, as you suggested, but that they are often formatted and phrased in a way that makes them difficult to read. But is it a problem for the site? I'd have to say, no, we can deal with a couple of questions (not a flood) which we consider suboptimal. I don't feel that it is a real problem, nor that this style is totally unacceptable. Sometimes we have to swallow something we're not entirely happy with. We can try to suggest improvement, though. – Cerberus Aug 13 '19 at 21:39
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What the problem is

If you want a simple formulation of the problem, it is this: Latin SE is being used as a machine, but we are not machines, we are human beings.

The annoyances are as follows:

  • The questions are, at best, only tangentially about Latin.
  • The questions only ask: they make no attempt to involve the reader or invite him to a discussion. They make no contribution or suggestion themselves.
  • They are all the same question.

The ultimate impression is not any attempt at starting a discussion or engaging interest, but of using us as an "answer machine". Pull the lever and see what comes out. Pull the lever again. And again. And again and again and again.


What to do about it

It can be argued that the first two points, at least, are not automatically grounds for blocking or banning. A question (for example) about the effects of linguistic substrata on the evolution of post-Latin languages in different regions would be "not about Latin" in some sense but nevertheless interesting enough for Latinists to want to discuss.

Equally, people do sometimes ask a question without showing any attempt to answer it themselves. A common example is "what could I use as a Latin motto for X?". But they do ask apologetically enough, and giving us enough context, that there is a certain charm to it. One feels that one is part of the story. It would be sad to lose that with a heavy-handed "How have you tried to answer this question yourself?" policy of the kind that Maths SE employs. (They have to, because they have a much bigger problem with people copying and pasting exam questions).


I don't think that seeing other people as human beings can be enforced by any kind of rule. Any imaginable rule either excludes what we don't want to exclude or fails to identify what the real annoyance is. So I suspect that we just have to endure, and vote down (though, as you note, not purely because that particular name is involved).


A longish answer, but I hope at least I have got a little closer to identifying "where it hurts".

What we really need is an Etymology SE!

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  • Thanks, this helps clarify the matter in my head. A couple of thoughts: 1. The repetition is indeed an issue, but when it comes to declaring things off-topic, I think it can only be done on a question-by-question basis; otherwise unhealthy avenues open up. 2. When you said that they're all the same question, my immediate reaction was that they have all the same answer, too. But they're not technically duplicates, are they? 3. I think tangential relevance to Latin is enough; how far that can be reasonably stretched is a difficult matter. continuabitur – Joonas Ilmavirta Aug 14 '19 at 15:28
  • continuatur 4. I agree that translation requests from non-Latinists are fine, as long as they are well explained. If you explain what you're trying to communicate, we can put it in words in Latin, but we can't just translate a motto. 5. A separate etymology site would be nice, but hard (not impossible!) to put together with the current Area 51 rules. We've had some very nice etymological questions. I don't think etymology as a topic is a problem in itself, although it might be more prone to other problems than some other topics. 6. I can't see a way to codify the issue in our scope either. – Joonas Ilmavirta Aug 14 '19 at 15:28
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    I’m glad it was helpful. 1. I agree. You can’t define human qualities algorithmically and making more rules leads to sinister effects. 2. The sameness of the questions can’t be made to fit into any definition of “duplicate” and I agree that one can’t formally close on this basis and that one shouldn’t try. 3. What we really mean is “relevance for or interest to people interested in Latin”, which is not capturable by rules. – Martin Kochanski Aug 15 '19 at 7:15
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    Conclusion: absolutely let’s not codify. It can’t be done and could only do harm. Let’s continue bumbling along in our error-prone way, doing nothing institutionally or officially. After all, one can always just not read the questions one doesn’t like! – Martin Kochanski Aug 15 '19 at 7:20
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    Remember the legal maxim: “Hard cases make bad law”. (Now there’s the germ of a Latin SE question: did Ulpian say anything like it?) – Martin Kochanski Aug 15 '19 at 7:22
  • @Joonas llmavirta: Repitition? Your good self often recommends, to colleagues, that they submit supplementary Qs. Feel stupid whenever I do this; but, better to (look) stupid than to remain in ignorance. Only yesterday colleague, Draconis, submitted a Q on "the prefix -ig"; simply a re-hash of his earlier Q on "ignosco". The, linguistically complex, ans, from Sumelic (baffling) indicates the wisdom of such repetition; and, therefore, yourself is entirely correct in suggesting supplementaries. – tony Aug 15 '19 at 10:11
  • @Martin Kochanski: That LSE will be used as an "answering machine" is an inevitable consequence of something that is free (Latin tuition can be anything from £30-60ph). My own, initial, reaction was this: "Oh look!" Started, attempting, to answer Qs., as a way of giving something back. The stipulation, not enforced, that students should attempt their own Qs., was designed to prevent such exploitation. Those who request mottoes, from whom we may never hear again, it's up tp colleagues whether they respond or not. – tony Aug 15 '19 at 10:24
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    @tony There are many different kinds of repetition. In a sense all the site is repetition, having all these questions about Latin again and again. What I meant by repetition here is that the low-quality questions are essentially identical, and I get a feeling of insistence on there being a reason for every little change in meaning. Good follow-up questions are great! They are more or less: "From the previous question I learned that X, and I'd like some clarification on this point. Specifically, Y?" The etymology questions in question don't have this tone of building on earlier stuff. – Joonas Ilmavirta Aug 15 '19 at 12:53
  • @tony Indeed, the machine can always refuse to answer. A lot of it comes down to tone ("translate this for me now" vs. "could you help me figure out how to put this in Latin") and generality (uniquely personal vs. broadly general interest). If these aspects are fine, then answering feels like producing something of value. But such perceived "value" of a question is not a criterion for closure, at least until we can figure out what it actually means. – Joonas Ilmavirta Aug 15 '19 at 13:02
  • @Joonasllmavirta: Yes, there is bound to be repetition of grammatical topics. There have been a number of Qs., on the gerundive, this year: classic Q: "Nunc est Bibendum" being memorable. Brilliant things appear e.g. "middle-voice" verbs: there's me, questioning (to Mitomino) that such thigs exist. Sometimes, print things off, producing, sort of "Advanced Lecture Notes" you (probably) won't find in a book! It's all a part of learning. – tony Aug 16 '19 at 11:53
  • 'What we really need is an Etymology SE!' I actually proposed one, but Moderator Robert Cartaino deleted it, IIRC. – NNOX Apps Aug 21 '19 at 19:30

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