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Is the intended group to be serviced by this Q&A community the professional and semi-professional amateur astronomers on specific technical questions. Or is it intended to include astronomy hobbyists, or members of the general public type questions?

Professional astronomers have their own channels to date (I assume - like email), though as a small international community (relatively speaking) such a Stackexchange Q&A community could be useful and an asset I would think. Then there are the hobbyists with technical questions like: tweaking camera software, telescope drives, photo analysis, analysis of variable star light curves, current aspect of astronomical objects being observed, those kind of things.

If it is just to be professional astronomers, given the level of public interest people will find this community and ask basic non technical public interest questions. Like "How is a planetary nebula not a planet?" type questions. An explanatory header could make it clear such questions are for other sites like Wikipedia.

One could consider two groups, Astronomy Professional, and Astronomy Amateurs. However any professional group is going to receive a lot of questions from highly keen inspired non-professionals, and likely to the point of the professional group not being useful. On the other hand, Stackoverflow seems to manage that boundary well in their version of it, software GUI users versus programmers. But then Stackoverflow have a much larger level of participants as a professional and hobbyist group to handle new interested programmer questions, help vampires, post redirects, etc.

Also, again related to boundaries, where should a question on a python package like Glue in the raft of astronomy python packages be posted? Its an overlap of either Stackoverflow or Superuser depending on the nature of the question. At this point, being a python package, I think the latter, however techniques and strategies for use may be of topic in this Q&A group.

Then there is the question of this Q&A community vs Space Exploration (which I ran into posting a recent question). What tolerance to the overlap should participants or moderators exercise? I am not sure it is meaningful to seek to discriminate too tightly on this boundary.

I think a key division is interest questions on astronomy vs technical questions related to doing astronomy. For the first there is Wikipedia and other question and answer sites, the latter for a Q&A community like this.

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    $\begingroup$ I featured this question because of the great answer by HDE 226868. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Jul 12 '16 at 0:31
  • $\begingroup$ On the subject of how well a professional-level group can fare in a Stack Exchange environment, an important reference is MathOverflow, which is a thriving community of professional mathematicians with questions at a level that generally require at least a partial undergraduate education to even make sense of. There are many things that come together to make MO successful (not least among them the existence of the lower-level Mathematics site, and some very strict policing) and this may not be the place to discuss them, but it's an important reference point. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jul 14 '16 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ So a degree of separation of two interest groups was part of the success with MO? Would that be a correct understanding? @EmilioPisanty $\endgroup$ – Cam_Aust Jul 14 '16 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ There's a bunch of things going on, and several years of history (including the fact that MO was separate from SE until rather recently). Part of the reason that MO can fend off non-professional content is that there is a ready-made place for that content to go; it used to be closed with a comment to re-ask on MSE, and now it just gets migrated. (For a sampling of the types of questions, use this query, though it's hard to judge numbers w.r.t. other sites.) $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jul 14 '16 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ However, it is also important to note that this is not the only thing going on; as another reference point, several attempts to start an MO equivalent for physics have failed to come together meaningfully. (In particular, a Theoretical Physics SE site folded. The current effort is PhysicsOverflow.) There is definitely something about math that makes it particularly well suited for professional discussion online, and physics struggles a bit more on that front. No idea about professional astronomy, though. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jul 14 '16 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ Valuable input I think. I wonder if a split to two or three: Astronomy Knowledge (general knowledge questions on astronomy), Astronomy Amateur (technical questions on conducting astronomy as an enthusiast, focus on gear, current phenomena in observation, camera's, observing sites, data processing at amateur level), and possibly Astronomy Professional Technical (with no obligation to simplify their Q&A down for public level). This last does not include theoretical Astronomy, Cosmology. That goes to Phys and Math sites. Astronomy Amateur becomes the key technical repository. $\endgroup$ – Cam_Aust Jul 15 '16 at 0:42
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    $\begingroup$ My concern with the above suggestion is that it dilutes the member case to much, so achieving the first two in the one group - ie current arrangement does seem to work best. $\endgroup$ – Cam_Aust Jul 15 '16 at 7:48
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    $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty That may be a valid option once Astronomy is as big as Math or Physics, but for now I don't think there is enough momentum to create a separate professional community, as Cam_Aust pointed out. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Jul 18 '16 at 12:42
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    $\begingroup$ @called2voyage Yeah, I definitely don't think that there's anywhere near enough traffic for more than one astro site (and indeed, I'm just hoping that this site doesn't fold like the previous try). I'm pointing out these examples as important points for reference and comparison. Yes, it is possible to build professional communities within the SE engine. No, it is not easy. Yes, you do need to learn from the (different) communities that came before. No, you do not need to imitate them to the letter. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jul 18 '16 at 12:55
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty Thanks, I appreciate you contributing to the discussion! $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Jul 18 '16 at 12:56
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty A year ago Stack Exchange changed its policies and removed the up or out requirement that was killing niche sites due to low question volume. As long as the moderation is still functional they won't pull the plug on any more low volume sites. meta.stackexchange.com/questions/257614/… $\endgroup$ – Dan Neely Jul 18 '16 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ @DanNeely Yes, I'm aware of that, but that doesn't mean you've got enough traffic to spare that you can branch out into three distinct astronomy sites. Or maybe you do have some awesome site stats to show? Either way, the point is secondary to what I was trying to say. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jul 18 '16 at 15:21
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First, I'd like to establish that I'm someone currently trying to make the transition from an enthusiast to a professional. I'm entering college as an astrophysics major after four years of self-teaching myself physics and astronomy, so even though I've been learning to think more technically, I'm still an amateur.

Now that that's taken care of, I'll address the level of questions being asked. I joined Astronomy Stack Exchange almost a year after it entered beta, so I wasn't there for the early scope discussions. That said, I've done some research, and my impressions are that the types of questions being asked haven't changed much over the last two to three years. Non-technical, general interest questions continue to dominate the site. This is interesting to me, because most of the other science sites on Stack Exchange get far more questions from students (regrettably, many coming from homework problems). However, Astronomy contains many questions asked by those from the general public, with absolutely no technical background.

Is this a bad thing? That depends. One year ago, I became concerned that one site I moderate had a decent number of experts, but they weren't asking questions - merely answering them. I asked about this on Community Building Stack Exchange, with mixed results. One view holds that it's okay; experts may have fewer questions. Another suggested that the experts need to be incentivized a little to ask, because they might fear their questions won't be answered for quite some time. Neither seems to indicate that it's a problem if experts continue to not ask questions, but I disagree, as have many others before me.

The concern you've raised has been around since the beginning. It was first brought up in Balance between professional and enthusiast questions in private beta; Jon Ericson expanded upon this in Let's ask more meaty questions! (and that was later acted on in Everyone ask ONE expert question today!), because way too many early questions could be answered in less than 60 seconds by a simple web search. As far as I can tell, really easy questions are less of a problem nowadays. In that specific sense, Astronomy is doing a little better. However, the level of questions is still distinctly non-technical, and I think this is holding back quite a lot of experts.

Personally, I want to see way more technical questions being asked. I find a question that asks about, for example, an open problem regarding certain stellar magnetic fields1, or one about coronal heating, to be much more interesting than a basic question about the differences between different types of black holes2. That's just me, of course, but I find that the first type really make me think about the problem. If we get more technical questions, I think we'll encounter some more stimulating problems - even ones that the average person can understand and wonder about.

How we do this is a bigger concern. We obviously can't force experts to ask questions, and many, as far as I can tell, have never asked one. This might be a chicken-and-egg scenario - the experts don't ask questions because there are no technical questions asked and thus it seems unlikely that they'll get expert answers, and there are no technical questions asked because the experts don't ask them.

We then go back to the question I asked on Community Building Stack Exchange. The answer that suggested incentivization mentioned that self-answered questions might be a good idea. Self-answering on Stack Exchange has always been encouraged, so I don't think there will be much opposition to the idea from the community. If a professional feels like it, he or she can write up a question about a recent problem they came across, and write an answer detailing how they solved it. The audience that can fully understand this will be significantly, significantly smaller than the audience that can fully understand a question like Why is only one side of the Moon visible from Earth?, but I don't see that as a problem. People will still read it, people will still appreciate it, and hopefully it will encourage other technical questions.

Self-answers aren't, of course, the only way to do this. We could try to bring back the crusade in Everyone ask ONE expert question today!; if there's widespread support, maybe it could lead to change, jumpstarting people's interest in asking more complex questions and pondering more technical issues. This needs to be a site-wide effort, however - as will any other solution.

I suppose that this answer has morphed into a call to arms on the part of all Astronomy Stack Exchange users. Perhaps I'll ask it as a separate meta question, but the bottom line is this: We need to ask way more technical questions. If we don't, then comments like this one by Rob Jeffries on Physics Meta may hold for the rest of Astronomy's life:

More (high level) questions about astrophysics ... ? There is very little astrophysics on Astronomy SE (and even fewer astrophysicists) and the questions/answers have a very different flavour. You would rarely get many upvotes for a chapter and verse mathematical explanation of something.

We need to improve on this. Now. If we make this change, it can turn the site around, broaden its audience, increase its traffic, and make it healthy again.


Footnotes
1 Inadvertent self-promotion. My apologies.
2 I know, how supermassive black holes form is still an interesting and open problem, as recent questions have shown. But still.


A few other notes, not related to my main point that we need to take action:

  • I strongly disagree with the sentiment behind the following paragraph:

    I think a key division is interest questions on astronomy vs technical questions related to doing astronomy. For the first there is Wikipedia and other question and answer sites, the latter for a Q&A community like this.

    called2voyage expressed the same thoughts: Not all non-technical questions can be answered on Wikipedia, as I think a solid look around the site would show.

  • I really don't know where the python question you asked about would be best on-topic, as I've never done programming for a task like that. Plus, I'm not fully knowledgeable about the scopes of Stack Overflow and Super User.
  • There's always been some overlap (and thus confusion) in the scopes of Astronomy Stack Exchange and Space Exploration Stack Exchange. The communities do have different dynamics and different members, but there's a striking amount of overlap in these areas nonetheless. My basic summary is that information about spacecraft operation are on-topic only on Space Exploration; on topics such as planetary science or on experiments done by spacecraft, there are a lot of grey areas. Again as called2voyage said, check out each site's helper center and tour, and browse the questions a bit a lot.

Anyway, I'm going to stop writing before my answer rivals War and Peace in length.

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  • $\begingroup$ First, I understand the hesitation to write a War and Peace length response, however, some issues require a considered more lengthy response. That such an effort can in the long run be time efficient. It reads well, cogent, informative. $\endgroup$ – Cam_Aust Jul 12 '16 at 2:33
  • $\begingroup$ I agree Wikipedia does not answer everything. However, many simple questions can be answered, and you cover this well as a portion of the questions asked. As for more technical and professional questions, in good measure, the lack of such questions was in part my reason for asking my question. You seem to be in a very good position to map out these issues to get Astronomy right. I think the boundary issues I raise does need more reflection, debate, consensus defining, and then promotion for success of this Q&A group. $\endgroup$ – Cam_Aust Jul 12 '16 at 2:36
  • $\begingroup$ Should my background help, my passion from almost birth was astronomy, and was on the career path to be an astrophysicist. I worked within radio astronomy in Australia as support staff, eg Parkes Radio Telescope, and the Australian Telescope Compact Array, Narrabri, NSW. Unfortunately an undiagnosed and severe illness took out my completing my science degree and career. Decades later, I am recovering slowly. Point is, in somewhat similar vein I am familiar with being within astronomical professional environments, amateur interest, and as public bystander. $\endgroup$ – Cam_Aust Jul 12 '16 at 2:51
  • $\begingroup$ Ironically, I am currently using astronomical software in a 4 year data collection and research project to identify factors and solve this now major new disease process to regain my science capacities. Bit late for a career in astrophysics though. I am also involved in a well organised proactive small rural village, Northern NSW, at elevation a little higher than Siding Springs observatory, interested in hosting an annual Star Party event, and with a small property possibly available as a host site for a net access telescope at about 1370 m elevation. $\endgroup$ – Cam_Aust Jul 12 '16 at 3:03
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The Tour puts it well:

Get answers to practical, detailed questions

Professional or amateur, our site is meant to deal with questions that are practical and detailed. It is up to our site to help define those boundaries.

hobbyists with technical questions

Acceptable:

Problem with Dobsonian reflector telescope

professional astronomers[' questions]

Acceptable:

What is the Lyman Alpha forest Used For?

basic non technical public interest questions

Acceptable:

Does the Sun rotate?


However any professional group is going to receive a lot of questions from highly keen inspired non-professionals, and likely to the point of the professional group not being useful.

I don't necessarily see that as being the case. A professional is never obliged to answer a question--it is purely on a volunteer basis. In fact, often a professional is not even required to answer a basic question, since a non-professional who had read enough would be able to answer. Our site gives us lots of tools to help sort questions so that professionals can find those that they are interested in.

Also, again related to boundaries, where should a question on a python package like Glue in the raft of astronomy python packages be posted? Its an overlap of either Stackoverflow or Superuser depending on the nature of the question. At this point, being a python package, I think the latter, however techniques and strategies for use may be of topic in this Q&A group.

Some questions are acceptable at more than one Stack Exchange site. In this case, if your question about the software package is of particular interest to astronomers, then it would likely be well received here, even if it were also on topic at Stack Overflow.

Then there is the question of this Q&A community vs Space Exploration (which I ran into posting a recent question). What tolerance to the overlap should participants or moderators exercise? I am not sure it is meaningful to seek to discriminate too tightly on this boundary.

The community has defined some standards on this boundary already. You can check our Help Center for guidance on what topics are allowed, and if it is unclear or you have other questions you can ask here on Meta. Furthermore, if you ask a question that doesn't seem to violate the guidelines in the Help Center, then you should also ask a question here in Meta so that the community can work out what the issue is, or if our guidelines need to be revised.

I think a key division is interest questions on astronomy vs technical questions related to doing astronomy. For the first there is Wikipedia and other question and answer sites, the latter for a Q&A community like this.

Not all interest questions on astronomy are easily answerable through Wikipedia or other Q&A sites, so we do allow those that are not too trivial here, but we also highly encourage technical questions related to the practice of astronomy.

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  • $\begingroup$ OK, thanks, that clarifies things a lot. I have clearly missed the link to the Tour. I am sure its obvious. $\endgroup$ – Cam_Aust Jul 7 '16 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Cam_Aust Under the "help" drop-down in the toolbar there is one item labeled "Tour". $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Jul 7 '16 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ Read the Tour. I guess I did need to ask the additional detail level to understand better. Thanks. Onward... $\endgroup$ – Cam_Aust Jul 7 '16 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ For what it is worth, I think a more extended description of the boundaries and goals beyond the Tour may prove of value to orientate new comers and assist quality of participation. $\endgroup$ – Cam_Aust Jul 8 '16 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ Or re last comment, direction to the more descriptive information in help, which I just found as well. $\endgroup$ – Cam_Aust Jul 8 '16 at 0:15

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