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Simply what the title says. I would love to be able to come here and ask questions from my own study or other sources and receive high-quality answers. What principles should we follow to ensure a welcoming environment and a top-notch forum for academic types?

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Don't dwell too much about being specifically "welcoming" to interested amateurs, per se. Our mantra is always "be nice." But make no mistake about it: Build a site for experts with great expert answers, and the less-expert users will take care of themselves.

This is right out of the blog post: Asking the First Questions:

Everyone is welcome. But, in these earliest days, we are DESIGNING a site for experts. To attract experts, you need a site where people are asking very interesting and challenging questions, not the basic questions found on every other Q&A site. Remember, the pro sites WILL attract the enthusiasts, but not the other way around!

The earliest questions on a site will set the tone and topic of the site for a long time.

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  • 2
    Good answer. +1 – blundin Oct 4 '11 at 20:45
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Prerequisite knowledge is required

Here is Jeff Atwood talking about this (Jeff is the co-founder of the SE network):

If you want to walk into a college Calculus class, you need knowledge of Algebra, Pre-Algebra, Geometry, and Pre-Calculus. If you don't, you should be gently directed to other places where you can learn the necessary prerequisites first.

The problem is not that we need to figure out some way to stop the Calculus class to teach these users Algebra -- the problem is that these users are in the wrong place! It is totally correct to gently, civilly direct them somewhere else, somewhere more at their level.

Even on Stack Overflow, which never really had "professional" in its mandate, there is generally an expectation that someone posting a question will understand the rudimentary mechanics of, y'know, being a programmer. Otherwise they're committing the greatest sin of all -- they are wasting everyone's time.

Nobody expects every student to have what it takes to attend Harvard or Yale, right? Heck, we're more akin to the local community college, and even we have standards. You can't expect to show up on the campus of your local community college and go to class completely unprepared. Nobody is going to educate you K-12 just to teach you a college level topic; asking that of your peers is completely unreasonable.

Thus, if you want to come on our "campus" and learn with your fellow students, we expect users to be armed with the basics and fundamentals of the field. Users who fail to meet the absolute minimum standards of a practicing professional, whatever field that happens to be (think FizzBuzz for programmers), should be helpfully directed to other resources where they can learn these things before coming back.

If you don't enforce some basic standards for participants, you soon won't have the benefit of any experts at all. And God help everyone on your Q&A site then.

The same is true here. When a question asks about the original languages, the folks who answer should know those languages or have access to sources written by people who do (for instance, using the Strong's Concordance isn't the same as being trained and experienced in a language, and reading and citing Wikipedia articles doesn't qualify one to offer a controversial historical perspective on a text, either).

Expert-level answers are the best way to attract interested amateurs

The question asked is "How can we attract high-quality Biblical scholars and still be welcoming to interested amateurs?" The (highly-upvoted) answer that the user received from the Director of Community Development for the Stack Exchange Network, Robert Cartaino, is as follows:

Don't dwell too much about being specifically "welcoming" to interested amateurs, per se. Our mantra is always "be nice." But make no mistake about it: Build a site for experts with great expert answers, and the less-expert users will take care of themselves.

This is right out of the blog post: Asking the First Questions:

Everyone is welcome. But, in these earliest days, we are DESIGNING a site for experts. To attract experts, you need a site where people are asking very interesting and challenging questions, not the basic questions found on every other Q&A site. Remember, the pro sites WILL attract the enthusiasts, but not the other way around!

The earliest questions on a site will set the tone and topic of the site for a long time.

So the reality is that our focus should be on designing a site for experts. Amateurs will tend to be attracted to such a site (myself included), but amateurs should learn the basics of the field and thus learn to offer expert-level contributions (often by doing research and citing experts so that we all can learn from them—there shouldn't be much original research here). Most of us are amateurs (myself included) with various levels of training and experience in the field of Biblical Studies, and no one individual has all of the knowledge in every area of this field. We need one another. At the same time, if all we offer is the same stuff as every other place on the Internet, we really aren't making the Internet a better place, we're just adding more noise.

Does that mean that only experts should participate?

At the same time, does that mean that only experts should participate? NO! In fact, most participants will be interested amateurs. Jeff Atwood wrote:

The idea that you have all these experts waiting in the wings to do stuff is an illusion in my experience. There's really just a bunch of amateurs muddling along trying to do things together. The people that are truly experts are too busy to even help, right? And if the experts are too busy to help, what difference does it really make if there are experts at all. Because the whole point of this endeavor is helping other developers, and whether you're an expert or not, if you have no time to help, you're not really contributing to the solution.

Therefore it is expected that most participants will be interested amateurs. With that said, that doesn't mean that we want amateur-level answers. Amateurs are capable of learning more by the use of expert sources and reproducing expert knowledge.

As Jeff explained in the meta post initially cited, you are expected to learn the prerequisites of a field before contributing to answers about that field. If a question asks for linguistic information, you probably shouldn't answer if you don't know the language. If a question asks for historical information, you probably shouldn't answer if you've never studied the pertinent area of history (that doesn't preclude you from reading books to answer the question, but if you can answer the question by reading a short Wikipedia article, it probably wasn't a good question to begin with).

The reality is that amateurs who do not yet know how to find and evaluate expert sources should probably ask more than answer on a site like this. It's worth letting a question remain unanswered for a longer period of time if it means getting an expert-level answer in the long run rather than a bunch of low quality responses.

Allow me to close by citing an answer to the question, "Am I supposed to be an expert?":

The goal of Stack Exchange is to become an expert resource of knowledge for years to come, focusing on very specific topics.

However, this doesn't mean that every question asker needs to be an expert in the field. However, you do need to be serious about the field. People who are merely curious will likely try to post questions that they can find the answers to by digging in and spending some time doing some research. In order to become better at something, one must invest time in learning about that activity....

In other words, I don't need to be an expert ... to first do some research on my own, try out an example, and then ask a question indicating where I'm stuck, what I've tried, and listing any error messages I've found....

However, if your question shows you're not serious about the subject, then it's not beneficial. Another goal of Stack Exchange is to make the Internet a better place, so posts that don't show effort from the asker tend to involve things that have already been asked and answered countless times before. You don't need Stack Exchange for such questions, you just need to spend some time doing some research. :)

In general, some community managers have said they'd prefer to see fewer questions of higher quality instead of more questions with lower quality. Quality is key to building a strong community.

As a last and final point, your skill level in the topic has nothing to do with how serious you are about learning that subject. It's the seriousness and commitment that make great questions. Hope this helps!

Amateurs will learn the most by hearing expert-level answers and learning more about how to find these types of sources. But this site can't replace a good education in the basics. Amateurs need to take the initiative to learn more about this field before answering. This is a place to help them when they get stuck or encounter questions in that learning process, it is not intended to be the sole source of that learning.

If a majority of our questions are not interesting to experts, they won't come/stick around.

Originally posted here.

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