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Originally I requested reading recommendations, which was subsequently closed because it did not fit Stack Overflow's Q&A format.

Next, I asked how to request a reading recommendation which was thoroughly berated.

The topic of book recommendations was not discussed in the FAQ. In fact, the only mention of books is that 'answers should not require book' [referring to the breadth and depth of an answer]. Nearly half of the earlier requests for book recommendations are unmolested. In addition, its apparently OK to request software recommendations, which seems equally subjective.

Why is the policy on book recommendations not clearly stated in the FAQ? Why are software recommendations OK, but book recommendations off topic? Why are some of the requests for a book OK, and others not?

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Software recommendations are not always Ok, plenty are closed as Off Topic. –  user7116 Nov 28 '11 at 15:22
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Keep in mind that just because you find questions that slipped through the cracks, that doesn't mean the question is appropriate. –  Bart Nov 28 '11 at 16:15
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"Why is the policy on book recommendations not clearly stated in the FAQ?" Because if we put everything in the Site FAQ, it would be the size of the Gideon Bible. –  Robert Harvey Nov 28 '11 at 16:15

5 Answers 5

Why is the policy on book recommendations not clearly stated in the FAQ?

Because it has nothing to do with books... It's about shopping:

What’s the point of a bunch of labor intensive questions that provide only temporary benefit to a limited (some might say Too Localized) audience?

Read that blog post - it's focused on a particularly troublesome sort of shopping question that plagued Super User, but many of the same concepts apply - in particular, how you can get what you want:

when it comes to shopping questions, don’t ask us what you should buy — ask us what you need to learn to tell what you should buy.

As for why this isn't mentioned in the FAQ... It is. It's part of a much, much larger set of "poll" questions, addressed in the section titled "What kind of questions should I not ask here?":

To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where …

  • every answer is equally valid: “What’s your favorite __?”

Very, very few people ever read every book on a topic. There are a lot of books out there. So if all you ask for is the name of a book, unless your topic is exceedingly narrow you'll likely just get suggestions and votes for whatever books are most often read. You could pull a list off Amazon and sort by popularity, and it'd be just as useful (not very).

What you really want are experts who could teach you all you need to know without a book to step in, give you an overview, and then point to a book that'll take you the rest of the way. So instead of having to come up with everything you want (from a position of ignorance no less!) before asking, you're able to ask first "what do I need to know" and then "and how can I learn it?"

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"What’s the point of a bunch of labor intensive questions that provide only temporary benefit to a limited" - that's if you believe the statement. I do not believe its labor intensive, nor do I believe its a temporary benefit. Secure SQL Programming should be a rule, not an exception. Unfortunately, Secure SQL Programming is the exception and not the rule. Treating it as a shopping excursion: amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss/…. –  noloader Nov 28 '11 at 19:10

To answer your meta-question, nobody expects you to know, on first arrival, exactly what is on and off topic on SO. That's why we have community moderation. When the community, who as a whole usually knows what's allowed and what's not, sees something that doesn't belong, it closes it. No harm done. You haven't been banned, shamed, hurt, or penalized for not knowing the rules. Not in any way. Further, the faq are not so much rules as a "trailing indicator" of what the community and moderators are basing their decisions on. They aren't always up to date, but that's ok, because they aren't binding. If the faq failed to warn you that certain kinds of questions don't belong here, there's no harm done, the question will just be closed. Sometimes, the community can even determine a place your question does belong, and it is migrated there, and you discover a place of value to you.

What should you have done differently? Probably nothing. You didn't know if your question belonged or not, so you tried asking it. You learned it didn't belong. At first, you thought perhaps the faq was more binding than it is, so you asked for clarification on meta, which you got. Now you "get it" and you know that your question doesn't belong on SO or P.SE. You will have to learn the information you seek some other way. And, I repeat, there's no harm done. You're not expected to have expert knowledge: the community of folks with close votes has that for you. It's a service, to you and to other readers of the site. And it works.

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It is stated in the FAQ.

We feel the best Stack Overflow questions have a bit of source code in them, but if your question generally covers …

  • a specific programming problem
  • a software algorithm
  • software tools commonly used by programmers
  • practical, answerable problems that are unique to the programming profession

Recommendations for books are not specific programming problems, software algorithms, software tools or practical answerable problems. They are subjective. We want questions that have a clearly defined answer.

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Not bad, although for quoting the FAQ, I would've gone with "avoid asking subjective questions where … - every answer is equally valid: 'What’s your favorite ______?' - your answer is provided along with the question, and you expect more answers: 'I use ______ for ______, what do you use?'" on this one. –  Pops Nov 28 '11 at 15:49
    
Secure SQL Programming is a specific programming problem (which would require a book and violates the FAQ). Asking for a recommendation on a treatment of the subject seemed the best path, considering how little I could find on the subject (amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss/…). –  noloader Nov 28 '11 at 19:04

Stack Overflow's FAQ states clearly that:

If your motivation for asking the question is “I would like to participate in a discussion about __”, then you should not be asking here. [...]

To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where…

  • every answer is equally valid: “What’s your favorite __?” [...]
  • there is no actual problem to be solved: “I’m curious if other people feel like I do.”
  • we are being asked an open-ended, hypothetical question: “What if __ happened?”

I've quoted the parts that applies to shopping and book recommendations. The 'canonical' discussion on why shopping advice is off topic appears on Gaming Meta - Handling game recommendations - how can we solve these two problems of quality?. It is an long standing issue, one that has been discussed to death.

You included a Google query there. Stack Overflow is old, and its policy to acceptable questions has changed (towards being more strict against subjective questions). Most of those are merely older questions which were never closed because the amount of manpower required for such a cleanup far outweights any benefit it brings. Citing examples of old, unclosed book recommendation questions do not help your case.

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"Citing examples of old, unclosed book recommendation questions do not help your case." Yi - that's laughable. If I'm going to perform due dilligence (check the FAQ and verify those type of questions have been accepted in the past), it would be nice if you would reciprocate. Put another way, if I did not know the policy existed, how the hell would I know the policy changed? Please refrain from jumping on the band wagon. –  noloader Nov 28 '11 at 18:46
    
@noloader I do not understand. You want reciprocation, I cited the FAQ. You cannot possibly expect the FAQ to list everything. On the other hand, a little common sense would tell you that a type of question where half of all previously asked questions, and more importantly, all recent questions, were closed is not likely to be on-topic for this site. A more appropriate search term would be: stackoverflow.com/… –  Yi Jiang Nov 28 '11 at 19:00

Software recommendations are much more specific to a user's situation, but I'm pretty sure they do often get closed (though perhaps not as consistently and quickly as book recommendations). When you're looking for a book recommendation, there's not usually a significant difference between what book would be recommended for you and what would be recommended to another user in a completely different situation that needed the same technology.

And that's just beyond the fact that such recommendations are highly subjective anyway, which makes them unsuitable for our q&a format goals.

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"...recommendations are highly subjective anyway, which makes them unsuitable for our q&a format goals." - I'm not trying to be argumentative, but [I believe] the topic I asked about was sufficiently narrow that 2 or 3 books (at most) would be listed. There are many books on 'How to do SQL...", but none that I have found that "How to do SQL Securely...". The lack of quality material on securing a SQL installation and securely programming SQL is probably why SQL Injections are always high on the OWASP Top Ten list (owasp.org/index.php/Top_10_2010-Injection). –  noloader Nov 28 '11 at 18:57

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