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I've observed for some months now the science sites stats on Stack Exchange after the closure of theoreticalphysics.se. I was glad that after the successful launch of biology.se, chemistry.se also finally went into public beta as the connecting scientific branch between those two. Its Area 51 stats, especially the committer roles with 40.2% academics were similar to biology and physics and much better than for example Economics or Cognitive Sciences.

Nonetheless, some of the mentioned sites have trouble in gaining traffic/questions, economics and theophysics were already closed, scientists don't have much time and are badly paid, they quickly begin to ask how much time should I invest in this beta experiment (a side note, naming these sites officially beta sites is kind of counterproductive for professional users. Luckily the ugly old beta school block CSS layout was removed too; personally I don't care as I use the Stylish Firefox addon, but the majority does).

To me it comes down to critical mass gained during the first 2-3 months of public beta and inflow of new user from WITHIN the Stack Exchange network for those science sites, because:

  • the growth via users from the outside googling and linked to Stack Exchange does not work for tricky scientifc questions (10 researchers will formulate the same question on molecular-genetics in 10 different manners compared to a specific code line or software install tutorial on Stack Overflow or Super User).

  • even the Stack Exchange registered user on science sites don't seem to notice that a new science site has started they were not comitted to (this is proven by the fact that the top rep users of physics, chemistry, biologly and computationalscience.se very seldomly participate or register at all on those other sites, despite the huge thematic and research overlap). I thought chemistry.se would have it much easier than a site like cognitivesciences.se (with very few psychology or neuroscience students on a programmer site) to attract new users and questions as connecting branch from biology.se and physics.se. But, most seem to not have registered at all when browsing the user pages. Many of the committers probably forgot the site after two years of commitment process (of course, understandable, probably a proposal should be set to a max. time (6 months) from proposal to private beta to guarantee critical mass).

I also observed Quora and subscribed to the chemistry and biology feed, 200 and 250 entries in one month (similar as expected, both huge fields). Quora has a different system (categorizing and following by tags and therefore will never reach the high-quality of dense expert communities grown via Area 51 like mathematica.se or physics.se), but every scientific topic is basically existing, you can ask questions and it probably gets answered.

Chemistry.se fullfilled all Area 51 requirements. I don't blame them; my hypothesis is that the Area 51 growth model doesn't work for such sites anymore. This and similar science sites are likely to gain no further growth as they never reached the critical mass during the first beta months like biology.se or physics.se (I don't think lowering the requirements is the way to go as a healthy community needs min. 3-5 new questions/entries a day to keep user visiting that place). Cognitivesciences.se is now 6 months in beta, linguistics.se even longer, the views/day constant around 200, no one seems to be able to google those sites or stumble over it inside the Stack Exchange network, despite of seeding the sites with quality content for some weeks now.

What can be done here? Looking at Quora, I think there are some lessons to be learned:

  • Many new users come to Stack Exchange via the hot questions front page (Quora has a similar followed tags user front page). Unfortunately the algorithm determining the hot questions is in my view pretty unfair. Posting highly voted Q&A from cognitivesciences, biology, chemistry.se from time to time is IMHO a must. Questions in these branches often yield only one good correct answer compared to the discussion threads on Science Fiction and Fantasy's Star Wars or Star Trek 4th or 5th redundant question. The more answers the higher the likelihood to be hot. Quality over quantity, is this not the philosophy here? The current algorithms only favors sites in advertising that already are graduated and have no growth problems and where users often browse the specific front page anyway or are subscribed via RSS. But a natural scientist visiting Stack Exchange for the first time, how are the current hot questions interesting to him?

  • offering feeds to science hot questions (containing hot questions in all scientifc Stack Exchange sites. Currently you have to click this together somewhere, browse all science sites, search the RSS link, import all feeds in your reader, etc. This has to be easier).

  • science, culture, programming filtering/categorizing buttons on the Stack Exchange hot questions front page, so you can easily browse the hot questions as a new unregistered user there interested mainly in one branch of Stack Exchange sites. Currently English, math, sci-fi, and programming is the standard hot stuff; how do you want to attract non-programmers to Stack Exchange this way?!

  • maybe showing chemistry.se questions tagged "material science" also on physics.se or at least in related questions sidebar, when the same tag exists on physics.se. Many questions on Quora are tagged physics/chemistry or biology/chemistry as the overlap is huge!

That are brainstormed ideas, there are probably better. But I think something has to happen, either a drastic change of the Area 51 system for non-pogrammer topics or advertising of such less-frequented new science sites not related to programming.

Otherwise, scientists you try to attract to fill such ghost sites with content will ask why should I further or at all participate in that experiment. Personally, as a physicist, if there is no way to build and maintain a chemistry.se site on Stack Exchange as connecting branch, then the current system and/or philosophy of Stack Exchange has a huge bug. But maybe I have a misconception and Stack Exchange is designed and created as a community around programming and programmers' hobbies and topics that fail to connect to such are doomed or have no future here?

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3 Answers 3

I've been spending a decent amount of time on Biology, and I think the current approach to science sites is highly problematic. I know very little about Biology, but nonetheless I think the majority of users of the site know even less. It's not a very appealing place for experts.

I think there's a strong need for a "popular science" site which would make a much better home for a lot of the questions on the current science sites.

Furthermore, I think the launching process for more serious science sites need to be strongly rethought. Actual experts in Biology, Chemistry, or Physics are very unlikely to already be using the SE network and so the closed beta under the current process is always going to seed the site with non-experts and non-expert questions.

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I agree with your last paragraph. But, biology.se is a site which has lalready attracted many phd students and professionals. And I was more successful after the closing of theoreticalphyiscs.se to convince those user to find a common denominator between experts and popular science questions meta.biology.stackexchange.com/questions/237/… Basically, No Reddit oneliners without context, but good popular science and undergraduate students questions often trigger expert answers pointing to current research –  Werner Schmitt Jul 31 '12 at 22:12
    
On cogsci.se they have this strange initial research criterion, to yield a top voted question, you have to cite papers or write 3 paragraphs. The avg. undergraduate student doesn't read research papers regularly before doing bachelor or master thesis, is busy with trying to understand the standard theories. cogsci.se makes currently the same mistakes like theoreticalphyiscs.se, excluding undergraduate students or experts from related fields without in-depth knowledge and need to ask "easy" questions for experts. No expert is asking many questions on a expert site, without a "level lower" –  Werner Schmitt Jul 31 '12 at 22:12
    
user those sites don't generate questions. On physics.se you now see also reddit oneliner, most user of theoreticalphyiscs and astronomy.se which were merged to this site already left. cogsci.se has a similar amount of user like bio.se, but half the traffic and questions, because it is not inviting to those most important user for site growth. But quality was not the main topic here, look at economics.se, a new proposal was started, has 7 followers. Will probably take another 1-2 years to make a economics site on SE, even more worse,because even more interested programmer will commit to it. –  Werner Schmitt Jul 31 '12 at 22:13
    
If the same happens for chemistry.se, there is for years no chemistry on the self-claimed expert community SE, this will make many experts switch to quora, academia or own sites. And it would be so easy to advertise chemistry, cogsci more!?!? Kind of greek tragedy... –  Werner Schmitt Jul 31 '12 at 22:13

To me it comes down to critical mass gained during the first 2-3 months of public beta and inflow of new user from WITHIN the Stack Exchange network for those science sites

Not sure why you bring this up since it's not that different from other sites. Yes, the start of the beta is a critical period, but that's mostly critical to show that the site can work at all (are the questions on topic and high quality?). Sites can grow slowly without problem; plenty of sites have launched after over a year (or nearly 2 years) in Beta.

10 researchers will formulate the same question on molecular-genetics in 10 different manners compared to a specific code line or software install tutorial on Stack Overflow or Super User

Uh, people form the same Stack Overflow and Super User questions 10 different ways too. As in all fields. That's what duplicates, suggestions, tags etc are for, it's built right into the system.

even the Stack Exchange registered user on science sites don't seem to notice that a new science site has started they were not comitted to

I do agree it can be hard to find relevant sites. I'm hoping the new Area 51 redesign makes it easier to browse the current/launched sites in a category, but Science already is a category in Area51, so it isn't that hard to find these sites. I think the bigger issue here is that this information is on Area 51 which doesn't get all that much use. You have to know/think to look, that's a big barrier, agreed.

science, culture, programming filtering/categorizing buttons on the Stack Exchange hot questions front page,

I kinda like this one. We do something similar for the All Sites page, a little granularity for the Hot Questions page could do a lot of good. I suggest proposing this as a separate Feature Request.

maybe showing chemistry.se questions tagged "material science" also on physics.se or at least in related questions sidebar, when the same tag exists on physics.se

Not liking the idea of showing the questions quite so directly on another site like that, but I do think we could do some cross-promoition here. Maybe have some way to show more Community Ads from Science related sites on other science related sites. If I'm on Physics I do agree I'm more likely to care about the Chemistry community ads than the ads for DIY or Apple.

Again, I'd suggest bringing that up as a feature request (or I might steal that idea and post a question myself, been thinking about something similar). It's hard to focus on a single point here.

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About the hot questions tab, there was already a proposal for normalizing the "hot" criteria (not exactly the same thing, but close enough). And I'd once proposed an internal crossposting mechanism for related sites –  Manishearth Jul 29 '12 at 6:47
    
See, Ben, I know you dont like my posts and they will stop very soon because these things seem to be uncommunicable and undecidable. But it boils down to one simple question: Why do you think sites like cogsci.se and linguistics.se, which haven't grown a by a single digit in views/days for SEVERAL months now, suddenly start to grow further? (look on quantcast.com if you dont believe) How can time here be anymore a factor? All healthy sites on SE constantly grow, even when they have the same Q/day rate. Beta sites that stopped to grow, never reached the critical mass due to –  Werner Schmitt Jul 31 '12 at 22:14
    
a) didnt create enough content to be googable b) too much passive interested commiters/diluted proposal c) bad advertising of SE on home page/hot questions. As you said, plenty of sites recently launched after over one year, and most failed and many currently are going to fail if they get no advertisment from SE. But if chemistry and cogsci.se fail, (look at economics follower now on area51), do you think you can convince any expert in these branches to invest his time here a 2nd time in another experiment? –  Werner Schmitt Jul 31 '12 at 22:15
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area51 and advertising has to be set up in a way, that when these sites go into beta, they will work, or they wont for a long time because driving away all experts like it happened with theoreticalphyiscs or astronomy, they did not register to physics.se, they mostly left. –  Werner Schmitt Jul 31 '12 at 22:15
    
Feel free to use any of above bullet points to suggest improvements, I dont have enough rep on MO and a suggestion from a regular will receive more credit. Its funny, while I try to help these struggling sites to get better advertising as a open science advocate, seems this question even became downvotes, so my incentive to speak further against a wall is pretty low. Things seem uncommunicable, undecidable, unvotable, hopefully your suggestions get more attention, I dont see how cogsci and chem can be saved without additional advertising. Hope and time will not help here. –  Werner Schmitt Jul 31 '12 at 22:15

I'm sorry, I'm not sure I entirely follow your point. What is the problem you're trying to solve here?

Are you saying that bringing more non-academic users to these sites would be better?

Are there questions right now that'd benefit from being on both Physics SE and Chemistry SE (to use your example)? In principle, we strive to put questions in front of experts in specific fields. So a question about chemistry should go to chemists, not physicists.

This might also help explain why a top user in one scientific subject might not be interested in other scientific sites.

Keeping in mind that I have some leading questions above, I'm going to ramble in general for a little bit now.

Perhaps smaller sites aren't that bad. If a site is active, but slow, where's the harm? If the quality is good enough, it's actually better to have a small, dedicated, high-quality site than it is to have a busy site that doesn't accomplish much. Above all, we still want to make the Internet better.

Of course, these sites have to be discoverable. For the older science sites (Biology, CogSci, Physics), traffic coming in from Google accounts for over half of total traffic sources. This is pretty good. Chemistry is still below half, but it's also pretty new (94 days in beta as of today), so give it time.

In general, (even potentially) diluting site quality for the sake of Area 51 stats or traffic numbers isn't a good way to go. We still want to maintain our standards. When Physics SE graduated, it had excellent stats across the board, so perhaps the time was just right for a Physics site in our network. Other sciences might not fare as well right now, but you never know when they might take off.

Additionally, we're working on the next generation of our site proposal process. It's too early to say what it's going to look like, but one of our goals is to make it easier to iterate over topics and site ideas, which should ideally help some of the more niche subjects to find a home on our network.

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So a question about chemistry should go to chemists, not physicists. This is a bad example because subjects like thermodynamics straddle both fields, and most quantum chemistry questions can go either way. This is not limited to physics and chem, as biology and chemistry can also equally lay claim to particular biochemistry questions. Others before Werner have suggested the idea of a "placeholder" on the cross-disciplinary site for when a question encompasses both domains (I can't find a Meta link to this idea right now). –  jonsca Jul 29 '12 at 3:18
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Consequently, the system in its current state does not actually support the ever growing population of cross-disciplinary experts as well as it could. –  jonsca Jul 29 '12 at 3:19
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@jeremybanks Thanks LOL. I looked on Chem's Meta, Physics's Meta, and Bio's Meta. I forgot Manish escalated it to MSO. –  jonsca Jul 29 '12 at 3:36
    
(just a quick addendum to my first novel, er, comment, I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the heavy crossover between CogSci and Biology on neuroscience topics) –  jonsca Jul 29 '12 at 3:42
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For science topics to succeed, we need to first get rid of the plague, that is Stack Overflow users. A lot of the proposals are padded by SO enthusiasts who think they're "science nerds" because they watched Bill Nye every week. Don't get me wrong — we do need users with a general interest and curiosity to ask questions, but I don't think many of the science sites have enough real experts to answer authoritatively. –  Lorem Ipsum Jul 29 '12 at 6:22
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Maybe Werner didn't articulate his point well, but I do agree that science topics might need a different approach than, say, sites for cooking. There could be some sort of pre-beta publicity to get the word out and more in-beta publicity in univs/colleges, etc., for example. I wouldn't dismiss the discussion simply as "pfft, Physics had excellent stats in 90 days, maybe bio/chem aren't the in-thing now". In the first phase of Area 51 every dog and his site could launch and graduate. How else do you explain Web Applications? It's a lot harder for sites to get in beta now, let alone graduate... –  Lorem Ipsum Jul 29 '12 at 6:27

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