“If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself." - Einstein

A properly worded question asking for a generalized summary of a broad concept, in my opinion, is a valuable question.

However, not all users here seem to share this opinion:

"Why is the sky blue?"


"Go do some research first and ask a more specific question newb."

-Angry Commenter

"Why is the sky blue?" is an exaggeration, and over-simplification of the scenario, and would be unacceptable if the subject were more broad!

However, consider:

"What is Evolution?"


"What is a general summarization of the concept of Evolution?"

While the first question is asking for the meaning of Evolution, which is completely unanswerable in this format, the second one asks for the general summary of the concept, which requires only a short paragraph.

In this way, SE can offer a valuable summary of a very large concept in a simple way, allowing people to use that information and decide whether or not they wish to spend more time studying the topic.

What do you think?

Is a question that specifically asks for a summary of a broad topic a good fit for and valuable to Stack Exchange?


3 Answers 3


First off note that different Stack Exchange sites have differing levels of expectation of the people asking and answering the questions. Gaming (for example) may be perfectly content with what some would consider 'basic' questions while Theoretical Computer Science and MathOverflow strive to keep their questions at a level of research level in their respective fields.

This question in particular appears to be inspired in part by two recent questions on Programers.SE:

Summarized explanation of Scrum?

I've noticed this word used ( Scrum ) which I think refers to a project management practice.

What is a very general explanation of Scrum?

In relation to programming project management, what scenario does “waterfall” refer to?

I noticed the term "waterfall" referencing a practice that would be unacceptable, in a question recently.

What scenario does the term "waterfall" generally refer to in a programming project?

Programers.SE generally has the approach that you should at least have done a search on google and possibly read the corresponding Wikipedia page. This is especially true of questions that are likely to be broad. The scrum Wikipedia page is 43k and waterfall is 18k.

The biggest issue with asking such broad questions that are 'condense this other text that I don't want to read into a few paragraphs' is that, for the most part its lazy. Its asking someone else to try to fit a huge body of knowledge into a text box where there are pages of material out there that covers this.

Furthermore, this type of question doesn't actually draw upon the expert knowledge and experience of a Programmer (and if you asked it in pm.se they'd glower at you and try to find a dup to close it of).

The type of work that is being asked is the same as a high school writing composition teacher asking you do a report on something you don't already know. Read the sources, and write an essay on it. There is no expert knowledge or experience coming into play there.

Thus, these questions are either closed or in the process being closed.

While I acknowledge it that's my own work, I'd strongly suggest reading the guidance in meta.programmers.SE: Why is research important? - we don't want to repeat what you already know, nor answer at the wrong level for the reader... and if you really don't know, explain what is confusing you.

  • I specifically, in the comments to this question, said: my questions of this kind were not worded the best, so don't think of this in relation my question.
    – J.Todd
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 23:20
  • 2
    As I stated at the start, each SE has its own expectations. Why is the sky blue is an acceptable Physics.SE question. I haven't found a question asking someone to explain evolution on biology.SE, but that site is still in beta - you might try asking it there. Asking someone to summarize 'p != np' on cstheory.SE will likely get closed too. Furthermore, the paragraphs starting with 'The biggest issue with asking such broad questions' does address your question.
    – user213963
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 23:31
  • Could you provide a sentence somewhere in there that actually states whether or not the kind of question is valuable to SE? You didn't provide a clear answer the question. -1
    – J.Todd
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 23:35
  • 9
    @jt0dd I can't because it is different on each stack exchange community.
    – user213963
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 23:36

As a rule, such questions would be actively harmful for Stack Exchange, because content provided in these would be inferior in comparison to similar Wikipedia articles.

Summaries of broad topics are specialty of Wikipedia, which is focused and optimized on providing this content and fostering a culture oriented on it. People willing, best capable of and experienced in providing such summaries go to Wikipedia, not to Stack Exchange.

Now think of how "broad topic summary" SE question would look from web search perspective. People looking for this in search engine would be typically presented two directly competing content examples, one at SE network, another at Wikipedia (both sites tend to rank high in web searches).

Due to reasons mentioned above, it is most likely that SE content would look inferior in comparison, making visitors think it generally sucks. This is exactly opposite of how we would want site be presented at search engines, isn't it.

Stack Exchange Q&A model has been optimized to only cover topics where Wikipedia falls short ("long tail"). It is intended to complement, not to compete against Wikipedia.

There is certain crossover between Stack Exchange and Wikipedia, but it is rather narrow, as indicated by vanishingly small amount of successful uses of community wiki and collaborative lock features here.

  • I'm calling "I'm trying really hard to find a problem with this" on this answer. The one above also.
    – J.Todd
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 13:01
  • 3
    @jt0dd a problem with this is: "it is most likely that SE content would look inferior in comparison, making visitors think it generally sucks. This is exactly opposite of how we would want site be presented at search engines" (I'm trying really hard to find what is difficult to understand in this explanation)
    – gnat
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 13:02
  • 5
    This question really shouldn't be asked here- but should be asked on individual meta sites... they have different purposes. That said I'll try and mention something you might be missing about P.SE: The site is held largely as trying to compete with Wikipedia, so content that would be identical to theirs is counter to the site's purpose. We are trying to gather authoritatively correct information like Wikipedia does, however in a format and fashion Wikipedia cannot- an encyclopedia of problems/solutions rather than topics. Commented Nov 3, 2014 at 17:28

I've noticed something about questions like what you propose above, and I'll let folks here vote their opinion of whether they agree.

It seems to me, anytime I see a question that requires qualification on how it should be answered just to ensure it get's quality answers, it's not a good question in either the qualified or unqualified form.

Your example there is precisely that:

"What is Evolution?"


"What is a general summarization of the concept of Evolution?"

You're qualifying in the second one that you want answerers to just summarize, not actually tell what it is as the first question. The thing is you can't really give directions to answerers (in many SE sites, some are oddballs and really- it's hard to qualify any guidance across the whole network), because it simply doesn't work.

Partially because answerers will answer as they see fit, and partially because the questioner doesn't tend to have the knowledge on the topic to qualify things rationally. In the above example for instance, the questioner may put the qualifier of "answerers must only write a summary" which doesn't rightly make sense on the topic- it's vast and to summarize it would really just result in..well, the wikipedia page on evolution.

At the end of the day though, I've learned to identify questions that have "answerers must <X>" as a means of getting around quality restrictions, to be a red herring. In the vast majority of these cases I look at the question without qualifications and find it's simply not a good question for the site it's on, if it was, it wouldn't have needed those qualifications. I've learned this from experientially watching these questions generate terribly answers- or no answers as the qualification makes it unanswerable, i.e.

What is objectively the best book for <X>

Objectively the best? Unanswerable. So people who do answer, do so without the qualification, and voila: Subjective answers. Bleh.

Granted this is site specific and really guidance as above is to be interpreted based on the community of each site independently. Many may find it's totally ill fitting for the sites they're used to. Just thought I'd share this little pattern-match I've learned to recognize as some could find it useful for their site's community. It's how I would perceive questions asking for "summary"-> It's just trying to shortcut the quality guidelines, and the answers won't be any better quality for the second question you iterate than the first.

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