A large community proposal was very recently closed in Area 51: Neuroscience (update: in fact it has just been deleted and all data permanently erased, see below).
150 early supporters gathered in less than two months, including the heads of major laboratories in experimental Neuroscience across the world. This was a concerted effort across multiple institutions established by top practitioners in the field to create a much needed venue to exchange expertise and technical knowledge for students and researchers. It started as a follow-up to discussions on the open neuroscience summer school (TENSS), which every year gathers a community of technical experts in Europe to teach the next generation of experimental neuroscientists. Lecturers, TAs and students from all over the world agreed to support and promote a proposal that would be created in the Area 51 website.
The proposal gathered a large momentum from day one, even before the main networking outreach efforts were started. Many of the most valued and critical specialists in the field are biologists and non-CS people which are actually not keen on using Stack Exchange, so it was very surprising to see such a large number of experts step forth to support this proposal (as you can infer from user statistics, >50% of supporters were completely new to SE).
Surprisingly, after these first promising few months, users suddenly woke up to a closed proposal. Moderators from Area 51 had decided that the Neuroscience proposal was a duplicate of Cognitive Sciences and referred users to the CogSci website.
This was a source of confusion and surprise to everyone involved. Some users did try to reach out to the Cognitive Sciences community and ventured some experimental neuroscience questions, but they were closed off as out-of-scope, apparently by being too technical in nature. On hindsight, this is not so surprising since the scope and content of the two proposals were worlds apart from their very inception: CogSci clearly has their focus on theoretical, computational and cognitive models of the human mind. They also address many layman and popular questions on human cognition, including philosophical conundrums like the origin of consciousness or free-will.
The Neuroscience proposal on the other hand had the specific goal to address the many technical questions faced by Neuroscience researchers and students while trying to design and run experiments. These included, for example, questions about implantation techniques (e.g. electrode drives, micro-injections, patching, optogenetics, etc.), as well as technical details for getting in-vivo neurophysiology and imaging hardware/software to work. These types of questions are particularly challenging and specific to the domain of experimental neuroscience because they stand at the intersection of multiple engineering fields (optics, electrical engineering, programming, material sciences, biotechnology) and thus will usually challenge even experts in those fields. As advocated in many other technical Stack Exchange websites, these types of questions do not blend well with more conceptual, opinion-based questions which are more likely to invite debate.
Given these differences, it was not surprising that there was a strong contest presented by the experts supporting this proposal against this closure mandate. Requests for justifications were sent personally and publicly to the area 51 moderators. Many users presented rational, extensive counter-arguments, but they were answered with silence and a deserted site.
Sadly, the way the whole process was conducted drained the momentum behind the neuroscience proposal and scared experts away. Most users that were contacted feel like this was a lost chance. There is a high probability now that neither CogSci nor Neuroscience will gain these new experts and questions. In this case, Stack Exchange itself won’t benefit from the interdisciplinary expertise which could have spread to other sites in the network.
Furthermore, as all Area 51 closed proposals get permanently deleted and all data is lost, the entire history of the effort will disappear, and no future initiatives will be allowed to learn from what happened. For this reason we decided to intervene at the level of Stack Exchange meta and make our case that the way Area 51 is organizing new communities could maybe use some improvement. It is concerning in our eyes that a movement that self-organized around real-world experts, a clearly defined technical scope, and had a strong growing user base from day one can be shot down without even having a chance to prove themselves.
We think the only reason neuroscience experts would be interested in a Stack Exchange site is if it tackles the interdisciplinary technical problems neuroscientists face every day. We argue that broadening the scope of questions to the point of including opinion based conceptual or philosophical questions is not appealing to a community looking to share technical challenges. We believe it is better to start with a very technically focused site. Experts will attract experts and eventually regular users who want to get answers from experts.
Ultimately, we believe that the decision to close this proposal was made by people who, despite their good intentions, are not experts in the field and don’t really understand the problems facing our community. This leads us to speculate: how can SE make sure that new communities are created and driven by experts if they don’t listen to them? Taking our failed proposal as an example, it seems that it doesn’t really matter how many experts you gather, or their quality, because you can be shot down by the moderators without having even a chance to voice your argument properly and openly.
Did it make sense to prematurely shut down this proposal? Given the vision laid out by Stack Exchange, who should make that call?
Top example questions and user statistics
Since the original proposal has now been thoroughly deleted, we include here the top 10 example questions and user statistics at time of closure for better appreciation of the points made above.
Representative top example questions
- I'm doing extracellular recordings with tetrodes and using optogenetics for tagging. How should I handle photovoltaic artifacts in my recordings?
- I want to synchronize video tracking with my electrophysiology acquisition. I am using Open Ephys. Does anyone have a good configuration to share?
- I am using solenoids for reward delivery and despite attempts at shielding them they produce a lot of electrical noise in my recordings.
- How should I store my neurophysiology data for easy sharing with other neuroscientists?
- I am trying to image synaptic responses in dendritic spines. How can I isolate them from fluorescence arising from back-propagating action potentials?
- What minimum time window is needed to meaningfully estimate coherence between two LFPs at a given frequency?
- How to ensure long-term stability of chronic headpost implants?
- How do you prevent light leak from the optogenetic stimulation light onto the PMT when 2p calcium imaging and stimulating simultaneously?
- Is there a tangible benefit of synchronising the sample clock to the laser pulses in a resonant scanning 2P microscope?
- Is there any good automatic open source solution for whisker tracking in freely moving rodents?
Users also following
- 10.1% Open Science
- 6.1% Artificial Intell...
- 6.1% Internet of Things
- 4.7% Literature
- 68.9% only this proposal
followers active in
- 15.5% Stack Overflow
- 15.5% Documentation Beta
- 4.1% Meta Stack Exchange
- 3.4% Super User
- 3.4% Cross Validated
- 3.4% Mathematics