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  How do we revive PhysicsOverflow?

+ 6 like - 0 dislike

My name is Roger Cattin (but for consistency if prefer to stay polarkernel on this site), I am 65 years old and I live in Germany. I am a former professor for Computer Perception and Medical Image Processing. I lectured and researched at a University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland. I had to retire there two years ago due to my age. I am completely independent, I don’t care about any reputation and I will never again in my life have to search for a job. As I always declared in my profile, I am not a physicist.

Instead of cultivating my garden, as pensioners usually are expected to do, I decided to invest my knowledge and a large part of my time to create and support PhysicOverflow. I have been impressed by the level and the culture of discussion I have found on SE.TP. I have been convinced by Dilaton that it could be worth to setup a free site for physicists. I am not related to Dilaton and we are not the same person (this stupid idea made me laugh, seen that our styles to write are really completely different).

I have prepared a plant for you in the hope that it gets cultivated to a beautiful garden, where flowers and other plants may grow, even those that get cut on other sites. But what I see today is a desert. The site got an arena of politics, where gladiators and self-proclaimed prosecutors produce an abominable mud-wrestling, in order to get power over the site. It makes me sick to see how you try to undermine and pervert fundamental rights, as privacy and anonymity.

@RonMaimon You say I do not talk to you? Well, I have once searched in my mail archive. The last time I have been in the recipients list of your emails was in a response to my Christmas wishes. Then I have to go back to September 2014, where you complained about a database connect error. So, who does not talk to whom? You are right, I do not trust you. You appear to me as a very destructive person, an egoist, absolutely unable to work in a constructive way within a team. Your capitalized words in your emails (forwarded to me by the co-founders) do not impress me at all, although you call them arguments, I can’t respect such a tone. As I am not physicist, I also can’t understand how you got such a halo, as you seem to have. You do not trust me? Well, I don’t care.

I am Swiss and you may be sure that I know how democracy works. The first part, demos, means people. But who is "people" on the actual PhysicsOverflow? Today, PhysicsOverflow has fewer users than in private beta. There was a time at the beginning, where more than 200 users contributed to PO, at least by voting. Almost all of them have gone. This is a number that I consider as "people". Would I follow their votes, I could immediately close the site. But as Ron said in his emails several times, he doesn’t care. Politics seems to be much more important than physics. The Q&A category is dried up, there is almost nobody on the site that is able to give answers and nobody anymore writes reviews. We are near to have more moderators than users.

Now who is guilty? I would say, we all, me included. We have lost track of the initial goal of PO. It is now time to stop this mud-wrestling immediately. I propose that the corresponding threads get closed (not deleted) now and I would like to see constructive ideas on how to change the situation. The most important issue of PhysicsOverflow is the lack of users. Should once a moderator be elected by 20 votes I would be impressed. On demand of such a moderator, I would even be willing to publish my code. I am waiting for your constructive propositions.

Be sure that I may invest my time and knowledge in projects that are more fruitful.

asked Jan 29, 2015 in Discussion by polarkernel (0 points) [ revision history ]
recategorized Apr 2, 2015 by dimension10

I have moved all off-topic or tangential discussions to a new thread in chat, please continue the discussion there.

It's possible I was too liberal with the moving, please tell me if there were any comments that are actually relevant to the revival of PhysicsOverflow.

However, if your issue is that the comments are no longer as prominent as before, and tell him to capitalise this comment, make it red, bold, italic, underline, highlighted yellow, or whatever, then don't expect me to respond.

9 Answers

+ 3 like - 0 dislike

In my opinion, to get the site back on track, we need to work on the following:

  • Post reviews of papers you've reviewed - Many here would have been a reviewer for a peer-reviewed journal. So create a submission for the papers that you've reviewed in the past, and post your review here! That's what open reviewing is all about, isn't it?
  • Promotion - This can't be mentioned enough. There seems to be too little promotion of the site. Sites like this thrive on free, word-of-mouth advertising, so please, help out! Please, if you like PhysicsOverflow, you can (see Help Promote PhysicsOverflow for some resources)
    • Place a banner of the site on your blog or webpage
    • Post a pamphlet on your department's noticeboard at your university
    • Distribute some pamphlets at a conference
    • Post about the site on social networks
    • Tell people around you about the site!
  • Self-answered questions - The biggest problem we have now is not a lack of questions, a lack of views, or even a lack of users, but a lack of answers. Answers are eventually the backbone of any Q&A site, because there's no incentive to ask or visit the site, if you will not be getting answers. Often, answering your own questions also encourages other people to answer it themselves. By asking questions you know the answer to, and then answering them, you can not only help add content to the site, but also fuel further discussion on the site.
  • A clear comment deletion policy - The delete review queues are not as often used for comments as they should be. The issue is that if an off-topic comment is placed in the delete review queue, by the time there is consensus on deleting it, more comments would have appeared in reply to the original, and to delete the original, these comments need to be deleted first (because or else, they would look out of context), and the cycle continues. This leads to comment deletion being unilateral de facto, which needs to be stopped. I propose that for comments, one should be able to vote to delete a number of comments together. A clear policy could help avoid similiar conflicts in future.

In terms of revival, I would recommend focusing only on the Q&A and Reviews sections, although I am actually of the opinion that the Open problems section is an underused gem with great potential.

answered Jan 30, 2015 by dimension10 (1,975 points) [ revision history ]
edited Feb 1, 2015 by dimension10
Regarding "open problems", I am willing to offer money bounties on both of them, and if we did allowed people to put money bounties, it would get attention. I have proposed this before.

The judgement that

The biggest problem we have now is [...] a lack of answers.

seems very true to me.

More promotion might help a little, though maybe not. I announce most every question or answer that I send to PO also on g+, but I am unsure if this has any noticable effect regarding user activity here. 

From experience I expect that the only way to eventually succeed is to, somehow,  get a small core group of active users that set a precedent. If only there were two or three more of the kin of, say,  conformal_gk, Arnold Neumaier, regularly active here, having actual exchanges with each other (answering each other's questions) then people would see this and by seeing this that would become convinced to join in.

+ 2 like - 0 dislike

Its a strange thing, One year ago the this site was just starting, Now there is talk about how to revive It.

Personally, The questions on this site are too hard for me to answer. Stack exchange had a lot of questions which I could answer. Perhaps one day I can contribute good answers to some of the questions on this site.

What I like about this site is there are some experts on this site, which makes it completely worth it, on the rare occation that I asked a question I got excellent answers.

It doesn't matter how many question are asked, so long as good question are being asked(and bad questions are understood for why they are bad), it always counts as progress.

However It seems to me that, there are several other issues that need to be sorted, the kind that really will kill the site. I have absolutely no idea, what when on, why so many and nearly hostile comments exchanged. I hope you can sort it out between yourselfs, I will only say a place where research happens, requires a warm and forgiving environment.

answered Feb 24, 2015 by Prathyush (700 points) [ revision history ]
edited Feb 24, 2015 by Prathyush

Hi Prathyush,

thanks for your important and valuable feedback, we would be happy if more people would speak up in meta, than the always same about 5 most meta active people ...

I exactly agree with you that maintaining a high-level but welcoming and helpful academic atmosphere (even while discussing or sorting out serious important issues on meta the tone should stay reasonably professional and by no means turn outright hostile...!) is very important for a high-level physics site.

So I will try my best to do better in help contributing to a nice wellcoming atmosphere on PhysicsOverflow.

I've also felt the "too hard to answer" thing. This is of course great, as it means that PO is higher-level on average than we had expected it to be, but this of course reduces the answered rates.

@Diliaton: Tell me something, Ill ask you this honestly, why would any one be interested in the meta in its current state? I haven't visited the meta page for a very long time, I was quite shocked to see what was happening here.

All I see is broken hearts scattered everywhere. If the few people who post in the meta cannot resolve differences, why do you expect someone else to do it for you? Going thought such long posts in the meta is also quite a burden you see...

I would say @Polarkernel did a great job with the site, as a frame work for discussion. Now I don't know how you find you will find a way out of this mess. I would suggest, a clear understanding of what the problem is where you start. (If you wish to you can mail me, I guess you know how to find me.)

@Prathyush, "All I see is broken hearts scattered everywhere." what are you referring to?

@JiaYiyang I went through some posts that were exchanged here recently. I would prefer not to take names here, but I general I was refering to the hostile exchanges, what polarkernel referred to as "Mud Wrestling".

@Prathyush Come on, this stuff is already resolved, and there are no "broken hearts scattered around everywhere".

Your comments here are a classic example of the bad side of "mud wrestling" - when uninvolved users view the discussion, it looks like a warzone, or an arena of dissatisfaction. They take every accusation as a gospel truth, and are led into believing that the site has been struck by some evil misuse of moderator powers.

Fortunately, none of that is true. There was exactly one "misuse" of moderator powers (editing out insults from a users' comments), and it was a genuine misconception on Dilaton's side (he didn't correctly understand the user rights document), and he's been forced to step down for this, as well.

@dimension10 If you say its resolved I'll take your word for it.

Personally I don't see anything wrong with Dilaton editing out the insults(If it was only insults he removed and not scientific content) from a users comments, But I will not involve myself in this any further.

@Prathyush Well the real problem is that comments don't yet have edit histories, it would have been perfectly fine had he done it with questions or answers. But that's exactly why it was a genuine mistake from his side, and I still wish he could have been excused.

@dimension10 So what is the correct way to deal with spam in comments? Has that been discussed?

@Prathyush spam is never past of a larger comment. A comment is either not spam or only spam. Only speak comments can be deleted. I did try to discuss a full comment deletion policy on meta, but nothing really gained traction. 

@Dimension10 this is not true, nothing prevents that people post spam/direct name callings/other very bad low-level things + some physics keywords/phrases in the same single comment, so it is not true that a comment can not contain partially spam.

@Dilaton Huh? If a comment isn't relevant for the thread, it would be deleted anyway. What are you even saying?

@Dimension10 that a comment can contain both, irrelevant/off-topic/low-level spam or attacks AND some physics keywords or phrases. You can not always strictly separate comments into relevant or spam/irrelevant.

@dimension10 @diliton @polarkernel @jiayiyang @ronmaimon

I don't feel like writing a full meta post maybe if one of you likes the idea, you can write one.

I think a self-correcting mechanism must be implemented at the moderator level itself. So each of the moderators actions are independently verified by the other moderators.  So that incidents like this can be checked, and rectified immediately, and before blowing out of proportion.

I can still smell the blood on PSE when Ron Maimon got into a fight over censorship with the mods, leading to his suspension, and one academic leaving in protest to this day. This was before you joined. Even on MSE they have their political infighting. The site was created so that guys like Ron could be rude and direct, without getting banned, even if it puts off other people from joining who can't handle the atmosphere.

@dimension10 @diliton @polarkernel @jiayiyang @ronmaimon @physicsnewbie

Ofcourse this site was not created so that Ron could be rude(I hope the founders will agree with me). Rudeness has absolutely nothing to do with science, Infact anything, and its a worthless cancer.

This site was created so that discussion can take place without censorship of content. By content my understanding is It means scientific content and nothing else.

From what I understand, rudeness is not any reason to ban a person from the site, and physics overflow should live upto that reasonable expectation. That does not imply that It allows for anything and everything to happen.

I would still suggest that any non-scientific content should be allowed to be removed freely by moderators, if they find it to be necessary.

@Prathyush, The question seems to be where exactly to draw the line: "no ban for rudeness" or "no censorship for rudeness"? I think we are currently operating in favor of the latter(to be accurate @Dilaton disagrees with this). The only censorships that are being carried out are toward the ones with absolutely no scientific content/off-topic to the whole Physicsoverflow site. (BTW the @ function is case sensitive, so for example to notify me you would need to enter "@JiaYiyang")

@Prathyush I don't know if rudeness is a "cancer" in anyway, but deleting posts for rudeness, definitely is harmful, as it removes scientific content.

It's not about protecting rudeness, it's about protecting legitimately scientific content, that might or might not be rude, who cares. If something has zero, null, no scientific content, then it's worthless, and can be deleted whether or not it's offensive.

@Physicsnewbie The purpose of PhysicsOverflow is certainly not "rudeness", but high-level up to research-level physics. It is meant to be some kind of a lowered in level (to graduate-level and above) and broadend in topic revival of Theoretical Physics SE and physics analog of MathOverflow.

To achieve this, even though it is ok for physics discussions to become passionate and heated at times, the general atmosphere of the site (including meta discussions) should be reasonably professional, high-level, and welcoming too such that the mostly (but not exclusively) academic targetted audience feels welcome and at home.

@Yiyang  s remark is exactly to the point: most of the recent issues were due to the difference between no bans for rudeness and no "censorship" (I personally think the word censorship got often overused in this context) for rudeness.

We probably all agree about the first, namely as it is normal for physics discussions to get very lively at times, it would be ridiculous for a professional physics site with members consisting of highly qualified people and very advanced students, to ban people for rude or even insulting words spoken in such a context.

But Yiyang is right again that PhysicsOverflow implemented the second, no touching of even the worst far below the level of PO personal attacks and name-callings that could easily be removed or reformulated without changing the scientific/physics content of the post.

In my personal opinion, this could be one of the reasons for PhysicsOverflow s long standing (strictly speaking since its existance) problem with user retention, in particular of users who can answer high-level questions about all on-topics. I personally think to successfully revive PhysicsOverflow and make it take off in a sustainable way, it would help a lot if we could keep doing the first (no bans for rudeness) but also improve the general atmosphereof the site by keeping things professional and agreeing that at least very low-level direct personal insults, name-calling, and outright trolling is dispensensible and can be removed or reformulated without changing the scientific content (at best by the OP himself after talking to him and cooling down, but also by moderators if needed).


@Dilaton Huh? So if a valuable review of a submission, "personally attacks" the author, you would want to delete that review? This has never been a policy of PhysicsOverflow. You can't make up policies unilaterally this way!

@Dimension10 please read more carfully what I say, namely that if a valuable review (or other post) contains a personal attack on the author (like YOU MORON, YOU BRAINDEAD IDIOT, YOU ASSHOLE, and things at the same lowest absolutely unprofessional level) apart from the physics argumentation, it would be good if only this attack (and nothing else!) could be removed or reformulated without changing the meaning at best by the OP himself or by a moderator if needed. Such beyond the pale low-level personal attacks and insults are not physics and they are not needed to make any physics argument.

@Dilaton Do I understand you correctly, that a post with both physics content and offensive material can be edited?

  1.  For comments, that would need a comment history recording feature. This is on the roadmap, so OK.
  2. Propose a change to user rights on meta, for the proper functioning of this.

@Dimension10 yes this is what I mean, and what you say is probably what would be needed to realize it.

@JiaYiyang Thank you for pointing out the correct way to use the @ function, I will repeat some points so that @RonMaimon @dimension10 @physicsnewbie @polarkernel and @Dilaton will see. Again If you like any of the things I suggest please turn them into a meta post.

There are 2 separate issues here one is how can the moderation be more effective. For that I suggest that any moderator action must be independently verified by other moderators(and possibly even trusted members of the community). That way any bad moderator decision(which seem rare) can be immediately rectified by the other moderators, without significant turbulence in the meta.

If the entire group of moderators make a mistake, then It can be brought up in the meta and that is a serious issue.

The next is as Jia pointed out, where do we draw the line about rudeness. And he indicated that the the current line is, So long as a comment has some scientific content, Its fine for it to contain personal attacks and so on. And in that pretext anything else can be written along with some scientific content.

@dimension10 A comment with a personal attack can be easily edited removing the personal attack part of it, with compromising on its scientific content.

Why does anyone visit this site? I visit it for its scientific content, I have absolutely no interest in personal attacks, rude comments, or "who is what" type of things. I suspect the same will be true about anyone interested in science and not gossip.

For that reason I think rudeness, personal attacks must be actively discouraged, as they have no scientific value. It also has a negative impact on the site because It can drive people mad, distracted(you may not like it,  but its true, you've seen it happen right here).

Saying that sometimes people get aggressive for what ever reason, and they should be excused for their aggression. Which is why It is a good thing that Physics overflow does not ban people for personal aggression.

Please It is important that the site is not recognized as the one which allows for personal attacks to happen freely and without check. People will simply not participate.

@Prathyush, The exact line is indeed hard to draw since the degrees of aggressiveness form a continuous spectrum, but I assume here you are talking about the worst kind(though the definitions of "worst" may vary from person to person), and fear that it might hurt the site. I think most of the name-callings are spur-of-the-moment(genuinely planned malicious acts must be quite rare), which the authors probably will voluntarily remove after talked to. In the worst of the worst case, which can hardly happen, surely moderation might intervene. However, right now I strongly discourage "edit part of the comment" kind of behavior, since we haven't developed a log system for editions of comments, therefore a mistake can hardly be rectified. The recent episode made me very conservative on any edition of comments. 

Ideally, when the log system is ready, an author of the comments should be able to see exactly how his/her comments are edited, and can protest on meta if he/she feels unfairly treated. When that time comes I might become less conservative.

BTW I'm almost certain the recent lack of activity is not due to the "hostility" you are spotting, it's simply that we have never gained a critical mass of experts, who probably never bothered to visit meta.  

@JiaYiyang @RonMaimon @dimension10 @physicsnewbie @polarkernel and @Dilaton

Yes I understand we are waiting for a log system to be implemented, until then I guess it is fine enough to wait, unless its an extreme situation.

Soon enough I think this site will have a log system.Dimension10 mentioned it as a part of the future plans.

I understand that most often it fine and rarely things do go out of hand. The one time It did go out of hand it may have damaged the site to some extent.

But the moderator must have the provision to modify if he feels that it is necessary.(once the system is implemented) To have all user content as protected in the policy does not make any sense. Only his scientific content must be protected.

Ofcourse moderation must be done intuitively using ones own sense for judgement about what is acceptable and what is not. It hard to define precise rules, but hard rule must be that the integrity of the scientific content must be left untouched.

I also read that this incident cause some people to leave the site.(correct me if I am wrong)

This is not true - it was simply Dilaton ranting that it were so. Dilaton thinks that users left the site because they thought it was ridiculous for people to be outraged over a comment's deletion. Ron thinks that users left the site because of the comment's deletion. Dilaton thinks that users left the site because of the comment. And so on.

However, both the hypotheses are invalidated by the site's statistics. We've basically been at around the same level of activity since a long time.

@dimension10 @JiaYiyang lets not get sidetracked by what we can do about activity and why it is so low. Activity will take time. Even 2-3 questions a day is probably just about fine, given they are difficult, and often quite good question. Thats different topic altogether.

If it helps the community to solve the comment edit/delete issue, I will give priority to the development of point 5 of our roadmap. However, this will take some time, it isn't that simple as it may appear.

@polarkernel Thank you. That would be useful. I also suggested this to @Dilaton, It would be enough to prioritize the keeping track of all the comments moderator modifies and notify other moderators and the user about it. The other aspects of of Revision history can proceed as you planned.

@polarkernel, thank you very much.

The issue was resolved already, more or less. Moderators are not supposed to go against the authors desire, period. They are not there to impose things using power. They are there to facilitate the discussions, move material, and do things with informed consent, not against people's will.

There is simply no need to ever do something against someone's will, not on a site like this. Nobody ever says anything really insulting on a site with voting, as it attract downvotes, and it costs you credibility. There is no need to regulate an actiivity which is against self-interest, you don't need a law against eating your own poo.

The _reason_ people want moderators to intervene is because they want to have a method to get rid of the "wrong people", the "bad people", the "ignorant people", i.e., their political opponents. This mechanism must be suppressed. The point of moderation is to get rid of spammers, of crazy people, not sincere people, even those with wrong minority opinions.

When you do see an insult, it is extremely veiled and very indirect, for example VK using the word "conformist", and it is a rhetorical flourish as part of a post. Moderators must not touch it.


You MUST NOT TOUCH OTHER PEOPLE'S WRITING. You didn't write it, DON'T TOUCH IT. Don't edit it, don't delete it, don't do ANYTHING. It's not YOURS. It's extremely annoying when people edit your writing, it can change your meaning entirely, it is contrary to every academic principle, and it is ethically wrong. Don't do it. Ever ever.

If you do have to edit something, for example, if it is a deanonymization, DISCUSS, and get PERMISSION, and then allow reversion. You must not edit other people's posts. Do not edit other people's posts. No, no, no, not under any circumstances. You are not competent to know what the writer meant.

There has never been a case where editing other people's writing is required. Let's see what that would look like:

... this field theory action contains ghosts in the scalar sector, hold it, a word from the sponsors: buy toasters at toastercities.com, more toasters than you can shake a stick at, toastercities.com!!, anyway, the ghosts are resolved in the formalism of Hassan and Rosen, where the scalars are more constrained that here...

Is this ever going to happen? You must not make rules for things that never happen. You make rules for things that do happen.

Moderators are itching to do something, and usually that something is stepping on someone else's toes. There is no reason to do anything against anybody's will, never exercise power over another person. That's the first principle of moderation, and it happens to coincides with the first principle of anarchism, and the first principle of academic freedom.

@RonMaimon I agree with that except for deanonymisation - there's no way a deanonymiser would agree to have the deanonymisation edited out.

By the way, could you change the URL of the toaster website to something that doesn't exist (it would have been ironic had I changed it)?

@dimension10: LOL, "toastercity.com" exists, oh boy, should have checked it first.

@RonMaimon @Dimension10 @Dilaton @JiaYiyang @physicsnewbie

There is scientific content and there is everything else. Everything else is not what this site is meant for(Including toasters).

If you have anything else to say to a someone, do it in your personal space.

There is a provision in the site for that, use it.

@RonMaimon @Dimension10 @Dilaton @JiaYiyang @physicsnewbie @polarkernel

Ofcourse, It is not that all editing is allowed. All actions of the moderators in regard to editing of content is allowed to be questioned in the meta. If the community does not agree with the moderators, some one new can take their place.

Now we even have revision history, to track such changes.

Well I interpreted Ron's comment above to state that moderators shouldn't enforce their (or anyone else's) edit against the OP's revertion (which is now possible now that we have revision histories for comments) in any way. This is written in the user rights, and if there's any issue with it, the only meaningful way to try and change that is through a meta post (otherwise, we're just arguing without any scope for making changes, and that isn't helping your stance much).

Actually, "not enforcing opinions" is pretty much obvious, because the moderators can't "lock" posts preventing editing, and thus the text is merely a precautionary measure. The only way to "enforce" an opinion on a post is through blocking a user, and that's a terrible idea in such a scenario. Thus if you want to change the user rights to reflect a "moderator's final opinion", then you'll also have to change the block log. And the principle of PhysicsOverflow. But that can't be changed, so any such discussion is going to be useless finally.


Yes, there will be a meta post about this. What do you mean "The principle of Physicsover". All I want is to allow is for moderators to keep junk away. Scientific viewpoint is what must be protected by user rights and nothing else.

@pratyush: There has been no junk, and there usually isn't any junk on a high level site. The stuff that gets labelled "junk" is usually not crazy content, rather just ornary stuff that people disagree with, whether right or wrong, and therefore, a "junk" label and editing is nearly universally used as a political tool to silence people. You don't need to silence people. Junk is in the eye of the beholder, and voting is what gets rid of "junk", or at least keeps it at a low level of attention. The voting sites uniformly do a good job with the voting, as long as moderators don't use their extra powers to put the thumb on the scale. Even when they are right about the science, this is not appropriate, as it squelches the discussion and suppresses the academic freedom.

Moderators do not usually need to edit comments, the moderators are NOT what gets rid of the junk. The junk is gotten rid of by informed correction, debate, and voting. The junk gets downvoted without any censorship. The very rare cases where the junk needs to be gotten rid of by moderators is when it is spam, or duplicative, or deanonymizing, a small specific list of things.

There is a delusion among those inexperienced with the internet that the moderators are what 'gets rid of junk'. This is due to the fact that people see moderated forums don't have junk, and unmoderated forums do have junk, so they assume the moderators got rid of the junk on the moderated forum. This is not exactly true.

What moderators do is get rid of spammy junk, and nonsense like multiple postings of crazy material, deanonymization, off-topic nonsense. But they do not need to do any content review. Once the gross abuse is taken care of, the real content police is not the moderators, but the ordinary users, who control the content through voting and responding, and sometimes saying "you are completely wrong here" and "this is absurd", "come on! An undergrad wouldn't make that mistake" and other things which are sometimes considered abusive. This is how open discussions stay accurate. There is no moderator action required, beyond taking care of gross abuse.

The reason unmoderated places degenerate is not because of sincere discussions, internet communities, even if unmoderated, get to a high level quickly if they are on-topic and spam free. The reason unmoderated forums degenerate is that they fill up with spam and with repeated and off-topic content, and this drives away sincere users, leaving insufficient attention for community review, and then you get well-meaning nonsense. When the content stays on-topic, the spam is deleted, the community by itself is self-correcting, and gets rid of wrong stuff without any moderator decisions on disputes.

The moderation is especially not there to protect certain recieved ideas from challenge, even if the recieved ideas are correct and the challenge is insipid, as it often is. If the challenge is really meritless, it can be refuted by common users in the community, and usually this is done once in a localized place, and any other reference is referred to the original discussion. The moderators' role is to make sure that spam is removed, off topic stuff is quarantined, things don't get repeated a bazillion times, users don't sock-puppet, nobody deanonymizes anyone else, things like this, gross abuse.

It's really like the police--- you don't expect the police to come if someone takes your parking spot before you pull in, but if they pull out a gun and threaten you, that's a different story. There's a certain level of abuse that is required to go over the threshhold for moderator action, and it is really never reached by any sincere honest user. The worry about abusive insults is simply a pretext used to harass people politically, as we actually saw on this site, when one users comments were edited by a moderator. This position is born of long experience, the moderator edits are imposing power on users, they drive people away, they mae the site useless, and no, you simply must not edit out what you consider insults, because as a moderator, you have no idea what you are doing, and the community already has voting to get rid of insulting behavior by itself.

The community takes care of scientific accuracy, through voting. This method works, and having moderators concerned with accuracy does not work, because then they impose their will (unintentionally) not through voting, but by editing things out, harassing users (unintentionally), banning people, getting into fights. The imbalance of power makes it that whatever they believe is imposed on others. This is absolutely never necessary to make sure content is accurate, this is best done with everyone on an equal footing, discussing and voting, without special powers to censor.

This is different from previous more traditional organization of scientific publication, where the editors exercize editorial judgement, so it might strike some people as counterintuitive. It is counterintuitive perhaps (I am used to it for 20 years), but this is what the internet allows--- open anarchic review without top-down authority mucking it up. This has never been seen before anywhere in any publishing context.

If you don't have this, there is no point to being online, you might as well go to a traditional publisher and have a traditional journal. The only reason the internet is better is because it allows this freedom.



I think at some level we are on the same page here in reguard to the scope of a moderators action.

However, I think a change in user-rights is needed, This discussion is partly to take all opinion into consideration before drafting a change.(@VladimirKalitvianski, What do you think about the possible change to the user rights, "Scientific viewpoint will be protected")

"What moderators do is get rid of spammy junk, and nonsense like multiple postings of crazy material, deanonymization, off-topic nonsense."

As I see it this is in direct conflict, with the user rights policy which clearly states "The final say on the text always belongs with the original author, and there is no imposition of content change without reversion."

Moderators allowing a moderator to edit, is not so that they can express their views by editing out someone else's content. I see this as a serious breach of a moderators responsibility. If someone says "I have designed an experiment that allows me to measure the value of the vector potential". Its not the moderators job to remove it. It is the responsibility of the community to handle such things, clarify, close whatever they want to do.

The statements "you are completely wrong here" and "this is absurd", "come on! An undergrad wouldn't make that mistake" and "Conformist" are all expressed views about a conversation. If a moderators edits such statements he is answerable to the community.

I propose a change that goes as "Scientific Viewpoint will be protected by the User right Policy". Which excludes everything else, especially deanonymization attacks, among other things.

Technocratic moderators: comprehending administration section in the user rights will be left untouched.

@Prathyush: I agree with Ron. Academic freedom does not need a moderation. We do not write here an ultimate truth encyclopedia, we discuss physical problems, like in a laboratory or on a seminar.

@VladimirKalitvianski You missed the point, we are not talking about suppressing academic freedom. On the contrary, Academic freedom(Scientific Viewpoint), will be protected by the user right policy. We are talking about what does not belong in an academic institution.

@Prathyush: I miss nothing. Do not touch discussions, that's it. (If you want, I can tell you privately what has happened to me here before and under what pretext.)

@Prathyush: You do not understand that any moderator intervention spoils the academic discussion. Instead of scientific argumentation, you will be immediately talking about other things. Let people be concentrated on science and breathe.

@VladimirKalitvianski You missed the whole point of the discussion. The user rights policy does not allow any editing of text, Including spam.

We want to change that to say Scientific viewpoint will be protected.

I understand in your case scientific viewpoint was suppressed, and that was wrong, there is no denying that.

I do not even want to discuss how scientific viewpoint will be separated from anything else.

I said, I agree with Ron who has rights to vote. I do not have such rights, if you want to know, I have been made "special" on PO.

@ VladimirKalitvianski
"I do not even want to discuss how scientific viewpoint will be separated from anything else."

Intuitively obviously. I can give you clear examples of what is not scientific, if you wish. I would prefer not do that here.

I have no idea what you mean about right to vote. Vote for what?

Vote up and down questions, answers, comments, elections, polls, etc.

It was decided so on PO. People with negative reputation do not have rights to vote.

I do not want to bring it up on Meta. There was already enough about me here.

@Prathyush A user needs a minimum of 15, 25 and 50 reputation points to vote on comments, questions, and answers respectively. I do not see anything wrong with this. As for suppression of scientifc viewpoint, it wasn't Vladimir's scientific viewpoint that was suppressed, but some "personal attack" (albeit, his unpopular scientific viewpoint might have had some influence on the decision) that was edited out. This was wrong, has been reverted, apologised for, and so on.

@VladimirKalitvianski @Prathyush Please do not go on a tangent to the discussion. If you want to discuss Vladimir's personal issues, tell me to move the comments above to chat and continue the discussion there.

@prathyush: You are talking nonsense--- the user rights alows you to delete spam, and to move off topic content elsewhere. It simply doesn't allow you to change any author's text if the author insists that it must be as they said it. The spammers have yet to come up to us and say "what about the user rights?" If they do, you just say "screw you!" You don't need to modify the user rights, as these clearly and obviously apply to sincere users of the site.

The reason you don't impose content changes is because the author knows better than the moderator, they really do. The moderators on other sites have alienated users by editing their text, often. I had this happen to me on a half dozen stackexchange sites, most annoyingly on philosophy.stackexchange regarding Neitzsche. When criticizing Neitzche, I would point out his Nazi followers, and that was too insulting for the community! Historical facts be damned.

Moderators edited my posts, they didn't allow me to rip Nietzsche's heart out and stomp on it, and ripping the heart out of wrong shit is what the internet is made for, for example, Marco Frasca's nonsense. This is the whole point of negative peer review--- it is always rude, it is always hostile, and allowing free reviews is the only way to ensure accuracy anywhere.

Despite having had my posts edited, I also did this once here myself while I was moderator--- I edited the very first question posted on this site to "make it clearer" (I didn't, I just erased that half the question which I thought was nonsense), I am ashamed to say this about myself, but it is true, I completely destroyed someone's well meaning question. The user left, never commented, and never came back. I wrote the user rights immediately after, as I realized how easy it is to do this, and how wrong it is. There is NEVER ANY NEED to edit any well-meaning text by moderators, only to delete spam, and move off topic material elsewhere. Authors need to be in control of their writing.

If there ever arises a case where there is a need for an edit, like a deanonymization, you don't need a special rule, just BREAK THE RULES! Discuss why you felt the need to break the rules on meta, say it was an emergency, and talk to the person and the community, and don't pretend like you were doing something that would normally be ok, because it's not ok. It's an emergency power thing, and it needs to be always an unwritten exception to a general rule, so that it would normally get you kicked out (the communtiy will surely forgive you and not kick you out if it really was a deanonymization attack). The person who did the deanonymization will probably will not insist on reversion, they probably did it by accident, not knowing what the impact of their words is. If they do know, if they are maliciously doing it, THEN make a well-crafted exception to the rules, don't make them ahead of time in response to things that never happen. Chances are 10 to 1 that the need will never arise.

The point of the user rights is to ensure that moderators do not use power to harass. It is important not to go around making up ficitious episodes when discussing moderation, but to only talk about what ACTUALLY HAPPENS. It is very easy to use fiction scenarios to produce oppressive rules, like the "ticking bomb" examples used to justify torture laws in Israel and the US. You don't make policy based on hypothetical cases, but based on real cases. The torture was never used on any ticking bombs, these simply don't exist. They are just straw men used to pass bad policy. Similarly, the hypothetical half-physicist half-spammer doesn't exist, and neither does the long physics post with a deanonymization attack buried inside. These things are anomalies, but moderator abuse is not an anomaly, it is the rule.

Please give specific examples of where you think there is a problem, and since I already know you have none, please change your mind. You really have no idea how easy it is to wreck communities like this by overzealous moderation, and how unimportant and unimpactful downvoted wrong silly material is in comparison.

Regarding "the community", it is important that the community not have power to censor. You can always get a local majority to support censorship in any case where the moderator does, for sure all my Neitzsche answers had community consensus on philosophy that they were not appropriate. That doesn't matter--- they get downvoted at first, and then, as Neitzsche's authority disappears (due to me being right), they get upvoted, until finally the consensus swings. The ability to challenge consensus is what the internet is for, and if you allow censorship, you just busted the whole deal, and there is no point to being on this site.


"The spammers have yet to come up to us and say "what about the user rights?" If they do, you just say "screw you!" "

I am afraid you cannot do that, You have to mean what you write in the user rights. Did you discuss it with anyone before the user rights was written, was there a poll?

Yes, I don't have any examples off hand, But I have been in these kind of sites long enough to know a bit about what happens. I have seem moderation done wrong, even in cases involving me.

If you would like to be constructive here, Help me draft a better user rights.

Just because you pooped on someone's post is not any reason for having such a badly written user rights.

Again I told you, your Scientific viewpoint will be protected. Which includes your answer about Nietzche in that context. Please understand this is not a rudeness,or lack of popularity policy. Its simply about a badly written user rights policy.

Regarding you point about me being pre-emptive in the drafting of the policy. Perhaps that would be correct. But I would like a mechanism to deal with severe abuses, drafted before they happen rather than after they happen.

I don't know why you mix this up with censorship of a disagreeable viewpoint, Clearly that is not my point.

I did not discuss. I wrote it in 20 minutes, it's all necessary stuff, it was accepted by vote, now it's policy. It was guaranteed to previous contributors, it must always stay.

SPAMMERS DON'T HAVE RIGHTS! They come, leave a message and leave. If someone sincere leaves "spam", it by definition isn't spam, and it must stay in the comment if the user insists. If you want to move the comment, move it as a whole, keeping the text intact. If you don't want to move the comments don't.

In the real world, you don't make policy the way you want, like a theorist. You do it the way I did, using empirical data of what behavior a certain policy will prevent. The point of the user rights is to limit moderators, not users.


@Prathyush: "Scientific viewpoint" is already protected. No need to repeat it.

@RonMaimon You have misunderstood my intentions. This is not for the sake of power. I will be going ahead and redrafting the user-rights and putting it up for vote. Clearly you don't want to help here.

@Prathyush I'd be curious to see how you'd draft it. Till then, I still don't think it's possible to objectively protect the OP's rights on his contribution's style and content, while removing noisy text.

@dimension10: You see, we may start arguing what is relevant, what is scientific, etc., etc., which is not what PO is meant for. I would like to avoid any such arguments.

@Pratyush: I guarantee a downvote on your proposal, sight-unseen. When I say you are "power mad", I mean that you are seeking to increase authority of a certain group of people to modify other's writing. That can't be allowed. The reason you ask for this is because you assume that the psychology of the moderators will match yours, and they will remove stuff very much like you would remove stuff. Guess what? You are probably right about that--- people tend to agree on what kind of stuff is inappropriate. That's because people are incredibly stupid. They remove anything that sounds new to them, if it contradicts something they think they know. That's not a disease confined to others, I have the same disease too. That's why you need to limit the power of people over other people with a guarantee of rights, so that when there is a good new idea, you give it a chance to prove itself over a long period of time. This is why academic freedom is instituted, to allow people to say stupid things, because occasionally these things are not stupid, it's just everyone else who is stupid.

You are welcome to suggest improvements to policy, just as I am also welcome to criticize them preemptively as absurd and wrong-headed, without having seen them. I might change my mind right after you draft your proposal, just as it might snow in July. I know what kind of mentality motivates attempts to roll back these primitive rights, and it's not a healthy one.

There is no change required to any policy whatsoever, especially not the user-rights, which is the absolute only thing which blocked moderator abuse here. A similar guarantee would block abuse on other sites. You should stop trying to get it changed.

@RonMaimon I admit I have doubts. Not because I see the user rights as being well drafted. It is a horribly written document, with little foresight. You simply don't write user rights, with an implict assumption that it can be broken at any time. And please, "Screw you" is not an argument if someone asks for his rights.

I do understand the circumstances for its writing.

My doubts mostly originate from the possibility of policy change being misused. It could be used to edit things that one might find uncomfortable(I assure you my intentions are not to edit out such things).

After reading comments you posted and stories of various kind of abuses of moderation powers, I think it is important to explictly mention that all Scientific viewpoint will be preserved in a form of the author's choice.

PS: You make a lot of assumptions.(often wrong ones)

Yeah, you're probably right about that. I'm totally cool now that you've explained yourself better, and maybe the user rights are written crappy, sorry. Excuse my paranoia, but this is like playing whack-a-mole with abuse, you stop one kind, and then another comes up again, and it's incredibly frustrating. If you have a better written document, and it still is able to guarantee the rights intended, no problem.

When I said "screw you", I didn't mean one should violate rights, simply that there is no possible way any spammer would ever come up to you and say:

"My name is BigDaddyMachineGun7863. On the 18th of April, 2014, I made the comment: 'asdgfasghasfdhadfgasdg$**!@#asdasdgfasgasgsag, Nigerian prince! Yo, Send money! adfasdfsdfasdfasasdfasdfasdf Cheap knockoff Ming Vases! Cheap! Cheap!' as a reasoned response to 'What is the standard deviation in the estimates of the Higgs boson mass from LHC data', and I was preplexed when, contrary to my explicitly enumerated user rights, this comment seems to have been rolled back and removed from view with nary as much as a request for input to explain, from my point of view, why this information is crucially relevant to the discussion at hand. Please contact my attorney, as I have decided to file a lawsuit..."

The proper response to a spammer saying this kind of retarded shit, is, well, "screw you!". It's not a reasonable circumstance to consider, dream about, or make policy to deal with, it is simply a joke. I don't see any way anyone can confuse spam and reasonable comments, the two simply have zero overlap.

Now, there are several such cases, where reasonable comments were interpreted as spam, which happened on stackexchange--- whenever Dilaton or Dimension10 post a link to this site, they get summarily blocked for "spamming". A similar deletion happened when Jed Rothwell posted a link to his website lenr-canr.org on a cold fusion question. These deletions are obvious censorship, and when doing spam moderation, it is extremely easy to tell spam apart from sincere messages. You can see what kind of convoluted ways moderators can dream up to censor people they don't like, and when you conflate spammers with sincere users, you are always doing censorship in the area of overlap, and it's never an innocent mistake. So I don't take seriously the claim that the user rights protect spammers, because you can just ignore the user rights when you are dealing with spammers, and nobody will ever notice or complain, not even the spammers. You haven't dealt with spammers--- they are just fishing for dead sites. Anyone who would bring up the user rights is for sure not a spammer.


I will only say a place where research happens, requires a warm and forgiving environment.

Now it is time to pave the way for it here on PO, by supporting with your comments and votes an improvement of the current user rights and editing practice

@ArnoldNeumaier I did not know that this discussion was happening in the meta. Thank you for pinging me. I will carefully review your suggestions, write a longer post perhaps over the weekend.

While I have not yet read your suggestions and the comments closely, I am of the view point(strictly at a personal level) that all conversations must be soft(as opposed to harsh), as it would be most helpful if it was done that way, even in the light of the most severe disagreement.

However, I do not like the idea of putting words into someone else's mouth. I see it is a responsibility of users to create a warm environment and not the Moderators. And only suggestions must be made in this direction.

I am very much in favour of encouraging a polite conversation as @JiaYiyang has suggested. Perhaps in the form of a FAQ question or guidelines.

My reason is simple, If you force someone, he will never understand why it is important to be polite, even if you do the same edits a 100 times. It may help the site to look good on paper, but the real problem is probably much deeper than that. 

I have to think about it again. When I write a longer answer, I will share the draft of the user rights that I originally suggested, and had discussed with @RonMaimon and @Dilaton. While I think the draft still works for my intended purposes. I had decided against it because of possibility of abuses.

I have been reading the all the answers since the discussion started, and It seems completely peaceful so far. I would still prefer to wait and see, if a change to the user rights policy is really needed.

+ 2 like - 0 dislike

From an outsider's perspective,

I agree entirely with @ArnoldNeumaier , @polarkernel , and like minded statements. I am a graduate student, engaged peripherally in several topics discussed. I appreciate the intent and content of the site but choose not to participate when I come. I suspect many others do the same. The site appears elitist and unwelcoming, even to qualified prospects.

You have chosen absolute tolerance of bad behavior at the expense of reality. In the real world (academics included) we share equal freedom of speech but there are practical limits and consequences. While you have the right to be rude to friends, eventually you will have no friends to be rude to (the natural consequence). While this analogy is slightly misplaced in an academic setting, professionalism is paramount. A professor is not entitled to curse during lecture, at students or faculty, despite their accomplishments and feelings; they willingly accept a level of censorship to further their institution. Rudeness is never a virtue, always a vice- without (imposed) consequences to the individual, the real world (natural) response results in fewer members and ultimately hurts the community as whole- Physics Overflow has overlooked this and is paying the price.

Why even have guidelines regarding conduct when they are not and cannot be enforced?

After reading the monumental question posed, I spent a great deal of time looking through past Meta discussions with respect to the comments, answers, and tone presented in the Q/A and reviews. As noted, it is difficult (and dangerous) to isolate tone from science. However, answers and comments should reflect the objectivity and respect seen in published scientific journals. Disagreement and legitimate discussion is possible (and more productive) without hostility! Answers should not be downvoted for their tone, but users must be held accountable (by the community) for their tone or the entire community suffers.

@RonMaimon  You are toxic. Chaos and vitriol follow you at every turn. You hide behind physics and freedom from censorship, intentionally being contentious and hostile. You insist on having the last word and continue until others are silenced, the epitome of a troll. I was hard pressed to come across (consistent) overtly rude behavior by other users- in other words, currently, the lack of censorship protects *only* your hostility and hurts the community at large.

Without a doubt, vigorous discussion is unavoidable and should be encouraged. Difficult problems require more heated debate. Presumably, there is mutual respect and professionalism, where censorship is not needed. By observation, this is not the case.

While I agree that censorship should be minimal, if Physics Overflow cannot reconcile civility with scientific inquiry, it is doomed to fade into oblivion. Without mechanisms to protect the communities interests alongside our own, we all lose this valuable resource.

@Dilaton , @dimension10 , @physicsnewbie @VladK. , @JiaYiyang , @annav 

answered Nov 18, 2015 by Outsider [ revision history ]
edited Nov 18, 2015

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and perspective.

Yes, there admittedly have been some rough times in the past (you see, that this discussion is almost a year old by now).

But I think we have learned a fair bit from it, for example we have new editing guidelines


that allow everybody who has editing privilege to help maintaining the professionality and standard of contributions an academic community expects, needs and is used to, by editing any too rough edges.

Of course, what also helps discouraging not so good things and behavior is a strong community, who firmly and consistently calls bad things out as such whenever they are happening, and actively takes part in community moderation.

@Dilaton Thanks for your response.  I post because I want PO to succeed, not to criticize, and I respect that this community operates differently by choice.  I did read that post and I think it is a great compromise.

Ill add that in my opinion, its a temporary fix because other users must actively work to hide the root problem, often after damage is done.  In the real world there are consequences.  How is rudeness discouraged (other than asking)?  What are the consequences if they continue to violate the communities consensus?  Without consequences, why conform?

* Obviously criticism, critique, and disagreement are vastly different than hostility!

@Outsider I appreciate your comments as a much needed feedback rather than seeing it as a criticism.

Since this thread has been active, the climate on PhysicsOverflow has significantly improved. Of course, there certainly is still room for making the site more attractive and useful to the targetted audience of PO, this is why when announcing our newest features to our registered members by email, our system developper explicitely invited feedback and comments about the site too.

Further Improvements need to be backed up and supported by a large enough community, which means that there have to be enough people who are willing to share their point of view, issue their concerns, and generally give feedback as you have just done.

I think what is most urgently needed at present for the community to grow, is having interesting physics discussions going on the front page ...

So thanks again, and we would be very happy to see you making use of PO.

@Dilaton: dimension10 has hidden my comments here because he does not want me to share my point of view.

@VladimirKalitvianski No, I deleted them because they were off-topic. The question was in the context of string theory. You can't expect anyone to tolerate the same "string theory is wrong"/"renormalisation is wrong"/... comments on every post related to the same.

Heck, perhaps we should allow the philosophers to post "positivism is bad" under every physics thread, since it's related to the topic of the site. PO would be drowned within hours.

Comments, like all other posts, are expected to be relevant to the discussion, rather than just the general category of the same. You can start a chat discussion for it if you like, but that's about it.

Also, if you want to continue this discussion, please start a new meta post or message me. Irrelevant comments will be deleted.

+ 2 like - 0 dislike

I will try, if I may, to give my personal point of view on PhysicsOverflow, and the reasons why I have used it very little.

When PhysicsOverflow has been launched, I hoped that it would be something equivalent to MathOverflow, a lively community of high-level physicists covering all aspects of physics. But after a few visits, I understood that this was absolutely not the goal of PhysicsOverflow and I have been disappointed. I deeply regret that PhysicsOverflow is actually almost restricted to high-energy theoretical physics. As if MathOverflow was limited to the Langlands program. There a many people working in physics, studying theory, that are not high-energy physicists. For instance people working in transport theory, non-equilibrium (far-from-equilibrium) thermodynamics, correlated systems, condensed matter. Theory also exists in complex systems, where quantum mechanics does not play any role. On PhysicsOverflow, one should see all these topics. These topics do no appear here probably because there are also nearly absent on Physics.SE. They are part of university courses, so the concerned communities would not interested in Physics.SE. PhysicsOverflow could have been an opportunity to enlarge the community of teachers, students and researchers sharing their knowlegde, but it has remain extremely narrow-banded, below the critical mass.

answered Dec 7, 2015 by Tom-Tom (50 points) [ no revision ]

Hi Tom-Tom,

thanks for your thoughts and feedback !

Yes, the Q&A part of PhysicsOverflow is indeed meant to be a physics analog of MathOverflow. All topics of physics (including astronomy, experimental, and applied physics) as well as math that is used by and of importance to physicists are welcome, as long as it is graduate-level at least.

We would be more than happy to see people posting about at present not so well represented on-topics, such as the ones you mentioned for example. It might be that we have a bit of a "chicken-or-egg problem": because these topics are not often present on the front page people dont (dare to?) post such questions, and because people dont post such questions, they are not sufficiently represented on the front page ect ...

One way to seed new topics a bit could be to import corresponding high-level questions from Physics SE.

PO is an invitation to contribute. If you want to see your field represented, the best thing you can do is to ask or answer questions (or import questions from Physics SE that you can answer or want to see answered) from your fields of interest.

The current bias (apart from being inherited from the former TheoreticalPhysics SE) stems solely from the fact that a handful of founding members cannot contribute to more than a few research subjects within the vast realms of physics.

+ 3 like - 2 dislike

Thank you, polarkernel, for all the work you invested into this site; I am sure that it will pay off in the long run. 

I don't think that PO is dead; it just needs time since the level of the questions, and hence the effort needed to write good answers, means that answering is slower and fewer people spend their time on it. Indeed, contributing significantly to PO is very time-consuming, and I just had a break of 3 months because other work didn't allow me to free enough time to contribute.

On the other hand, I also think that PO needs better rules for handling rudeness. Professional scientists are used to an academic atmosphere that is polite, friendly and inviting, and few are willing to actively support an institution where these attributes are missing. But we need them to give answers to the many questions with currently 0 answers and to give the review section more weight.

I therefore strongly support Prathyush's view that the nonscientific part of all contributions should be edited whenever it can be improved in tone without affecting the scientific content. This has nothing to do with scientific censorship which is the suppression of the right to openly discuss scientific opinions.

Therefore I do not agree with Ron Maimon on the extent the user should be protected. I don't want contributors to be banned for rudeness, but I want them to be corrected, so that all content visible to the casual user has a polite, friendly and inviting appearance, and any rudeness that may have been imported by users should be hidden in the revision history for the few who want to search in it, and to be able to clear up user complaits about poor editing (which are hopefully rare). Moreover, editors or moderators responsible for an occasional inappropriate edit should be protected to the same extent as users who write contributions in an inappropriate tone. 

Since Ron Maimon was very influential in establishing the no-rudeness rules of the site I'll take his posts as example. I very much dislike his tone in several of his contributions; for example this review, which is far below scientific standards as regards the tone of the review. In my opinion, this sort of rudeness chases away many potential contributors, and if the rudeness is not far outweighed by scientific content, it is detrimental to a scientific discussion and to the reputation of the site in the outside world. (I left StackExchange after his ban there not because I supported his rudeness but because I found the SE action inappropriate compared to what he had contributed there.) 

It is necessary for a healthy site to suppress rudeness. The contributor's individual words are not sacred and should not be treated as sacred, only the scientific content they contribute is. I do not at all support the expression of any sort of rudeness - I am just willing to temporarily tolerate it if it is compensated for by the high scientific quality of the contributions. But the contribution should then be edited such that all traces of rudeness are purged out, hidden in the revision history. I would have done such editing in a number of cases myself if the rules had allowed it, in the same way as I routinely correct for mistakes in spelling or grammar. The quality of the site increases not only with the scientific content (which is of course central) but also with the quality of the form in which this content is presented, and for newcomers the latter plays an even larger role than for regular members. 

The voting mechanism is not a suitable regulator for the quality of form. I never downvote because of the form, since downvoting should be for scientific content. (I also don't upvote a post just because its form is perfect, if the content is not also good.) Moreover voting on comments (where a lot of the rudeness happens) has no effect on user reputation, hence exerts no real influence at all.

Thus users who are allowed to edit should actively improve the outer form; any scientific content including the most severe criticism can be cast into a polite form at the level acceptable in any professional scientific paper or referee's report. The rules of PO should explicitly say that this is expected and will be achieved primarily through contributions by users who care, and if care is lacking, through editing by competent and trusted members. (Moderation means creating a moderate atmosphere, and this includes creating politeness.)

There is nothing ethically dubious about such a procedure. The contributors know what to expect; if they think they are corrected without sufficient reason, they can complain, and everyone can check the editor's actions, and other competent and trusted members can reedit poor edits if necessary. 

On the other hand, the rules should say explicitly that all scientific content - i.e., facts or beliefs about scientific matters, including criticism, reformulated in a polite way if necessary (even unjustified beliefs or criticism) - will be preserved in the main text, while all matters of forms may be subject to correction, in which case the original form will still be available in the original form in the revision history. Thus all users will be able to thrive in a polite and healthy atmosphere, and contributors must not fear to be banned because of secondary reasons such as lack of politeness. 

I hope such changes to the PO policy are feasible and will be made quickly, as this is necessary to attract all those who like to contribute only in an atmosphere comparable to that existing in the traditional academic institutions. 

answered Mar 3, 2015 by Arnold Neumaier (15,488 points) [ revision history ]
edited Mar 3, 2015 by Arnold Neumaier
Most voted comments show all comments

I am still somewhat short of time but will do so soon (not tonight though, I am just preparing to leave). 

Why not make the user-rights easier to find by placing them more conspicuously?

@ArnoldNeumaier @Dilaton @RonMaimon @JiaYiyang @dimension10 @physicsnewbie

For this moment I will not be asking for a change in any policy. While it is clear that in any forum such as this site, role of a moderator is to keep non scientific content out of the site. And the community's responsibility to make sure only non scientific content is removed from the site.

It is possible that even the most well intended changes could be misused at some point.

I was assured that the current mechanism, will keep junk away from the site.

In the event that the current mechanism would fail, I will reconsider changing of the policy.

I will change the text of the review. I simply was speaking off the cuff, and I did not consider the tone of voice at all. I stand by all the technical content of the post however, and I think it is not fair that Dynin has people bending over backwards asking me to be polite to him, while Marco Frasca (or Vladimir Kalitvianski) does not. It's simply because of the authority he has accrued in academic discussions. But I change it because I respect your opinion Arnold, and I will consider this discussion as a request. One of the goals I personally had was trying to convince moderators to ask instead of impose. Don't you want to catch the bugs with honey, not vinegar?

I actually wrote the review without having read any previous publication by Dynin other than this one, and he did not have a mantle of authority for me. Perhaps I would not have been so rude had I read something else by him, but I treated it as a manuscript without a name, sent unsolicited to my door (by being referenced and posted here). This led to the disconnect between the tone and the expected tone, I suppose. But Dynin's feelings also need to be considered, although it is extremely strange for me to think that any tenured academic with a long publication record of correct results could possibly have their feelings hurt by anything I might have to say, as I imagine that their skin was already thick. Regardless, out of consideration for your opinion, I modified the review, and I hope the tone is acceptable now.

I expect that any future problems with rudeness can be resolved this way, by a civil request and by shaming the user into being more polite, rather than through imposition of power. I am surprised you did not make a comment on my wall or on the answer itself requesting a more polite tone, as I believe I would have made similar changes earlier. At the time, I was more worried about what his quartic term in the Hamiltonian does, rather than what the tone was.

@Prathyush, I take Ron's words to mean "If you just ask civilly, the author of the rude text will naturally feel ashamed and retract the rudeness."

@RonMaimon: Thanks for improving the tone of the review. Many other opportunities for improving your tone (since you asked me on my wall) are in your discussions on meta (e.g., here) and on the walls of people like Prathyush. Whenever your political course is in danger you seem to get mad and lose all sense of respect.

Most recent comments show all comments

@Ron Maimon I'm shocked at your change in attitude. I thought the whole point of this site was to allow rudeness and directness; to tell someone they're an incompetent idiot when they're one. I see NOTHING different in your treatment of Vladimir and tenrured academics when you review what they write. As you say, when someone knows what they're talking about, they're usually immune from rudeness because they're protected by the truth and certainty. They know their peers see what they see.

But still, at least you won't get your arse whipped over it here as much as you did at PSE.

@physicsnewbie: There is no change in attitude--- I was never really all that rude on PSE either, or anywhere else, at least no more than the amount I was rude in the review before editing (it is still rude after editing). The only time I insulted was when someone started arguing from authority and then you need to insult the authority. Everyone needs to be treated equally, that's all, so that authority doesn't cloud things.

@Prathyush: anyone who thinks they are immune to authority is not immune. I know that I am certainly not immune, and this helps make me more immune, because I counteract against the tendency by double checking the authorities twice, and bending over backwards to take seriously people who are on the margins. If you don't do this, then you will make terrible authority mistakes again and again, for example, you will believe the recent dismissal of the BICEP results on PLANCK's authority (correct or not, jury is still out, but only authority is behind the rejection of BICEP).

+ 2 like - 2 dislike

Physics overflow isn't dying at all, just the opposite. In my personal opinion, PhysicsOverflow has just been born as a healthy, mature site. Perhaps it's now ready to go out of beta.

It's an open and honest forum, with honest discussion about all problems, with honest moderators that tell the truth always (to the best of their knowledge, and with good intention), and one incredible developer working on it.

The squabbling is simply not a sign of death. This isn't an advertising agency. It's both the way physicists normally talk to one another (or at least, how they used to talk, and should talk), and it's also the sign of a healthy intenet community with no censorship, where people can discuss science without the threat of being silenced from above.

This might not be obvious to a non-physicist who is not accustomed to online discussions. At the moment, after Jia reassured me, I myself have full faith in all the other moderators, and I am pretty sure they will have full faith in me too in return. I also realized that you are a separate person, and I am very thankful for the description you gave of yourself, and I think that you are a saint. I said "you don't talk to me" because the emails you send to Dimension10 are not auto-forwarded, that's all, not to imply that you are hostile, rather that I am shut out and among the moderators, only Dimension10 trusts me.

I have not contributed science to the site since the political problems began, which is when Vladimir started getting harrassed. I think others were put off by this too, but I can't speak for them. I am fully convinced that the community functions well, because I have said stupid things and less stupid things, and nothing has been hidden, closed, or shut down. All that happened is that we figured out what happened honestly, then reasonable people made  reasonable up and down votes and came to reasonable conclusions. There is no need to hide anything, this type of discussion is a sign of complete honesty, and is attractive to any decent physicist.

The reason I got such a "halo" around me (inasmuch as it is true, which is not so much) is because I did similarly rude things in other forums, and then was banned for it eventually, but to physicists familiar with the role of forthright honesty and rudeness, my behavior was not seen as a problem rather the banning was. I am have no political power on the site, and I am not trying to get any. I simply removed power from others. Physics works only if there is no authority. In case you think that is a contradiction, lessening someone else's power does not make yours go up, because power is not a conserved quantity. You can make everyone's power go down, including yourself, and that's what happened here.

The people who left, in my opinion, left because they were worried about the moderation--- there was simply no guarantee that abuses would not happen. I think we have demonstrated that this is impossible, that open discussion means that abuse will get exposed and fixed quickly.

answered Jan 29, 2015 by Ron Maimon (7,720 points) [ revision history ]
edited Jan 29, 2015 by Ron Maimon
I agree with Ron about everything. In fact, Ron did his best to save the site. It is too early to judge. Of course, regular intervention of Dilaton in my conversations with other users distracted us and hindered the very discussions. I have suspended my participation several times - to than extent I was disappointed with Dilaton and dimension10. Now, I hope, the atmosphere became healthier and more attractive to participants. Now we may advertise the site without shame. @polarkernel: We all are grateful to you, really. Do not give up. Soon, everything will be much better. (By the way, the anonymity of Dilaton is a myth. Even I found his name on internet. Besides, anonymity of an elected ruler does not look democratic.)
+ 2 like - 2 dislike
Dear @polarkerner,

We are very grateful to you.

In  my opinion there are two problems: First, the rate of contributions is very low. This is in my opinion the reason why many people left the forum: it's a chain reaction. When we users start to contribute, more people will come. This can happen at any time, for example, tomorrow. I really think it will happen soon. Second, the recent censorship problem. One of the moderators (Dilaton) has admitted his mistakes. I personally have forgiven him and I am still grateful to him (and to dimension10 and to you as well) for setting up this forum. However, in order to close this sad issue, I personally believe that Dilation must stop moderating. His "mistake" (I've used quotes because it was made on purpose) was very serious. Impunity is always the seed of new "crimes". I really think that he should stop moderating. And also all moderators have to receive all emails and be kept updated.
answered Jan 29, 2015 by drake (885 points) [ no revision ]
Can the downvoter explain their reasons?
+1, and I am still a pariah among the mods. You have to understand the moderator mentality--- they have a feeling that once you're "in the club" you can't betray the others in the club by agreeing to remove people, or add too many new ones. Would you like to be mod by the way? You seem nice. I'll nominate you.

It's not supposed to be the moderator's choice who mods, the users choose who to approve as moderator. I am sure Dilaton will be trusted again very soon, as I have verified that aside from the one incident involving comment deletion and details of that, pretty much everything else pans out. I no longer worry about multiple personalities, or sock-puppeting, or code shenanigans. Everything was on the up and up except the one thing.
+1 for "This is in my opinion the reason why many people left the forum: it's a chain reaction.", this is my speculation too.
The same chain reaction brings people back when you host some real, actual, content they can't get elsewhere. That means a new result, actual physics. They also come when their papers are reviewed, but its better not to be too harsh, as the early tone of reviews was perhaps too negative because it's always easier to see the bad than the good.
+ 2 like - 2 dislike

What is it about physicsoverflow that needs "reviving"?

Maybe some have this deluded perception that it should be performing as well as Mathoverflow?

Physicsoverflow has never been, and never will be within the next two years, in the same class as Mathoverflow:

  • Mathoverflow was started by Berkeley graduate students and postdocs Anton Geraschenko, David Zureick-Brown, and Scott Morrison. Physicsoverflow was started by Dilaton, Dimension10, Polarkernel, none of whom appear to have a Phd qualification in cutting edge physics to attract their peers here.
  • Mathoverflow was originally hosted by Ravi Vakil, and is now integrated into the regular Stack Exchange network. Physicsoverflow.org is currently owned by Polarkernel who owns the code, won't release it as things stand and might even sell it. Therefore, there's a growing feeling that all contributions made here are pointless long term and could end up being binned within a year or so.
  • The Mathoverflow homepage has a pleasant, professional look about it, whereas Physicsoverflow looks still amateurish, in my opinion.
  • Maths is a more popular subject than physics, meaning much lower traffic here.

I therefore think this idea of "reviving" physicsoverflow is just deluded nonsense. Physicsoverflow exists, there's three hard-working people making it work, it's continuing to evolve, numbers are settling down to what the site deserves long term, it's a magnificent achievement compared to what existed a year ago.

Let's stick to being realistic about what the site deserves based upon the way things are.

answered Feb 2, 2015 by physicsnewbie (-20 points) [ revision history ]
edited Feb 2, 2015 by physicsnewbie

I agree with the positive outlook and nature of the answer, but I have a few squabbles.

  1. You don't really know whom Dilaton is, his qualifications, etc.
  2. I don't understand how "polarkernel may also sell it" has any negative implication. Just to be sure, we're talking about him selling his plugins, theme, and patches, not the site itself! Stack Exchange is also proprietary software, and was "sold" to MathOverflow as well, by the way.
  3. I don't think this site looks amateurishly designed. In fact, I'd say it is much more well-designed than MO, because MO doesn't embrace flat design yet.

@dimension10 1a. Yes, the Stack Exchange software was sold from the start before the site was created before anyone had invested time and effort, whereas massive time and effort has already been invested in the creation of physicsoverflow.org, yet it's reliant on code it doesn't own that lies entirely in the hands of someone else who won't release it to anyone on here because he wants to sell it eventually 1b. Whois gives the registrant as Roger Cattin aka Polarkernel so I'm assuming he's the one who owns the site right now. He also claims in his post that: " I could immediately close the site".

2. It gives me cause for concern that you honestly believe your design is "much more well designed than MO". It's certainly a "good, functional" design, but lacks the professional crispness of say even n-lab, although no doubt you'll disagree ;) But there's not a lot that can be done about this, since it would require the input of a good graphics-designer/website-designer that does this for a living, or has an intense interest in this field.

@physicsnewbie: look and feel are the first thing the user sees, but the easiest things to change. We have a scalable site that is capable of organizing both Q&A and reviews completely heirarchically using arbitrarily deeply nesting tags, and this allows us to be far more useful, as we can directly access anything by subject, subfield, topic, subtopic, or independently and overlapping tags, like equation, method, or reference to a particular scientist or user. This is the central feature we offer than no one else offers, and it is what makes this site scalable as a serious refereeing and scientific platform. The UI issues are next to deal with, and I have an idea for doing so, but as Polarkernel does not feel like releasing source, I'll try do it myself first.
+ 0 like - 3 dislike
This whole system is screwed. You need a system where you can't delete or hide anything, not if you are a normal user/mod/admin NO ONE. Moderators like Dimension10 and Dilaton should step down as admins/moderators like Ron Maimon did and be replaced by completely new people.
answered Feb 7, 2015 by WolfInSheepSkin (-40 points) [ revision history ]
edited Feb 7, 2015 by WolfInSheepSkin
That's complete poppycock. You need to hide spam, you need to hide retaliatory posts, like deanonymization attacks, you need to move or hide material that is completely off-topic (like a person posting their personal wild theory in 20 different places), you need to hide homework questions that are too low-level. The moderators are doing a much more difficult job that appears at first glance, one in which it is very easy to make missteps, and the users only see the annoying side of the stick, because when it works well, moderation is basically invisible. Just cut the moderators some slack, everyone had good intentions throughout.

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