# How to ask a “good” question on CrossValidated?

Background

First of all please note that I have been a user on SE sites for over two years now; more than 20 months on CV. While active on StackOverflow and Sports.SE I never quite managed to get going here, despite my best efforts. It is clear to me that I am experiencing a communication problem with members of the community, perhaps due to the fact that I am not a statistician by education.

Please take a look at my previous questions (there are only 8), and you can perhaps see that I have been trying best to explain my background and question as clearly as possible. That being the case, more often then not, I get questions in return, and sometimes even dismissive remarks. In most cases questions end up turning into endless swamps; more I try to salvage something, more I get stuck on comments/questions that lead nowhere. To make matters worse, I seem to have similar problems with (bio)statisticians I meet at conferences. Needless to say, I find this very frustrating.

Question(s)

Based on the background I have mentioned above, I realized that I am here to learn and improve on my half-forgotten understanding of statistics. So I would really appreciate if you could help me phrase my questions better, so that I can hopefully get more useful answers in the future, or better yet, so that I can make better use of the answers I get to my questions. (Note that this is an attempt to make a good FAQ entry for new members as well, we are currently trying out something like this for Sports.SE.)

• How can I make it clear that my understanding of statistics is not complete (i.e. I might be experienced in some subjects but might have completely forgotten/misunderstood some fundamentals)? This is important to avoid being overwhelmed/confused by the answers from more advanced members of the community.

• How can I make sure that the answers/comments I get are to the point of what's being asked? (more often than not I do not see the relevance of the comments/questions I get to my questions) Misunderstandings occur often, and are usually a major part of the problem, IMHO.

• What are some characteristics of a good CV question?

• If the problems that I have been experiencing are due to the fact that I am not a statistician, is this site ONLY aimed at statisticians, or for people that want to get answers to their questions on statistics?

I apologize for the long post and hope that you can provide some insights on this matter.

Disclaimer: I wrote and rewrote my title several times, not being happy with the way it sounds... If you don't think that the title accurately reflects the content please feel free to comment/edit.

Edit: I got some nice comments, thanks to @whuber and @Procrastinator. I would really like it if the input was given in answers rather than comments, so that I could refer to/comment back to individual suggestions instead of having a long chain of comments to the question at hand...

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One pattern I see in your unanswered questions is that they tend to be abstract and not to reveal much (if anything) about the contexts and the problems you are really trying to solve. This causes them to lack information that might seem inessential to you as a mathematician but which is necessary for us to understand your statistical problem. Successful questions here usually avoid the mathematician's tendency toward abstraction and make little or no effort to use statistical terms. Instead they state the original problem in a language familiar to the proposer. –  whuber Nov 5 '12 at 19:30
In brief, consider asking your questions in the way you think about them rather than trying to phrase them in a way you believe we would like to read them. Then, if there is still any confusion, it will be entirely on our part, and not shared between you and us! –  whuber Nov 5 '12 at 19:32
Of possible interest: How to ask a statistics question. I do not think your background is the problem here, there are many members with strong mathematical background. We have to consider that people here answer questions for fun (among other reasons) and for free! Then one has to try to elaborate questions as concise as possible. –  user10525 Nov 5 '12 at 19:57
@whuber I see what you mean with abstractions, but I always thought that generalizing my questions might make it more relevant for wider public than might precise case. I can/will try to make things more explicit and less abstract in the future, even if that might sounds too silly or simple in some cases. Of course there is also that annoying bit about not being able to say much due to "novelty" reasons in research.. :( –  posdef Nov 6 '12 at 12:09
@Procrastinator for sure.. SE sites are fantastic resources for the anyone enthusiastic in learning and improving himself, that's why I am trying to overcome my frustration, and handle my issues in a mature way :) –  posdef Nov 6 '12 at 12:12
RE the edit: the remarks that have been posted so far really are most appropriate as comments, rather than answers, because they do not answer the four questions you have explicitly stated (even though they may suggest some possible answers). –  whuber Nov 6 '12 at 15:24
Regarding the issue of abstraction, my own view is that the title of the question should be abstract, but the body should be more specific (although it could also include an abstract view of the problem). In this way, it will be easier for people to find the question and apply it to their own scenario. –  Bitwise Nov 7 '12 at 0:04
Our faq now links to this thread. –  whuber Jan 10 '13 at 19:43

Some good comments, which partially cover your questions. I'll try to cover them methodically here.

# What makes a good Cross Validated question?

In this order, or similar:

• A clear introductory statement of what you are trying to achieve: what point you are trying to get across?
• Why are you doing it? Homework? Part of your job? Self-education?
• A brief, clear description of the data you have. Describe each variable. Ideally, provide a couple of rows of data, so people can see the format it's in. Say what programming language you're using.
• If, and only if, you can see a good way to generalise the question (other projects you plan on doing, using similar concepts or something), then put it out there. Otherwise, just assume that the people who come after you are not stupid and they will be able to generalise it themselves. Everyone is used to doing this, as this is the most common way we learn: by example.
• Clarification of your experience (see next section), but only if you feel it's necessary.
• A clear statement of your question or questions. You are best off sticking to one clear statement of your core question, rather than multiple questions or multiple formulations of the same question. Those questions may seem related to you but there's a chance they won't seem so to others. You can always post follow-up questions to clarify certain aspects. Doing so and linking back to the original question will make it easier for people to pick up what you're trying to communicate. If you think that you have side-questions that aren't suitable as separate posts, then feel free to add them, but make sure to indicate that they are less important. One way you could do this is to make your main question statement bold.
• Re-read your question and remove all guff. You don't need to apologise for your perceived inadequacies nor do you need to thank people for anything. Anything that doesn't add relevant information is only detracting from your communication effectiveness.

# Style

There are few stylistic restrictions: write naturally and use a language familiar to you rather than one you think statisticians might speak. Work to make your question stand by itself and be understood by everyone. In particular:

• Define or explain any technical terms and mathematical symbols you use. Do not assume everyone uses your terms in the same way (statistics applies to a huge variety of disciplines) nor that a given symbol invariably stands for one thing.

• Explicitly write out, in full, the first occurrence of any abbreviation or acronym.

• Strive for standard appropriate English usage, grammar, and spelling. It's easy: pay attention to the automatic spell-checker markup when you're writing. You need not be as formal as, say, an academic journal, but don't be too chatty either. Avoid abbreviations or calculated misspellings used in texting (e.g. u or U for you).

• Use the highlighting tools (found immediately above the textbox) to create headers, emphasize text, and inset code and quotations.

• Format mathematical expressions using $\TeX$ enclosed between dollar signs \$\$$(or double dollar signs \\$$ for centered expressions).

Some things to avoid:

• Do not beg for help. We know you would like a great answer as soon as possible.

• Do not include identifying information such as your name or e-mail address--we will remove it if it appears, anyway. You can place those into your user profile for all to see.

• Do not solicit offline or private responses: questions and answers are posted here for everyone. We are more than (just) a Q&A site!

Take your lesson here from the master, Donald Rumsfeld:

• Known knowns: State any relevant information that you already understand, as concisely as possible. Say why it's relevant. Feel free to say something about how experienced you are in stats.
• Known unknowns: If you're aware of certain methodologies, theorems, tools, etc. that you think you might need, but are not familiar or comfortable with, say so, and say why you think they're relevant. People can pull you up here, if necessary.
• Unknown unknowns: You don't know about these, so don't fret about them. If someone brings some up, then you can add them to the previous category.

You can't do much better than that. Don't labour over it, and keep it as short as possible, or people will get bored and leave.

If someone mentions something for which you require clarification, ask in the comments. If it changes the question substantially and answers have already appeared, you may be better off keeping the question unaltered (out of respect for the material already posted) and starting again with your new information. Otherwise, you can just edit the question.

# Avoiding Misunderstandings

Misunderstandings, in my experience, occur because of lack of context. Statistical concepts are hard to communicate clearly and it's easy for someone reading your question to completely miss what you're trying to get at. A good way to add context is to provide a solid example.

If you don't understand the relevance of a comment, say so, and state clearly why you think it is not relevant, so that the answerer/commenter can get a better handle on where you're coming from. This will allow them to give you more targeted context for their comment.

# Do I need to be a statistician?

No. Certainly not. The site is aimed at people interested in statistics, practice or theory. You just need to be open to learning.

It also helps to be a good communicator and to know your audience. This is difficult to learn in any situation, let alone one in which most conversations are unintelligible due to lack of experience (I've been hanging around here for almost a year, and I still don't know WTF most people are talking about;)). Remember that people here come from all different backgrounds (different languages, different areas of study, different levels of experience with stats) and you can't assume that anyone knows what you're talking about.

The great thing about StackExchange is that it's really hard to be a troll here, so no-one bothers much. If it looks like someone's being narky, it's probably best to assume that they're just not communicating well, and ask for clarification. Above all, please be patient and give everyone the benefit of the doubt: we're here to help.

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+1: nice answer, which definitely helps on clarifying properties of good questions. Although I have to say there is very little that's new and more specific to this SE site. As mentioned I have been a member of SE sites for quite a while, I think it'd be fair to say that I do quite well in the Q&A format, with the exception of CV (hence this question). Thanks a bunch, anyways. I appreciate the time you put into this answer –  posdef Nov 23 '12 at 11:04
Well, I guess the key point where stats.SE is different from many other SE sites is that you can talk about statistics in general terms, so you have to take extra care to be specific (hard to generalise how to fix a punctured tire, for instance). –  naught101 Nov 23 '12 at 14:45