[R] Protocol for answering basic questions

Liaw, Andy andy_liaw at merck.com
Fri Dec 3 14:28:36 CET 2004

Apologies to those who are tired of these rather off-topic discussions.
I'll try to be brief.

> From: Robert Brown FM CEFAS
> How will I delete the reply without reading first unless I 
> delete all replies? I've made it quite clear that some 
> replies are useful, but some are unhelpful. I and other would 
> like to see an improvement in r help; to just say take it or 
> leave it, as many infer, is conceptually naive.

I believe what was meant is that if you find some posts
rude/offensive/not-to-your-liking, just delete _all_ posts by those people
w/o reading.  For USENET newsgroup, some (all?) news readers allow you to
create a `kill' list that automatically kill messages posted by people that
annoy you.  You can do that with most email clients, I believe.  Of course,
for those who find that unacceptable, they are free to unsubscribe.

> I joined the community because I want technical assistance 
> and I don't question the technical skills of many of the 
> respondants, but the wider appreciation of needs of users i.e 
> conceptual naivety.  It's clear from this string that many 
> beginners are leaving the forum and this should be a cause 
> for concern if we are seriously concerned with propogating 
> knowledge.  Unfortuantely this string does seem to indicate 
> this is not a major concern and so be it.  

I will toss in my perspective, instead of speaking for others.  To me, it's
not how basic the questions are, but how they are being asked.  It's been
pointed out by several people:  If you showed some effort in trying to solve
the problem yourself (by describing what you have tried and how that
failed), you will almost always get useful replies without being chastised.
Those who received less than enthusiastic responses are generally those that
do not show any apparent efforts in trying to solve the problem themselves.
As been said ad nauseam before, R is a purely volunteer-based project, and
people on this list help others out of their good will.  It's rude and
discourteous to abuse that.  It's OK if you need some spoonfeeding (I need
that quite often myself), but at least show how you have tried to use the
spoon yourself, instead of just showing us your open mouth.

For those who think commercial support is somehow `better', please have a
look at a recent thread on the SUSE AMD64 mailing list on SUSE's
installation support (Peter would know what I mean).  BTW, that's also a
prime example of how `gentle' R-help is compared to most other lists.  I
suspect those whose egos are buised by responses to their questions probably
haven't had much experience with mailing lists. 

Also, I think it should be made clear that the R user community is (much?)
larger than those who subscribe to R-help/R-devel/R-*/BioC lists.  I know
many who use R as their primary tool, yet do not subscribe to R-help.  These
people managed to get by just fine, either with help pages/manuals/books, or
more experienced colleagues.

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Marwan Khawaja [mailto:marwan.khawaja at aub.edu.lb]
> Sent: 01 December 2004 20:41
> To: Robert Brown FM CEFAS; r-help at stat.math.ethz.ch
> Subject: RE: [R] Protocol for answering basic questions
> Well, if you do not like the way some people answer queries, 
> why not just delete
> the reply without reading the response.
> Since we're not paying anyone for answering questions, we 
> should be grateful to
> those who put their time in replying to our basic questions.
> And why join this community? -- if you think most are 
> 'conceptually naïve'!
> Marwan
> > -----Original Message-----
> > From: r-help-bounces at stat.math.ethz.ch 
> > [mailto:r-help-bounces at stat.math.ethz.ch] On Behalf Of Robert 
> > Brown FM CEFAS
> > Sent: Wednesday, December 01, 2004 6:46 PM
> > To: r-help at stat.math.ethz.ch
> > Subject: [R] Protocol for answering basic questions
> > 
> > I have been following the discussions on 'Reasons not to 
> > answer very basic questions in a straightforward way' with 
> > interest as someone who is also new to R and has had similar 
> > experiences.  As such it with sadness that I note that most 
> > seem to agree with the present approach to the responses to 
> > basic questions.  I must thank those respondants to my own 
> > questions who have been helpful, but there are some whose 
> > replies are in my opinion not only unhelpful but actually 
> > rude.  Indeed I've now started using Splus instead of R so as 
> > to have access to a 'proper' support service.  Indeed, the 
> > main thing I've learned from R is a new respect for the 
> > values of commercial software and a scepticism regarding free 
> > software. In the end my experience of r help is that you get 
> > what you pay for. Many of the so called socratic responses 
> > (in this list and the wider academic community) can be seen 
> > as simply way to avoid additional work of a complete reply. 
> > 
> > Experienced R users don't seem to understand how difficult 
> > the program can be to new users. Responding that the 
> > questioner should read the 'Introduction to R' or a similar 
> > document is like  answering a question for directions to 
> > one's house with 'Buy a map'.  Most likely both such 
> > questioners have already tried that and are asking because 
> > that approach failed.  R is a language and like all languages 
> > it is simple to those that understand it and complex to those 
> > who do not. Every schoolboy in Spain speaks Spanish, but I 
> > know from experience that for most English people it is very 
> > difficult to learn Spanish and take years of study.  If I'm 
> > asked a question from a novice of a language (be it Spanish 
> > or R) do I reply 'consult the dictionary'. I would hope not!  
> > I can tell repondants that whilst many of my basic questions 
> > may seem simple it is not for lack of studying the very 
> > sources they refer to.  If only learning was so simple.  I 
> > suspect that the same is true of most question!
> >  ers.
> > 
> > I speak as someone with a PhD and many years as a researcher 
> > in my speciality as well as someone close to completing a 
> > masters in statistics with distinction. As such I am not a 
> > total novice and would suggest that if I'm having problems so 
> > are many; and it is not a result of lack of study as so many 
> > responses seem to suggest.  Indeed it is revealing that 
> > several responses suggest that they want to discourage 
> > questions so they don't overwhelm r-help.  Understandable but 
> > not a recipe to encourage the use of R by other than experts. 
> > The R community needs to decide of they really only want 
> > expert statisticians users and make this clear if it is the 
> > case.  Alternatively if they are to encourage novices the 
> > present approach is not the way to do it.
> > 
> > I can appreciate that many of the respondants are busy, but 
> > if that is the case it would be better if they didn't reply 
> > at all. I was taught many years ago that if you can't say 
> > anything nice/useful then to say nothing at all.  Something 
> > similar could well be applied to this list.  I must say that 
> > some respondants are very helpful; and I thank them.  Leave 
> > these simple questions to such people.  Indeed it seems 
> > surprising that some exteremely experienced R users choose to 
> > reply to these basic messages at all; and it seem it is 
> > mostly these people who are rude.  I would have thought it 
> > might be better for them to concentrate on complex problems 
> > more suited to their skills and interests and leave the 
> > simple questions to more sympathetic souls.
> > 
> > Perhaps there is a case for two r help lists catering to 
> > basic and advanced questions? Certainly if the R community is 
> > serious about appealling to users outside advanced 
> > statisticians there is a need for a change of approach in r 
> > help and elsewhere.  Russ Ackoff identified much of the 
> > failure of management science as due to those who were 
> > 'mathematically sophisticated but conceptually naive' and 
> > much the same could be said for many in the R community.
> > 
> > Finally, let me once again thank those who have responded 
> > helpful to my queries in the past and ask them to continue in 
> > that vein; their assistance and effort is greatly appreciated.
> > 
> > 
> > 
> >   
> > 
> > 
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