[R] R-help mailing list activity / R-not-help?

Michael Friendly friendly at yorku.ca
Sun Jan 24 22:42:43 CET 2016

On 1/23/2016 7:28 AM, Jean-Luc Dupouey wrote:
> Dear members,
> Not a technical question:
But one worth raising...
> The number of threads in this mailing list, following a long period of
> increase, has been regularly and strongly decreasing since 2010, passing
> from more than 40K threads to less than 11K threads last year. The trend
> is similar for most of the "ancient" mailing lists of the R-project.
[snip ...]
> I hope it is the wright place to ask this question. Thanks in advance,

In addition to the other replies, there is another trend I've seen that
has actively worked to suppress discussion on R-help and move it 
elsewhere. The general things:
- R-help was too unwieldy and so it was a good idea to hive-off 
specialized topics to various sub lists, R-SIG-Mac, R-SIG-Geo,
- Many people posted badly-formed questions to R-help, and so it
was a good idea to develop and refer to the posting guide to mitigate
the number of purely junk postings.

Yet, the trend I've seen is one of increasing **R-not-help**, in that 
there are many posts, often by new R users who get replies that not
infrequently range from just mildly off-putting to actively hostile:

- Is this homework? We don't do homework (sometimes false alarms,
where the OP has to reply to say it is not)
- Didn't you bother to do your homework, RTFM, or Google?
- This is off-topic because XXX (e.g., it is not strictly an R 
programming question).
- You asked about doing XXX, but this is a stupid thing
to want to do.
- Don't ask here; you need to talk to a statistical consultant.

I find this sad in a public mailing list sent to all R-help subscribers
and I sometimes cringe
when I read replies to people who were actually trying to get
help with some R-related problem, but expressed it badly, didn't
know exactly what to ask for, or how to format it,
or somehow motivated a frequent-replier to publicly dis the OP.

On the other hand, I still see a spirit of great generosity among some
people who frequently reply to R-help, taking a possibly badly posed
or ill-formatted question, and going to some lengths to provide a
a helpful answer of some sort.  I applaud those who take the time
and effort to do this.

I use R in a number of my courses, and used to advise students to
post to R-help for general programming questions (not just homework) 
they couldn't solve. I don't do this any more, because several of them
reported a negative experience.

In contrast, in the Stackexchange model, there are numerous sublists
cross-classified by their tags.  If I have a specific knitr, ggplot2, 
LaTeX, or statistical modeling question, I'm now more likely to post it 
there, and the worst that can happen is that no one "upvotes" it
or someone (helpfully) marks it as a duplicate of a similar question.
But comments there are not propagated to all subscribers,
and those who reply helpfully, can see their solutions accepted or not,
or commented on in that specific topic.

Perhaps one solution would be to create a new "R-not-help" list where,
as in a Monty Python skit, people could be directed there to be insulted 
and all these unhelpful replies could be sent.

A milder alternative is to encourage some R-help subscribers to click 
the "Don't send" or "Save" button and think better of their replies.

Michael Friendly     Email: friendly AT yorku DOT ca
Professor, Psychology Dept. & Chair, Quantitative Methods
York University      Voice: 416 736-2100 x66249 Fax: 416 736-5814
4700 Keele Street    Web:   http://www.datavis.ca
Toronto, ONT  M3J 1P3 CANADA

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