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

Fowler, Mark Mark.Fowler at dfo-mpo.gc.ca
Mon Jan 25 19:14:27 CET 2016

Two concerns with implementing this philosophy.

1.       Determining whether a question is indeed seeking an answer to a homework exercise. Certainly if I think a question is short-cutting a basic homework task I ignore it. But I don't waste an email berating the alleged student.

2.       The validity of the barrier. At what point (maybe graduate levels? Nth year?) do we regard questions inspired by an educational system to be appropriate? Academia was still using mainframes when I graduated so I don't have much notion of expectations today.

I'm just musing that we might be farther ahead simply opting for no response than adding another email to the queue. It also gets around needing to feel I know the answers to 1 and 2.

From: John Sorkin [mailto:jsorkin at grecc.umaryland.edu]
Sent: January 25, 2016 1:36 PM
To: Ted.Harding at wlandres.net
Cc: Fowler, Mark; dupouey at nancy.inra.fr; r-help at r-project.org; friendly at yorku.ca
Subject: Re: [R] R-help mailing list activity / R-not-help?

When we read acerbic replies we should remind the poster to reply in a more moderate tone. On the other hand  noting that the list is not intended to be a source of answers to home work questions is 100% appropriate. This philosophy is intended both to keep the list from being flooded with questions and to make sure that no student has an unfair advantage.

John David Sorkin M.D., Ph.D.
Professor of Medicine
Chief, Biostatistics and Informatics

University of Maryland School of Medicine Division of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine

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On Jan 25, 2016, at 12:17 PM, Ted Harding <Ted.Harding at wlandres.net<mailto:Ted.Harding at wlandres.net>> wrote:
My feelings exactly! (And since quite some time ago).

On 25-Jan-2016 12:23:16 Fowler, Mark wrote:

I'm glad to see the issue of negative feedback addressed. I can especially
relate to the 'cringe' feeling when reading some authoritarian backhand to a
new user. We do see a number of obviously inappropriate or overly lazy
postings, but I encounter far more postings where I don't feel competent to
judge their merit. It might be better to simply disregard a posting one does
not like for some reason. It might also be worthwhile to actively counter
negative feedback when we experience that 'cringing' moment. I'm not thinking
to foster contention, but simply to provide some tangible reassurance to new
users, and not just the ones invoking the negative feedback, that a
particular respondent may not represent the perspective of the list.

-----Original Message-----
From: R-help [mailto:r-help-bounces at r-project.org] On Behalf Of Michael
Sent: January 24, 2016 5:43 PM
To: Jean-Luc Dupouey; r-help at r-project.org<mailto:r-help at r-project.org>
Subject: Re: [R] R-help mailing list activity / R-not-help?

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
[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, etc.
- 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
- 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

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

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

E-Mail: (Ted Harding) <Ted.Harding at wlandres.net<mailto:Ted.Harding at wlandres.net>>
Date: 25-Jan-2016  Time: 17:14:06
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