See also: Why are "shopping list" questions bad?, http://blog.stackoverflow.com/2011/08/the-future-of-community-wiki/
I do feel that our book/list policy can be revised. Not removed, but loosened up considerably. For book questions, this can be done by making sure that answers include a sketch of the book -- what prerequisites are assumed, the style of the book, etc.
I'll first start out by listing the problems that can occur with such questions. If we can fix most of these, we may have a chance. Note that by "fix", I'm talking about formulating a policy that effectively mitigates these issues. I'm quite certain that SE wont implement any features specifically to
There are a couple of things that irk me about list questions in general:
- This is a Q&A site, and as such a list item is not an "answer"
- They tend to be less conceptual. One of the reasons why I like Physics.SE over Quora and PhysicsForums is that questions here are invariably about concepts.
- They may attract a lower-level crowd (like "list of Physics jokes", etc). Quora has this problem -- it's got a lot of list questions and very few high level ones.
- A single answer is almost never complete. This gets to me a lot, because it's so different in nature from other Q&As here. I can very well read the top or top 2 answers of a Q&A and learn enough. That doesn't work on list questions.
- Thy end up as a popularity contest. It's not "best answer gets voted to the top", it's "most popular answer gets voted to the top". Voting doesn't indicate the best answer, it indicates:
- The oldest answer
- The most popular answer
Point #3 and partially point #4 don't really apply to book recommendations, not always.
However, book recommendation questions are unmoderatable. Unlike conceptual answers, which can be easily checked for non mainstreamness and pitching, book recommendations are hotbeds for people pitching their own publications. And also pitching irrelevant or non-mainstream books. It's not easy to moderate this, because, as moderators, we would have to read the book.
Also, note that the following problems do not occur with book recommendations on Physics (which do occur with shopping recs):
- Price issues: From what I've seen, nobody cares about price with book recommendations on Physics.
- Outdatedness: Griffiths has been used ever since Man discovered fire. Same goes for Resnick-Halliday-* and Kreyzig and the rest. While new physics books come up all the time, existing ones don't get outdated, not really. There are exceptions, though.
More about book questions, and a proposed policy to allow them
One thing that happens with book questions is that the real question being asked is "Please teach me about X". Whenever a question is narrow enough such that the topic X can be reasonably explained in a single post with links to additional reading, I feel that we should convert the post with an edit (with or without the OPs consent -- currently we have done this but only if the OP consents).
In the case of broader topics, here's what I propose:
- Only allow descriptive answers. There are lots of Physics books on a topic that can be found by an Amazon search. The question is, which one is appropriate to read? When trying to learn GTR on my own, I went ahead and borrowed Misner-Thorne-Wheeler. Big mistake. It is one of the best books in the field, but it's more of a reference -- there are better books to study from if you want to teach yourself. Thing is, you need to know what a book covers, and, more importantly, how it covers it. Does it explain tensor calculus or does it simply expect you to know it? These sorts of things are important. I've heard people talk for more than 15 minutes on the merits/demerits, style, et cetera of a physics book, so I'm sure that it's not unreasonable to ask for this. This actually makes the post really, really useful -- the reader knows his/her needs better than we do, and giving information on the style of books is a better way for the reader to determine which book to finally use. Information is always better than advice.
- The question should mention the level of understanding of the student. The topic should not be too broad, either. Also, we ought to edit in a mention of the previous point.
- We place a boilerplate banner on each question linking to a book policy and mentioning (in short) what is to be expected of answers.
- We will need the community to actively help curate book questions and enforce these policies. This is important.
- These should be made CW. Reasons? See Chris' comment
- This is an optional point: We maintain a single Community Wiki answer per question, and all other answers are incorporated and deleted as they come in.
If these policies are in place, the major problems with books questions are reduced. They're much more relevant and useful now. They also are less "all answers are equally valid"-y. They're still not conceptual, though, but this isn't so important if the answers are explanatory. I guess we could find a way to work in the non mainstream policy without forcing mods to read each book. Or just use downvotes for bad books.
I'm not really sure how to make these work. As such many of these can be improved by tweaking the language -- the language is important because changing it attracts different types of answers. A question asking for a "List of ways to measure the weight of one's head sans decapitation" will attract one-line or list-like answers with little to no explanation. When asked for a list, one's mind is focused on generating as many points as possible, without expanding on the individual points (horizontal thinking). When asked "how can I measure the weight of my head", one's mind will focus on getting a single complete solution, and post that (vertical thinking).
Some of these can't be "fixed". "List of unsolved problems in plasma Physics" -- somehow I feel that this is more suitable for a Wikipedia page. You don't learn anything from this and as such it's not conceptual.
I do see scope for improvement in the list question policy, but I'm not yet sure how to codify this. I'll mull over it and update this post when I figure something out (I'll probably have a look at past list questions etc.).