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Re: st: Statalist in a forum format

From   Nick Cox <[email protected]>
To   "[email protected]" <[email protected]>
Subject   Re: st: Statalist in a forum format
Date   Tue, 8 Apr 2014 12:39:38 +0100

Stas raises many questions and makes several positive suggestions and I
won't pretend to address all, but I don't agree with his strongest
pitch. (If I had thought that people migrating to Stack Overflow or
Cross Validated was the best way to fix Statalist's slowly growing
problems, I would
have recommended that during earlier discussions.)

Stack Overflow (SO; a large forum for programming questions, which
recently passed 7 million questions (!)) and Cross Validated (CV; a
smaller forum for statistics questions, which is approaching 35,000
questions) have both in existence for a few years now. I am positive
about both and have been an active contributor to both for more than a
year. Indeed a glance at

will show that Stata questions on both lists are mostly handled by
people also active here on Statalist.

However, the picture that Stas paints is in my view rosier than the
real prospects on those sites for Stata users.

1. The two sites divide questions linked to Stata very awkwardly as
programming questions belong on SO and statistics questions belong on CV
and questions involving elements of both have to jump one way or the
other, as cross-postings are strongly discouraged. What's more,
programming questions as construed on SO don't really include
introductory or beginner questions about code, which are much more
welcome on Statalist. (Notwithstanding that, you are expected to read
the documentation here....)

So, many, perhaps most, questions on the Stata language are _not_
welcome on either  CV or SO. SO bills itself as for professional and
enthusiast programmers, and programming really does mean what it says,
not working out command syntax.

2. Much of what is valuable here falls some way -- indeed, in many
cases, a long way -- outside the style or remit of SO or CV. Examples

   - announcements of new user-written commands
   - suggestions for future Stata development
   - new Stata version announcements
   - how-to's on some topic
   - job/consulting opportunities
   - bug reports (unless somehow phrased as a question)

Losing such material would be a major blow to Statalist.

3. Stas plays much attention to what activity or activities would
promote the public
reputation of Stata outside the user community. However, I doubt that
migrating lots of questions to SO or CV is unlikely to have quite the
effect Stas desires. I am dimly aware of lots of questions on R on SO;
evidently R is used heavily, especially in universities, and many of its
users struggle with it; so what else is new? I don't think people whose
opinions you would most value count users any more than they would
assess newspapers by mass circulation. In fact, the existence of a
self-contained good quality forum with high activity is quite possibly
more likely to maintain and improve the reputation of Stata, not least
by promoting some sense of community.  I am not worried that the
community becomes too inward-looking; what I see is overwhelmingly
people using Stata and then using the results in their papers and
presentations to groups outside.

4. Broadly I would describe SO and CV as considerably more complicated
than the new Statalist forum. I don't attribute as much importance to
mechanisms such as voting, reputation and badges as Stas does. For
example, I just counted up that I have been awarded 101 badges across
SO and CV, but that doesn't amount for more than the arcana of the
games played by my 10-year-old nephew. It strikes me that people find
it easy to judge reputation just by watching Statalist briefly without
anyone needing to measure it.

Above all, no one is (I hope) insisting that there is one best forum for
all. For example, no one has mentioned in this thread,
but it's evidently congenial to many Stata users, and
offers German language support. In each case, highly competent and
experienced users handle much of the traffic. What's puzzling is that
despite their very much greater sophistication -- until just now --
neither SO nor CV has achieved lift-off compared with Statalist in terms
of frequent Stata questions. Some people evidently prefer(red)
email-based questions, but I think a major factor was people asking
questions wherever experts appeared concentrated.

[email protected]

On 7 April 2014 15:34, Stas Kolenikov <[email protected]> wrote:
> Dear Stataliasters,
> thanks again to Marcello Pagano, Stata Corp side team and everybody
> involved in setting up I however would like play a
> devil's advocate and argue that we DO NOT NEED statalist in that form.
> I would instead argue that we need to find ways to move the statalist
> discussion to the StackExchange system (
> Let me describe the system in bold strokes. (Disclaimer: I am closely
> familiar only with the statistics website on StackExchange family,
>, although I keep an eye on another five
> or so sites, such as latex, math, biking, and board games, out of 100+
> for all walks of life). On each of the sites, users ask questions and
> seek inputs from other participants. Other users can answer these
> questions. (So far, that's trivial, and every forum does that. The
> crucial differences begin at this point.) The quality of different
> answers can be compared by upvotes or downvotes that registered users
> can cast. Answers can be improved by editing. In fact, questions can
> be edited, as well (so at the very least, one could edit a novice's
> question to incorporate the code formatting and tag the topic(s) that
> the question raise(s)... and NJC can edit Stas Kolenikov's questions
> for silly grammar :) ). Besides full answers, users can also provide
> smaller-scale comments. Duplicate questions are being identified,
> flagged, and closed, with links to what they are duplicating. A user's
> contribution to the site is measured by their "reputation" that is
> accumulated through good questions and answers, and by badges (asking
> questions roles, answering question roles, editing roles, flagging
> roles, etc.). Thus there is a variety of feedback mechanisms that help
> improving the quality of questions and answers, and motivate the users
> to participate. Thematic sites provide special formatting and/or
> syntax highlighting, like Latex-type MathJAX formatting on math or
> statistics sites (implemented on, as well); code
> formatting on programming and statistics sites (partially implemented
> on, requires some cleanup, as far as I understand; on
>, R code is provided with simple syntax
> highlighting, too); chess board rendering on the chess site; card
> rendering on the poker website; etc. There's a sophisticated system of
> tags that have mini-wikies (available on mouse-over) and full wikies
> (available on clicks); users accumulate their reputation both overall
> and within tags. Moderators play a major role in keeping the site
> running, as it is the moderators who take actions on low quality
> questions and answers (close duplicates, migrate questions to more
> appropriate sites, etc.)
> The biggest difference between a typical forum format (including
> statalist) and StackExchange is the conceptual vision of the mission
> they have in mind. Historically, plain-email-text statalist has been
> aimed at "User 1 posts their current problem" - "User 2 posts a
> solution to that specific problem" - "User 3 refines, if there's room"
> - and everybody forgets about the whole thing a month later (although
> in the case of statalist, we often see referrals to statalist
> archives). StackExchange works on generating knowledge about the
> universe (in this case, this would be Stata universe) that is supposed
> to stay for prosperity, so that website users and the Internet at
> large could benefit from the previously generated answers. The
> ultimate goal is that StackExchange posts show up on the first page of
> Google when you search something like "fixed effects model with
> heteroskedastic panels". In some of my Google queries, I do indeed get
> SE posts, so somehow the mechanism of StackExchange I described above
> does work.
> I am not quite sure how to better describe my next point, but I think
> that creating compartmentalizes Stata as an obscure
> software. While those in the academic ivory towers can enjoy their
> academic freedom, others in industry and government have to fight this
> impression at their workplaces ("How is it called again? Why are you
> not happy with some alternative software that we have a license
> for?"). This is a tiring uphill battle. (Literally today, I had to
> convert some SAS code to Stata and back, and StackOverflow, the
> programming branch of StackExchange, offered some good pointers...
> which I got from the first Google search page!) The statistics branch
> of StackExchange, CrossValidated (, is
> heavily entrenched in R, and the popular claims regarding popularity
> of R are based on the counts of posts on StackExchange
> ( Moving to
> rather than to would help strengthening the argument
> that Stata is a proper, kosher, mainstream statistical package. A
> fivefold or tenfold increase in the volume of Stata questions that
> could happen once hsphsun2 closes would make a good splash in Stata
> reputation in the big world outside statalist walls.
> Toning this down a little bit, I think the best of two worlds can be
> combined on if the major components of the StackExchange
> system are utilized. The unique features that Stata Corp can donate to
> the system to make it superior over the limitations of the format and
> capabilities of StackExchange would be syntax highlighting similar to
> that of the Do-Editor, and automatic links to the online help files
> ( that are added once a Stata
> command is being identified in the code section. A more prominent use
> of tags is a must for the forum to be usable as a reference, rather
> than a hit-and-run (ask-and-wait) system that it has historically
> been. Stata commands may act as tags (based on either what user enters
> as a special tag if that's something user-contributed, like -outreg-
> or -ivreg2-, or what is being recognized automatically, which I
> suggested above). Users should be required to use tags, or at least
> asked to confirm when they are submitting a question with no tags. (7
> tags on 78 "General" forum questions, and two more from "Using the
> forum"??? I'd say it is not working yet.) For tags to work well,
> though, other users should be able to edit tags in the original posts.
> Adding any of that functionality would require serious work on the
> forum engine. How much the engine can be expanded, I have no idea; I
> am not a website programmer. If this equates to just reproducing
> StackExchange engine, it is obviously a futile exercise.
> Joining StackExchange system as a separate site may or may not work
> out (see -- there should be a
> critical mass of users, questions and topics, and so far, I am aware
> of about five or so statalist people who are active on CrossValidated,
> which won't create a critical mass). R questions are split between the
> statistics website and the programming website, depending on whether
> it is more of "why doesn't lmer produce a standard error for variance
> components" (statistics) or "how do I tweak ggplot2 to produce
> transparent graphs" (programming). I imagine Stata questions could
> work pretty much the same way, too. At the moment, there is about 1
> question a day on Stata on statistics website, and may be two
> questions a day on programming website... compared to 10+ new
> questions on statalist... on a slow day.
> -- Stas Kolenikov, PhD, PStat (ASA, SSC)
> -- Principal Survey Scientist, Abt SRBI
> -- Opinions stated in this email are mine only, and do not reflect the
> position of my employer
> --
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