I know we have some very useful ones on cstheory.SE and I have seen some amusing ones on Stackoverflow. On other sites such as scifi.SE they seem to be banned.

What is our stand?


3 Answers 3


I think there are some natural questions that can only be answered appropriately by giving a list. Examples include

  • Where to find recorded CS lectures online?
  • Which books for X can be recommended?
  • What should be in every CS graduate's toolbox?

The proper way to have such questions on StackExchange is, imho, like this: There are few (at best only one) answers that are collaboratively maintained. If users mistakenly add superfluous answers, they are asked to incorporate their answer as item into the main answer. If they don't cooperate, their answer is deleted for them.

The danger is that people add low-quality content to the main answer where it can not be downvoted. Maybe the process can be adapted (add as new answer; upvoted answers are incorporated, others only deleted) to keep that in check?

  • 8
    $\begingroup$ Another danger is that these lists aren't actually maintained. If you (the community, not you specifically) decide to allow them, you have to stay on top of them or they will devolve into useless forum-like threads. An ideal recommendation includes both the what and the why, and questions like "what book should I read about X" are notorious for attracting one-line Amazon links. $\endgroup$
    – Adam Lear StaffMod
    Commented Mar 14, 2012 at 13:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AnnaLear: I agree. Care has to be taken to maintain a helpful list. I understand that as best-practice advice, not a reason to not do (or try) it? $\endgroup$
    – Raphael
    Commented Mar 14, 2012 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with you on this topic and I'd also like see list (big) questions in "faq" section. $\endgroup$
    – Daniil
    Commented Mar 14, 2012 at 16:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The current trend as seen on Meta Stack Exchange (I'm not sure if there's a canonical post about this, there's been a lot of debate about this kind of questions on Stack Overflow) is to put things like “books on X” in the X tag wiki. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2012 at 21:33

I'm starting to get really tired of seeing these "list question" discussions come up... "List question" covers a lot of not-very-related question types, and usually ends up confusing someone who sees the discussion and thinks, "But what if the answer to my question just happens to be... a list?"

There is some very specific guidance in the FAQ on every site:

avoid asking subjective questions where …

  • every answer is equally valid: “What’s your favorite ______?”
  • your answer is provided along with the question, and you expect more answers: “I use ______ for ______, what do you use?”
  • there is no actual problem to be solved: “I’m curious if other people feel like I do.”
  • we are being asked an open-ended, hypothetical question: “What if ______ happened?”
  • it is a rant disguised as a question: “______ sucks, am I right?”

The first three of those tend to result in lists. But... that's more of a symptom of an underlying problem, aptly noted by Gilles in his answer: these are "questions" that don't really have answers.

Stop fixating on lists. Avoid questions that aren't really questions.

  • $\begingroup$ So, in essence, it is ok to have questions that result in lists if and only if the list contains more or less objective facts that relate to the site's subject. Correct? $\endgroup$
    – Raphael
    Commented Mar 15, 2012 at 18:14
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Every question will potentially result in a list. Quite often, that list has a length of 1, and you should prefer questions that aim for smaller lists. But my point here is, "list vs not list" isn't really a terribly useful question to ask when you're evaluating a question. Look for specific patterns that have shown themselves to be troublesome. $\endgroup$
    – Shog9
    Commented Mar 15, 2012 at 18:36

List questions generally do not work well on Stack Exchange. They are generally banned on Stack Exchange:

real questions have answers, not items or ideas or opinions.

I happen to have direct experience with list questions, having active on Scifi.SE since day one and a moderator there for most of that time. This is our best list question, kept around for posterity. Note how most answers list just one item; the voting on the answers does not convey any useful information; the list is woefully incomplete. After seeing many such questions (only usually with even more incomplete answers), we decided to specifically ban them.

List questions on Stack Overflow have long been frowned upon, and are officially banned. Old ones have often attracted a large collection of low-quality answers. New ones are generally closed (unless they fall through the radar, always a possibility with ~5000 questions daily). Older questions are sometimes kept around because part of the SO community is dead set against deletions, but this should not be taken as evidence that these questions would be accepted if they were posted today.

Community Wiki does not change the acceptability of a question.

The Literature site has a limited book recommendation policy. In a nutshell, book recommendations are allowed if they are reasonably specific and encourage answers that describe a curriculum rather than a single book. This policy has had mixed results; the quality of these questions is usually not very good but the bad ones can and do get closed and a few get good answers. Programmers has a different book recommendation policy which is somewhat similar in spirit; on Programmers, a vast majority of incoming questions do not meet the policy.

Researcher communities are somewhat unusual; what works on CSTheory is unlikely to work on a less elitist site.

I do not see a reason to deviate from the usual Stack Exchange policies. No list questions.

(Questions about lists are welcome, of course. Data structures are on-topic here.)

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What about questions like "Which books on algorithms and datastructures are useful for undergratuate students?"? For me, this is a list question, because it has no single correct answer, but it does have lots of good answers which are, imho, worth listing. $\endgroup$
    – Raphael
    Commented Mar 7, 2012 at 1:06
  • $\begingroup$ Also, I remember Jeff writing somewhere that any rule formulated by the hosts should be broken liberally if appropriate. $\endgroup$
    – Raphael
    Commented Mar 7, 2012 at 1:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Raphael Book lists fare poorly on SO and other SE sites (CSTheory is not typical). You usually end up with a bunch of barely relevant items with little of indication of what good they are. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2012 at 1:11
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that this can happen. Can't the effect be controlled by rigorous voting? For instance, this question has some very good answers on the first page; the junk that comes later on is barely even visible. $\endgroup$
    – Raphael
    Commented Mar 7, 2012 at 1:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Raphael Vigorous voting and editing and managing the complaints of users whose answer is deleted to be incorporated into a main answer. It requires a community involvement and an atmosphere that is hard to reach outside research communities. If it can be done, that's great; but if we try and fail, we'll have to deal with the backlash (the front page of Meta Stack Exchange is full of backlash from having tried and failed, on a much larger scale of course). $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2012 at 1:22
  • $\begingroup$ Too bad. I think it is still worth trying, but let us see what others say. $\endgroup$
    – Raphael
    Commented Mar 7, 2012 at 1:27
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    $\begingroup$ I think rigorous voting is a utopia. Questions/answers with high score tend to get even more upvotes by users who just see them and say "hey, this must be a good q/a". When that happens, new answers are overshadowed by default, so even when an answer is really good, it might take a while before it gets the attention it deserves. $\endgroup$
    – Janoma
    Commented Mar 7, 2012 at 2:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Janoma Right; adding something new to old questions is hard. But maybe this is a software problem; SE could include novelty into their answer sorting function. $\endgroup$
    – Raphael
    Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Gilles What do you think of this question of mine? It can be seen as a list question. I think it is fine because it is sufficiently answered with 2-5 different answers (which is well within the comfort zone of SE) and answering (well) requires both technical and didactical expertise (as opposed to only encyclopedic knowledge). I tagged it soft-question in order to mark it as ... I don't know what. :> $\endgroup$
    – Raphael
    Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Raphael I don't know; I think this is a legitimate question on a science site, but programmer types probably won't like it. It's very broad, but there's a clear guideline to answering it: what example would you use if you were teaching the concept? That's something the potential answerers are likely to understand. I don't like the soft-question tag, I don't see what information it brings. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Giles: My bad. I interpreted your sentence "on a science site" as implicitly stating that this is not a science site. I prefer now to delete my comment. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 15, 2012 at 14:30

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