Right now, we're operating on some community discussions from several years ago:

The idea was that there are some book or resource recommendations that are suitable for this site. If there are specialized requirements or a small number of right answers, then the book question can stay. A key idea was the "canonical resource" - the single, widely accepted, best resource on the subject.

However, just this morning, we had two book questions (1 and 2) that were closed with 4 community votes, followed by my vote. These questions also received down votes. At first glance, they seemed like they would fall under the criteria that we have been operating under - a very specialized requirement that I assumed would be covered by a small number of books or web resources.

So, I ask the community to consider the following questions:

  • How are we doing right now in handling these types of questions? Are the current policies sufficient or are there more concrete policies that would be best implemented?
  • Without expertise in the subject matter, how do people (especially moderators who might have to act on a flag) know if there is a singular "canonical" book on the question?
  • What happens to topic areas covered by a small number of resources now (such as the latest language or library) down the road, when it is more popular and prevalent? Might resource requests, perhaps, be too localized since the available (and perhaps even what is considered canonical) change over the course of time?
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I think the problem with our current process is that not enough people actually know about it or understand it. I think people just see the question asking for a book, and decide to vote to close based on that alone instead of reading through the question and asking themselves if it meets the criteria P.SE actually has for resource requests. I too saw those questions got closed, but thought it would be too much of a hassle to reopen so didn't even bother. Personally, I like resource requests. I find them some of the most helpful questions around. –  Rachel Oct 9 '12 at 15:26
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@Rachel I don't know why people don't know about it. It's in the faq tag here on Meta and has been discussed in at least four or five questions that come up on top if you search for "book". It's pretty clearly explained in those questions as well. Not knowing or understanding it really isn't an acceptable excuse. –  Thomas Owens Oct 9 '12 at 15:32
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From my experience with the SE sites, users learn first by the actions of other users, 2nd by the faq, and 3rd by Meta. It may exist on meta, but seeing almost any resource request question getting closed, and nothing about it in the FAQ will usually indicate to users that resource requests are not allowed. Personally, I almost never visited meta for the first year or two I started using SE until I had well over 10k rep, and didn't even know there was a meta-faq until much later than that. –  Rachel Oct 9 '12 at 15:44
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Without expertise in the subject matter you can't evaluate any questions. I would suggest people not vote to close if they don't have the expertise to evaluate the question. –  psr Oct 9 '12 at 18:03
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@psr I can't be expected to know 100% of the breadth and depth of the topics for this site - no one can. Because of that, there needs to be some kind of guidance to tell all users what is allowed and for me, as a moderator, to be able to respond to flags. If there's a post about a reference request and no moderator has expertise in that area, how do we respond to the flag? –  Thomas Owens Oct 9 '12 at 18:15
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@ThomasOwens - How can you tell what is localized, or doesn't pertain to programming either, for any question? –  psr Oct 9 '12 at 18:26
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@psr Topicality is clearly spelled out in the FAQ (with the exception of "freelancing and business concerns", which isn't that well-defined). Anyone with any professional experience at all should be able to read that list and know for sure if a question is off-topic. Too localized is also extremely well-defined in a manner that requires little subject matter expertise to identify. –  Thomas Owens Oct 9 '12 at 18:31
    
related (not a duplicate): Resource questions - automatic close? –  gnat Oct 11 '12 at 6:38
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@psr unfortunately giving someone a button then telling them they aren't qualified to use it won't usually stop people using the button. –  user4051 Oct 12 '12 at 16:22
    
@GrahamLee - huh? –  psr Oct 12 '12 at 16:45
    
This question may be a little more apropos for this meta discussion. @ThomasOwens - any thoughts on should that one be allowed to stay open? –  GlenH7 Oct 12 '12 at 18:31
    
@GlenH7 Based on the top voted answers here, I'd close it. I'd rather the question present the AI problem that the asker wants solved, with the requirement of C++. If there are any books that describe the appropriate solutions, I'd hope that people link to them, along with any other relevant experiences that might help. By the current definition, it seems like it would stay open, though. It's a very particular area (Artificial Intelligence) with requirements (using C or C++). –  Thomas Owens Oct 12 '12 at 18:39
    
@psr "I would suggest people not vote to close…" thing is that won't change anything. Even if you don't think I am qualified to understand the matter, either you're wrong or I might be suffering a Dunning-Kruger delusion. –  user4051 Oct 12 '12 at 19:14
    
@ThomasOwens I think that one does not need to moderate constantly. This is why there is a community after all. If you don't feel you have the competence to judge about a question, leave it as it is and let other people who are more expert in that topic decide. –  Andrea Oct 17 '12 at 14:12
    
I would say that the policy is not okay, because whether or not a question is "OK" depends on the answer (widely accepted canonnical resource). So the point of asking the question is diminished when you know whether it's any good... –  K.Steff Oct 24 '12 at 7:41
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6 Answers

While I begrudgingly accept the idea that resource requests are on-topic if they are specific enough, people should really be asking "how" questions, not "what" questions:

Let’s say you wanted — as I did — to buy a point-and-shoot camera that takes good low light photos. So we’re going to ask on photo.stackexchange.com, naturally!

Here’s one way to ask:

Q: What’s the best low light point-and-shoot camera?

A: Canon S90 and Lumix LX3.

Here’s another way to ask:

Q: How do I tell which point-and-shoot cameras take good low light photos?

A: I strongly recommend looking for something with

    a fast lens (2.0 at least)
    reasonable ISO handling (at least 400, but preferably 800)
    the biggest sensor available

The sum of these factors are really critical for low light situations.

The former question provides the path of least resistance: a laundry list of products I can buy without thinking about it too much. But that answer will only be valid for a year at best. The latter question may take some thinking, but its answer will be valid forever … or at least until camera technology somehow shifts beyond lenses and sensors as we know them today.

Thus, when it comes to shopping questions, don’t ask us what you should buy — ask us what you need to learn to tell what you should buy.

Q&A is Hard, Let’s Go Shopping! « Blog – Stack Exchange

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Book recommendation questions should be off-topic 100% of the time. As Shog9 puts it, "We should not attempt to replicate Amazon reviews, badly." –  Robert Harvey Oct 9 '12 at 22:09
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Personally, I'm not a fan of our current policies. It started with editing a whole bunch of questions to include the text "canonical". But even so, it doesn't meet the guideline of asking "practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face" as is mentioned in the FAQ. It seems like if you want a book on something, you are either just curious about it (in which case, why not search book reviews and find the highest rated books on the subject) or need to learn something to solve a problem (in which case you should ask about the problem and get not only advice and experiences, but also links to resources which address your specific problem - the best book on the subject might do a poor job of explaining your individual problem while another book might do it better).

From a moderator's perspective, if I don't know the subject matter and what resources exist, it's harder for me to moderate under the current guidelines. I might not know if a canonical resource exists or if the question is going to turn into a list. My response to these is wait and see what the community does - if the question gets close votes, down votes, or multiple flags, then it's probably not a good question. I see this being a broken windows situation - by leaving a bad question open, it's a broken window. It would be better to close early and fix so it doesn't linger as a bad example as it gets lost in the shuffle of other questions.

My thought is to just go to what the FAQ clearly says (it's even highlighted) - questions must be about problems, not resources. It doesn't matter if you want the canonical resource or not. Tell us about your problem and we'll give you everything we know of that might help you - experience, blogs, books, academic papers, Wikipedia articles, other questions on SE sites, whatever we know of.

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You might face a specific problem that requires an answer that is too long for this site. (Somewhere it says if you can imagine a whole book as the answer then it's not on-topic for this site). But having someone tell you where a book is that has the answer is not too long for this site. –  psr Oct 9 '12 at 17:56
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The broken windows theory (the younger brother of the slippery slope theory) has this problem: most slopes aren't slippery. But you can always make the argument that they are. So you can use it to justify basically anything. So I never accept that argument without evidence that "broken windows" really are leading to further problems in the case in question. Note that in this case the questions are closed, so it's arguably more like putting your vanquished enemy's head on a pole than leaving a broken window. –  psr Oct 9 '12 at 18:02
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@psr I don't have a problem if the book contains the answer to the specific question - if it does, provide the title (and maybe a link to purchase the book) and a relevant quotation or summary of what is to be expected from the book (explain exactly why the book answers the question, why the asker should buy the book). To me, that is a good thing. However, I'm not concerned about the content of an answer. I'm concerned with people explicitly asking for references instead of asking for everything that Stack Exchange offers - explanations of why and experiences. –  Thomas Owens Oct 9 '12 at 18:07
    
If a complete book is the answer, that's already NARQ and should be closed, however. So the concern is when people explicitly ask for a reference and don't provide answerers with the ability to share things other than external references. –  Thomas Owens Oct 9 '12 at 18:09
    
Finally, my broken windows reference is only to questions that remain open. For example, after a user asks a question asking for a reference and it gets a single flag. If I don't know the topic area, I can't say that it's a bad question since I don't know what references exist. It remains open and gets answers. If the community doesn't close it, it could potentially remain open indefinitely until someone else stumbles upon it and flags it again. The new review tools do help with this, but it's still possible for bad questions to slip through the cracks and become broken windows. –  Thomas Owens Oct 9 '12 at 18:12
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Actually, having a policy that you shouldn't ask for a reference, but ask for a solution might be a good policy. However, if that's how we handle it we shouldn't close questions as NARQ if they can be answered by a reference. Because even though the full answer is a book, the answer on programmers would not be a book, but a reference to a book with an explanation of how the book can solve the problem. We shouldn't both forbid people to ask questions that require a book to answer and also not allow them to ask for a reference to a book that has the answer, when such a book exists. –  psr Oct 9 '12 at 18:41
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@psr I can buy that. Assuming that the answer is more than a link to the book, of course, since that's considered a low-quality answer. I would suspect that if you can't identify why the book is a solution, then either the reference doesn't answer the question or the question is too vague or not clear enough to be understood. Do you think that's a fair assessment - both weigh on the answer more than the question? –  Thomas Owens Oct 9 '12 at 18:44
    
I radically edited my answer to your original question to basically be my last comment. I'll edit in something about the answer not just being a link, though technically that's true regardless of how we handle reference questions it is relevant. –  psr Oct 9 '12 at 18:53
    
It sounds like you are saying that instead of asking for the book on a specific narrow topic, you should just ask about the topic itself, but that sounds like it would get closed quickly for being too broad or a "how to learn" question. For example, the question you linked asks for the book about Exam 487: Developing Windows Azure and Web Services, and includes a list of topics the exam covers. Are you suggesting the question be changed to something like "How can I learn about developing Windows Azure and Web Services to pass Exam 587"? –  Rachel Oct 9 '12 at 20:14
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@Rachel Yes. That presents a valid, on-topic problem in the form of a more useful question than asking a question. It opens the door to sharing of experiences along with all resources (books that best cover the subject matter, blogs, websites, a tag on Stack Overflow, etc). To me, this is a constructive subjective question that would shift the burden from the asker to the answerer to then make their answers good to avoid deletion for insufficient explanations. I see a difference between "how do I learn Windows Azure and Web Services" and "what material should I fully know to pass this exam?" –  Thomas Owens Oct 9 '12 at 20:31
    
@ThomasOwens Fair enough, however the OP knew what material was on the exam (provided by a link in the question itself), and was looking for resources to help him learn the material –  Rachel Oct 10 '12 at 11:58
    
We took this offline in chat, but in a nutshell, I agree with you Thomas, and I understand your usage of the broken windows metaphor. I have no idea why this metaphor and the slippery slope metaphor bother @psr so much, but I think you stated your position very well. –  Jim G. Oct 30 '12 at 2:52
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Believe me, I'd be the first in line to shut down recommendation questions if there was a real problem, or if there was a good reason to, but I'm not seeing either here.

How are we doing right now in handling these types of questions? Are the current policies sufficient or are there more concrete policies that would be best implemented?

It's hard to tell how we're handling these types of questions without a significant amount of data demonstrating a problem. You've cited two questions:

They were both asked by the same person in rapid succession relatively about the same topic and both are absolutely terrible. If these two questions are demonstrative of an alleged problem with book recommendation questions, then I don't see it.

The biggest issue with their closing is that they were closed as "not constructive" instead of what they are: not real questions. The "not constructive" close reason seems to be used more and more as the "I don't care why it's closed, just close it" reason, which dilutes its meaning and causes ambiguity about why questions don't belong.

The problem with these questions aren't that they are asking for a book, it's that they don't describe anything about the problem the user is having, or rather why the user is asking the question, to afford a useful response. They're like asking, "tell me what book will teach me everything and anything about Java." Where to begin? Questions must narrow the scope down to a specific problem, otherwise, they don't belong here.

Because the two cited questions are incomplete in this respect, they're not real questions. They'd be "not constructive" if they had asked something like:

  • "What's your favorite way to study for Exam 486?"
  • "Exam 487 really sucks, how am I supposed to study for this stupid exam?"
  • "How does Exam 486 make you feel (as a programmer)?"
  • "What are some tips and tricks for overcoming my inability to take Exam 487 seriously?"
  • "My co-worker/buddy/priest/cat says X book is the best for Exam 486. Help me prove him/her/it wrong."

Without expertise in the subject matter, how do people (especially moderators who might have to act on a flag) know if there is a singular "canonical" book on the question?

That's not the guideline for books, and it's not up to anyone (much less moderators) to determine ahead of time (or during the act of moderation) whether there is a single canonical book for a subject.

Instead, mimicking the guidelines in "Good Subjective, Bad Subjective", and as I described in "What's up with all the book recommendation flags?", the important things are:

  • the topic asked about is capable of providing a canonical book on the subject. The application of this criteria requires common sense. Java doesn't count. PHP doesn't count. NLP for Big Data probably does. F# or any other boutique language probably does. If someone's really in doubt whether something counts, do an Amazon.com search for the subject. If there's over 10,000 hits, it doesn't count.

  • the questions sufficiently describes a situation or problem space that invites converging on a small number of correct answers. "What are some good books on F#?" sucks. "Coming from a purely C# background, I'm trying to add F# to my repertoire. What is the definitive [read: canonical] book for getting up to speed with idiomatic F#?" doesn't, or at least sucks a lot less. If in doubt, wait. If the question attracts dozens of answers, that's a problem. If it settles on 3–5, awesome. If there's a dozen but only a couple of really stand-out answers, cull the herd and protect the question if necessary.

Neither of these guidelines require domain-specific knowledge of the question; just an understanding of how to ask a good question, which is something anyone moderating (diamond or otherwise) should have a good handle on.

What happens to topic areas covered by a small number of resources now (such as the latest language or library) down the road, when it is more popular and prevalent? Might resource requests, perhaps, be too localized since the available (and perhaps even what is considered canonical) change over the course of time?

Irrelevant: Stack Exchange is designed to handle changing answers, even rapidly changing answers, through frictionless editing. Answers for pretty much any subject or problem change over time.

Problems arise trying to keep questions up to date when there are dozens of posts to maintain, which is why there are guidelines and technical features that kick in once a question starts getting over 15-30 answers. Per the guidelines for book recommendation questions, this is a non-issue for them.

So unless there's some other reason, not mentioned, to shut them down now, I don't see anything that's cause for a policy change.

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I see your point about NARQ versus NC. The reason I closed as NC was because bad subjective questions are defined as NC (Questions that do not meet enough of these six guidelines will be closed as "Not Constructive"). Honestly, though, NC contains a lot of things that might actually be NARQ and is rather ambiguous. –  Thomas Owens Oct 11 '12 at 12:03
    
everything I said, but better. –  Ryathal Oct 11 '12 at 12:42
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this is the first time when I miss the bounty feature at per-site meta. I wish I could cast +100 or +200 rep as a bounty for this analysis. Heck, even +400 - this is one of the most educative answers I ever read –  gnat Oct 11 '12 at 17:15
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Actually, having a policy that you shouldn't ask for a reference, but ask for a solution might be a good policy. But I think we would have to do a few other things if we handle it that way:

We shouldn't close questions as NARQ if they can be answered by a reference. Because even though the full answer is a book, the answer on programmers would not be a book, but a reference to a book with an explanation of how the book can solve the problem. We shouldn't both forbid people to ask questions that require a book to answer and also not allow them to ask for a reference to a book that has the answer, when such a book exists.

Since any question would be answerable by either a reference or directly, we should then feel free to edit questions to remove an explicit reference request, and instead say something like "Can anyone answer or provide a reference for...". Assuming that such an edit would result in a valid question, which isn't always true. ("Can anyone answer or provide a reference for deciding what language I should learn?")

Of course, answers would still have to be more than just a link. This would actually be a bit easier if the problem the question is solving is clearer, since it could explain briefly why the book would solve the problem, or why that particular book is best.

One advantage of doing all of this is that it would not require moderators to determine if a reference is canonical when it gets flagged, which is too hard for a small group of moderators to do for all possible questions. Instead the burden would be on those who answer the question to provide a reasonable answer.

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Actually, having a policy that you shouldn't ask for a reference, but ask for a solution might be a good policy That's the current policy. We shouldn't close questions as NARQ if they can be answered by a reference. We don't, we closed questions when they only ask for a reference, and don't give us enough to edit them and make them ask about the problem instead. we should then feel free to edit questions to remove an explicit reference request Feel free! If the question has enough info describing the actual problem, and the reference request is tangential, just remove it. –  Yannis Rizos Oct 9 '12 at 22:17
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No I don't think our resource request policies are insufficient. The questions that were closed were bad questions, using them as impetus for revising our resource request policy doesn't make sense to me. We don't question policies when we close "how would i develop a facebook app?" or "how do i turn my awesome web app idea into an app?" we close them as bad questions and move on. Though it definitely wouldn't hurt to make them more visible and link them along with the shopping list post in the FAQ if they aren't already.

AS for how mods should handle questions they don't know anything about, I don't think book questions would be substantially different in that regard than any other question. Knowing whether a canonical book exists isn't required, if you know one exists write an answer otherwise the question exists to find that potential book, none may exist and the question may get no answers, but that doesn't require action from moderators. The only judgement a moderator would need to make is if the question is asking too broad a question, and if they are unsure between mod chat and meta you should be able to find someone with more insight.

The too localized issue seems a bit nit picky everything in programming changes over time. Should windows 8 questions be closed because two years from now windows 9 will be the big thing? Answers can be added/edited to keep information up to date, if that fails another option may be asking a new question and closing the old as a dupe. I don't think massive popularity swings are common enough for this to cause enough issue to truly be a problem that can't be handled on a case by case basis when it happens.

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No our current policy on how we handle resource requests is not sufficient because not enough users are aware of it

From my experience with the SE sites, users learn first by the actions of other users, 2nd by the faq, and 3rd by Meta.

The policy may exist on meta that resource requests are valid if they are looking for a very specific resource, but its not mentioned in the FAQ, and I see resource requests getting closed almost daily on the site.

When a question comes up which does meet those standards, such as the ones you pointed out, its likely to get closed anyways because there are many users who are not aware of the fact there is a meta post outlining specific cases where resource requests are allowed. From their point of view, they see almost all resource requests getting closed, and the FAQ doesn't appear to have anything specific about exceptions. It's only users that have been pointed to the meta post before, or ones that have bothered to take the time to look for a question about resource requests on meta that will actually be aware of the policy.

If you want to allow specific resource requests, add something to the FAQ that specifically outlines in what cases resource requests are allowed. Perhaps revisit maple_shaft's suggestion to Add the definition of a “shopping list/request” to the FAQ.

If not, deny all resource requests and make that clear in the meta questions that the answers to those questions are no longer valid.

But don't hide the rules behind when a resource request is or isn't allowed in a meta post, and expect users to follow it.

(PS. Personally I like resource requests and would prefer the keeping the rule and adding something to the FAQ to make it clear which resource requests are or aren't allowed. I find them some of the most valuable content around, and frequently my "practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face" is that I need a resource to accomplish a specific task, and know they exist, but don't know how to find them or how to evaluate them.)

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