So we've had a bit of a debate in chat between the mods and some users (more users in chat would be awesome) about reference request posts. I thought, having slept on it for two nights, I would lay out the options as I see them, so here goes.

Firstly, declared bias: I am probably against reference questions on the balance of things (although I understand the desire for them). That said, it's not my opinion that matters, I'm only telling you so you know I'm biased!

The case for reference requests

Plus sides:

  1. There is a growing community of very smart people here who know a good crypto book when they see one (or after they've read it).
  2. SE's voting system makes seeing majority opinion very easy.
  3. Reference requests are attractive resource for new users to the site. "Look, experts recommending books, I should read that".

Down sides:

  1. As questions on SO, book requests are mega voted. Our top questions are currently full of pretty good real questions.
  2. Other resources on the internet provide this feature. Amazon reviews, IACR's book reviews, personal blogs etc.
  3. Copycat questions, or "I want to ask about book reviews for XYZ". Overrunning the site with these, whilst it'll look good statistically, will look very poor quality wise and we now have excellent quality.
  4. Maintenance. SE employee Grace Note wrote this essay on gaming.se's meta, a site where game recommendations were frequently asked for. In short, there are problems with maintaining a "big list" that do not stretch to the question format we have. In terms of SE this means the question would regularly be bumped to the home page by edits ... or it will get forgotten (the answers get stale), which is even worse.

The possible solutions

  1. Do not allow any kind of reference request at all. I don't think we actually have to do this anyway, because of point 2:

  2. Use chat. We have a chat room and the rules there are much more relaxed. The chat room does not have to so rigidly on topic and between moderators and a couple of community members we have already used it once to talk about books. The only real rule of chat is "be nice". Also, did I mention we're running chatcasts (organised chat sessions)? One of these could include favourite introductory crypto reference? Yes?

  3. Attach recommendations to tag wikis. Did you know we have tag wikis? For example, here's one (haha, chosen at random, get it?). You, that's right, you, can propose changes to fill these out (or edit them directly if you have enough rep) and there is nothing to say we cannot put recommended reading in there. Look at PHP or C++ on SO.

    The question becomes how do we source any such book recommendations and is there a place we can provide generic, topic-introduction crypto books? We could use a meta question for the purpose of sourcing (or chat, as in point 2). To the latter, we're struggling perhaps maybe. I think tag wikis provide a nice niche way of topic focused books that are hard to find and fill the intermediate crypto resource problem.

  4. We use a question on the main site. This is my least favourite solution by an awfully long way; I think for it to work there has to be one and only one such question and all resource recommendations need to go into it. By nature we would need to set the question as community wiki, which SE are not keen on at all. I do not think at this point in time we have any CW questions and I am not keen to set a precedent.

    Aside from the problem with vote inflation, we also have runaway answers. After so many answers, a question actually has "pages" of answers underneath it, that's not really so good. It means you have to look through pages. How many of you like reading page 40 of a phpBB thread? Not me. It means book recommendations on page 40 are not likely to be seen, meaning they won't be upvoted, defeating the purpose of using the voting system. There are not any real practical ways we can enforce this. Keeping the answer pages short means combining book/answer into topics, again reducing the point of voting to precisely 0.

    Finally, I mentioned locking in chat, which would prevent vote inflation on the question and additional answers being posted when applied. The purpose of locking is to (ideally temporarily) prevent edit wars on a post and vandalism where no other technique works. Applied to a post, nothing useful can be done to it (vote, edit, comment, delete, close). Applied to a question, this locks down the question but answers can still be edited/voted/commented.

    Using this tool in this way would represent an abuse of the mod powers in the view of SE, I expect, and I agree with them. It takes away the ability for the community to maintain the resource and as moderators we just shouldn't be doing that. The tool exists to prevent and stop abuse and should be used only for that purpose. To date, no post has been locked on crypto, ever (other than the stubs for migrated and merged questions, which automatically get this status), and in spite of discussing the idea, I think my viewpoint is now that we should not do this.

The question

There is a question in here and here it is - can we as a community agree a strategy for handling reference requests? And the main point I'm trying to ask - does this really need to be in a question/questions? Or can we use the various other tools we have (tag wikis, chat) to satisfy people's needs?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Just as a reference: Our (my) very first meta question about this topic. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 4:08
  • $\begingroup$ I added some links to the question, and did some more wording edits, which might have gone too far ... please have a look at the diff and feel free to revert any of my changes if they changed the meaning. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 4:11

3 Answers 3


This answer is springing up with a conversation that I've been having with NineFingers on this topic.

Given the choice, which problem would you rather have?

  • A site that has great content, but very little participation/interaction
  • A site with good to really good content that everyone wants to be a part of/contribute to/read/etc.

I argue that the latter is the better problem to have.

While currently the least favorite of the proposed suggestions, I think that #4 ("We use a question on the main site.") is currently the best suggestion to achieve the latter, and is the best thing for the health of crypto as it is now.

The reasoning is this; crypto is one of the SE sites, and while it (like other SE sites) has great content, it doesn't have the positioning/recognition/page views/whatever it deserves/needs to grow.

While unpopular, list/resource questions (as difficult as they are to maintain) get massively upvoted (good for SEO), get you into the multicollider (good for exposure), all of which are good things.

Now, this isn't to say that you should always allow these types of questions, but I think that having one question of this sort (marked Community Wiki, of course) that is actively maintained. Don't have individual answers be voted up down, have one accepted answer which is possibly updated as new items are added, and then those answers deleted.

Once you have this "established" list question and it serves it's purpose, close other list questions that come up as dupes; this will serve to show the person who's new to crypto "the list" and possibly get them even more involved.

They'll think "wow, I didn't know all this stuff was here!" and ultimately that translates to a better user experience, and better user retention, and possibly even better content for your site; if a user takes the time to read those items on "the list", they will inevitably come back with more questions, and some of them are going to prove to be real gems, or at the least, help flesh out the things that crypto should have but currently doesn't.

The last point to make is that everyone on a SE site, from Jeff to moderators down to newly registered users is active in the business of growing the site. Jeff makes decisions that help expand SE as a whole, moderators clean up questions, answers, comments, etc, to make content more pure (which translates to more attractive, so when someone sees that question for the first time, they don't think what a stinking pile it is) and new users can vote (well, shortly after they get the rep they can vote) which affects SEO.

Being a part of the business is something we should all be aware of as we ask, answer, vote, flag, edit, and collaborate to make any of the SE sites better.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not that sure about all of which are good things. Looking at the MultiCollider (the hot questions list behind the [Stack Exchange] button on the top left of the page), I mostly see not-so-good questions ... on most sites. This is why I seldom look there at all. Do we want to make our impression there with a "stupid question"? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 26, 2011 at 14:58

I fully agree that we should try to avoid the book recommendation collections in question form, and try to do this mostly in chat and tag wikis. These can be combined: Discuss the best books for a topic in chat, and then put the results into the tag wiki.

Also, often an answer to a question could be made better with a mention of a relevant book to read for further details. (Though the answer should still be self-contained as much as possible.) If you are answering any question yourself, think a moment if there is a relevant book, and feel free to add it. If you are reading someone else's answer and know a fitting book, add it as a comment (or maybe edit the answer).
(Though don't overdo this, we don't want every answer contain a book list.)

If we ever get a blog, we also could have reviews, bibliographies etc. there. (Having a blog requires a number of contributors who are ready to regularly contribute ... it looks like our userbase now is still too thin for this.) There might be a way to collaborate with the IT security blog for the time being, though it still would need someone who takes this into his hands (not one of the moderators, preferably).

For reviews on specific books, other places on the Internet are better, as Ninefingers said in the question. If you want to contribute a review, post it to one of those places (and link it in the chat or mention it in relevant answers or comments to those).

For example, I heard/read the complain that most crypto books have only a low number of reviews on Amazon: add one there, if you know a book.

Stack Exchange's mission is to Make the Internet a better place – this does not mean we have to replace the whole Internet.


I was one of the advocates of hosting a book review question as a community wiki on the main site. This is done on CS Theory a lot, and as predicated, they have ascending into the top questions.

When I made the suggestion, I didn't really put much thought into it. Thankfully our moderators do spend time thinking about the consequences of such things and have made a good case for not hosting such questions. I am not as strongly opposed but am perfectly content with avoiding them on the main page.


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