I recently realized that we have some contradictory documentation on our site (and, probably, contradictory beliefs and opinions among users) about the topicality of questions asking for off-site references. In the interests of consistency, and of ensuring that we don't offer contradictory advice to new users, I'd like to propose that:
we take this opportunity to discuss and vote on what our actual policy regarding such questions should be, so that we can get everybody on roughly the same page, and
The current situation
When voting to close a question as off-topic, one of the three "canned" close reasons that one can choose currently reads:
Requests for literature, software or similar recommendations are off-topic here. For details, see: Do we want “literature recommendations” and similar “list/subjective questions”?
The close reason text links to our very first meta question, whose top-voted answer, written by Stack Exchange Director of Community Development Robert Cartaino, states in no uncertain terms that "You don't want this here." Together, the close reason and the linked meta thread certainly give, at least to a casual reader, the impression that all requests for off-site resources are categorically off-topic here.
On the other hand, we also have a reference-request tag (with 263 unclosed questions, as of this writing) whose tag wiki, while citing the very same meta thread from 2011, actually describes a much more nuanced policy that only open ended "big list" style requests (like "What's your favorite introductory crypto book?") should actually be considered off-topic, whereas requests that can be definitely answered (like "Where is scheme X officially defined?") should in fact be allowed.
Finally, the "What topics can I ask about here?" page in our help center, which is supposed to be the definitive description of what's on-topic at this site, currently makes absolutely no mention at all of literature or reference requests in any way.
Thus, we're in the somewhat uncomfortable situation of having the site interface (specifically, the "vote to close" dialog) advising people to close reference requests as off-topic for a reason that:
- is not backed up by the supposedly definitive description of our site scope in the help center, and
- can be interpreted in a way that seems to contradict the reference-request tag wiki and the current consensus on meta.
History and past discussion
Both the current canned close reason and, a bit paradoxically, the reference-request tag wiki link to our very first meta question from July 2011:
The top-voted answer to this question, by Robert Cartaino, could be fairly summarized with the single word "no." However, it's worth noting that Robert's answer specifically talks about open-ended "Big List™ questions" like "what books should I read", not about e.g. requests for a specific reference document.
Nonetheless, that meta thread does appear to have created the impression, at least among some users, that all requests for off-site resources were forbidden here. This impression is evident in the subsequent meta question, posted in September 2013, about the existence of the reference-request tag:
The consensus established in that discussion appears to be that, while open-ended "big list" questions (like "What's your favorite introductory crypto book?") indeed are and should remain off-topic, specific reference requests that can be definitely answered (like "Where is scheme X officially defined?") should in fact be allowed.
The same issue was again raised here on meta (by a new user, who again appears to have been under the impression that all reference requests were considered off-topic here) in June last year:
The answers to that question again cite and affirm the consensus from 2013 that specific reference requests are on-topic here.
The advice currently given in the reference-request tag wiki matches and appears to be based on the consensus established in those two meta discussions, although, oddly enough, the tag wiki doesn't actually link to either of them, but only to the one from 2011.
Meanwhile, earlier last year, we voted on our canned "off-topic" close reasons:
The current "requests for recommendations" close reason (quoted above) came in second, at 10 votes for and one against, replacing an earlier similar canned close reason that used to read "reference recommendations" instead of "literature, software or similar recommendations".
In fact, one of the stated reasons for the changed wording was to "distance it from on-topic reference-request questions". In my personal opinion, however, that attempt was not particularly successful (as also indicated by the June meta question) — the close reason, as currently written, still appeasr to suggest that all requests for references to off-site literature are off-topic.
This close reason is quite commonly used; within the last 90 days, it was used to close 47 questions, or 12.5% of all closed questions during that period (source, 10k+ only). Many new users will see it, either on their own closed questions or on those asked by others. Established users with access to the closing and flagging tools will take it as guidance on which questions should be closed. If it does not clearly communicate our actual policy, it should IMO definitely be fixed.
What should we do?
As there appears to be some genuine disagreement on what exactly our policy regarding such questions is or should be, I'm going to take SEJPM's advice and post my own proposal below to be voted on. Of course, if anybody has a better suggestion, please feel welcome to post your own answers too.
Following SEJPM's suggestion, I'd like to propose that, in one month from now (on 29th May 2017), the top-voted answer should be considered to reflect current community consensus, and enacted accordingly, provided that it has reached a score of at least +6 with at least twice as many upvotes as downvotes.
In any case, whatever we actually decide the policy should be, I do hope that we'll resolve the apparent inconsistencies between the canned close reasons, the help center and the relevant tag wikis. In particular, if we wish to include references from those places to meta discussions, we should take care to actually link to something that clearly documents all aspects of the current consensus, not just to an old discussion that has since been clarified and amended elsewhere.
After a month of discussion and polling, it looks like the proposal to allow (some) open-ended reference requests and close the rest as duplicates enjoys community consensus as defined above, with a score of 8 votes for (and none against) as of this writing. In the interest of clarity, let me attempt to summarize the key points of the winning proposal below, as I understand them:
Requests for specific literature references (e.g. "Who invented X?" or "Where is Y officially defined?") are on-topic, as described here and here. Such questions should generally be tagged with the reference-request tag.
Open-ended literature recommendation requests (e.g. "What introductory crypto books would you recommend?") are generally off-topic, as described here, except as noted below.
As a specific (new!) exception to the previous rule, the community may choose to establish and curate specific "canonical" Q&A pages for commonly asked literature recommendations, similar to e.g. "The Definitive C++ Book Guide and List" on Stack Overflow. Other open-ended recommendation requests should be closed as duplicates of the appropriate canonical question, where one exists.
Such canonical questions (and their answers) should be marked as Community Wiki by ♦ moderators (ordinary users can only do that for answers), both to indicate that they are collaboratively maintained by the entire Crypto.SE community, and also to prevent votes on them from artificially inflating their original authors' reputation. (Votes on CW posts do not give any rep.)
No specific procedure (yet) exists for proposing or creating such canonical recommendation questions, but it should be done "in a coordinated way" where strong demand for such a Q&A clearly exists. If any disagreement on the appropriateness and desirability of a particular question arises, the matter should (as usual) be discussed on meta.
The current canned off-topic close reasons and the help center should be updated to make all this clear, e.g. as suggested here (but with the "canonical recommendation Q&A" exception, as described above, also included in the help center text).
Any corrections or clarifications to the summary above are welcome.