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Update:

This site has passed the final evaluation! Barring any technical delays, Bioinformatics SE should go public sometime this week.

Great work everyone!


(original post)

Spread the word. In less than a week, this site will undergo a private beta evaluation. I had to postpone the pro tem nomination thread — typically posted today — because there simply isn't a large enough community signed on to support this site.

We need to increase your numbers. Typically we need about 150 questions in three weeks of private beta to be considered viable. That number is not arbitrary — it's the minimum bar of activity we've needed for a site to remain viable in the 180+ sites we've launch. And that's a bare minimum.

You have less than half that.

Fair warning: Simply having the same people ask more questions is not sustainable and not a solution for giving the appearance of organic growth. You need more users.

What can you do to help?

We've got a week, so nobody is writing this site off. I just wanted to give you this heads up in case there's a group of users waiting in the wings for this site to go public. Spread the word — We need more users NOW. This is the final stage we use to determine if there is enough interest to sustain a healthy site.

Pass the word. We. need. more. users. now.

Good luck!

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  • $\begingroup$ Did the other 180 sites have a big community in other sites? $\endgroup$ – llrs May 30 '17 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ 77 in not smaller than half of 150, but I got the point... $\endgroup$ – Kamil S Jaron May 30 '17 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ I tried to spread the word by posting comments pointing to this site under bioinformatics questions in other stackexchange sites that hadn't got a satisfactory answer, but I realize that this site is still private. How can I efficiently attract users if I need to send individual invitations? $\endgroup$ – bli May 31 '17 at 9:33
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    $\begingroup$ Something I've only recently noticed: I can invite people to participate in this private beta by filling in the "invite fellow experts" form at the right hand side of the main page. $\endgroup$ – gringer May 31 '17 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ Konrad raises a good point. Most of the target audience for this site won't be on SE. Signing up for a private beta is not as simple as all that if you're not an active SE user so that might be a significant hurdle to overcome. Would it be possible to make it a public beta first and then see if it ever graduates as opposed to killing the site while still private? I expect to be very active here, but would need more questions closer to my particular area of expertise and that would take a broader audience. $\endgroup$ – terdon May 31 '17 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ Since it doesn't seem like anyone wants me to add it into the "question" itself, here's a link to the current question count (112 at the time of posting this comment). $\endgroup$ – gringer Jun 2 '17 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ "You have less than half that." --> Where do you see the question count? Do you look at the same number as in the link given by gringer? (honest question, just to make sure we are looking at the same count) $\endgroup$ – Franck Dernoncourt Jun 3 '17 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ Are we going to close the site in a week? $\endgroup$ – SmallChess Jun 3 '17 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ Robert presumably doesn't want to update the question as the situation changes. $\endgroup$ – gringer Jun 4 '17 at 7:32
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You need more users.

Then make the site public.

It’s as simple as that.

Unlike other Beta SE sites, there are already large, competing Bioinformatics Q&A sites on the internet1, so unlike for other sites people won’t go out of their way to subscribe to a private site here. There’s simply not enough demand.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that the competing Q&A sites are very unsatisfactory for various reasons. But they exist, and they represent large parts of the professional bioinformatics community. A private Bioinf.SE isn’t an attractive competition. In order to become attractive it has to offer more than the competition, not less. This means: open the site, and implement crucial, missing usability features.

Robert, you’ve been in this business a while, you know how communities work. So I’m honestly surprised that this comes as a shock to anybody at Stack Exchange.

It’s worth noting that Stack Exchange should have a vested commercial interest in successful communities. And while I appreciate the extent to which commercial interests have taken a backseat to community building at Stack Exchange, maybe it’s worth considering the pros of giving some support to a Bioinformatics.SE community.


1 I count at least four: Biostars, Bioconductor Support, /r/bioinformatics (etc), and SEQanswers.

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    $\begingroup$ Strongly agree. Given the apparent number of bioinfo.SE area 51 proposals it would be a shame for this site to get closed before giving it a proper (i.e., public and more than 2 weeks) chance at succeeding. $\endgroup$ – Devon Ryan May 31 '17 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, basically this. First, a lot of old good questions have been asked at biostar. They are rarely asked again here. Second, between a 8-year-old platform open to public and a two-week-old site in private beta, it is no-brainer for most casual users to choose the former option. No matter how good some think this SE is, it won't take over biostar in months at least, not to speak two weeks in private beta. $\endgroup$ – user172818 May 31 '17 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ I don't totally get the concept of 'private beta', so it is by invitation only? Why not just make it public? $\endgroup$ – Michael May 31 '17 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ We are not going to launch a proposed site still in a "proving phase" on an unsuspecting public. Signing on for a controlled private beta is how we develop this site and this community in preparation for opening day... not to have the opening day first. Besides, simply going public has never caused the spontaneous bump in traffic like you might expect. $\endgroup$ – Robert Cartaino May 31 '17 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Robert Is there any experience moving people from one community to others? It is hard to get people register in a private beta if they've never been in SE $\endgroup$ – llrs Jun 1 '17 at 7:17
  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't they just need to sign in with google/facebook/etc. credentials? $\endgroup$ – Michael Jun 1 '17 at 7:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael I am not sure how the private beta work, but let's say that bioinformatics is not actively displayed. Only if you search for "site:bioinformatics.stackexchange.com" which then display the log in which says: "To log in, you must have commited to the Area 51 site proposal and received the invitation email." $\endgroup$ – llrs Jun 1 '17 at 8:03
  • $\begingroup$ @RobertCartaino “Besides, simply going public has never caused the spontaneous bump in traffic like you might expect.” Of course not. Community growth takes time. But for bioinformatics this community already exists, it’s just elsewhere. Sure, bioinformatics is not entirely unique in this regard. I still think that the growth of a bioinformatics.SE site would be much steeper than for other communities. In particular since many in this community used to be on SE before they migrated away with Biostars. $\endgroup$ – Konrad Rudolph Jun 1 '17 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ Note: It's not exactly by invitation only. All people from outside can still register when you send them the Visit link. I've commented on that reddit post, so hopefully more people will join. $\endgroup$ – kenorb Jun 1 '17 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ @RobertCartaino Looking at Area 51 now area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/109245/bioinformatics it seems like the site is still not getting enough traffic/users, despite the public release? $\endgroup$ – Chris_Rands Jul 12 '17 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Chris_Rands I don't know what you mean by "not getting enough." To get a custom design...? No — See Graduation, site closure, and a clearer outlook on the health of SE sites $\endgroup$ – Robert Cartaino Jul 12 '17 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ @RobertCartaino Ah thank you for the link, I was merely basing this on the red "Needs Work" flags on Area 51, but I was not clear on the process actually $\endgroup$ – Chris_Rands Jul 12 '17 at 18:27
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I don't think we're getting a good representation of questioners among the people who are able to participate in the private beta. Bioinformatics is too broad for a small private beta to work well.

You're asking for more users among the people who have already committed to participate in the site, which is only a bit over 200. 100 of those users have a high profile in other sites (at least, but pretty close to 100), which means that current users are more likely to be answerers than questioners.

It feels fake for me to ask questions that I already know the answer to, and yet the questions that are most often asked on bioinformatics forums (and most useful to bioinformaticians) are the ones that are frequently established knowledge in a different area. For the questions that I do have, it's unlikely that a large number of other committed bioinformaticians have the precise specialisation required to provide useful answers.

I could perhaps take some questions from BioStars, SeqAnswers, and the nanopore community forums, but that does not feel like the ethically-correct thing to do. I wouldn't be asking questions that I want to know the answer to, and a fairly good answer is likely to already be available on the other sites (after spending ages wading through the crud).

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  • $\begingroup$ I think its perfectly legitimate to ask here questions that are already asked and answered elsewhere (provided the original version is linked): this enriches this site and gives these "FAQ" more visibility, makes them easier to find. I see stack exchange partly as a repository for FAQ, partly as a site to get expert answers on more particular issues. Both are useful. I particularly benefit from the "FAQ repository" aspect of stackoverflow regarding programming issues. $\endgroup$ – bli May 31 '17 at 9:25
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    $\begingroup$ It is absolutely legitimate to ask and answer your own question only to share knowledge! It is in fact actively encouraged on the Stack Exchange sites. Please do so! $\endgroup$ – terdon May 31 '17 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, this is a culture I'm really not familiar with. I'll see what I can do about changing the way I approach this site. $\endgroup$ – gringer May 31 '17 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ Two very good points to highlight: "more likely to be answerers than questioners" and "does not feel like the ethically-correct thing to do". $\endgroup$ – zx8754 May 31 '17 at 11:14
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    $\begingroup$ done; I've highlighted those points in my answer $\endgroup$ – gringer May 31 '17 at 11:16
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see anything ethically wrong with reproducing content with attribution. Why not? And I certainly see nothing wrong with reproducing a question and just asking the same thing here. Why would it be ethically wrong? $\endgroup$ – terdon May 31 '17 at 13:09
  • $\begingroup$ It's stealing traffic from a different site, generates reputation with minimal effort, and can end up being attributed to the copier rather than the original source. An extreme example of that would be GallowBoob on reddit. There are people on SeqAnswers (and probably also BioStars) who emphasise cross-posts, and appear to be pointing them out as bad things (e.g. see quora.com/…). I'd rather not alienate Biostar users before we're even out of beta, if I can help it. $\endgroup$ – gringer May 31 '17 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ Or after we're out of it! Absolutely. But why would reproducing content with attribution be a bad thing? But OK, say that can be misconstrued, why would it be wrong to ask the same question? You don't need to copy anything, just ask a question and get answers here. $\endgroup$ – terdon May 31 '17 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ A person would be gaining fake reputation; reputation that is acquired because they just happened to pick a good, popular question before anyone else on the StackExchange site. $\endgroup$ – gringer May 31 '17 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ Attribution can be ignored, and a verbose, well-researched question transferred across to StackExchange would make it more likely that people wouldn't click on (or notice) the attributed link. Search engines would be more likely to attribute the question (or answers) to the most frequented site, regardless of the origin of the question. This is a problem in research papers (e.g. see gringene.org/portfolio.html#MAOA), and I have trouble believing that StackExchange would be immune to this. $\endgroup$ – gringer May 31 '17 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ @gringer The important thing is that the best answers are easy to find and recognised as good answers. The primary goal of Q&A sites are to provide answers. Answers available in more sites means better accessibility of answers. Who gets reputation or what site gets traffic are secondary issues, in my opinion. $\endgroup$ – bli Jun 1 '17 at 8:48
  • $\begingroup$ @gringer "the person would be gaining fake reputation; " -> you can make the question community wiki. $\endgroup$ – Franck Dernoncourt Jun 3 '17 at 0:40
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I think this is a little bit the wrong question, it should be "Is there a large enough community to support two almost identical sites." The core of the problem is that there is a community already on biostars and in principle all the users you want are already here: https://www.biostars.org/user/list/?sort=reputation&limit=all%20time&q=

Some have predicted that this beta might not work, simply because there is already this established site, and I mostly agree with them. Bioinformatics is a scientific field with a growing but limited audience compared to other topics like programming. In my opinion, it is unlikely that there exists a large potential scientific community that is so far put off by the technical limitations and other shortcomings that surely BioStars.org has, and that is also able and willing to invest time into QA. In other words, the people who are available are most likely already engaged, and for most of the other scientist the tiny differences are marginal compared to large scientific problems of interest.

To make people transition to the SE brand, you needed to offer them some added value. Indeed the SE technology is superior, but that is not good enough. Certainly BioStars has a superior user base from interested beginner to PhD students to senior researchers and professors, with enthusiasm and experience in Q&A. That knowledge base will certainly attract more questions because there is a much better chance to get a competent answer. Just to add some figures, on biostars, there were >300 posts this week, and >60 today, from a total of 35,000 users.

What is more, as it turns out, one cannot take over the reputation from the other site, thus I have decided that I am not available for doing much on bioinformatics.SE, because why start out as a rookie here again?

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  • $\begingroup$ How do you use your reputation in Biostars? $\endgroup$ – llrs May 30 '17 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ I am a moderator, I like to delete spam, suspend users, close and delete posts, edit posts, move posts ;) also it looks good on my CV. $\endgroup$ – Michael May 30 '17 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ But being moderator is independent of the reputation AFAIK. Here you can vote to close, and delete from almost the beginning, editing from the beginning, and you don't need to move post unless you become elected. And being a moderator here it will look as good $\endgroup$ – llrs May 30 '17 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ Hm, then it just looks good... $\endgroup$ – Michael May 30 '17 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed I would sometimes prefer the vote-to-close over being the sole responsible. I remember though when I was trying to comment in another SE site, I even could not do that. Also, there are other things here I don't like, like the stupid "You can only edit a comment for 5minutes" thing. $\endgroup$ – Michael May 30 '17 at 21:24
  • $\begingroup$ Well you can always add a new one. Yes you can't post comments in other people question unless you have 50 reputation. But it is easily obtained if your questions or answers are good. check it out here $\endgroup$ – llrs May 30 '17 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ Biostars does have an existing user base, yes. Personally, I find it extremely hard to use and despite really enjoying Q&A (I am very active on the various sites here), I never really got into biostars. And while I have on occasion found useful answers there—even a few excellent ones—overall, I've always been very disappointed with the noise and lack of quality of Biostars when compared to successful SE sites. Point is, different strokes for different folks. $\endgroup$ – terdon May 30 '17 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ [cont] There are way, way more bioinformaticians out there than are active on Biostars and there, as in SE, the site is supported by essentially a small, core set of users who enjoy answering questions and are knowledgeable enough to do so. It's that kind of relatively small group of committed users that we need here; there's no reason to bring in everyone from Biostars. We just need a similar group of experts. And judging by the amount of bioinformatics questions I've seen on other SE sites already, not eveyone is on Biostars or SeqAnswers either. $\endgroup$ – terdon May 30 '17 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ Honestly, I don't see the level of noise as very distracting, also we are doing our best to keep it low, I am a mod myself. There are many excellent folks there, and they are - imho - the best experts in the field, that at the same time have enough time and motivation, to do QA besides writing papers and grant applications. I don't believe that there is a large cryptic pool of labile researchers that have both expertise and intention, and that could be recruited in addition. But please go ahead and try. $\endgroup$ – Michael May 30 '17 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael I'm not the only one who put biostars on his CV I guess :P It's always crazy when interviewing places (or now people interviewing with me) to constantly bump into people who "know" me from biostars. $\endgroup$ – Devon Ryan May 30 '17 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael I'm sure you do do your best to keep it low. But that's just it, to someone used to the SE model, the noise is still very high. The answer I want is as often found lost in some obscure comment as in an actual answer. And of course there are some extremely knowledgeable people on biostars! The "best" experts in the field might be pushing it, but experts yes, absolutely. I dunno, as I said, I never enjoyed Biostars but got addicted to SE very fast. It just comes down to what a person prefers. You can't even downvote on Biostars! $\endgroup$ – terdon May 31 '17 at 9:28
  • $\begingroup$ Just to clarify, I meant there's an intersection:" (best experts in the field) AND (time and motivation)" $\endgroup$ – Michael May 31 '17 at 12:05
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    $\begingroup$ With respect to down-votes, this will also put off some people, and many people on biostars explicitly wanted to remove this, as they value a more friendly community, possibly because bioinformatics is by and large an academic community. People who favor learning by positive and negative feed-back, like me, might appreciate down-votes. However it is not clear that having down-votes would attract more people than it repels. As I said earlier, I appreciate the superior feature set of SE, but it is not very relevant for the depth of scientific discourse. $\endgroup$ – Michael May 31 '17 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ People interested in the conversation on biostars regarding this post should see here $\endgroup$ – Devon Ryan May 31 '17 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael that's fine, which is why we need both communities. The idea that downvotes are "unfriendly" is a misunderstanding. Instead, they are very useful and the only way we have of pushing wrong information to the bottom and letting the correct answer float to the top. So those who consider having their errors pointed out "unfriendly" should indeed stick with biostars. Those who feel otherwise can come here. And this, unlike biostars, is not a site for scientific discourse. That's the point. This is strictly a Q&A site. No discussion, no chit-chat. $\endgroup$ – terdon May 31 '17 at 13:11
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I don't understand why there should be a high activity for the site to be useful. I get that no activity at all can be a problem, but so far, this site has been useful to me: I asked questions and got relevant answers in a reasonable time. That's what stack exchange is all about, isn't it?

I see that 90% of questions have answers so far, and that there are more than 2 answers per question in average. More relevant would be the rate of questions having an accepted answer, though.

Small communities have merits. I think that if the activity is too intense, it gets sometimes difficult to have one's question answered, because questions get easily swamped in the flow of questions. So far, with a few questions per day, I'm able to read all question titles: I won't miss a question I could answer or that could be interesting for me.

I guess the need for moderators is dependent on the site's activity: if the activity is low, the site does not need many moderators.

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    $\begingroup$ I imagine there is a certain overhead to managing every site. It's not economically feasible to manage many sites that have negligible traffic. You also need many active users to set a relatively high bar to becoming a moderator. If there are few users, it's easy to become a moderator and that potentially leads to problems. $\endgroup$ – burger May 31 '17 at 23:58

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