When I see a list question, I usually pick the "off topic" reason, as my understanding was they were chosen to be not in this site's scope. In addition, they are explicitly verboten in the FAQ, which the "off topic" reason links:

Please note the following types of questions are off-topic here:

  • Questions calling for a list of works, authors, …: What are all the books that have X? Who wrote about topic Y?

I'm seeing these often voted as "not-constructive" though, and was curious about the reasoning behind that selection.

  • I always wonder which myself. I think people use "not constructive" because it mentions polling. – Tony Meyer Feb 2 '12 at 5:14
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    On an unrelated note - on META you usually vote up or down to express agreement or disagreement with the proposal. How do I vote on questions like this that don't actually HAVE a specific proposal I can agree or disagree with? – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 2 '12 at 11:22
  • @DVK The usual vote reasons (researched; useful; clear) apply here as well (try hovering the arrows). – Alenanno Feb 2 '12 at 12:48
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    @Alenanno - I think these are generic descriptions from SE engine, not META specific – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 2 '12 at 14:39
  • @DVK See this answer I gave on Meta.Stackoverflow. If the question is not useful, not researched or not clear, it can be classified as such also on Meta. – Alenanno Feb 2 '12 at 14:45

List questions are AFAIK usually closed as off-topic, first because of the reason you stated, and second, because most list questions don't actually fit the exact definition of non-constructive (they don't solicit or are likely to lead to opinions/arguments etc... and most actually DO involve facts, references, or specific expertise).

BTW, it doesn't mean that a specific question can't be both off-topic AND not constructive at the same time ("What are the most interesting EU Star Wars books" would be a random example that I can think up right off the bat - this asks for a list of books, AND is based on subjective opinion to boot). In that case, one can pick whatever one feels is most appropriate as Alenanno said.

One possible area of confusion is the "polling" word in the "not constructive" definition. I don't know what StackExchange meant to include in "polling", but IMHO the common connotation for that term is asking for subjective opinions.

In other words, "Give me a list of works satisfying condition X" - where the rule of satisfying "condition X" is NOT subjective - is a list question but is not a poll and therefore can't be labeled as "not constructive". The threshold is specifically how subjective/opinion based "Condition X" (aka "where clause" in database terms) is.

P.S. I'll leave aside the rant about people voting to close questions that aren't meant to be lists OR polls and are instead existence "yes/no" questions (in database terms, "EXIST" queries) and in fact ARE NOT based on having received a solitary answer and no others.

  • You wrote "StackExcahange", just letting you know. :) – Alenanno Feb 2 '12 at 12:45
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    @Alenanno - Fixed, thanks! You can edit posts too and get badges and respect from that :) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 2 '12 at 14:39
  • I know, but I can't yet... Too little rep on here probably. :P – Alenanno Feb 2 '12 at 14:43
  • @Alenanno - hmm... on main site you should be able to suggest edits in either case, just wait for their approvals. May be meta works differently. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 2 '12 at 14:44
  • Probably! I'll wait for more rep to come in! :) – Alenanno Feb 2 '12 at 14:46
  • @Alenanno - based on your rep at English, that moment would be a Good Thing for the site :) We could always use better language skills here (starting with my posts) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 2 '12 at 14:48
  • You're an English speaker, technically, you know more than me! But if I can help, sure! :) – Alenanno Feb 2 '12 at 14:50
up vote 1 down vote accepted

Take your pick:

  • The FAQ explicitly rejects list questions. Therefore they are “off topic: Questions … are expected to generally relate … within the scope defined in the faq.”
  • Questions expecting a complete list for an answer are overly broad (you can't expect a single person to provide an exhaustive list), which is one of the conditions for not a real question.
  • Questions expecting a list of items (one per answer) or questions expecting only a partial set of answers (such as “is there an example”) are “not constructive: … not a good fit to our Q&A format. We expect answers to generally involve facts, references, or specific expertise; …”

The reason why the FAQ forbids list questions is not because we think they don't relate to the topic of the site; they are not off-topic in that sense. But we've found through experience that they do not lead to interesting answers. This fits the broad definition of “not constructive”.

I prefer to use “not constructive”, especially with askers who are new to the site, because closing a question as “off topic” and “not a real question” automatically casts a downvote on the question, but “not constructive” doesn't. The reasoning behind that downvote is that “off topic” often means “why did you even think to post that here”, and “not a real question” often means “what's this drivel”. “Not constructive” is more subtle; often questions that are “not constructive” could fare well as initial posts on a discussion forum, but don't work as questions expecting answers.

I'll take this opportunity to go through the various ways list questions are asked:

  • What are all the works with feature X? Only complete answers need apply.
  • What are all the works with feature X? One work per answer please.
  • What are some works with feature X?
  • What's an example of a work with feature X?
  • Are there any examples of a work with feature X?

The answer to the last question is invariably “yes”. The answer to the first question is invariably impossible to establish because no one knows all the answers (if it is possible for a single person to compile the answer, then this is not a list question, it's a factual question).

The formulations in between invite a large set of answers where everyone contributes one example at a time. The result is not a set of answers, it's a set of items. The voting reflects primarily who posted first, and also to some extent which works are not popular. How adequate a match the answer is for the request doesn't figure in the voting, as a rule. We had a lot of such questions in the early days of the beta on the site; question 1 is an example we've kept for posterity. When you go through it, please keep in mind that this is the best response we've had to a list question.

I discern a pattern where people who've seen lots of list questions hate them, and people who haven't love them. For example, I was initially rather in favor of allowing lists, with some requirement that they shouldn't be too broad. Yet I was concerned by their large number. Now, I've become dead set against list questions. Not that I don't think they can be interesting, but they don't fit on Stack Exchange. (Whether we can find a home for them in another form, perhaps on another site, should be the topic of other meta discussions.) A less personal data point: on our jumbo on/off-topic list, list questions were initially one of the most downvoted items, and has now gathered a few upvotes. It seems to be an acquired distaste.

  • As an aside - Question 1 (well developed languages) could - IMHO - be significantly improved by asking a deeper question, such as whether there is a specific correlation between a type of work or a type of author (ex-linguist?) resulting in a complete language. Or may be asking for a published research on the topic (which automatically removes "1 novel per answer" issue) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 3 '12 at 16:20
  • As far as your last paragraph - I understand completely WHY you feel that way, and if you asked me 1 year ago I'd likely agree with you. I merely think that the circumstances MAY have changed enough that there is a lot less danger of genuinely poor content. I think most people aren't so much in favor of wholesale list questions as in favor of a MUCH more nuanced approach. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 3 '12 at 16:23

You don't have a scheme; you choose the reason that fits most to that particular question.

For example, if it's Off Topic, it doesn't matter if there are polls, or if it's too localized, you simply close it as Off Topic.

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    Exactly. If the topic of a question is off-topic, the question's off-topic. Not constructive is for when the question's on-topic, asking a question, isn't too-localized, but still isn't a fit for the Stack Exchange format. – user366 Feb 2 '12 at 12:40
  • @MarkTrapp Yes. :) at first I was thinking of writing a longer answer, but that pretty much says it all. Adding wording would just be pointless... :D – Alenanno Feb 2 '12 at 15:09

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