[R] Should there be an R-beginners list?

Yihui Xie xie at yihui.name
Sun Nov 24 20:04:43 CET 2013

I'm not aware of a discussion on this, but I would say no.
Fragmentation is bad. Further fragmentation is worse.


Actually I'd say all mailing lists except r-devel should be moving to
StackOverlow in the future (disclaimer: I'm not affiliated with it).
Mailing lists are good for a smaller group of people, and especially
good when more focused on discussions on development (including bug
reports). The better place for questions is a web forum. Both you and
I have been staying in these R mailing lists for a few years now. You
can recall how many times a user was asked to post to another mailing
list ("this is not an appropriate list to ask your question; please
post to r-such-and-such instead"), how many times you see something
like "Alternative HTML removed", how many times you see a post "Bla
Bla (was: Foo Bar)", and how many times users were reminded "Please
read the posting guide", "Please do read", and "PLEASE do read". But
it just does not help much even if you write "PLEASE DO READ".

Why do we have such problems in the mailing lists again and again? Is
that simply because users are not respecting the rules? I do not think
so. I believe that is the flaw of mailing lists. A mailing list is
managed by a small team (hey, Martin, thank you). On StackOverflow,
you simply edit the tags of a post to make it belong to a new "mailing
list" (you can post with tags "r+ubuntu+graphics", or "r+lattice",
etc). There is no need to request and wait for the system admin to
make a decision. Users can help themselves, and help others as well.
HTML can be good in many cases, actually. Who hates syntax
highlighting and R plots in an R question? You are free to ask a
question that is poorly formatted, and there are good chances that it
will be immediately edited by another experienced user. You are free
to yell in the comments asking for more details before posting a
formal answer. You can express "ah, this is a bad question" by
down-voting so that future readers know that guy screwed up and we
just let the world ignore the noise. It is like peer-review, and the
reviewers can help you improve your post. In a mailing list, when you
are done, you are done. You are forever written in history, right or
wrong, smart or stupid. You want to delete your record in the history?
No, no, gentleman, it was your fault not reading the post guide.

For me, I understand all the rationale behind the mailing list model.
I'm just saying, the primary goal for such a service is to discuss
issues about R, instead of issues induced by the mailing list itself.
We could have made some issues not directly related to R go away by
community efforts instead of giving instructions a million times,
given an appropriate platform.

Five years, 42,000 posts: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/tagged/r
I'm not terribly worried about transition from mailing lists to SO.

Sorry about the generalization of the original topic, but I hate using
a new title "Should there be R mailing lists? (was: Should there be an
R-beginners list?)"

Last but not least, I probably need to clarify that I benefited a lot
from the mailing lists in the past, and I truly appreciate it. I wrote
this with the future in mind, not the past. The past was good, and the
future can be better.

Yihui Xie <xieyihui at gmail.com>
Web: http://yihui.name
Department of Statistics, Iowa State University
2215 Snedecor Hall, Ames, IA

On Sun, Nov 24, 2013 at 11:13 AM, Bert Gunter <gunter.berton at gene.com> wrote:
> Folks:
> If this has been previously discussed and settled, please say so and
> refer me to the discussion. If you believe this to be inappropriate or
> otherwise frivolous, also please say so, as I do not wish to waste
> your time or this space.
> I write as a long time reader and sometimes contributor to r-help. Due
> to R's growth in usage by a broad data analysis community (engineers,
> scientists, social scientists, finance, "informaticians", as well as
> more "traditional" statisticians), this list seems to me to becoming
> deluged by requests for help by "casual" users and students for whom R
> is not going to be regularly or extensively used. I would characterize
> this group as having only basic statistical, programming, and data
> analysis skills. This is not meant as a criticism, and there are
> certainly many for whom this is inaccurate. But ...
> By and large, such users have not spend much time with R's docs,
> including tutorials or FAQ's. Many of their posts reflect this, and
> can be answered with basic replies or references to docs, to wit: What
> is the difference between "ifelse" and "if else"? FAQ 7.31. Confusion
> of data frames, matrices, and spreadsheet tables; etc.
> Would it be useful, then, to establish an R-beginners list
> specifically to absorb this traffic and free up R-help from what I
> would say was its original intent, to provide a forum for serious,
> more dedicated R users (Again, no criticism is intended here)?
> I realize that, whether or not this suggestion is worthwhile, there
> are several ways it could fail. First, too few might be interested in
> responding to posts on the new list. Second, too few might consider
> themselves "beginners" who post to it. Etc. So I would certainly say
> any such effort ought to be a pilot and tentative .
> I'll stop here. Again, criticize freely and/or send me off somewhere
> else to prior discussion. Or to where it should be discussed. Or just
> ignore, of course.
> Best,
> Bert
> --
> Bert Gunter
> Genentech Nonclinical Biostatistics
> (650) 467-7374
> ______________________________________________
> R-help at r-project.org mailing list
> https://stat.ethz.ch/mailman/listinfo/r-help
> PLEASE do read the posting guide http://www.R-project.org/posting-guide.html
> and provide commented, minimal, self-contained, reproducible code.

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