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One of the key concepts that keeps coming up in our discussions of the site and its future is that of professionalism. Some, myself included, want to see a more professional focus for this site. Others argue that Stack Exchange generally seems to attract more of an amateur than a professional crowd.

Nonetheless, SE is a question and answer site that demands that answers should be objective and evidence based. And while answers that comprehensively prove their argument with well-supported citations of evidence are rare here, we should at least require that answers could in principle be supported by evidence of some kind. Otherwise, they are mere opinions, and this is not a forum for mere opinion. At very least, opinions should be an opinions about the interpretation of objective evidence, not simply thoughts off the top of someone's head.

I believe that this requirement for evidence-based answers implicitly requires that the focus of questions and answers be professional. But to support that, and to clarify arguments for a more professional approach to the site, we need to have a clear working definition of what we mean by professional. This question is to provide a place to propose such a definition.

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In your question title (and answer) you talk about the word "professional", but in the body of the question you talk about appropriately supporting answers. This is one of the tenets of Good Subjective, and why several SE sies have a "back it up" rule. While the SE blog post is talking about questions, see what it says about answers:

Great subjective questions inspire answers that explain “why” and “how”. The best subjective questions invite explanation. If you’re asking for a product recommendation of some kind, you want answers to contain detailed information about the features and how they can be used, and why you might want to choose one over the other. “How?” and “Why?” has more lasting value than a bunch of product-feature bullet points or a giant enumerated list, no matter how extensive. In contrast, the bad subjective questions let answerers get away with hit-and-run answers that maybe provide a name and a link — but fail to provide any sort of adequate explanation, context, or background. [...]

Great subjective questions insist that opinion be backed up with facts and references. Opinion isn’t all bad, so long as it’s backed up with something other than “because I’m an expert”, or “because I said so”, or “just because”. Use your specific experiences to back up your opinions, as above, or point to some research you’ve done on the web or elsewhere that provides evidence to support your claims. We like you. We want to believe you. But like Wikipedia itself, {% raw %}{{citation needed}}{% endraw %}. And good subjective questions make this clear from the outset: back it up!

Those (and the others listed in the blog post) are the properties we want questions and answers here to have. People with a professional mindset are more likely to produce such questions and answers. Whether people with a professional mindset are actually earning money from writing is a secondary consideration. I'm a professional writer, but I've also asked and answered questions about my non-professional writing activities, like blogging and fiction. The distinction isn't that I'm an amateur; it's that I'm approaching it in a way that works well for our site. On the other hand, I've known professional (employed) writers who lacked the rigor and thoughtfulness to write good Q&A.

Let's figure out how to encourage a professional mindset. If we do it well, we'll encourage both aspiring professionals and highly-competent amateurs to contribute productively.

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I would be loathe to use the word "professional" if it isn't necessary, I am more interested in answers that are rational, reasoned, or some distillation of proven experience, or clarification of putting accepted advice (like show don't tell) into practice or applying it to a current situation.

"Professional" to me indicates it IS your profession, and although my writing has been published for pay several times, I don't consider writing a profession; I am not making a living from it. I rewrote the brochures and advertisements for my university department's graduate recruitment programs (and tripled our previous response rate and doubled our recruitment), I wasn't paid a dime for those efforts, but objectively speaking, they produced the best results for any department, and began getting copied in form.

I think of my writing as a hobby, even if I sell it. My neighbor is an exterminator, with a machine shop in his shed, he plays with metal as a hobby. A few years ago he pulled a broken bicycle from the trash somewhere, and welded up a "limo bike" for fun, it was just an eight foot long bicycle with four foot handle bars, painted black and white, he was riding it around our neighborhood for the double-takes. Somebody offered him $200 for it. He took it, but he hasn't taken to calling himself a professional custom bicycle maker. I don't think "professional" or "professionalism" is exactly the right word.

  • But, as I pointed out in the post, we need some kind of objective criteria to judge the usefulness of questions. Otherwise we are just exchanging and voting on personal preferences, which is not what this site is supposed to be about. Professional intent provides a source of external criteria. If you have another name to suggest for it, please do. If you have another source of external criteria to suggest, please do. – Mark Baker Oct 27 '17 at 20:33
  • @MarkBaker I thought your other post about what is valid question answered this "usefulness" inquiry. I favor Einstein's razor: Answers should be as simple as possible, but not simpler. :-) I didn't find Stack Exchange until recently, but I like answering on the grounds that it might help people. So in my view, a useful question is one that is on-topic and a sincere query that interests at least the person writing it. So answering it helps a minimum of one person, and probably more, if I get multiple votes. What is the rationale for defining "useful" with any more complexity than that? – Amadeus Oct 27 '17 at 21:11
  • The rationale is effectiveness. Imagine someone asks a security question on SO. Someone gives an answer that is simple, well written, and wrong. Should that question be voted up by a bunch of people who don't understand the security implications? SO becomes a much less valuable resource if they do because its answers are not reliable. Professionalism says respect professional knowledge. It leads to answers that are reliable. Sure, its fun to give answers and get votes. But are those answers reliable? Could they be supported objectively if challenged? Will they lead to long term success? – Mark Baker Oct 27 '17 at 21:20
  • Perhaps I am picking on a bad analogy, but security questions (and answers) are far more objectively measured than writing questions (and answers). Writing is an exercise in applied psychology, hijacking a mind and persuading it to think and imagine something without letting it escape. True for ads, novels, movies and much non-fiction. But that is a squishy and subjective exercise in a field rife with bad science, so I doubt "objective criteria" to decide effectiveness can be determined. It is effective if many people subjectively believe it solves what is essentially an artistic problem. – Amadeus Oct 27 '17 at 21:50
  • I disagree. The effects of writing are harder to measure and harder to quantify, but that does not make them subjective. We write for a purpose and the very fact that it is hard to measure how well an individual piece of writing achieves its objectives means that we have need of professional standards to bring us closer to consistently achieving our objectives. We know a great deal about what works and does not work in writing. Professional writers are capable of achieving consistent results by following known-good practices. Amateurs simply seem unaware of this. – Mark Baker Oct 27 '17 at 22:12
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The most common way of distinguishing between professional and amateur is to say either that the professional does it for money and the amateur does it for love, or, more simply, that the professional is actually getting paid while the amateur is not.

The problem with these definitions is that the quality of work done by amateurs, in the sense of people who are not making any money at it, sometimes exceeds that of people who are making money. Questions and answer from people who are doing that kind of work, and from people who aspire to do it, should certainly be welcome here.

So I am going to propose an alternative definition of professional and divide amateur into two sub-categories, as follows:

Professional -- Someone who produces a social good that exceeds the cost of production. That is, the amount of work that you put into the project is less than the amount of value created in the world. The person producing the work may or may not get paid for it. All of the value may be realized by other people. The mark of the professional is that the thing they create is more valuable than the resources they expend to create it. Someone who labours for three years to write a book that is ready by three people and does not change their lives in any significant way is expending more resources than they are creating. They are not a professional.

Aspiring professional -- While we are learning our trade, we usually expend more resources than we create. That is just how the learning process works. You have to achieve a certain level of ability before the work you produce has any value. An amateur is expending more resources on their projects than they are creating. An aspiring professional is one who is respectful of the professional goal of creating more value than you expend and is diligently working toward that goal. Note that since professional does not, by these definitions, require that the author be paid, the definition of aspiring professional does not either. An aspiring professional is one who seeks to create more value than the expend, but is not yet skillful enough to do so.

Pure amateur -- A pure amateur is simply an amateur who not only is not producing more value than they expend, but is not trying to do so. They are doing what they do for their personal enjoyment alone, and reaching a professional level of quality is not one of their goals and is not necessary to the pleasure they take in the act. Getting work to the level where the value produced is greater than the resources expended often requires tedious and difficult work that is not enjoyable in itself. You do that work only because you want to raise your work to the professional level. The aspiring professional is willing to do that work. The pure amateur is not.

I believe that a healthy SE formum consists of a mix of professionals and aspiring professionals. There is nothing wrong with being a pure amateur. It is simply that a pure amateur works entirely for their own pleasure. There are no objective criteria against which their work can be judged. The only source of objective criteria for any craft is the professional intent to create more value than you expend. Therefore only questions based on professional standards can be answered with any degree of objectivity in a QA format.

Mid career professionals often don't have the time or inclination for educating the next generation of professionals. Thus aspiring professionals often have to help each other out a lot. That is perfectly consistent with the goal of creating a professional Q/A site. A site consisting mostly of aspiring professionals with maybe a few professionals mixed in is a perfectly sound basis for a professional Q/A site.

But while the hobbies of the pure amateur may be entirely innocent, their discussion does not belong on a site like this becauses it does not rise to the basic criteria of being objectively answerable. The presence of such questions is not neutral for the site, however. The inclusion of such questions, and of amateur answers to professional questions, confuses the information scent of the site, making it less likely that professionals and aspiring professionals will post here or will trust the answers they find here.

Professionalism, as defined here, should, I believe, be the standard for accepting both questions and answers on this site.

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    As an avid contributor over at Music Practice & Theory, I'm struggling to understand how artistry, whether professional or amateur, can be discussed as objectively as this answer would seem to require. Some of our best questions and answers are based on possibilities and experiences. The answers are something like, "Everyone has to figure out their own answer to this question, this is how I figured out mine." I suppose those questions don't get closed as subjective because even though there isn't one definite right answer, there are many objectively wrong ones. – Todd Wilcox Nov 1 '17 at 0:12

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