When I program, I frequent Q&A sites like Stack Overflow or the MSDN Forums. I am not alone – past work has demonstrated that programmers make extensive use of these, and similar sites, when coding. If, like me, you frequent Stack Overflow or MSDN Forums, you might agree that the answers tend to be very technical and detailed.
Where on earth do these high-quality answers come from? After all, it seems unlikely that the authors have all these details memorized.
We set out to investigate this question, and what we found motivated us to build CiteHistory, a tool to help forum users share their online research – but I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s discuss how answerers research their solutions:
Similar to programmers writing code, we found that Stack Overflow and MSDN Forum participants make extensive use of online resources when answering programming questions.
We know this after surveying hundreds of MSDN Forum participants, and after performing log analysis of the sessions of 120 Stack Exchange users. In more detail:
- About 50% of all answers involve online research
- Research sessions last an average of 20 minutes, and consist of visiting an average of 4 relevant URLs
Critically, however, we found:
- Fewer than 25% of all posts contain links or any other direct evidence of the extensive research conducted
This lack of information provenance is unfortunate because:
- Such information can help readers assess an answer’s credibility
- Survey respondents reported that links are often sufficient for answering questions (and posts with such links tend to be highly rated)
To ameliorate this situation, we developed a browser plugin called CiteHistory. CiteHistory automatically keeps track of the research that authors conduct while asking or answers questions on technical forums, and helps authors share this research material with the forum community. CiteHistory also associates research metadata with each post (e.g., time spent researching, number of pages visited, etc.) to help highlight the true research effort involved in asking or answering forum questions.
For a demonstration of CiteHistory in action, please watch our introductory video:
We evaluated CiteHistory in a two-week deployment study within a large organization. We found that CiteHistory succeeded in encouraging users to cite reference material, and was praised for its dual role as a personal research logbook.
You can also try out CiteHistory by visiting: http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/redmond/projects/citehistory/
For more, see our full paper, Enhancing Technical Q&A Forums With CiteHistory.