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So, a few times already I've found myself really wanting to drop the name of a commercial program or company that I use. I've specifically avoided doing so because I didn't want to endorse a particular company here on SE.

Example: just a few minutes ago I was looking at a question where my answer could have been improved by a link to a particular supplier. It would have provided a range of options that would have worked as inspiration for the person do build themselves or a place to purchase.

It's probably better to err on the side of caution and not name companies, but it's a little awkward knowing that I could probably a person a lot of time and effort if I did.

I'm aware that this seems related to the finding stuff meta question. I'd like to clarify that I'm not talking about blatant "where can I buy X" situations, but ones were mention of commercial website etc. appears appropriate in the course of answering a valid question.

So, to break this down in to direct qustions:

  1. Would it be appropriate to link to technical info at a commercial website? This may include general info on a topic (e.g. bearing function/sizing, welding materials methods etc.), white papers, how-to guides...
  2. If yes to (1) should the answer change if an otherwise useful source does include a direct plug (obvious reference to specific products or even purchasing)?
  3. Is there any "safe" way to make it possible to directly name suppliers in SE? Min reputation, 3rd party oversight prior to answers going public, requirement to list multiple sources etc.

The last one is the most messy (practically and ethically) but I've been in more than a few situations where my life became so much easier in an instant because a colleague gave me the name of a company that actually made/sold exactly what I needed. The reality of engineering is that sometimes getting the job done boils down to knowing where to buy a widget. I just wouldn't want to risk opening the floodgates to a bunch of ads or personal bias.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's a very interesting question. I see two things. It can be seen as advertisement because you can never present all the available options, so you select one you think is the best, but this is subjetive. And second it might not be very beneficial because depending on the location (or not yet mentioned requirements of the asker) the best vendor might be someone else. $\endgroup$ – Trilarion Feb 5 '15 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ Vendors often are a fantastic resource, and supply some of the most useful information out there (which isn't surprising since they are motivated to do so!). It seems pretty lame to have to worry overly much about linking to good information because it happens to be on some company's website. And people are perfectly capable of finding the best vendor on their own (and sometimes the need is urgent enough that "best" = "first!!!"). $\endgroup$ – Rick Teachey Feb 5 '15 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ Disclose, disclose, disclose. If you have any relationship with a vendor more substantial than "I found this just now on Google," make your reader aware of it. That's the extent of your responsibility here. Products exist, we use them, we talk about them. Just remember to disclose early and often. $\endgroup$ – Air Feb 5 '15 at 17:40
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1) Yes. Our industry is such that often the best source for something is research conducted or presented by a manufacturer. We should use a standard level in critical thinking in making sure that information we present is real research data, not just marketing material, but information isn't invalid just because it comes from a profit-making enterprise.

2) No. Especially in the more esoteric corners of our field, sometimes those are the best sources of material that exist. We can help mitigate the commercial nature of the source by mentioning more than one supplier, or by quoting just the relevant parts from the resource, and linking only for reference.

3)I don't think I'm as concerned about this as some here are. We don't want a lot of questions like "Where can I find a ____" but I think there could be good questions that go something like "I need to make a ____ do ____ but without ____" where the best answer is a pre-made product that meets the need. There's no harm in linking to that product. Where I would draw the line is at discussions that center around specific manufacturers/brands/models, or that try to advertise for engineering services as an alternate way to find a solution.

One big part of good engineering is knowing what is available/affordable/easy. By that nature, sometimes all someone needs is a brand name to get them going in the right direction. As long as we are answering the question, I don't think we should be afraid of referencing a commercial product.

One example I can think of is that it can sometimes be hard to fully describe a particular piece of hardware, and maybe its called something different in different areas/fields, or there are just a lot of variations but I'm thinking of a specific one. Where I work, we often use a part number from a major supplier (usually the big yellow book) to make sure everyone has the same picture in their mind. It doesn't mean we have to buy it from them, it's just acting as a dictionary.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 totally agree, Lot's of times what I want to ask are shopping type questions. $\endgroup$ – George Herold Feb 5 '15 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ Agree with this, as applied to answers. But seeing the above comment, I have to point out that questions are a different story, they still need to meet basic standards for the network. $\endgroup$ – Air Feb 5 '15 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ There is definitely a fine line here, but there is a difference between shopping questions in engineering and in consumer electronics. There are a lot of items where only one or two companies make exactly what you need, and that stays true for years or decades(at least from a mechanical/structural side of things, maybe less so for electronics or bio-medical engineers.) If you're looking for something very specific and hard to find, I'd argue that the question and answer may have lasting value. $\endgroup$ – Ethan48 Feb 5 '15 at 23:47
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There is nothing wrong with naming suppliers / linking to them as long as it adds something to the answer. I edited an answer to remove a reference to a software product when it had no relevance to the question, it just seemed like a plug for the software. Full disclosure: I am a software engineer who works for a competitor to this product. I didn't feel that mentioning my own product was useful, so I may have been particularly annoyed in this instance!

To answer your specific questions:

  1. Yes. Linking to technical info is definitely ok.

  2. Are you talking about the linked page having a plug, or the post on SE having a plug? I say allow the former, don't allow the latter. In the latter case, the post on SE should be edited to remove the plug, but the link should remain.

  3. I don't think putting on min rep before you can mention suppliers would be feasible (but then I'm relatively inexperienced at the whole SE thing). Surely just moderation to remove inappropriate mentions is sufficient?

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