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On Physics Stack Exchange, people asking questions are expected to demonstrate that they've put a certain amount of effort into answering the question themselves. What exactly counts as sufficient effort?


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What research do I need to do before asking a question?

Here's the general rule:

Before asking a question, do anything else you can think of that might get you the answer.

In particular, you should probably do all of the following before asking here:

  • Think about the question. What do you already know that relates to it? Narrow it down to the specific physics concept you are really asking about or are confused by.
  • Type the question title into Google (and/or another good-quality search engine) and look at the top few (at least 5-10) results.
  • Also search a few combinations of key words, and again look at the top few results.
  • Identify what physics concepts are involved and look at the relevant Wikipedia pages.
  • Look in a textbook or equivalent resource on the appropriate subject. If you don't have actual textbooks, there are plenty of online resources, like Hyperphysics, that you can use.
  • If you're asking a more advanced question which concerns current research, look for relevant papers, including checking on arXiv. You may find it useful to use a dedicated scientific search engine, such as Google Scholar, INSPIRE, or ADS.
  • Use the search box in the top right to check this site for similar questions. Also, when you're typing your question in the form, look at the suggested similar questions the system shows you.
  • If you have friends, colleagues, teachers, or so on who would know something about your question, ask them for input.
  • And anything else you can think of that you think has a reasonable chance of getting you the information you're looking for. (For example, if your question is about a calculation, try working through the math yourself.)

If you find the answer to your question while doing all this research, great! You can, if you want, post your question here (if it's not already on the site) along with your own answer describing what you found.

OK, I didn't find the answer. Now what?

If your prior research didn't give the answer you were looking for, tell us what you checked. Don't explicitly list each one of the steps above to say that you followed it, but do mention anything you found that is close to the topic of your question, and point out why it didn't give you the answer you wanted. If someone reads your question and immediately finds a standard resource (Google search, Wikipedia, HyperPhysics, another SE question) that seems to answer it, it's going to look like you didn't do your research, unless you explain why that resource doesn't actually contain the information you're looking for.

What if I think I know what the answer is?

If you have a guess or hypothesis about the answer to your question (one that is grounded in solid physics), that's fine, but you should go out and check that hypothesis yourself. Maybe it'll be correct, in which case you can post the question here with your hypothesis (and the evidence that shows it's correct) as an answer. If you think it's incorrect, on the other hand, mention it in the question and say why you think it's wrong. A question that just ends on "My hypothesis is XXXX" comes across as lazy, but if you instead write "My hypothesis is XXXX, but that doesn't seem correct because Wikipedia says YYYYY," and so on, that shows research effort and makes a better question.

What happens if I don't follow these guidelines?

People trying to answer your question will follow the steps in the first section: they'll search Google, check on Wikipedia, on Hyperphysics, in textbooks, and do some simple calculations if it's that type of question. If, by doing so, they find the answer to your question, they're likely to downvote your question for not showing research effort. You may also get comments pointing you to the answer on Wikipedia or a top search result.

Questions that show a particular lack of research effort may be put on hold (or "closed"). In many of these cases, the advice in our homework policy may be useful in improving the question enough to have it reopened.

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    $\begingroup$ Possible footnote for the search box bullet: The SE search bar isn't quite up to par with Google/Bing/etc (cf this Mother Meta post). An option would be to add site:http://physics.stackexchange.com in Google's search bar (unsure if that works with Bing/etc). $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jun 17 '15 at 2:04
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    $\begingroup$ If everyone had done all the research, do all the calculations before asking, then having this site would be pointless, as it would contain only questions no one on the globe can answer. $\endgroup$ – Calmarius Mar 20 '16 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Calmarius no, that would only be true if our definition of sufficient prior research was asking everybody (or at least, tracking down the experts in the topic of the question and asking them). That's not what we're saying. People don't have to do all the research. They just have to do a basic level of research. It's not too much to ask that you copy and paste your question title into Google, for example. $\endgroup$ – David Z Mar 21 '16 at 5:53
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Sure, people shouldn't just blurt out whatever question pops into their minds without thinking about it and making at least some attempt to find the answer. The real question is how much is enough? What is a reasonable level of research? How do we measure that or even decide how much research was actually done? Should the bar be lower for a more beginner question?

I agree with the sentiment here, but I think our implementation sometimes goes too far. My answer here was brought about by this question. John Rennie wanted to close the question. His comment got 4 upvotes, and 3 close votes have accumulated so far. On the other hand, my comment saying it was a good question got 3 upvotes and the question itself got 9 upvotes, no downvotes, and three answers.

I think the real problem is that this is a rather "low level" physics question, and people are really responding to that. That's short sighted and will eventually leave only experts here with nothing to say to each other because nobody has anything to ask. With enough research, any question could be answered without asking here. This site is trying to be a repository of good questions with good answers. This can't happen if we refuse to answer anything that isn't answerable by other means. Even if the answer is out there elsewhere, for some questions we want this site to be where people go to do the reasearch and find the answer.

This site shouldn't be only about high-falutin physics. We aren't here for stupid questions either, but there is a important distinction between stupid and ignorant. The question I linked to above was ignorant but not stupid. It was well asked and actually about a clever observation for someone that doesn't already know the answer. That makes it a good question. Just because the answer doesn't require invoking relativity or quantum mechanics, doesn't make it a bad question or not useful to include in the repository.

Lighten up a little.

Added in Response to Comment:

David Z points out that this answer doesn't really answer the original question. That's strictly speaking correct. This was somewhat of a comment, but too long to be a comment. But, another point was that this is impossible to measure in a reasonable way and therefore will always be very subjective. To put it more directly, my points relative to the original question are:

  1. Whatever we say is the minimum level of research will be impossible to quantify by any standard metric, so will always be mostly subjective.

  2. Even if there was some quantifiable measure we could all agree on, it will be difficult to determine whether that minimum level of research was actually performed. In cases of blatant laziness it could be easy to show, like by entering the question title into Google and finding the first hit being a direct answer. However, most of the time there won't be a nice and easy smoking gun like that.

  3. The level of dilligence must necessarily depend on the questioner's level of physics knowledge. A professor of physics would know where to look up things and has access to such resources. A high school student can't be expected to know about any physics journals, and probably doesn't have access to them anyway.

  4. It can be hard to know where to look if you don't already know the answer.

  5. We are the research. Asking here is part of finding a answer to a physics question. It shouldn't be the first knee-jerk reaction, but ultimately that's what we're here for.

So here is what I suggest someone should do before asking:

  1. Think about the question a little bit. What do you already know that relates to it? Try to identify what physics concept you are really asking about or are confused by.

    This is the missing step that make too many "homework" questions so bad. It's not that they are contrived or assigned questions, but that the asker hasn't bothered to identify what part exactly they are having trouble with.

  2. See rule #1.

  3. See rule #2.

  4. Do at least a basic keyword search. Sometimes you get lucky and you will find the answer easily. Sometimes you don't find the answer but learn a few things anyway. That's all good.

    However, we also realize that finding the right keywords is not obvious when you don't already know the answer and know what things are called. Even then, it can be easy to have the search swamped with hits that match other uses of the same words.

    So definitely give it a try, but don't sweat it too much. I'd say 5-10 minutes of honest effort is sufficient.

  5. Ask around if you have someone to ask. Unlike the previous rules, this is not a requirement since not everyone has someone they can ask or has access to them. If you're a high school student at school, you should ask your physics teacher. But if it's the weekend, that's not going to help. We don't expect you to wait until Monday morning to get a basic physics answer.

  6. If you are more advanced in physics, then you will be held to a higher standard. This includes various search engines, textbooks, and the like that you should be familiar with that ordinary folks aren't.

  7. When you've gotten to the point of deciding to ask here, use the search feature on this site. You might be surprised how many people have had the same question before you and that there are already some good answers.

In short, there is a bare minimum amount of research anyone should do, but the appropriate level depends a lot on how advanced you are in the topic. The most important points are 1-3. After that it's mostly to ask a good question for your level that is self-consistant with that level, and to write the question properly.

It's OK to be ignorant, but never OK to be stupid. There is also never any excuse for sloppiness. Taking some care includes breaking thoughts into sentences, capitalizing the first letter of sentences, capitalizing the word "I", and never ever ever using text-speak.

Keep in mind that you are asking a bunch of people to volunteer their time to answer your question. If you keep that and rule #1 in mind, and show the appropriate respect by doing the simple things that have nothing to do with level of physics knowledge, you'll most likely do fine. Go ahead and ask.

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  • $\begingroup$ Actually I have a lot of sympathy with Olin's point, and I VTC'd partly to try and establish where the boundaries are. As Olin says, the votes on his and my comments are fairly even, but the relatively high number of upvotes on the question suggest the site users consider it a fair question and therefore presumably shouldn't be closed. I do believe we should be more aggressive about lazy questions, but I was probably a bit over zealous in this case. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie May 13 '14 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ "The real question is how much is enough?" Scroll up ;-) That's the whole point of my answer, to tell people just how much research is enough. Of course any question can be answered with unlimited research, but we don't expect askers to do that. Also note that nothing in my answer says anything about the level of the question. There is no distinction between "high-falutin" physics and whatever the opposite of that is; it's reasonable to expect everyone to do some basic research before asking. $\endgroup$ – David Z May 13 '14 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ Also I don't think this really answers the question I posed: it doesn't give a set of guidelines for what constitutes sufficient prior research. And since this is going to become an faq question (unless there are serious objections to the whole idea, which there don't seem to be), it might be best to have only one answer. If you disagree with the content of my answer, we should open a discussion and come to some consensus; that's why this isn't faq yet. (A separate meta question might be appropriate, even.) $\endgroup$ – David Z May 13 '14 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ @David: See addition to my answer. $\endgroup$ – Olin Lathrop May 13 '14 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ OK, well what you're proposing seems to have a lot in common with what I had in my answer. I notice you mention asking someone, if you have someone to ask, which is a good idea (but not part of the prior research that we will implicitly verify by doing it ourselves). Perhaps you could identify the specific points that you think should be added to my answer? Again, I think it will be best to have one canonical answer. $\endgroup$ – David Z May 15 '14 at 5:17
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    $\begingroup$ @David: Mostly I think your answer comes off too stiff, intimidating, and unwelcoming. Those that are just going to blurt out whatever question pops into their minds aren't going to read it. Those that are trying to do their homework that we actually want asking here might get scared off. I'm trying to say something roughly similar, but more welcoming. $\endgroup$ – Olin Lathrop May 16 '14 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ Conversely, I think your answer is (a little) too weak, ambiguous, and verbose. Perhaps I've just seen too many instances where people take anything less than a direct statement as an invitation to argue against the policy. We can work this out with the community; I plan to make this the subject of our next chat session. $\endgroup$ – David Z May 27 '14 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ Your points 3,4 and 5 really resonate with me. $\endgroup$ – Floris Jun 13 '15 at 2:08
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    $\begingroup$ I remember when I was at school (that long ago) I had real trouble multiplying out $(a+b)^2$, my teacher got really annoyed at me, but I had spent about 25 minutes trying to do this getting more and more frustrated. When something just isn't obvious to you, then even if someone finds it trivial, people shouldn't be hurt and made to feel humiliated about not being intelligent. Now, sure I see why it really annoyed my teacher. But I'm sure I would approach the situation in a different manner had the roles been reversed. In this way I would be hesitant to close "easy" questions. $\endgroup$ – AngusTheMan Jul 30 '15 at 10:37
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1. I think the original intention was only to require thorough researching within this site.

The answers to this meta question state that it's permissible for a question (or an answer) to exist elsewhere on the Internet and also on an SE site, even if the non-SE sites can found by searching Google. Some of the ideas are:

  1. Answering questions on Physics.SE causes it to be a top hit on Google search results.
  2. Answering questions on Physics.SE drives traffic toward the site.
  3. Answers that are given on Physics.SE are inherently higher in quality because, unlike many other external sites where research might be done, people can comment on the Physics.SE answers, ask follow-up questions, and provide further clarification.

The help center, when discussing the issue of searching/researching, states:

Search, and research

Have you thoroughly searched for an answer before asking your question? Sharing your research helps everyone. Tell us what you found and why it didn’t meet your needs. This demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to try to help yourself, it saves us from reiterating obvious answers, and above all, it helps you get a more specific and relevant answer!

Both links point to the Physics.SE search tool, not to Google. There's no mention in the help center about doing research on external sites. This suggests that, at some early stage, the intention was for the research requirement to apply to the Physics.SE site: before posting a question, research Physics.SE to see if it already exists. (This would help avoid duplicates, among other things.) I don't see evidence that the original intention is for research to encompass other sites.

2. A strict research requirement will tend to favor active researchers over beginner students.

Active researchers have a much greater ability to find an answer through their own research. Besides having access to more experts in their professional sphere, they are also quicker at discerning which sources are valuable, better at understanding how the information in those sources relates to the question, and more experienced with conducting effective research in general. Active researchers can engage much more productively in rigorous background research. And when that research fails them, they can come to Physics.SE able to produce lots of evidence that they've gone through all of the prerequisite steps and still haven't found an answer.

By contrast, beginner students of physics often cannot engage in these prerequisite processes anywhere near as effectively or as efficiently. Even if they find a source that answers their question, they might not understand any of it, or they might not realize it answers their question. It's not hard to envision a scenario where the beginner student makes his best attempt to do prior research: he reads through several sources on the Internet, reads through the relevant Wikipedia pages, and reads through a textbook. He doesn't ask anyone because there's no one he can ask. Then he posts his question here, but the experts can find the answer easily online, and they understand too. His question is put on hold and he's asked to explain what he doesn't understand about the sources he has already read. But he understands too little to formulate an intelligent response to that question.

This is why I think a "last-resort" policy (where questions can be posted here only after showing that a rigorous research processes has been suitably performed) will tend to favor questions from highly advanced students over questions from beginner students.

3. A change like this should be reflected in the help center.

I don't think it's problematic for the site to have a strict background research policy or to become aimed at usage by active researchers/highly advanced students. Music.SE lists a rule in the help center that basic analysis questions (like what key is this song in?") are off topic. But holding this policy right now conflicts with the text in the help center. In addition to the search text described above, the help center states:

Physics Stack Exchange is for active researchers, academics and students of physics and astronomy. [emphasis added]

Active researchers and academics are already students of physics. It's not appropriate to interpret the text "and students" as merely redundant of those first two groups. Rather, "students" refers to a third, more elementary group of people who don't fall into the category of active researchers or academics.

There might be a rationale that "posting questions whose answers already exist in a Google search will encourage users to ask more of those questions," which would harm the site. But again, this train of thought seems to contain an implicit assumption about which users should and shouldn't be using the site.

Summary

I think it's fine to institute a policy like this, and I think it should be up to the community to decide. But this seems like a very important characteristic which deserves some attention in the help center. Given all of this, I think it makes most sense to institute this only once (a) the community has reached a consensus on the topic and (b) the help center has been changed to reflect the new policy. Until those things have happened, I think there's too much ambiguity with how the help center is written and too little consensus (at least in this thread) to have this sort of stricter background research requirement.


Here are some quotes from the Meta question I linked to.

The meta question itself is:

I've seen a lot of questions that can be answered with a simple Google search.

For these questions, an answer can be found by just cut'n'pasting the question directly into the Google search field and scanning the first few hits.

Every new user wants to try out the feature and ask a question just to play around with the site. That's fine, and I don't mind it, but how will we deal with it in the long term?

I'm asking because all those trivial questions that can best be answered by

Tried www.google.com?

are the reason why I don't visit coding related Internet communities anymore.

The second-most upvoted answer (128 upvotes) states:

Part of the thinking behind Stack Overflow was for those Google searches to link somewhere useful.

http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2008/09/15.html.

By answering questions properly, instead of saying 'just Google it', you hopefully set up a definitive answer that Google will find for evermore."

The third most upvoted answer states:

If you want to really help with questions like this, post the answer you found and the Google search terms you used to find it.

Another upvoted answer states:

This question seems to be suggesting that Stack Overflow should only be used as a last resort - when an answer cannot be found elsewhere on the internet.

Surely this is the opposite of the site's intended purpose. I thought it was supposed to become the first place people would come for answers.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't really understand what this answer is trying to say. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jan 11 '18 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty, the big points are: 1. The research requirement was only meant to encompass searching within Physics.SE (not searching on other sites). That's because answering Q's here--even if they've already been answered on other sites--drives traffic toward Physics.SE. 2. Making the site a last-resort after all other attempts fail will tend to favor expert users (who are better at doing research, have more background knowledge, & can understand high-level materials that exist on the Internet). 3. If Physics.SE wants a strict research requirement, it should be described to the help center. $\endgroup$ – jdphysics Jan 11 '18 at 23:41
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty, please see the edits. $\endgroup$ – jdphysics Jan 12 '18 at 0:23
  • $\begingroup$ "was only meant" - by who? By the people who upvoted the accepted answer on this thread? By the original community who founded Physics Stack Exchange? (and, if so, on what evidence are you basing this claim?) By people on other communities expressing opinions about other sites? By the users of this site who would prefer that PSE got closer to a MathOverflow model than a Math SE one? By people on MO? Or just you and your personal opinions? $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jan 12 '18 at 1:53
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    $\begingroup$ Or, in other words: this site does have a stricter research requirements, roughly speaking, than the general SE guidance you quote, and those guidelines already are in the correct location - in the accepted and community-upvoted answer to this very faq thread. If you feel that there is a problem and the requirements should be changed, you're welcome to start a new thread explaining why you think the community is wrong and providing evidence to back up your arguments. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jan 12 '18 at 1:59
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty, to your question "by who?" In the third quote from the bottom of my answer, there's a link to a blog posting by Joel Spolsky, the founder of the Stack Overflow. This post articulates his vision of creating a site where answers are higher in quality by virtue of its community tools. There's an idea here that answering questions in the SE community makes them higher quality than what can be found elsewhere. The Physics.SE help center is consistent with this concept, and the help center links twice to the Physics.SE search tools while making no mention of other search engines. $\endgroup$ – jdphysics Jan 12 '18 at 2:08
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty, if I understand correctly, you are suggesting that 20 votes vs. 15 votes means there is a consensus within the community. I don't think that's a fair characterization. It seems like a very small portion of the community has voted, and it's not a landslide one way or another. $\endgroup$ – jdphysics Jan 12 '18 at 2:14
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty, I didn't say that the "community is wrong." My post specifically says that I don't think this sort of policy isn't problematic. I even pointed out another SE community that has done something similar. I'm suggesting that, if a stricter research requirement is the community consensus, then a change to the help center is warranted. This question was asked in 2014 and no change to the help center has been made. $\endgroup$ – jdphysics Jan 12 '18 at 2:18
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty, I don't think I'm posing a new question that warrants a new thread. My position may still be unclear to you: I'm saying that this is a fairly significant policy for PSE to include, and it distinguishes PSE from other SE sites. (At least, that's my knowledge--I welcome any counterexamples, etc. that will help me understand if I'm wrong.) And I think the policy is significant enough that it should go into effect only once (a) a consensus is reached & (b) the help center is subsequently changed to reflect the policy. Does this make sense? $\endgroup$ – jdphysics Jan 12 '18 at 3:01

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