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A little while ago this question was posted to Meta, highlighting an apparent inconsistency between the handling of these two main site questions:

I think we got distracted from the real issue there by arguments over whether the questions were too purely mathematical, so I wanted to raise the issue again.

In a chat discussion it came out that some people interpret question (B) as a check-my-work question, and others don't. Some people interpret it as a purely mathematical question, and others consider it to have sufficient physical context. To me, that's a sign of an unclear question. There seem to be three - well, four - positions on what should be done with that question:

  1. Put it on hold for being a check-my-work question
  2. Put it on hold for being unclear
  3. Put it on hold for being purely mathematical (I think the previous Meta question ruled this out)
  4. Don't put it on hold because it's fine

People who looked at question (B) prior to this meta post and declined to vote to close it (or flag it): can you elaborate on why you thought option 1 or 2 (or 3) would not be an appropriate course of action?

The gist of the aforementioned chat discussion between DanielSank and myself, if I understood correctly, is that he thinks we should recognize that there is ambiguity in questions like (B), and (A), and refrain from voting to close them, since there is (or may be?) an interpretation that allows the question to be appropriate for this site. On the other hand, I think we should actively put questions on hold unless and until it is clear that they are appropriate. That disagreement may be material for a followup meta question, depending on the outcome of this one. (If you have thoughts on this issue, feel free to comment on this question to say so.)

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    $\begingroup$ My position is mostly that either we should give the asker the benefit of doubt consistently everywhere, or we should never give the benefit of the doubt but make the close messages more helpful. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Sep 30 '14 at 5:57
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I stand by position 4. Don't put it on hold because it's fine for question (B).

  • I don't think it's a check-my-work question, though admittedly this is a subtle point. The OP has found a textbook problem and has presumably worked out the solution, but the question is not about solving the textbook problem. More specifically, the textbook problem is of the form

    Prove property P(A) for arbitrary objects A

    (where A is, in that case the function F). The OP's question has little to do with the proof; instead, the OP asks whether the property even makes sense. The post is of the form

    I found an object A1 such that the property P(A1) doesn't make sense. Is this known/expected? How do I deal with it?

    As it turns out, the handling of that singularity is not trivial, and needs the proper framework to work well. This means a level of mathematical sophistication that is not very usual in intro-to-QM books (Galindo & Pascual being the only exception I know of), or a set of heuristics which involve not caring about specific infinities and singularities. These heuristics are particular to physics and form the core of any good answer to the question.

  • On a similar vein, I don't think this question is a maths question. The heuristics are particular to physics and a mathematician would either (a) throw a fit at the nonchalant use of divergent integrals, or (b) have a particularly hard time phrasing their explanation in terms that a physicist would find useful. The process in (b) is in fact that of turning mathematics into physics. Hence the question is physics.

    As I stated before, calling a question "that's just pure maths" just because it has mathematical formulae in it is not productive, not least because that encompasses all of physics.

  • I don't find it particularly unclear, but it's not a model of clarity either. It was clear enough that it found an answer within 24 hours, so I think it definitely deserved the benefit of the doubt.

    Furthermore, I claim that as regards questions that are unclear, we as a community do tend to give the benefit of the doubt to users, and particularly newcomers. I think the review queues do a good job of putting unclear questions on the plate of the people best suited to work with the OPs to clarify them and make them answerable, when that is possible.

    I would of course be willing to consider data beyond my personal experience. This, however, is a separate issue.

To put things in contrast, question (A) is very different.

  • It too starts with a textbook(-style) problem, which reads

    Given objects B, and C, what is property Q(B, C)?

    and the OPs question is exclusively

    what is property Q(B, C)?

    This is why question (A) is a check-my-work problem. I don't find it that terrible, because of the level of sophistication of the problem and the given solution, but I still agree that (i) it is closable under the current policy and (ii) it should be closed for that reason.

  • On the question of whether question (A) is too close to pure math for this site, I think it is close to the fence that it's on-topic both here and at maths.SE, but its content is still relevant enough to undergraduate-level analytical mechanics that it's on topic here (as far as the physics/maths divide goes).

    The main confusion in DanielSank's question is that this is even an issue. I don't think anyone, on the whole discussion, ever claimed that this question was off-topic for being too mathsy. (Of course, I'll be glad to set straight on this if someone has done so.)


To summarize, I don't think the questions under consideration show any inconsistency in our current closure practices. This doesn't mean that we are perfectly consistent, but I think perfect consistency is a little too much to ask of a system run by many individuals with varying opinions.

That said, there is probably more room in the system for more detailed comments on questions by people voting to close. This has also come up recently on a related topic. More detailed comments on why a question is getting closed helps the OP in improving their post (or understanding the scope of the site), and it improves the site in making it clear to future users why some content is on-topic and other content is not.

Our review queue is quiet enough, and we don't have the sort of problem that SO has. We have a big enough pool of reviewers that we can spare the extra time for that.

On the other hand, sorting through the queue on busy times can be a bit of a dull job, and I would ask that some consideration be shown to reviewers, as it's hard to really grok the process until you see it in action.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is way deeper than the answer I was going to give. I'd like to point out that I commented that A is a check my work problem. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Sep 30 '14 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting. I don't think I agree that whether a question finds an answer (quickly) is a useful metric of how clear it is. Also, you say the question is of the form "Is this known/expected? How do I deal with it?" but I think that's reading some meaning into it that we don't know exists. All it really asks is "So, is that just it?" $\endgroup$ – David Z Sep 30 '14 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ @David You are right that I am, strictly speaking, reading into what's there. At the very least, though, "is that just it?" is definitely asking for commentary on the fact just displayed. That makes it conceptual and not-homework on my book. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Sep 30 '14 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty Although the "is that just it?" question isn't conceptual in my book. Anything that can be answered with a "Yes" or "No" and that be it isn't what I consider conceptual. But I could just be picky. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Sep 30 '14 at 20:48
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    $\begingroup$ I think that what you read into question B you could also read into question A. In Q-B you could read "is that just it?" as: "is this correct?", or as "is this logical", thus making it a coin-flip whether it is check-my-work or conceptual. You read it as conceptual. In Q-A "could anyone comment if it (and in general the approach) is correct?" is clearly check-my-work, but the clarification "Specifically, is it correct that the boundary terms vanish when integrating by parts?" could again be read as "is this logical/expected", making it conceptual. $\endgroup$ – Michiel Oct 2 '14 at 7:01
  • $\begingroup$ I would go with the suggestion by @DavidZ here:when the question is sufficiently ambiguous to be explained in both an on-topic and an off-topic way, put it on hold as unclear and clarify what the OP is actually asking. $\endgroup$ – Michiel Oct 2 '14 at 7:04
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty: What bugs me about that position is that you're basically saying that vagueness makes a question acceptable while a qualitatively similar but specific question is not acceptable. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Oct 7 '14 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Daniel I disagree. I see why you think question (B) is vague but I do not see it that way. You're welcome to your opinion, of course. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Oct 7 '14 at 14:44

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