Sanction for answering a homework question

One of the problems with homework questions is that they often get an answer before the question can be closed. So the vile perpetrator gets the answer they want, and the subsequent downvotes don't hurt them because their rep is probably already just 1 and they may not be planning to come back anyway.

I'm sure anyone posting answers to homework questions is just trying to be helpful, and I doubt they have the destruction of the site in mind, but I wonder if some sanction would be appropriate. The obvious one would be that upvotes for answers to questions closed as Off-topic would be excluded from the rep (I wouldn't exclude the upvotes from the rep for other close reasons because some questions closed as duplicates have good answers). Could we ask SE if they can do this?

• what if the answer given is a legitimate and good answer that clarifies a concept of the question and provides tools for the OP to figure out how to answer it themselves. That deserves the rep even if the question is later closed as off-topic – Jim Oct 24 '14 at 16:07
• Questions I don't know the answers to: Aren't some off-topic closed questions eventually deleted? How many HW dumps get deleted? Does deletion depend on whether answers are given and what scores they get? Does reputation from an answer get revoked if the question is deleted? – user10851 Oct 24 '14 at 17:39
• @ChrisWhite: The rules for the automatic deletion are here. The existence of answers hinders the automatic clean-up, since there needs to be only on upvote on the answer to prevent it from being deleted. – ACuriousMind Oct 24 '14 at 20:06
• @Jim: what you describe sounds like it would be a useful comment, but it's not an answer and shouldn't be posted as such. Admittedly I've posted partial answers of exactly this type where I thought the OP could be prodded into answering the question themselves (and sometimes they did :-) but I've always regarded such answers as just an extended comment. – John Rennie Oct 26 '14 at 5:36
• true enough. I won't argue – Jim Oct 26 '14 at 5:38
• > Could we ask SE if they can do this? To ask SE, you can post on meta.stackexchange.com using the 'feature-request' tag. I (personally) wouldn't expect to see them implement that feature request. You could get the same effect (i.e. voiding reputation) by deleting the answers in question. – ChrisW Oct 27 '14 at 22:31
• John I completely agree. I've considered down voting all answers to homework questions that provide no value other than to enable the questioner to cheat. I haven't so far though, because I'd end casting way more downvotes than upvotes and I don't want to be the only person here using my reputation primarily to beat down others. I'd rather see a flag for homework-only cheater enabler answer. – Brandon Enright Nov 2 '14 at 20:46
• Question fundamentally flawed in that the premise is that all homework questions are bad. A good question showing effort and research is a good question regardless of whether or not a teacher/professor ends up seeing the paper the answer is written on. Similarly, a bad question is a bad question even if it is not a classroom problem. The correlation may be higher than average but it is certainly not 1:1. – Jason C Nov 3 '14 at 1:05
• @JasonC: I'm specifically restricting the scope to (and I quote) questions closed as Off-topic. That is, questions that the site members (well, at least five of them) think are inappropriate for the site. – John Rennie Nov 3 '14 at 8:01
• @JohnRennie Your opening sentence is "One of the problems with homework questions is that they often get an answer before the question can be closed", which is built on the premise that all (regardless of other criteria) homework questions are destined to be closed but some of them get answered before the inevitable close. It follows that when you say "questions closed as off-topic", you mean all homework questions, as you have already presumed that all homework questions will be closed. Be more specific about the type of question you are describing, "homework" alone is not sufficient. – Jason C Nov 3 '14 at 14:59
• @JasonC: what is unclear or unspecific about my second paragraph? It clearly and specifically suggests applying the sanction to (and I quote again) questions closed as Off-topic. Answers to questions not closed as off-topic wouldn't be affected. – John Rennie Nov 3 '14 at 17:46
• @JohnRennie As I stated, you have based this on a premise that all homework questions are to be closed as off-topic. Given that you have clearly identified all homework questions as off-topic, "off-topic" adds no additional specificity at all. The way you have this written, you presume that there are no homework questions that would not be closed as off-topic, and as such, all answers to all homework questions would be affected. If this is not what you meant then you should say what you mean. So, again, be more specific. – Jason C Nov 3 '14 at 18:13
• @JasonC: we're clearly failing to communicate, and I must admit I can't see why. My suggestion is that IIF a question gets closed as off-topic, then any reputation earned on answers is voided. I am making no assumption that all homework questions are necessarily bad or that all homework questions will be closed. In fact I recently provided what I hope is a helpful answer to just such a question (as it happens this did get closed though I did not vote to close). – John Rennie Nov 3 '14 at 18:47
• @JohnRennie One of the problems with homework questions is that they often get an answer before the question can be closed. -- One of the problems with homework questions (non-specific, implies all) is that they (pronoun, referring back to all homework questions) often get an answer before the question can be closed (implies the question _will_ be closed, referring back to subject, which is _all_ homework questions). This is the best I can break down your statement for you without calling on a properly trained English teacher. If this is not what you meant, be clear. – Jason C Nov 3 '14 at 18:53
• @ACuriousMind Maybe. I am not sure if I am reading inappropriately literally, "one of the problems with homework questions" isn't very open to other interpretations. His opening statement sets the tone, and the context here is a culture where unreasonable (IMO) blanket anti-homework sentiment is strong. Unless you share that sentiment, given current climate you are responsible for choosing your wording carefully or you accept a risk of being reasonably misunderstood (I presume I'm misunderstanding, if you are correct about his intent). – Jason C Nov 3 '14 at 21:41

3 Answers

As you noted, the answerers are just trying to be helpful, and we don't want to discourage them from doing so (in general, of course!).

Also, we don't want to punish people because of a closure that happens after they answered! That seems unfair.

Finally, closures are temporary. Questions can be reopened. Communities often disagree on borderline cases. Involving rep loss in this is ...not wise.

So - there's not much we can feasibly do to stop users from answering before a question is closed, and we already prevent answers on closed questions.

What we can do, and we do do, is prevent repeat offenders who ask bad questions from asking:

• In case of repeated multiple consecutive closed questions, mods are informed that there's something happening via a flag. This is usually enough on smaller sites where mods can contact every user they need to, and help them correct their style

• In other cases, users are autobanned from asking after they display a pattern of bad questions asked (multiple closed, heavily downvoted, etc.)

What we do not do, is affect first-time offenders, that would not be welcoming to people that err in good faith.

• Losing the rep is not a punishment. If a question is deleted then any rep associated with answers is lost, and this isn't seen as a punishment. My view is that a closed question should be treated the same as a deleted question. Rep is restored if a deleted question is undeleted, and likewise rep should be restored if a closed question is reopened. – John Rennie Nov 3 '14 at 18:49
• I'm not sure if it's unfair. If anything, losing rep you though you earned by answering an inappropriate question is a pretty strong incentive to learn what is and is not appropriate, and to help edit the question or educate OP on how to improve it. – DanielSank Sep 20 '15 at 18:34

I think this is going too far. I also think some people, you included if I remember right, are on a vendetta against homework problems.

People shouldn't be just dumping homework problems on us. I have no problem with those getting closed and downvoted to oblivion. If someone answers one, you can downvote the answer with a comment explaining why. That should eventually get the point across. You don't need any new SE features for that. It's your vote, use it as you see fit.

However, we seem to be excessively strict about any homework-like problem. It should be OK to state the problem, then ask something like I can figure out xxx is yyy, but I don't see how to get zzz from that, or I solved it like this, am I on the right track?, etc. Everyone had to learn this stuff somehow, and working thru problems, whether deliberately contrived for the purpose or not, is a useful part of that process. As long as someone is trying within the limits of their apparent knowledge, we should be helping them learn.

One thing answers to these types of problems should never do is simply give the answer. The point in these cases is to teach physics. Sometimes it helps illuminate the concepts to show the answer at the end, but just giving the answer without teaching the physics does nothing useful for anyone. Go ahead and digitally tar and feather any such answer. However, no new SE features are needed for that.

• We need to have a tar-and-feather badge for something cool... Like be one of X people to downvote the same question/answer in Y time. – tpg2114 Oct 24 '14 at 22:17
• I don't like to downvote a reply that is accurate and was posted with good intent. That seems a nastier sanction than just not counting upvotes. If a question is deleted then any rep on answers is lost, so why shouldn't this be the case if a question is closed? – John Rennie Oct 25 '14 at 6:55
• @JohnRennie The mouse-tip for downvoting answers says "The answer is not useful". For a homework-like question where we expect those who answer to not give the answer outright, this is true. Giving OP the answer directly is, in fact, not useful. So downvoting is in-line with what we should consider when voting. – tpg2114 Oct 25 '14 at 15:10
• @bobie It's in the FAQ on homework questions: meta.physics.stackexchange.com/a/715/6634 Specifically in the section entitled "Why don't you provide a complete answer to homework questions?" it says: "If someone posts an answer to a homework-type question that gives away a complete or near-complete solution, in most cases it will be temporarily deleted." – tpg2114 Oct 25 '14 at 16:23
• @bobie You'll also find lots of questions that are off-topic but not closed. Just because enough people haven't noticed a problem to resolve it doesn't mean there isn't a policy about it. My guess is many people who know the policy that direct answers to HW questions should be deleted aren't even looking at HW questions that often so they never notice it. I know that's the case for me -- I never look at the questions, so I don't flag answers which should be deleted. The policy is no direct answers, and it should be enforced when violations are noticed. – tpg2114 Oct 26 '14 at 11:36

I see the problem with the homework questions, but I don't like your suggestion because it is not a remedy to the actual the problem. The actual problem, as far as I understand, is that the questions get asked, not that they are sometimes answered. As you say, most of these questions are asked by one-time visitors.

Basically, we need some power users on the homework-tag, because they have the single-handed option (like mods) to close questions. Otherwise, we need more people in general with VTC privileges.

Or, would it be useful to support a physics-learning proposal on Area 51, (http://area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/77677/physics-homework-questions). In that case, you can move most of these over there, without losing any content (where they could still be closed for insufficient quality what-so-ever).