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Every now and then someone asks a "homework" and "mathy" question which gets held or closed because it's homework and math. Here's a recent example. As worded the question is definitely a "do my homework for me" question and should be held. However, when I read it I think

Gee, yeah, I it would be nice to have some resources on this site about how to approach problems like this. As a physicist, I frequently have to deal with mathematical expressions like this one and it's super convenient to have some basic formulae and guiding words lying around so I know what direction to go in and not waste four hours going down blind alleys. In short, as a physicist, I want an answer to this kind of question at my fingertips.

So, what do we do? It's not obvious how to record this information as a question which conforms to the site rules. One imagines asking something like "what is the BCH formula used for?", but that's too vague and doesn't have a well defined correct answer. You could try "What kind of formula should I use to solve this kind of expression?" but that's not a physics question. One could then try to artificially inject physics into what is really a math question, but that degrades the clarity of the information and not calling a spade a spade makes my pedagogy hurt.

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Perhaps we do nothing. After all, this site is not trying to be a one-stop comprehensive resource for information about physics. There are some things people should be looking elsewhere for - "elsewhere" may include textbooks, class notes, Wikipedia, Hyperphysics, and all those other resources we tell people to check before asking.

For homework questions in particular, the people who are asking these questions are not really our intended audience. (Leaving aside the occasional high-level homework question from a grad student in a QFT class or something like that.) This site is meant primarily for academics, researchers, and serious students, not for intro-level physics students who just want homework help. One of the ways we keep the intro-level students from overwhelming the site is by not providing the information they're looking for. We want them to go to other sites for that information, sites which do want to help people with their homework.

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  • $\begingroup$ But... I specifically pointed out that I am interested in these types of questions and I think I qualify as a non-student expert in physics. I'm not saying I think your answer to call this a non-issue is bad or incorrect, I just don't agree with the justification. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Dec 25 '14 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ If you're interested in these kinds of questions, you can also go to other sites to find them. Don't take that as a roundabout way of telling you to leave, because I'm not telling you to leave; I'm just pointing out that even if part of the target audience of this site (e.g. you) is interested in a certain type of question, that doesn't necessarily mean that that type of question needs to be on topic here. $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 25 '14 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ Oh indeed. The only problem I've found with e.g. Math.SE is the usual problem with interfacing between mathematicians and physicists. That said, I suppose the correct response is to take part in improving that interface ;D $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Dec 25 '14 at 20:58
  • $\begingroup$ Also, a lot of questions which are held and closed for being "homework" are most certainly not "intro-level". $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Dec 25 '14 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ Well, there are two separate and partially independent issues: (1) we want to keep the site focused on high-level questions, but not exclude low-level questions, and (2) we want to develop a reputation for not being a homework help site. $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 25 '14 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ I feel like that's neither here nor there. How does having a description of the utility of e.g. the BCH formula make this either "low-level" or a "homework help site"? $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Dec 26 '14 at 4:34
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    $\begingroup$ No one question and answer sets the nature of the site. It's a matter of controlling the distribution of questions. That being said, a basic description of the BCH formula is available on Wikipedia, for instance. Part of making ourselves not a homework help site is discouraging people who won't put in the effort to check Wikipedia (or other standard references) before asking a question. $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 26 '14 at 19:11
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with everything you're saying except, it seems, the implied conclusion. Wikipedia is an ok lookup table of formulae, but like all formats which aren't StackExchange it doesn't have the most useful answers at the top. The mathematical formula are usually discussed mostly as math rather than physics techniques. It usually has a few pitifully badly explained examples and terrible support for discussion or coordinated improvements. This site offers the possibility of supporting Q&A on common calculation techniques and I'm trying to ask how best to do that. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Dec 26 '14 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ There's nothing special about Wikipedia, I was just using it as an example to make the point that I don't see it as our job to host information that can easily be found elsewhere. If some piece of knowledge can be cast in the form of a question that one would reasonably ask, which is not a low-effort homework question, and where it's not straightforward to find the answer in some other standard reference, then I have no objection to it being here. $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 26 '14 at 22:48
  • $\begingroup$ Ok, well, how to do that is precisely what my question is asking about. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Dec 26 '14 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ I guess it wasn't clear to me that you were asking about things which can't be easily found elsewhere. $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 26 '14 at 22:57

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