Lately I've noticed a lot of close votes, down votes, and comments to the effect of "this question is too low level" or "the answer is on the internet if you search for it" or "you should already know this." And those are just my attempt at rephrasing things in a more friendly way. This isn't from one user either, but rather from many (sometimes it seems like most) of the active reviewers on the site. Some recent examples:

What exactly are we trying to accomplish? I don't think this was ever satisfactorily addressed the last time this issue was raised. Indeed there's hardly any consensus this should even be a valid close reason.

At first I thought this is just about trying to keep things at a high enough level1 But the more I see these comments the more it seems each high-rep user's threshold is nothing more or less than the boundary between what they can trivially answer and what they can't. Should I really vote to close questions on the basis that I know how to answer them off the top of my head?

One particular form this takes is closing because the question is "based on a misconception." What questions aren't, though? Either the person has a misconception (and a valid answer is "this is your misconception"!), or else they just haven't worked everything out yet (so we would close as homework).

My next thought is that we're trying to not duplicate Wikipedia or other standard references. I agree we shouldn't try to match Wikipedia in general-purpose, expository articles, given they've been refining those articles with an order of magnitude more contributors for many years. But I question how much physics is left for us to do that can't be derived and applied from the information in Wikipedia.

I'm pretty sure just about every one of the 502 answers I've written could be replicated with nothing more than access to Wikipedia. In fact, 207 of those answers explicitly link to the relevant Wikipedia articles.2 Should I go back and vote to close all those questions? After all, I doubt more than 10 answers of mine display anything more than a bachelor's level of physics knowledge (if anyone disagrees, I challenge you to give me a list of 11 such answers). And where does it end? If the world's leading expert in X is on the site, is that person obligated to close all questions about X since they would all appear trivial?

It all comes down to these key questions:

  • What does "insufficient effort" mean to the community?
  • Is there some level of insufficient effort that warrants closure (as opposed to, say, downvoting)?
  • If yes, what objective guidelines should we have on the issue? Given the many orders of magnitude difference in expertise here between different users in different topics, any guideline based on individuals' feelings is decidedly not useful, without at the very least some reduction criterion ("this is trivial for everyone" and "this is trivial for at least one person" are objective; "this is trivial for me" is not).

For a philosophical bonus, given how every meta discussion about scope always seems to be about bad questions, I'll add two more discussion points:

  • What is the ideal question here, one that everyone agrees is great?
  • If the above exists, are we obligated to close anything falling short of the ideal? Must we be at the extremal tip of the generality-quality curve?

1Separate but related issue: We have neither a policy nor a notification to users about how advanced a topic must be to be allowed on the site, either in absolute terms or relative to our perceptions of where questioners should be in their education. I strongly suggest those who keep voting to close for such reasons should formalize this notion and get consensus from the community. I for one won't vote to close based on an entirely undocumented reason.

2Get a list of all answers with Wikipedia links made by a given user with this script. It probably misses some, for example links to other language pages or to explicit mobile pages.3

3Explicit mobile links (e.g. en.m.wikipedia.org) are a scourge on the internet and should be fixed.

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent question. Case in point, would this question be too below the community's standards to answer? $\endgroup$ Jun 5 '16 at 22:17
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    $\begingroup$ Good point on explicit mobile links. 7.6k of them! In the tens of percent of all Wikipedia links, too. Is that something we should fix? That's a pretty sizable project there, something like fifteen Copy Editor badges. $\endgroup$ Jun 6 '16 at 10:51
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    $\begingroup$ (Actually, on second thought, most of those are probably in comments, and in posts it's more like in the ~200 range. Not that that improves things.) $\endgroup$ Jun 6 '16 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ As a metrologist, I can say that those who commented "Easily answered by internet search" in the second question have no idea on what they are talking about, and I suggest them to try to concoct a correct and complete answer by searching the internet. $\endgroup$ Jun 6 '16 at 12:37
  • $\begingroup$ I'm a bit confused about your choice of examples - to me, the important debate here is whether or not "insufficient effort" is a valid close reason, but none of the three examples you give was closed for that reason. $\endgroup$
    – ACuriousMind Mod
    Jun 6 '16 at 12:44
  • $\begingroup$ Related: our guidance on sufficient prior research, and our discussion of reformulating the homework policy for which the top answer (by a clear margin) had a lot to do with the effort shown. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Jun 6 '16 at 23:12
  • $\begingroup$ @MassimoOrtolano : The OP is clearly asking for an entry-level answer, not the kind of complete answer which would satisfy a professional metrologist. I easily found dozens of introductory articles by Googling the question title, dozens more by adding "industrially" : eg coleparmer.com/TechLibraryArticle/358. $\endgroup$ Jun 7 '16 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Sᴋᴜʟʟᴘᴇᴛʀᴏʟ : Yes, I think the question you quote shows insufficient research effort. This is the most famous equation in physics : the internet is awash with articles explaining what it means. IMHO it is not the purpose of this site to duplicate such articles. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 '16 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ The approved comment by @MassimoOrtolano above, and that by JohnRennie to my Answer below, suggest to me an ambiguity of purpose in the site : are we aiming to answer the OP's question, or are we aiming to reinterpret it and produce a definitive, encylopaedic answer? I think that a lot of arguments over homework policy, what is off topic, and what is Insufficient Research Effort, arise from a lack of clarity about the purpose of Physics SE. $\endgroup$ Jun 10 '16 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ What was wrong with the weak magnetic field question? Do you think it should have been incorporated into the strong magnetic field question? The question might seem silly to an expert, but I've asked it myself before and learned something from the answer to the strong magnetic field question. $\endgroup$
    – jdm
    Jun 15 '16 at 14:34

Given that I'm probably the leading exponent of closing questions on the basis of insufficient prior research I'm relieved to see I'm not implicated in the examples Chris cites (I did VTC one of them, but because I thought it was unclear rather than lazy).

I'm not sure what I can add here that isn't already covered by my previous statement on the subject. My view is that the Physics SE is a quite extraordinary resource for aspiring young physicists. I suspect many of the regulars don't realise just how amazing it is that a teenage physics nerd can ask a question and get answers from real live working (mostly friendly) physicists. Speaking as one who was a teenage physics nerd back in the 70s I would have given my right arm for an opportunity like this.

But if the opportunity is abused it will disappear. What I find really rewarding is when an OP comments to thank me and say that they now understand something that had previously been frustrating them. This makes me feel I have left the world a better place than I found it, which surely only the most cynical of us wouldn't be pleased about. What I dislike is when I feel I'm being used as a lazy alternative to the OP putting in any effort for themselves, and if the latter type of question were to dominate then that would seriously put me off contributing to the site. Although I've stated a purely personal opinion here I'm guessing I'm not untypical and many others will feel the same way.

So the judgement I make is whether the question shows a real interest, and the only way I can judge this is to look at the question. How well is it written? Does it show any evidence of independant though? Most importantly how much effort has been put into writing it?

Chris' first question asks what insufficient effort means to the community, and the above hopefully makes it clear what I think it means. It has nothing to do with how simple/complex the question is or whether the OP is a physicist, schoolchild, OAP or whatever. It is purely a matter of whether the issue matters enough to the OP that they have done their best to research it before coming here.

Re the second question: lazy and ill motivated questions are actively harmful to this community and they need to be deterred. Downvoting is not enough. The point of closing is that it prevents the question being answered and therefore prevents the offender from being rewarded for their idleness. If lazy and ill motivated questions receive answers that just encourages the asking of such questions.

Re the third question: there is no objective measure of this - it's a hopelessly subjective judgement. I have to try and guess whether the OP is genuinely interested and will benefit from the effort I put in to answer it. Maybe this is an arrogant approach - who am I to judge my fellow man? That's a fair criticism and I respond by trying to be generous and error on the side of caution. Chris says any guideline based on individuals' feelings is decidedly not useful but I disagree with this. At the end of the day the questions are answered by individuals willing to put considerable effort into answering questions for no reward other than the inner glow of having made the world a better place. Deter those individuals and you leave the PSE no better than the myriad of other physics sites that litter the Internet.

My rant is running out of momentum now, and I should really come up up with some pithy closing statement, but I find myself lost for one. I suppose my basic principle is that we are all here because we want to help, specifically help anyone interested in physics to understand more about it. All I would ask of OPs is to respect that and not to take the piss.

  • $\begingroup$ While I sympathize with the feeling, I'm never quite sure what to do when I come across this as a close vote. Would it be more appropriate to downvote (check out the downvote hover text)? Or if it's bad enough, flag for low quality... though this just leads to a close prompt in the queue, which I always thought was a little silly. A question can be worthy of deletion without meeting the close reasons, imo. I guess it's because questions can have child objects (answers) while answers can't. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Oman
    Jun 12 '16 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ I completely agree, John. This website is and maybe a great resource because one may indeed get answers from users who are much more experienced, among other helpful adjectives. And those who may really do great things with physics or become great physicists should be primarily served. The rules allow to close a question because the author of the question seems lazy - especially when he's asking just "explain me XY" where "XY" has a good enough article on Wikipedia or is covered as a chapter in a basic textbook. Even more dramatically, some people ask "solve homework VW for me". $\endgroup$ Jun 14 '16 at 9:32
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    $\begingroup$ This needs to be deterred - and it's right that it's deterred - because even though the users may be kind enough to answer these questions, and both of us sometimes do, it's really wasting our time, time of volunteers that could be used much more constructively than to repeat FAQs for some users who found their time important enough so that they haven't even made a single search on the Internet - or in books - with the term they are asking about. $\endgroup$ Jun 14 '16 at 9:34
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    $\begingroup$ All questions being answered should better have some extra content that isn't easily found, need to derive something that isn't derived in most introductory texts, or something special that keeps this server at a higher level than some generic Internet encyclopedia. Chris' call would like to demonize when someone feels that the OP was lazy or has a hopelessly bad background and this is actively harming the quality of the website because this feedback is as vital as some mechanical or polite technical answers. $\endgroup$ Jun 14 '16 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ John and @LubošMotl, I don't see any problem with a site like this having these goals, in part to protect the time dedicated by volunteers who help make it a valuable resource for high-level physics users who seek information that is not as accessible online. Could you please explain where in the FAQ/site rules "insufficient research effort" or "too simplistic" appear as reasons for closing a non-homework question? Again, I'm not taking issue with whether it's appropriate. Just wondering which rule(s) communicate that it's not a site for simple questions with answers easily found elsewhere. $\endgroup$
    – jdphys
    Jun 19 '17 at 0:00
  • $\begingroup$ Hi, @jdphysics - the policy that one should do maximum research prior to asking a question is elaborated upon e.g. here: physics.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5778/… - But even if such a rule were not written anywhere, I think that those who can actually close questions for similar reasons have the right to do so. $\endgroup$ Jun 23 '17 at 17:47

To offer another perspective, perhaps the issue is simply that we, the community, are not clear enough about our expectations. Whilst forethought and clarity are integral to the education and formation of those of us who are doctors, masters or graduates of physics, it is not necessarily so for the enthusiasts and students in our community. However, we all appear to agree that would would like not to discourage the latter of us.

In the PSE introduction (help) the following points are given as guidance for what not to post:

  • "Do my homework"-type physics questions
  • Non-mainstream physics, including pitches for personal theories
  • Anything else not directly related to physics
  • Questions that are primarily opinion-based
  • Questions with too many possible answers or that would require an extremely long answer

These points offer good general guidance, but they are very much open to interpretation. How does one distinguish between a "Do my homework"-type question and the type of valid question which one would tag as "homework and exercises"? To a non-physics graduate, what is considered non-mainstream? Where is the mention of what comprises reasonable effort in one's forethought and research?

Those without a very high level of education often lack the most basic research skills, and for some of them a forum such as this is their first port-of-call. It would appear to me that the mechanisms by which we temper their questions should be more constructive and directive. This is already done organically through the community itself: commentators often request that a question be clarified or reconsidered, and they often give directions to an external link or appropriate Internet search string. In the best instances, this is done with courtesy and grace. And kudos do those who have the patience and take the time. In doing so, they are improving our community.

Perhaps all that is required is some clearer guidance for inexperienced users: a more detailed help file, or and handful of useful flags which commentators can apply to offer recurring advice on the improvement to the questions under scrutiny. I believe that such minor changes would encourage the right types of questions without discouraging those who hope to ask them.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree : the guidance needs to be clearer, and in particular more prominent. I think few OPs read the guidance before posting. So the guidance probably needs to be part of the question-posting process. $\endgroup$ Jun 7 '16 at 1:52
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking exactly the same thing: guidance integrated into the process, perhaps until one has a certain reputation, or indeed customised according to one's reputation. $\endgroup$
    – POD
    Jun 7 '16 at 2:27

What does everyone mean by “insufficient research effort”?

I can't speak for everyone but only, of course, for myself.

Generally, I choose to Vote To Close For Insufficient Research Effort (VTCFIRE) in the case that (1) the answer can easily be found (typically, on this very site), (2) it's a bald question without something like "I'm puzzled by the other answers because...", i.e., there is essentially no evidence of research period.

Other regulars here most likely have different criteria for their VTCFIRE and that's fine with me. This is a community of individuals each with their own, perhaps evolving criteria for voting as each does.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't have rep for VTC, but I use the same criteria for down-voting. $\endgroup$ Jun 10 '16 at 18:00

This question might be directed at me. I cast a lot of down-votes because of insufficient research effort, including both the thermometer calibration and the electric field energy questions which you quote. So I dispute John Rennie's claim to be the leading exponent in this field!

I am not offended. Debate is good.

My reason for down-voting is not elitism, but because detailed answers to many fact-finding questions like the thermometer calibration question are already available on the internet (eg http://www.coleparmer.com/TechLibraryArticle/358), and I think it is pointless for PSE to duplicate such resources. In this question the OP demonstrates no research effort at all and gives the impression of casual curiosity. ("...This is quite vague, but I was just thinking about it...")

In the electric field energy question the OP says he has just started studying EM and "just read what some books call the energy OF a electric field." However, he does not question what these books say - which would be reasonable. Some explanation is very likely to be there later in the textbooks. But instead of reading further or researching, or discussing with classmates, or asking his teacher, the OP prematurely asks PSE to explain it to him, probably because that is the easiest option.

The impression I get is that such OPs are using PSE to avoid doing their own research or thinking. They would prefer that somebody else took the trouble to find relevant sources, filter out what is relevant to their interests, and spoon-feed them the answers. This does not encourage them to become good scientists, and in my opinion should be discouraged. If it is bad to provide detailed calculations for "homework-like" questions which the OP could do for himself, it must also be bad to provide detailed answers to requests for factual information which the OP could easily find for himself.

I always provide a comment to challenge the OP to reveal what research he/she has done. That is a positive response, not a negative one. Nobody should be in science who takes criticism personally.

I agree with a lot of what John Rennie says. Lazy and ill-motivated questions should be actively deterred (eg "I was wondering, what would happen if...?"). Unlike John I don't have rep to cast closing votes, so I down-vote instead.

In particular I agree that (probably) no objective criterion can be devised for what is "insufficient research effort". However, I suggest that questions could be entered into a template which includes fields which ask (inter alia) eg "What effort have you made to find an answer before posting on PSE?" It won't solve the problem entirely, but it should remind OPs what is expected of them.

I have absolutely no problem with "low level" questions. I've enjoyed several elementary questions which are surprisingly difficult to answer and therefore instructive for me also. My beef, like John's, is with laziness, regardless of level.

You allude to high-rep members voting to close elementary questions. I agree that something like that is happening. Many questions which I have found interesting, and which have shown genuine effort (eg Balancing forces on a liquid, No buoyancy inside liquid), have been closed unreasonably (in my opinion), mainly because they are superficially "homework-like". And conversely, many questions which obviously (to me) show little or no effort (such as the thermometer question), or are frivolous or speculative (such as SR and a rotating observer), are not closed off.

So, as far as I can see, the criteria mentioned in the PSE policy statements, and cited in the reasons for closure, are not being applied consistently.

  • $\begingroup$ I think the SR and a rotating observer asks about an exceedingly subtle issue, and it is most certainly not frivolous. A rigorous answer would require transforming so the rest frame of the rotating observer and that's a formidable calculation. $\endgroup$ Jun 7 '16 at 5:59
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie : Thanks for your comment. Perhaps I ought to have included this under "insufficient effort" as per my comment in the question. The OP is asking a "What if...?" question, contrary to policy, which prompted my description of speculative. My impression is that he has no more than a popular science awareness of length contraction, and would not benefit from the kind of answer you hint at. You see subtlety, but I very much doubt he can : it is then your question, not his. If the OP lacks the "tools" to appreciate the problem, I suggest he is better off without an answer. $\endgroup$ Jun 7 '16 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie : PS : The question has since been placed on hold - although the reason given does not make sense to me. So I guess there is some agreement here that, for whatever reason, the SR question is "off topic." $\endgroup$ Jun 7 '16 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ Not by me it wasn't. $\endgroup$ Jun 7 '16 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ The link you provided as example would be a very poor suggestion for a user asking a question in a community called Physics.SE, even for a user not aiming at becoming a professional metrologist, but just a curious one. The reason is that that link describes only the very last step of the calibration and misses where the physics is: a calibration, in fact, involves a traceability chain from an SI unit to a reference standard employed in everyday calibrations, and the physics is in the realization of the unit and in the first step of the traceability chain. $\endgroup$ Jun 11 '16 at 12:33
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    $\begingroup$ In that specific case: How the kelvin is realized? Why don't we really use the thermodynamic scale but instead we use a practical scale, the ITS-90? These are things that would be worth explaining to the layman asking questions in a community like this, because putting it all together from a simple Google search is virtually impossible for a novice. $\endgroup$ Jun 11 '16 at 12:33
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    $\begingroup$ Nowadays, almost any basic or quasi-basic question can be answered with a Google search or looking at a book, but the purpose of a community like this, which claims to be populated by professional physicists, should be that of summarizing things, point newbies to the right resources and, most important, of describing or highlighting those details that are not easily found with a Google search and that are not written in books. $\endgroup$ Jun 11 '16 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ @MassimoOrtolano : The key phrase is "but just a curious one." The OP shows mere curiosity, has not identified his/her difficulties with the topic, nor (apparently) even taken the obvious first step of using the internet to refine what is a very broad question. I agree that there is more to it than in the Cole Palmer article, but it is for the OP (not us) to identify the particular issues which trouble or confuse. I agree that the newbie will struggle to find on the internet the kind of answer which a professional metrologist would be satisfied with. But is that what the OP wants? $\endgroup$ Jun 11 '16 at 13:10
  • $\begingroup$ @MassimoOrtolano : I think your comments exemplify the "ambiguity of purpose" to which I refer above in comment to the Question. Your view seems to be that Answers on PSE should be comprehensive and encyclopaedic, summarising the state of the art. Fair enough. My view is that we should as much as possible encourage the OP to solve his own problems by doing his own thinking and research, instead of spoon-feeding the answers by providing detailed calculations or detailed information. I think that issue goes to the heart of Chris White's question. $\endgroup$ Jun 11 '16 at 13:21

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