Today I've seen a bunch of examples on the site of a certain type of question. In order to avoid priming responses, I'm not going to give this type of question a name. Instead, let me show by example what I'm talking about:

  1. How to get a constant force parallel to the inclined?
  2. Would someone help me with a physics question about current density and magnetic field of two plane parallel plates?
  3. Finding displacement through non-constant acceleration
  4. Dose any body know how to solve the problem in the picture?
  5. Solid state physics

I think we all agree this type of question should be off topic. What I want to ask is, why should it be off topic? (Don't say homework. We're getting rid of that.) In other words, what reason do you, the community, think should be used to justify marking these questions, and others like them, off topic? Questions like these have several shortcomings, but we can only expect to have one close reason displayed on each question; what should it be? We'll want to strike a balance between having custom close reasons be general enough that we can cover most off-topic questions with three of them, while still being specific enough to help askers who would like to improve their questions understand how to do so.

To be clear, I'm not concerned about how to handle these specific questions; my concern is on how to handle future questions of this type.

This contributes to the ongoing discussion about replacing our homework policy. Actually, it would probably have been better to ask this later on in the process, but since there were so many examples today I thought this would be a good time to make this post, before I forget. I'm not really looking for a quick answer, though; this is one to think about for a while, and we will come back to it later.


Most of these questions seems to be after an answer, probably a number, rather than a solution which would be useful in other contexts. A reply which would satisfy the asker would have essentially no value to anyone else ever again.

This is something I've found myself telling my students lately. I could spend all day making up stupid little problems with stupid little answers and they could spend all day telling me stupid little numbers and nobody would learn anything. The numerical answer to a made-up example problem is almost never interesting (though some texts do better than others). The reason educators assign problems is to cultivate the skill of finding solutions to similar problems later on.

A secondary problem with a few of these questions is that they are essentially plagiarized from some textbook or course notes or other source.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I agree completely. I think "off topic" is a confusing label, though. I wish there was something more along the lines of "too much of a chore to answer, rather than a challenge to help correct a misunderstanding." Lately I've seen several questions closed that were "too vague" as opposed to "too specific." Maybe both those labels are needed instead of "off topic" (?). $\endgroup$ – user55515 Sep 21 '16 at 13:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Earlier in the homework policy discussion, I suggested the wording "Questions which attempt to outsource tedious calculations to the community, without any broader context, are off-topic." $\endgroup$ – rob Sep 21 '16 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ One reason for using numerical values is that it allows you to develop the important skill of deciding what assumptions to make - eg which effects are significant and which can be ignored - without having to be told. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 22 '16 at 1:03
  • $\begingroup$ This is a very good point but one must be careful in drafting written policy here because some physics questions really are about the numerical answer. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Sep 22 '16 at 1:42
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielSank : That may be so, but it does not prevent those who answer from leaving the number-crunching to the OP (unless the numerical values is the issue behind the question). Like Sanya what I object to about such questions is not the request for a number (they are only repeating what they have been asked) but the lack of any sign of effort. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 22 '16 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil "unless the numerical values is the issue behind the question". Yes, exactly as I said. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Sep 22 '16 at 2:10
  • $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil That valuable and interesting skill is not exposed by any of the particular questions linked here. $\endgroup$ – rob Sep 22 '16 at 3:40
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielSank : But we mean different things, I think. You mean that the goal is to get a numerical answer - hence the question should be off-topic. I mean unless the particular numerical values in the question are the cause of the problem - eg because they are inconsistent, or they indicate that some other phenomenon (which has not been considered) will have a significant influence on the result. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 23 '16 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ @rob Just to point out: "Questions which attempt to outsource tedious calculations to the community, without any broader context, are off-topic." I think that alone would leave too many bad questions as acceptable. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Sep 23 '16 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil since you edited your comment I'm pretty confused now ;) $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Sep 23 '16 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielSank I think the scope of the present question is not to come up with a single pithy close reason for every bad question, but to name what's common among the handful of examples presented. $\endgroup$ – rob Sep 23 '16 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ @rob oh, indeed, that's why I said "...that alone would leave...". $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Sep 23 '16 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielSank In which case I am confused as to the point of your comment. $\endgroup$ – rob Sep 23 '16 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ It wasn't meant to be a Nobel Prize winning comment. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Sep 23 '16 at 22:42

I'd say something along the lines of the old "too localized" close reason would be a good fit here, for all five questions. Perhaps we could make a more specific version of "too localized" that would cover questions with this issue. Maybe something like this?

Too specific. Questions should deal with conceptual issues on a broad enough level that the answers will help future visitors to solve their own questions. Consider editing the question to focus on the underlying concepts rather than the details of the calculation.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I disagree. Most users answer such questions by giving the method of solution, so the answer is useful to future visitors. Inserting the specific values is usually left to the OP, unless there is an issue which depends on the specific values. The users who answer can also identify the relevant concepts or principles. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 22 '16 at 0:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil I disagree with that approach. We can't rely on answers to make the questions on topic. A question needs to be on topic on its own, whether any answers show up or not. So it doesn't matter how an answer is formulated, the question needs to stand on its own. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Sep 22 '16 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with @tpg - I regard that type of answer as being a valiant effort to make the most of a badly formed question, but really the question and not the answer should be responsible for making sure it's useful. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Sep 22 '16 at 2:44
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ There is also the issue that future visitors need to find the question. Even if the answer contains a good solution to a conceptual problem, nobody will find it if the question text is "how do you solve the problem in the picture?" Perhaps I should edit the text to reflect this aspect - I'll give it some thought. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Sep 22 '16 at 2:52
  • $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 : It seems crazy to me that a question with an unknown x should be on-topic whereas exactly the same question with x=4.3 should be off-topic. Such a policy would give the site a bad reputation for pedantry. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 22 '16 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel ; Yes, I entirely agree. When I see such poor titles I improve them myself. It would again be pedantic to close the question for lack of a good title. The whole review/edit/comment process presumes that making the question clear and useful is the responsiblity of the community, not solely the OP. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 22 '16 at 11:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil I think you took the argument I was making into an area that isn't part of it. Questions that ask "check my work" or "do this calculation" are off-topic, even if an answer comes along that brilliantly explains the entire solution process without a single calculation in it. Questions must be judged on their own merit, independent of whatever answers exist (or could exist). The presence of a number doesn't decide this, obviously. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Sep 22 '16 at 12:55
  • $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil I'm unsure what you want to accomplish. Do you just want these questions to be on topic and receive good answers, or are you in favour of closing them as off topic for a different reason? That's a genuine question - I'm not trying to be snarky, I just want to understand exactly what point it is that we're disagreeing on. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Sep 23 '16 at 0:58
  • $\begingroup$ DavidZ assumes these questions are off-topic (ie that is not up for debate) and asks for what reason? I agree with Sanya that they show "insufficient effort" expected of users of this site; for that reason I boycott them but I don't VTC. As a reason for VTC it is inconsistent with the voting arrows (as you point out below) but consistent with the Tour statement. You are proposing a new VTC reason of "too specific"; I do not think this is a good policy because I find being specific is a great help in answering, and it is easy to 1st generalise the answer then address the specifics. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 23 '16 at 13:25

why should it be off topic?

Do my work for me questions are off topic.

  • $\begingroup$ Exactly what I had in mind, but much pithier. An excellent close reason. $\endgroup$ – rob Sep 22 '16 at 3:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Isn't that the same as "insufficient effort"? $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 22 '16 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil I think it's different. There have certainly been homework-like questions where the asker has essentially said "I've tried really hard but I give up; please gift me the answer." A good question/answer pair has some implication that the asker will use the answer to some further purpose, which is mostly missing from the examples here. $\endgroup$ – rob Sep 23 '16 at 16:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @rob and others, I think this reason is in the right direction but may not get as much mileage as we'd like. We already see that when crummy "do my work for me" questions are called out as such, OP may respond "I'm not asking for the answer, I just want a hint". Of course, despite this clarification, the question remains crummy. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Sep 24 '16 at 4:51

I will be a bit brutal here, but I think they should all be closed under a new close reason called "insufficient effort" which applies if it is obvious that someone did not go through the minimal effort of thinking for two seconds on his own or using wikipedia/some appropriate source in the case of clear university level problems. This is subjective, but it at least personally for me is a better subjective than the current homework-like close reason. And, I will admit, it would still allow people to ask "homework-like" questions if they really show some effort and there is a usefulness (and not just a simple algebra error, like in the case of many "check my work"-stuff - because that IS insufficient effort) to well-written questions about problems if someone is conceptually stuck.

What could helpfully be added to the tour/help centre is that a question asking for the calculation of a specific numerical value will be off topic in 95% of the time.

  • $\begingroup$ Note that "please show some effort" is already part of the homework-like close reason that we are trying to replace. However your final sentence is an excellent suggestion. $\endgroup$ – rob Sep 21 '16 at 21:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @rob it is part of the close reason, yeah. My point would be to make this the only part of the close reason to take over into the new close reason to replace homework. I never liked the formulation "homework-like questions should show some effort" - I think every question should. $\endgroup$ – Sanya Sep 21 '16 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ Exactly the opposite of rob's comment : I agree with the 1st part but disagree with the final sentence. There is little point in placing a warning in the tour/help centre because people who ask these kind of questions do not consult the tour/help centre before posting their questions. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 22 '16 at 0:43
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that "insufficient effort" is the root of the problem, but I think I disagree that we should formalise it as the close reason. The problem is that it's just too subjective - it's a judgement the reviewer has to make based on only indirect evidence. In many cases it's an easy judgement, but I'd worry about the borderline cases. We might get questions closed because the reviewers think the answer is obvious, for example, even if it isn't obvious at all to someone who hasn't reached the same level of education. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Sep 22 '16 at 1:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Insufficient effort" is consistent with the statement that the site is for "researchers, academics, students" - all of whom try to solve the problem themselves before asking for help, and show what they have tried so that those helping don't waste their time. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 22 '16 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil I think question 4 is from at least an advanced undergraduate student in physics. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Sep 22 '16 at 2:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel : Yes, quite probably. I wonder if the advanced UG would dare hand such a Qn back to his/her tutor/lecturer with the excuse "I don't know how to do any of that"? $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 22 '16 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil you might be right with the point of placing a warning somewhere. Maybe I should just comment it to any post of the kind above ... $\endgroup$ – Sanya Sep 22 '16 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel I agree that it is a very subjective close reason. I however think it is a close reason we will still in general have a very broad consensus about and in the borderline cases, people can still vote to open/not to close. In any case - I just cannot formalise an "objective" close reason that really covers all I'd like to see covered, so I'd rather go with a subjective one that actually does - maybe that's a question of taste $\endgroup$ – Sanya Sep 22 '16 at 21:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Few close reasons are objective. "Too specific" : how can "not broad enough" be defined for all questions? "Unclear what you are asking" : unclear to whom? If a user can understand the question sufficiently to post an accepted answer, the view of others that it is "unclear" is questionable. "No value to anyone else" : how can we know this? $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 22 '16 at 22:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil I agree that few of our close reasons are objective, but I regard that a a problem that we should strive to resolve. See for example meta.gaming.stackexchange.com/questions/5498/… for the reasoning behind this. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Sep 23 '16 at 0:57

Several of these are off topic for reasons other than what I would generally lump under the homework-like umbrella. I think it's important that we make a habit of information OP of that in these situations because the more specific a reason we can give for a question being off topic the easier it is for OP to improve the post and make steps toward being a higher level contributor to the community.

  1. Not a question.

  2. Not a question.

  3. Asks for an answer to a specific calculation without identifying a specific conceptual issue at which OP is stuck.

  4. Too many questions and they all lack effort and do not not identify a specific conceptual issue on which OP is stuck.

  5. Exact same problem as #3 and almost unintelligibly written.

Additionally, numbers 4 and 5 have awful titles.

Numbers 3 and 5 are the clearest examples of questions which are off topic because they ask for the answer to a calculation without showing any effort and without identifying a specific conceptual issue on which OP is stuck.

  • $\begingroup$ Your answer prompted me to make some clarifying edits. I'm not sure that changes anything, but just FYI. $\endgroup$ – David Z Sep 19 '16 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ good edits. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Sep 19 '16 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ How do you define "Not a question"? These "non-questions" are asking for answers. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 22 '16 at 1:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil Re-read the first question. There's a question mark in the text, but it's a misuse of punctuation and there's no actual question. The user just copied a homework assignment into the text box. They didn't ask anything. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Sep 22 '16 at 1:40
  • $\begingroup$ That seems to me to be pedantic. Isn't it obvious that the OP wants us to solve the question which he/she has been asked to solve? Most questions require some interpretation. I think what you mean is covered by "Unclear what you are asking." $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Sep 22 '16 at 1:54
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil yes, it is covered by unclear what you're asking, and I always use that close reason instead of off topic as homework whenever possible because unclear what you're asking is more likely to incite OP to improve the question. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Sep 22 '16 at 2:11

Questions one two and four are off-topic because it is unclear what they are asking. For example in the first question, the asker is nominally asking for a value of the force. However, if we were just to answer by saying ten newtons (or whatever the correct answer is), the asker would be unsatisfied, because he can't just write down ten newtons on his homework assignment. The asker would wind up editing the question or asking for more details in a comment, and then the answerer would have to change his answer and this might iterate a few times and waste everyone's time. Therefore, the burden should be on the asker to specify exactly what he needs to know.

Questions one, two, and four can be fixed to ask for a full solution to the problem, and questions three and five already do ask for a full solution; however, I would say that these questions should be closed as too broad. I believe that for an on-topic question, the asker cannot simply ask for a full explanation on every detail of a given topic. The asker must pose a question, but then also give his prior knowledge of the topic, explain how he has tried to use this prior knowledge to answer his question, and it should be clear how an expert could use their expertise to answer the question. This will tend to focus the question so it will not be so broad. It also makes less work for an expert answerer because they can focus just on using their expertise when needed and not (a) on reviewing background material that is already known by the asker as well as being easily obtainable on the internet or (b) answering menial check-my-work type questions for which no particular physics expertise is needed.

  • $\begingroup$ In many cases, a student can just write down 10 N on their homework assignment and get credit. Large intro-level classes often use computer grading with no need to show work. $\endgroup$ – David Z Sep 27 '16 at 1:30

I would say "Purely Calculation" (different from doesn't show work):

This question appears to be outsourcing a calculation to the community without any broader context. Please ask about a specific concept, show work and explain where you got stuck, or provide more context. For more information, see [this meta post][].

The above would be my close reason.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .