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Should we close questions asking for hints as duplicates?

This above discussion is old, and is what I want to rediscuss in light of my question here: $\Bbb F_p$ where $p$ is an odd prime has exactly half the non-zero elements as a square

I do feel like reading the question my duplicate comes from is not a hint, but I do agree it does clutter the past questions. Really the problem comes down to optimally treating the users to the best learning experience possible, while considering how it leaves the sites appearance. Is this behaviour of generating hint only duplicates acceptable?

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  • $\begingroup$ On a side note, I personally think it's bad form for a poster of a solution to your question to get rep from it, and then later mark the question as duplicate. $\endgroup$ – Chinny84 Jan 3 '15 at 8:55
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I think this problem is just another facet of the main problem with the SE platform: it was designed as a wiki of community-curated canonical answers, but has become a forum for helping individual users with personalized problems. Aggressively closing duplicate questions makes sense in the former context, less so in the latter (to the point that I'm not convinced that closing duplicates at all is worth the trouble, but that's a different conversation).

If a user is having trouble with homework but doesn't want to peek at a full solution, that is commendable behavior. Allowing the creation of a duplicate increases main page clutter by some infinitesimal amount, but I don't see that outweighing the pedagogical harm of prohibiting such duplicates.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for noting that the difficulty arises from our misuse of the SE platform, but -1 for implying that we should continue in our misuse. $\endgroup$ – apnorton Jan 2 '15 at 5:09
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    $\begingroup$ @anorton the website would be in much worse condition and help a significantly smaller amount of people if we used the platform correctly. Do you really think we should try to go back to using it correctly? $\endgroup$ – beginner Jan 2 '15 at 5:44
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    $\begingroup$ @beginner "much worse condition" ::citation needed:: Yes, of course I think we should use the platform correctly. Just look at SO--they're using it right, and they can successfully operate with traffic that is orders of magnitude above ours. I'd argue that SO is in a much healthier state than Math.SE as far as culling bad content goes. $\endgroup$ – apnorton Jan 2 '15 at 5:46
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    $\begingroup$ @anorton My working assumption is that we need to decide what to do about duplicates asking only for hints, given that there's no consensus to radically change how we operate the site, despite extensive and continuing discussions in other threads. $\endgroup$ – user7530 Jan 2 '15 at 6:14
  • $\begingroup$ @anorton: There’s obviously no ‘of course’ about it. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jan 4 '15 at 1:33
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We should strive to respect the questioners and therefore try to answer questions as asked (as much as possible, and to the extent we answer them at all). As a consequence of this:

  • A question asking for a "hint" or "how to start," that is mostly the key idea for a particular argument, is not answered in a valid way by a proof giving full details yet failing to highlight the key idea(s).

  • A question asking for a proof is not answered in a valid way by some general remarks that leave out crucial steps of the argument.

Two questions of these two different types, yet on the same problem, are thus not duplicates. Yet, one "hint"-type can still be a duplicate of another "hint"-type, and likewise for "proof"-type.

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  • $\begingroup$ A question asking for a proof is sometimes better answered with a sketch or fairly detailed hint, and once in a while even with a briefer hint; it all depends on the precise nature of the question. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jan 4 '15 at 1:31
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott of course there is always some judgment to be made on the end of the user answering. The assertion that it is "sometimes better" and so on however strikes me as basically an euphemism for: I will do whatever I please. If you want to avoid this impression it could be good you name some specific criteria to decide to or at least give some examples. $\endgroup$ – quid Jan 4 '15 at 1:38
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    $\begingroup$ No, it means that I will do what in my judgement is best. If I think that a question is probably connected with class work, I will usually leave at least a bit open even if the question, read literally, asks for a proof. \\ I feel no obligation to cater for your suspicious outlook. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jan 4 '15 at 1:43
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott this distinction is irrelevant in practice, and another euphemism. My formulation stresses the effects this has in practice. (To be clear, I do not question your motives, I merely want to stress what things mean in actual practice, namely, that everybody does whatever they please, or think is best.) To find some point of agreement: if there is no specific mention of the level of detail requested the room for reasonable interpretation is greater. However, there are cases where explicit request for detail arguments receive only brief hints. This is disrespectful and harmful. $\endgroup$ – quid Jan 4 '15 at 1:49
  • $\begingroup$ (Also in cases where it seems rather unlikely there is some cheating or whatever going on.) $\endgroup$ – quid Jan 4 '15 at 1:50
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    $\begingroup$ No, it is not irrelevant in practice, and it is certainly not a euphemism. And in any case, people should do what they think best, so long as it does not interfere with others’ ability to do so as well. It is the Purity Police’s violation of that last qualifier that makes them vandals. \\ There are cases in which explicit requests for great detail look a bit suspicious even to me, and I probably would not give a complete solution, though in the overwhelming majority of cases I would indeed give substantially more than a brief hint; there are others in which I would agree with you. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jan 4 '15 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott if somebody thinks questions asking for hints only are best answered with full solutions, what will be your reaction to this? // If you find a request suspicious, you have the option of not answering at all or closing it as inappropriate. To turn it into something it was not is a bit more questionable. Anyway, I think our disagreement in practice are smaller than these comments make it look. Finally, I would kindly like to ask you to avoid usage of polemic formulations like Purity Police, and also to perhaps come up with a proposal how to answer the concern raised in OP. $\endgroup$ – quid Jan 4 '15 at 2:05
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    $\begingroup$ My reaction is that it’s unfortunate. If I happen to notice a specific person doing it frequently, I might well leave a comment. I do not, however, believe in doing anything more than that. \\ I vote to close spam, questions that are genuinely off-topic (and I’m fairly generous in my definition of the topic), or true duplicates, and I support temporarily locking questions from current major competitions if we happen to be aware of them; I don’t believe in closing questions for any other reason that comes to mind at the moment. I do in fact ignore some questions — mostly those asking for ... $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jan 4 '15 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ ... immediate feedback. As for my choice of language, there are folks here whose actions and attitude definitely do qualify them as purity police (or at least as purity vigilantes, but that didn’t alliterate as nicely), and I’ve taken enough verbal abuse from some of them that I no longer feel much obligation to soften my description. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jan 4 '15 at 21:20
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I would say these questions are acceptable because I wouldn't like MSE to hinder a commendable studying attitude.

On the other hand, as OP commented on their question (I presume in response to the now-deleted question why they hadn't looked at other threads):

I was left in a weird position when I needed only hints and not full solutions, if I looked in other questions I was likely to ruin it.

meaning that any such "Hints only" thread is basically for the asker only -- anyone else wouldn't want to risk seeing the full solution.

Therefore, the future value of having this duplicate on the site is basically zero. So my suggestion is as follows:

Mark these questions as duplicates once one of the following takes place:

  • OP accepts an answer;
  • OP comments to answers in a thankful way;
  • A reasonable amount of time has passed.

It seems to me that this approach could be the best of both worlds, although it requires some "maintenance work" to be done (the delayed closing of questions). I can imagine a meta-thread catering for this (if deemed necessary) as I perceive this type of hints-only-but-duplicate question to be relatively rare.

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    $\begingroup$ 369 questions are asked every day. How many are asking for hints only? Is it really feasible to keep track of every one of them, check back regularly and vote to close when they meet your criterion? I doubt it. At some point we will need to realize that one of two things will happen: either we stop thinking the website is suited for one-on-one tutoring sessions, or the website will be (is) filled with duplicates, poor questions etc., and loses value as a knowledge repository. $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jan 2 '15 at 11:00
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    $\begingroup$ stop thinking the website is suited for one-on-one tutoring sessions, or the website will be filled with [junk]. YES. But there is a "Work and Effort" faction, extremely active in closing questions, that is actually demanding that the majority of questions be filled with useless material that pertains only to the OP. Ritual demonstrations of effort (what the close voters call "context") that make Too Localized the new normal. The Work and Effort movement is well on its way to wrecking the site unless a tutorial site is split off so that MSE can operate as designed. @NajibIdris $\endgroup$ – zyx Jan 2 '15 at 12:32
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    $\begingroup$ @zyx This is a different issue. The website is known throughout the internet as the place where you can get your math homework done by other people for free. Demanding context is an attempt to curb this tendency. $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jan 2 '15 at 12:37
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    $\begingroup$ [cont] And context is not synonymous with effort: simply saying why you want to find this (I'm not talking about "for the homework that's due tomorrow", I'm talking about math reasons) is enough to provide context, and is actually beneficial for search, because then people looking how to solve the initial question will find this new thread. And this is common on all SE sites: TeX users have to provide a MWE, language-related SE users have to check the dictionary first... $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jan 2 '15 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi, it is not a different issue. The type of "context" that would actually be useful requires a similar effort and level of knowledge to answering a question, and is not something the typical OP can easily generate (other than a reference, but the Work Effort faction has shown more interest in keeping references out of questions, to prevent homework assistance, than to require them of OPs). The result is to demand the compulsory addition of junk to the questions, and get relatively little of the useful things normally known as "context". $\endgroup$ – zyx Jan 2 '15 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi, zyx. Please take this PSQ quarrel elsewhere. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Jan 2 '15 at 12:58
  • $\begingroup$ "PSQ" (i.e., problem-only questions) is a somewhat separate issue, since these could be accepted or rejected on an MSE that operates as designed. Anyway, the opinion has been expressed and I'll leave it at that for this comment thread. $\endgroup$ – zyx Jan 2 '15 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think it would be a terrible idea to fork off a HomeworkService.SE, or AcademicDishonesty.SE, or whatever and migrate all zero-effort homework-related questions there. As things currently stand, at least the "no context" close policy discourages the absolute laziest students from spamming the site. $\endgroup$ – user7530 Jan 3 '15 at 3:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Najib: ... and loses value as a knowledge repository. That is far from evident. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jan 4 '15 at 1:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Brian It's not evident that a website filled with duplicates and poor questions has less value as a knowledge repository than a website that isn't? $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jan 4 '15 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ And to be clear (maybe that isn't evident either?) I'm talking about a website filled with open duplicates who all have their own answers. As I explain in my first comment, this is what implementing Lord_Farin's policy would bring, given the huge volume of questions math.SE sees. I thought this was clear from my first comment, but let's just be preemptive about it, I'd rather not have to gradually explain every single part of my comments. $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jan 4 '15 at 10:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Najib: No, it really isn’t. Poor questions is a subjective judgement, and one on which I rather doubt that you and I agree. It would be nice if duplicates eventually ended up being linked, but different people search differently, so the existence of open duplicates with their own answers is by no means self-evidently a bad thing and may in fact be a good thing. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jan 4 '15 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ I often benefit from duplicates when I am attempting to learn differing aspects of a new topic from the MSE. The slight differences in asked and answered questions bring a breadth of experience. $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Jan 5 '15 at 23:08

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