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Abstract: In which cases must a poster exhibit efforts to answer a question and in which does the content of the question itself suffice to provide context?


It is often suggested that a question should be closed because the poster showed no effort to answer it. The reason for that is obvious in cases where it's phrased like a homework question -- for example:

  • Prove that if two random variables are independent then their covariance is zero.
  • Evaluate the following integral: $\displaystyle\int\cdots\cdots.$
  • Solve this differential equation: $\displaystyle\frac{\partial^2 u}{\partial t^2} + \cdots\cdots.$

However, one sometimes sees it stated without qualification that ALL questions for which the poster does not indicate what efforts have been made to find the answer should be closed. I think that statement is being made thoughtlessly because when examples are cited, it will be seen that there are types of questions to which that does not apply. Sometimes the content of the question itself is considered to have shown sufficient effort, as demonstrated by the fact that nobody votes to close the question and lots of people up-vote it. Some examples appear below (all posted by myself since it was easy for me to find those quickly, but plenty of others exist).

So my question is: Has anyone tried to define the difference, i.e. explicitly state the criteria for deciding between (1) cases where some effort to answer the question needs to be explicit, and (2) cases where the content of the question is considered sufficient, as in these examples?

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    $\begingroup$ "However, one sometimes sees it stated without a shred of qualification that ALL questions for which the poster does not indicate what efforts have been made to find the answer should be closed." Examples? $\endgroup$ – quid Jul 22 '17 at 23:48
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    $\begingroup$ @quid : I've seen this a whole slew of times in recent days and I hesitate to read through that again before someone is paying me to do so, but here's a quote from recent hours: QUOTE It's getting shut down since it's simply a problem statement assigned to MSE. I don't care if the post is an overly terse description of an interesting question — the onus is still on the poster to show the basic research effort. In the case of a "research level question", it's even more important that the poster share the basic research with the reader. END QUOTE $$ {} $$ Do you recognize that quote? $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 22 '17 at 23:55
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    $\begingroup$ I recognize the quote, but it does not quite assert what you claim it does. (For later passer-bys: it is not I that wrote the quote.) $\endgroup$ – quid Jul 23 '17 at 0:03
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    $\begingroup$ @quid : I've seen it lots of times, and I'll see if I can find some links to some, but not today; I have other things to attend to. Often it's when someone asks why a certain crude question is closed, like the hypotheticals above, but sometimes it's when a question is closed because it's too subtle for those closing it to understand and they don't know that they don't understand it (that happens all too often). $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 23 '17 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ Re: ALL questions for which the poster does not indicate what efforts have been made to find the answer should be closed. AFAIK what is required is to include context which can have the form of the OPs own work. See also: arjafi's answer to Can we stop the “Show your work craze”? and How to ask a good question - Provide Context. $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Jul 23 '17 at 0:33
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    $\begingroup$ BTW the quote in the above Michel Hardy's comment is from this answer. $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Jul 23 '17 at 0:35
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    $\begingroup$ The short answer is that "what you tried" is not the only way to provide context. The purpose of adding context, beyond what might otherwise be a textbook or coursework exercise, is to put the OP's understanding into perspective alongside the problem statement. It sometimes turns out that the OP is not familiar with the terms used in such a problem statement, so that a direct attack on the problem does not further their learning until the basics are revisited. I can elaborate as Answer if it would be helpful, but these points have been rehearsed in posts linked above, inter alia. $\endgroup$ – hardmath Jul 23 '17 at 1:36
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    $\begingroup$ @hardmath: It's also worth noting that textbook and coursework are themselves context -- context that is lost when posted to MSE! $\endgroup$ – user14972 Jul 23 '17 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ @hardmath Context is also important as to what answers are expected. It happens all the time that an otherwise valid answer elicits a comment from the OP "but I don't know complex numbers, or generating functions, or asymptotic analysis etc". Framing the question in the right context helps getting better focused answers, and can sometimes save the question from being closed as a duplicate altogether. $\endgroup$ – dxiv Jul 23 '17 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Can we stop the "Show your work craze"? $\endgroup$ – Namaste Jul 24 '17 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ @amWhy : This is not a duplicate of that question. This question asks for a criterion for distinguishing between cases where attempts to solve the problem are needed, and those where they are not needed. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 25 '17 at 7:29
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    $\begingroup$ Sometimes I'm trying to understand a proof and get stuck. I try various ways of turning the equations etc. around, think about related concepts that might help, etc. I might take an hour or a day or a week before I post, but I'm not going to remember all of the false or simply useful paths I considered, and they wouldn't be informative. Mostly they were irrelevant ideas that would simply make the question long and confusing. What I do do is figure out what assumptions might be needed, afaict, to help me past my stumbling block, and how to present my problem without listing the entire proof. $\endgroup$ – Mars Jul 25 '17 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ I have no rep to edit them, but the title and the first sentence of this question are completely uninformative. $\endgroup$ – Federico Poloni Aug 4 '17 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Mars Are you so sure? I often find people who provide their efforts were on the right track, but just couldn't see they were. In such cases, it is much to the benefit of everyone that the OP provides what they tried, and it likewise changes how one should respond to such questions. $\endgroup$ – Simply Beautiful Art Aug 5 '17 at 13:37
  • $\begingroup$ @SimplyBeautifulArt, yes, sometimes that's exactly right. And sometimes the effort to show one's work leads to a solution on one's own. There are different cases, in my experience. I try to exhibit anything that I think might be useful, but running through the seven false paths I've tried would make the post so long that no one would read it. I can see that what I had tried was simply misguided. It's a judgement call. $\endgroup$ – Mars Aug 6 '17 at 22:14
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Let's call a spade a spade and admit that "show your work"/"what have you tried?" in the context of this site are primarily intended to be a less accusatory way to say "no, we will not do your homework for you".

It is, of course, true enough that showing some work will also help answerers tailor their answers to the particular lack of understanding that the asker is suffering for -- but still it seems to be nearly universal that demands for shown work are made exclusively when the question looks like a "do my homework please".

The questions of your own you list do not look like "do my homework". Many of them don't look like something that can reasonably be posed as homework at all -- and those that do still come with a cogent explanation for what makes you wonder about that question other than "my teacher wants me to show I can do it".

In other words, those questions state a context that shows they're not homework questions. This matches why the "we won't do your homework" closing reason masquerades as "missing context or other details" -- showing work is officially relegated to being one kind of "other details" that might be missing.

(For the record, I think that's a horribly confusing close reason, but at least there's some method to its madness).

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    $\begingroup$ The problem is that it is not a polite way to say that. A polite way to say it would be something like this: "Problems posted here should not be phrased in language suitable for assigning homework. It can make people wonder whether you merely copied a question without understanding it." $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 25 '17 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ The conventional close reason used here is confusing at best. And rude. The close reason should be a separate menu item from one that says "off topic". To say "off topic" about a question that is obviously about mathematics seems like sarcasm. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 25 '17 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ Who is, then, The Ace of Spades? (Other than Lemmy, may he rest in peace, of course...) $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jul 25 '17 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy: Perhaps I should have added scare quotes to "polite". $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm Jul 25 '17 at 21:20
  • $\begingroup$ ok, So it's maybe a euphemistic way to say it. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 25 '17 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy yet empirically this way of putting it is not found polite by everybody either. Indeed, it risks to create more fallout and in particular more severe fallout than a request for attempts or ideas made by the asker. It's also controversial if it is anybodies business here if something may or may not be homework. All this got discussed over and over again at some point. $\endgroup$ – quid Jul 25 '17 at 22:54
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    $\begingroup$ @quid : There should be something other than the absurdity of calling things "off topic" where they're about math. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 25 '17 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy that's orthogonal. $\endgroup$ – quid Jul 25 '17 at 22:57
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    $\begingroup$ @quid : Is it? Closing something as "off topic" rather than stating the actual reason for closing it is impolite. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 25 '17 at 22:59
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy "It should be possible to have custom reasons outside the off-topic subsection." is one thing. "It should say 'Problems posted here should not be phrased in language suitable for assigning homework' rather than 'This question is missing context or other details'" is an independent thing. This is not to say they are completely unrelated, but I do not see what's gained by mixing the former concern into this debate. $\endgroup$ – quid Jul 25 '17 at 23:21
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    $\begingroup$ @quid : You wrote: "yet empirically this way of putting it is not found polite by everybody either". It is far better than giving them an obvious lie. People can reasonably be offended by that. If telling them truthfully what's wrong with their posting offends them, maybe that's not as much the concern of those who tell them. I'm not saying the statement I wrote cannot be improved on, but it's an improvement on what is now conventionally done. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 26 '17 at 1:08
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    $\begingroup$ @quid : I don't see that those two things are independent of each other. The stated reason for closing a question -- "off topic" versus some other phrasing -- is a part of the way you communicate with the poster. Saying "Problems posted here should not be phrased in language suitable for assigning homework" is also a part of the way you communicate with the poster. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 26 '17 at 1:11
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy to call it a lie is excessive.It continues to say "within the scope defined in the help-center". That is, it basically says the question does not comply with the rules of the site. We discussed this already. I have no intention to rehash this discussion, which seems unrelated to your original question here, which IIRC is when effort is required, and even not all that related to the tangent of saying 'looks like homework' rather than 'is missing context.' For if we could have custom reasons outside OT we could just as well use 'missing context' there, too, solving the 'lie'issue. $\endgroup$ – quid Jul 26 '17 at 8:40
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps a still "less accusatory" way to say it is what I have often said in comments: "Questions posted here should not be phrased in language suitable for assigning homework." $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Aug 5 '17 at 18:54
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Most of the questions that I up voted without asking for work by the author are problems where, at first glance, I have no idea what should have been tried (or wouldn't expect the author to know).

Combinatorial problems are an easy example. Yes, you could try to enumerate the options, but the point is to avoid such. Usually the hard part of the answer is that first step in modeling the problem, and then applying some standard formula or trick.

The questions you mention look similar. They are soft, making standard first steps hard to pin down.

Meanwhile, an integral or derivative question has a well known set of standard tools that can be applied. Here I want to see why these can't be used, and why we're being bothered with a problem best answered with "Ask Wolfram."

All of this is pretty subjective, and area dependent. I think it would take significant community work to make concrete conditions for each tag, and probably best managed with up votes as we do now.

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In which cases must a poster exhibit efforts to answer a question [...]

As far as I am concerned only when they do not manage to provide enough context to allow for productive answering in a more immediate way. Exhibiting efforts to answer the question is a means to an end (making the problem more clear), not an end in itself. Of course "allow for productive answering" is subjective and vague, but I feel putting it in this way still changes the problem.

In part this is also, as far as I understand, the historical reason for this request. It can be seen as a compromise between:

  • Let us not simply provide solutions on 'assigned problem' posts.

  • It is unreasonable to expect a learner to be able to contextualize their problem in a meaningful way.

The point of the attempt is not, at least not mainly, or at the very least not only, to check if the poster is a hardworking individual that thus deserves our help, but rather to be able to understand where they are coming from. This is nicely explained in the comments by hardmath and dxiv (reproduced, if ever there should be a more comprehensive comment purge):

The short answer is that "what you tried" is not the only way to provide context. The purpose of adding context, beyond what might otherwise be a textbook or coursework exercise, is to put the OP's understanding into perspective alongside the problem statement. It sometimes turns out that the OP is not familiar with the terms used in such a problem statement, so that a direct attack on the problem does not further their learning until the basics are revisited. I can elaborate as Answer if it would be helpful, but these points have been rehearsed in posts linked above, inter alia. – hardmath

@hardmath Context is also important as to what answers are expected. It happens all the time that an otherwise valid answer elicits a comment from the OP "but I don't know complex numbers, or generating functions, or asymptotic analysis etc". Framing the question in the right context helps getting better focused answers, and can sometimes save the question from being closed as a duplicate altogether. – dxiv

In a different direction, to take an example from the posts you mentioned as not showing efforts to answer the question:

Uses of vector spaces over $\mathbb Q$

I know of two applications of vector spaces over $\mathbb Q$ to problems posed by people not specifically interested in vector spaces over $\mathbb Q$:

  • Hilbert's third problem; and
  • The Buckingham pi theorem.

What others are there?

The inclusion of the two examples you know about, contrary to what you suggest, one could just as well see this as "exhibit[ing] efforts to answer the question" (you started out to compile the list you seek). And, I feel these examples are really important to making this a good question. Not because otherwise I would think: "Wow, Michael Hardy is such a lazy guy, just dumps his question here without documenting efforts. There I'll teach him some manners. I'll close it down."

But rather because without them I would have had a hard time, or at least a harder time, to see what you mean with "problems posed by people not specifically interested in vector spaces over $\mathbb Q$."

Conversely, I for one do not need an actual attempt at at solution to go with "Prove that if two random variables are independent then their covariance is zero." What I do want though is an explication what OP wants and needs specifically. As mentioned in a comment I quoted, in such a case OP might well not know what independent even means or what the covariance is, they also might know this just fine. Both is in a way a reasonable state of affairs, but it does significantly influence what type of answer is required.

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  • $\begingroup$ Rather than saying I mentioned those postings "as not showing efforts" one should say I mentioned them "as not showing efforts to answer the question." $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 25 '17 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ It was intended in the sense you used it. I included the add-on now, to avoid any risk for misunderstanding. $\endgroup$ – quid Jul 25 '17 at 16:59
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While I advocate for closing, I am fairly conservative (by my standards) in regards to actually doing so — early on I realized most of the benefit could be gained from closing just the most egregious examples.

In particular, I mainly only close in the "most obvious cases" of posts in the form of an exercise.

Skimming over your list of posts, the main distinguishing feature is that they aren't in the form of an exercise.


For someone writing a new post, I think that is the most important point — you want to ask a question about mathematics, not assign a problem to mse, so write your post to reflect that!

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    $\begingroup$ "A very limp piece of string of length $L$ is thrown, very unskillfully, onto the floor. Find the probability distribution of the distance between the ends." @Hurkyl, you said you would close that. Would you have no hesitation about closing that? $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 24 '17 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy: I would actually close that as unclear (or prompt for clarification) before considering the issue of missing context. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Jul 24 '17 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ Having a clearly defined question is in some cases unreasonable. If you see someone claiming to state what the celebrated Behrens--Fisher problem is, and the statement makes it a clearly expressed math problem, then whoever stated it that way is wrong. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 24 '17 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy: Okay, but so what? Nothing in that observation changes the fact that your quote would be an awful mse post. What about it leaves you so convinced otherwise? My experiences with others showing that behavior lead me to believe that in response to the prompt, you have conceived your own reasonable question, and are failing to distinguish the prompt from the question of your own invention. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Jul 24 '17 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ That it would be an awful mse post is debatable at best. But maybe I need a good collection of examples for those who don't yet understand this point. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 24 '17 at 18:20
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I agree with this.

I think the pattern is the difference between the "simplicity of the question vs answer", not in the "actual context".

This is very subjective. For some people, a problem could be boring and for other not, which would be reflected in the comments and|or the answers.

  1. When a question is simple to ask and simple to answer, it got several answers without asking for context.

    • Typically elementary and first years college problems, "fun" | "fast" to answer,
    • In this cases the question is just given, maybe not one, but several, maybe because it is gratifying to expose our self confidence in one specific topic,
    • And also, just to gain easy fast points.
  2. When a question is simple to ask and difficult to answer, context is requested.

    • Typically college problems, which require more than a couple of lines, "boring" to answer,
    • Do an integral by parts require a context? No, it is simply because the difference between Q&A is noticeable and one don't want to make all the job alone,
    • And after all that work, you maybe will not get the rep points, hence you view negatively the question.
  3. When a question is difficult to ask, and which normally also are difficult to answer, again normally no context is requested.

    • typically last year college, thesis work, research. "interesting" to answer.
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    $\begingroup$ With the caveat that we may have very different ideas about what the words mean, I would disagree on point three -- the more a question is "difficult to ask", the more context is needed to actually succeed in asking the question, to the point where a post containing very difficult to state question would be no question at all, and be entirely context describing what the poster is trying to get at. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Jul 23 '17 at 20:05

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