When I say homework question, I mean the kind of questions frequently seen where the question is just a direct copy of an exercise from a textbook without any work from the OP. These questions appear most often in calculus, and they get quickly closed with the "lacking details" reason.

This makes sense to me, but what if the same sort of question appears, except in a more advanced subject, say, representation theory? Sometimes I'll see these questions closed quickly, but sometimes they'll be left open and receive some answers. Is this inconsistent with the rule about adding your own thoughts to the question? On one hand, if such a question is interesting enough, it could be considered worthy of an answer regardless of the effort shown on the part of the OP. On the other hand, this is a kind of double standard towards higher level mathematics. How should we handle these kinds of questions?

(I don't have any specific examples, I've just seen this happen a few times.)

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    $\begingroup$ I would say the key difference is that unlike low level PSQs, high level PSQs do not continuously flood the front page. From a pragmatic standpoint, we can afford to be a little more relaxed about them when we feel it's appropriate. I wouldn't call that a double standard. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander Gruber Mod
    Apr 4, 2018 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @kevin To suggest a too short solution as a comment: of course they can be closed. Why not? Apply your best judgement. You don't need to overthink it based on perceived divisions among PSQs if you don't want to. Any asker of such a question is likely able to improve the question and get reopened, so it probably becomes moot after that. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Apr 5, 2018 at 0:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The main reason (IMO) to close a question is to stop someone from answering it. If I saw a bad questions in advanced topics, and the question-er is responsive, I might not vote to close since I know no one will answer the question anyway. $\endgroup$
    – user99914
    Apr 5, 2018 at 0:24
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    $\begingroup$ kevin, I'm pretty much consistent across the board, for the last two years. I hold all askers accountable to post more than a mere imperative demand. $\endgroup$
    – amWhy
    Apr 5, 2018 at 0:24
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnMa You meant to say 'from posting further answers in the lower part of the page'. Existing answers stay. It doesn't stop the question from getting an answer almost never. And it is so fun to see how the 'what did you tried' gang tries and tries so hard without ever getting what they want. $\endgroup$
    – user547557
    Apr 5, 2018 at 0:26
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    $\begingroup$ The weird encounter notwithstanding, thanks to everyone for the advice. I'm inclined to agree with rschwieb and amWhy, and close what I perceive to be low effort questions, at least the word for word copies of an exercise. If I just see a little more effort, I'll try to be more flexible. $\endgroup$
    – Kevin Long
    Apr 5, 2018 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ Honestly, while I agree with the notion that we can be a little more lenient with more advanced questions (there is more time to get the question fixed before it gets an answer from an answering machine), I likely hold such questions to a somewhat higher standard at the end of the day: if you are mature enough to ask a question about measure theory or the Sylow theorems, then you should be mature enough to ask a good question. That being said, a poor question is a poor question, and should be closed, regardless of the level. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Apr 5, 2018 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ Sometimes poorly posed questions are closed, sometimes they are not - it depends greatly on who happens to see the question. But I agree with several comments above: we should not be biased in favor of advanced problems, and if anything we should encourage askers of advanced problems to write even better posts. MathOverflow focuses on research-level questions, and as such the interest of the question might take precedence over context or motivation. On this site, we look for math allowing lower-quality posts for advanced topics. $\endgroup$ Apr 8, 2018 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ You have to bear in mind that a website like this exists to help people. Some people are doing their courses in places where the tutors are not especially good and where they get basically no assistance (especially if it is a correspondence course) and at this level they will inevitably get stuck and need someone to pull them free. The coursework is generally not worth any marks anyway or an insignificant amount, so if they are using Math SE to 'cheat' and not learning from the discussions they have or the answers they are reading, they will ultimately fail the exam anyway. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Apr 14, 2018 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Tom That may be true, but a question like, "How do I solve this specific exercise?" doesn't teach much. If, as you say, the coursework isn't worth much, then a student would be better off asking, "How do I understand this general idea?" instead. $\endgroup$
    – Kevin Long
    Apr 15, 2018 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ I could of get what you're saying, but I don't think it's that simple as we are in this business of problem-solving. We solve problems and exercises and sometimes need help: it's not just about understanding general ideas: if it becomes like that the student is just in danger of becoming a philosopher. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Apr 15, 2018 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ @rschwieb there you go $\endgroup$
    – user552631
    Apr 16, 2018 at 11:38

1 Answer 1


You have to think about why questions get closed for being off-topic.

The first and main reason, even if it is the unofficial one, is that people were tired that math.SE was becoming "Do my Homework" Grand Central. The close reason has not been successful in preventing this change, but at least it has reduced the flow of questions that have been asked 36,000 different times (hey guys how do I compute this random limit without l'Hôpital's rule???).

High-level questions don't flood the website, far from it. They are less likely to have been asked billions of time.

There is a certain legal principle in some jurisdiction. If I understand it correctly (I'm not a lawyer), it says that if you edict a certain rule, and when interpreted in some way the consequence of that rule is clearly absurd, then you should not apply the rule in that case. I find it utterly absurd that we, as a community, would deprive ourselves of interesting questions on advanced topics just because we edicted a rule to prevent people from taking a photo of their homework assignments and posting them here to get someone to give all the answers in order to acquire some Imaginary Internet Points.

Then there is the official reason. What does the close dialog say?

This question is missing context or other details: Please improve the question by providing additional context, which ideally includes your thoughts on the problem and any attempts you have made to solve it. This information helps others identify where you have difficulties and helps them write answers appropriate to your experience level.

(My emphasis.)

And the official FAQ?

Context matters. A question can sometimes be answered in one sentence when the discussion is between two experts familiar with each other's background, while the same question may take many paragraphs of detailed computation when being shown to an undergraduate student. By providing a context you help the potential responders to your question give you the best help you need.

When we're talking about an advanced question, well, there's only one level you could be at. Advanced. If the question can really be answered in one sentence, then great. Answering a complicated question about representation theory uses the same tools whether you're an advanced undergrad, a graduate student, a postdoc or whatever. And if it can't be answered with such tools, there's MathOverflow.

Moreover I claim that such questions carry some measure of context within themselves. If you ask a question about representation theory, I know what the context is: representation theory. So the answer will be using definitions, properties, propositions, theorems... from representation theory. Someone has to know this context, or else they can't even understand the question.

Of course, I'm assuming that the question we're talking about isn't just a mere imperative statement (as someone pointed out in the comments). If it sounds like the question asker is assigning me homework, then I vote to close. But if it sounds like someone is stumped by an interesting question on an advanced subject, that's something else entirely.

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    $\begingroup$ Your point on imperatives should be first, because it's crucial here. There are a significant number of people who chuck their masters course homework at Math SE. The only reason it's much less than calculus questions is that there are much fewer masters students, but it doesn't make their Please-Solve-Questions any better! As you said, genuine inquiry is very different from homework outsourcing. $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Apr 14, 2018 at 2:49
  • $\begingroup$ @user21820 No, this isn't what I want to emphasize only answer. I view the difference as more of a question of tone anyway. If someone writes "Solve this problem", my reaction is "Who do you think you are to assign me homework like that?". If someone writes "I'm studying subject Y and I came upon the following exercise X, but I'm stumped", my reaction is completely different. $\endgroup$ Apr 14, 2018 at 8:09
  • $\begingroup$ Not if they repeatedly do that. There are many PSQ factories that have found that they are more likely to get an answer if they include some phrase along that lines, such as "I don't know where to start.", and some of them even create new accounts just to seem like a new user to take advantage of people's good will. I am very lenient if there is just a little bit of effort evident in the question, but "I'm stumped" is not evidence, since it could be "I spent 5 minutes thinking about it and I'm lazy to think longer.". $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Apr 14, 2018 at 9:41
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    $\begingroup$ @user21820 I think you misunderstand my point. I don't care if people use the website to get answers to their homework. I consider that to be their problem, because at that level if you don't understand what you're doing then you will fail the exam anyway (which may not be the case for lower-level courses), and if the answers actually help them and let them succeed, well, that's even better. What I want (or would like) is for them to be polite about it, and to make sure the question hasn't been asked and answered before. Showing they've put effort into the question is evne a plus. $\endgroup$ Apr 14, 2018 at 9:45
  • $\begingroup$ Then I do not agree at all. Politeness (at least not impoliteness) is necessary for a question to be good, but not sufficient. For example, "Could you please help me solve [this complicated integral]? I came across it in my work, but have no idea where to start. Thank you very much!" is not a good question. See the how-to-ask FAQ. $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Apr 14, 2018 at 9:51
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDoeVsJoeSchmoe: Nobody said anything about "minimum progress". Did you read the linked FAQ post? $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Apr 16, 2018 at 16:10

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