78
$\begingroup$

Edit: Clarification: I think we should start closing questions which are obviously copied verbatim from a homework assignment and which consist of no other text. Questions about homework with other text, e.g. "I tried X and it doesn't seem to work," are fine.

Many people are asking 1. how we should decide which questions satisfy this criteria and 2. who gets to actually close questions. In my experience 1. this is not hard to do, and 2. precisely the people who can vote to close.

To identify whether a question is copied verbatim from a homework assignment:

  • Ask yourself, "does this sound like the kind of thing I get or used to get on my homework?" This should be reasonably effective in general. Your brain knows a lot, implicitly, about what kind of text looks like homework and what doesn't.
  • Google parts of the text. If it comes from a textbook, you can often find the textbook this way.
  • Look at other questions the user has asked. Do they also look like homework? If so, that should increase your confidence that the current question is homework.
  • Check the date. Is it during the school year? If so, a given question is more likely to be homework.

There is a lot of Bayesian evidence you can update on here. Determining whether the question contains any other text is also straightforward.

$\endgroup$
  • 36
    $\begingroup$ Define "obviously ... from a homework assignment". Otherwise you are asking for banning of anything "apparently copied from some source". If what you really mean is closing of questions that lack a source and lack displayed work, introduce 1-2 tags for those properties (adding them involves one user action, not 5). Then all the policemen type of users who are interested can follow those tags and vote to close every one them. It would damage the site but anything is better than a closing policy or empowering the more gung-ho moderators to act alone. It also allows people to filter the tags. $\endgroup$ – zyx Apr 24 '13 at 3:34
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I've added homework tag, it seems appropriate for this question. Do you also suggest to close homework questions where at least some work has been shown? Or questions which followed the recommendations from How to ask a homework question? $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Apr 24 '13 at 4:53
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Martin: I would strongly prefer if that happened, but I know it's not going to. What I'm asking for is already a long shot but it might not be as objectionable. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 4:54
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There are also contest and contest-like problems, which are traditionally stated without hints or prior work and often in the imperative. An olympiad problem for age $n$ can be homework for age $n+2$ or vice versa. $\endgroup$ – zyx Apr 24 '13 at 4:58
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ If we do take this proposal; I think we need to add a closing reason as "Low quality" or something like that. The current reasons available for closure are insufficient. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 24 '13 at 10:30
  • 45
    $\begingroup$ Your implication that all copy-paste questions involve cheating is both false and offensive. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Apr 24 '13 at 11:16
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ I agree with closing questions that are simply a copy-paste of an exercise, whether or not that exercise is homework or not. One reason is that this is not actually the OPs question. Rather, it is a question the OP has been asked (whether or not by a person or a book) and the question posted here should be the OPs own. If nothing else, the OP should at least add a line stating what made them ask this question. $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 24 '13 at 13:45
  • 24
    $\begingroup$ Homework is there to help people improve their mathematical skills. If they seek help with their hw on SE then they are "cheating" mainly on themselves. The reason for the quotation marks is that personally I do not consider seeking help on a forum when stuck with homework cheating. As for the general attitude here on SE of "WHAT HAVE YOU TRIED????" and "IS THIS HOMEWORK???": the FAQ page of this forum does not state that "the community must act as a parent and enforce whatever we think is right". It says we answer questions. $\endgroup$ – Rudy the Reindeer Apr 24 '13 at 16:12
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ While I can understand why people dislike low quality posts, I very much disagree with the idea of "making people do their homework". If they are too lazy to think then they are not suitable for studying mathematics and it makes no difference whether they fail their exams or not. In particular, we should give them all the help they want. $\endgroup$ – Rudy the Reindeer Apr 24 '13 at 16:14
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ In fact, as there is no way of telling whether a question is homework or not (I could copy a question from a book and it will look exactly like homework) I suggest to delete the homework tag altogether. It is meaningless. $\endgroup$ – Rudy the Reindeer Apr 24 '13 at 16:16
  • 31
    $\begingroup$ I have finite amount of time to provide answers/help on this site. I want to know that that finite amount of time is going to someone who genuinely appreciates it. I would like policies that assume the worst in people, because then it will be a lot easier to judge who will genuinely appreciate the time I spend. $\endgroup$ – Emily Apr 24 '13 at 20:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @mixedmath Thank you. $\endgroup$ – Michael Greinecker Apr 25 '13 at 5:39
  • 19
    $\begingroup$ I have removed many off-topic comments from this thread. I would like to encourage people to treat others with respect and, if necessary, wait before responding. On behalf of the math moderator team, I would like to apologize for any reply that was written in haste or hot-headedness. Finally, this is not the appropriate place to discuss the suspension of any particular user. Extended discussion can be carried out in a chat room. $\endgroup$ – davidlowryduda Apr 25 '13 at 23:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Ishan: I think that question is unlikely to be homework (it's a little difficult). In fact I quite like the question and wrote a blog post about it here: qchu.wordpress.com/2010/02/08/optimizing-parameters $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 28 '13 at 20:41
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Qiaochu : I strongly agree that such questions should be banned if there is a way to do it. There are a lot of such questions asked here and a lot of them get answered in complete detail. $\endgroup$ – Stefan Smith May 3 '13 at 23:36

13 Answers 13

46
$\begingroup$

Judging from the comments, this proposal may be viewed as wild and potentially damaging to the site. This answer is to put this proposal into perspective and compare it to the other StackExchange sites.


Here's the current Maths.SE stats (ref.):

Maths.SE stats

This ranks maths.SE second amongst all StackExchange sites with regards to the number of questions asked per day (and more than twice as many questions per day as the third ranked site).


Physics.SE enforce quality standards (stricter than those proposed here). From their FAQ:

FAQ snippet

Copy/paste questions are closed as "too localized". Recent examples: this, this, this, this.

Physics.SE stats


Skeptics.SE has strictly enforced quality standards (although, they don't have the problem of copy/paste questions). Questions are closed with a message like:

Example of a closure message

The author of the question (or, in fact, anyone with enough reputation) is generally encouraged to edit the question to meet the quality standards, in which case it's re-opened.

Skeptics.SE stats


Stats.SE don't use a homework tag, but a self-study tag. They don't seem to have an official stance regarding copy/paste questions (perhaps because they encounter them quite rarely), but they seem to get closed. A not particularly recently example is this.

Copy/paste questions seem rare at other science StackExchange sites, but are generally closed as "too localized". E.g. this at Biology.SE; this at Chemistry.SE.


Copy/paste questions seem generally unwelcome at StackOverflow (see e.g. meta threads: here, here). It's probably not directly comparable to maths.SE, however, due to the vast difference in scale of the two sites.

However, this blog post concerning the growth of StackOverflow from Jeff Atwood seems relevant (since we're experiencing similar issues):

As Stack Overflow has grown, it has started to have some decidedly big city problems. The one we are most concerned about is an influx of very low quality questions.

While we still believe in editing and improving low-quality questions to make them better, there’s a fundamental mismatch in scale and effort here — bad questions, asked in bad faith, have a tendency to overwhelm the good intentions of the average Stack Overflow user. So, we’ve decided to take some steps to block bad questions before they enter our system, and save everyone some effort.

Then he introduces an End User Liscence Agreement (the "How to Ask" page here), about which he writes:

From my perspective, if at least one in ten new users read it and think, “hey, I should at least try to form a decent question” — it’s a win. If some very poor questions are discarded based on seeing this page — it’s a win. And honestly, when you have 2k+ new questions per day, you can afford to throw a few away in the name of increased overall quality.

[...]

If we don’t do our part to cull the bad questions, then we risk alienating the true experts who provide what really matters: the answers!

$\endgroup$
  • 19
    $\begingroup$ Yes, my change in opinion on this issue is primarily driven by the increased number of questions. I didn't care about this so much a year ago but things are getting out of hand. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 17:35
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ I think the number of questions Math.SE is getting now deserves some emphasis, it is far, far higher than the SE 2.0 sites of similar age. If you look at SO, some rather drastic measures had to be implemented to keep the question quality at a manageable level. $\endgroup$ – Mad Scientist Apr 24 '13 at 19:36
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @MadScientist: What sorts of measures were taken, if I might ask? $\endgroup$ – davidlowryduda Apr 24 '13 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ @mixedmath The automatic question ban $\endgroup$ – Mad Scientist Apr 25 '13 at 5:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MadScientist: wow, I looked that up and I had no idea. You're right, those are some very drastic measures indeed. $\endgroup$ – davidlowryduda Apr 25 '13 at 6:07
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @mix, might it be time to ask for this "question ban" to be implemented here (as a proper meta thread, of course)? I don't quite see the question influx volume to be staying still, much less dropping, anytime soon... $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Apr 25 '13 at 10:29
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ For other people wondering about the question ban mentioned by Mad Scientist, more can be found in this meta.SO post. $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Apr 25 '13 at 12:36
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @J.M. Given how the machine often complains about how perfectly clear, correct, insightful answers are of too low a quality, getting the machine to ban users for low quality is the last thing we need. $\endgroup$ – Michael Greinecker Apr 28 '13 at 9:18
36
$\begingroup$

In my answer in the thread What should we do with poorly posed questions? I suggest being extremely lenient to all users regardless of how bad the question is, and offering suggestions for how to clean it up. That was 2 years ago, and since then, the site has grown considerably, undergoing several changes in the user base. I believe that now we should be much stricter with poorly posed questions. I am not suggesting punishing homework in particular, as I am not sure how that would work - professor Joel Hamkins has a nice answer on this subject. (see zyx's comment as well) However, I think that something needs to be done in addition to providing suggestions for how to clean up a question. Often the suggestions are simply ignored, because users will answer the low quality question anyway in search of reputation points. I think that the lowest quality questions which show absolutely no effort on the part of the OP should be downvoted and closed outright. In line with Qiaochu's proposal - The minimum level of what constitutes a respectable question on this site needs to increase.

To be specific:

Low quality questions which show no effort should be downvoted and closed outright. Comments should be added welcoming new users and explaining how to ask the question in a way that is suitable for Math Stack Exchange, and how to ask it in such a way that it is not closed in the future. No emphasis should be put on whether or not it could be homework, but rather on the quality of the question itself.

There is a very strong correlation between the lowest quality questions, and the obvious homework questions that Qiaochu mentions above. If someone is going to use Math Stack Exchange for help on their homework, then at the very least they need to have put some thought into the questions. There is a major difference between asking for help when confused about part of a question, and asking for users on Math Stack Exchange to solve ones homework entirely.

Related are my previous answers: See A Consolidated Homework Policy, Downvoting Complete Solutions and What should we do with poorly posed questions?.

Edit: See the concrete proposal by Mixedmath: Proposal: Ban questions that are nothing besides a problem statement

$\endgroup$
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ I am the user mixedmath mentions on this post (meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/4154/…) asking for a policy to be enforced on homework, and you turned it down in your answer to the post (meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/4154/…) saying that it will have a long-term negative impact on the site. And this was less than a year back. I should probably change my username to Qiaochu Yuan to make people accept my suggestions. $\endgroup$ – user17762 Apr 24 '13 at 6:47
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I quote from your answer: "I can imagine situations where people make accusations about what is and what is not homework, re tag questions, and refuse to give full answers. In the worse case, things may degrade into a witch hunt scaring away new users." and "There are ..., and different standards exist around the world for what is and is not allowed. Who is to say your standard is the correct one? I don't think that we should compromise the functionality of the website, the happiness of our answer writers, and the health of the community to try and be some kind of academic police." $\endgroup$ – user17762 Apr 24 '13 at 7:20
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ If the quality of the question is poor, we can always improve it. Many students especially high schoolers and fresh undergrads, do not know how to ask questions. Closing questions, just because the questioner doesn't know how to ask, will prevent new users from joining the site. $\endgroup$ – user17762 Apr 24 '13 at 7:24
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This is what I feel. If someone wants to cheat, let them cheat. Cheating will not take them far anyhow. If they really want to learn something, they will. If they do not want to learn something, they won't. Also, I wonder, what constitutes a poorly posed question? Is this question a poorly posed question (math.stackexchange.com/questions/371233/…) ? What about this one (math.stackexchange.com/questions/370136/…)? $\endgroup$ – user17762 Apr 24 '13 at 7:31
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @user17762: I think you raise some good points, and I will look over them and try to address them tomorrow. It seems that you fundamentally disagree with my opinions - which is fine - but I take offense to the comment "I should probably change my username to Qiaochu Yuan to make people accept my suggestions." Unless I am misreading things greatly, my answer does not even seem to accept Qiaochu's suggestion. In the highlighted summary, I specifically say that I disagree with the first line of the question. $\endgroup$ – Eric Naslund Apr 24 '13 at 8:12
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @user: Assuming for the sake of argument that improving questions is better than closing questions... it still does not follow that closing questions is bad, nor does it follow that leaving them open is better than closing. The topic of improving questions, of course, only matters if we actually have people going around an improving questions; while we see people fixing formatting and stuff, I've never seen anyone (other than the author) actually rewrite the content of a poor question to turn it into a better question. And when put that way, it seems clear that opens a whole new can of worms. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 24 '13 at 8:19
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @user: I agree that a lot of people don't know how to ask questions -- and furthermore that many who do know how don't know that they should. And they will never learn if many/most of the examples they see are badly asked questions, they never get the feedback that they have asked a question badly, and are never pushed (ideally with some sort of helpful references) to ask a better question. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 24 '13 at 8:22
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ @user: If you truly don't care if people cheat, you should still care about your reputation and the reputation of MSE. "MSE Says: Cheating Okay Here!" is not good press! $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 24 '13 at 8:29
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ (+1) Strongly agree with the suggestion to start accompanying "WHYT, please improve your post" comments with close votes. The (I think probably) small amount of questions that is subsequently edited can be raised in the reopen questions meta thread. This might increase the amount of maintenance work a bit, but the benefit of an improvement of the average question quality seems worth the effort to me. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Apr 24 '13 at 9:16
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Would you please elaborate on what you mean by "low quality questions" in "Low quality questions which show no effort should be downvoted and closed outright"? For example, here is a question which shows no effort. Is it a "low quality question"? It seems to me like a clearly-stated, on-topic question, so by those metrics at least it is high-quality. And I would expect that most questions copied verbatim from textbooks would be clearly-stated and on-topic. So I am not sure what your idea is here. $\endgroup$ – MJD Apr 24 '13 at 18:47
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @MJD: It's not even a question, so it can't be a high-quality question! IMO, that quality is strongly indicative of the way of thinking we want to dissuade. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 24 '13 at 19:01
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl I took the question to be implied: "How can I prove this?" Are you seriously taking the position that the post would be significantly improved if that sentence were appended? If so, then I don't see that there is any serious problem to be solved here, since it would be easy for editors to add such sentences whenever they are omitted, and I doubt there will be much objection to their doing so. But if that is not your position, then I suggest that our discussion here is not well-served by facetiousness or hairsplitting. $\endgroup$ – MJD Apr 24 '13 at 19:04
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @MJD: I think the example you give is definitely a low quality question. Just compare these kinds of questions to the average question posted on Math Overflow. Ignoring the base mathematical content, the questions on Math Overflow are much nicer in many ways, the most basic of which is wording and motivation. $\endgroup$ – Eric Naslund Apr 24 '13 at 19:13
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I don't read Math Overflow very often, so I don't really know what you have in mind. $\endgroup$ – MJD Apr 24 '13 at 19:25
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ In some cases, the "low quality" is partly because the poster's native language is not English. I personally am willing to be lenient with people struggling to express themselves in a foreign language. $\endgroup$ – bubba Apr 27 '13 at 9:42
30
$\begingroup$

I personally care very little about whether people cheat on their homework or not. In all the courses I took and in all the courses I taught, it was fairly clear and accepted that people cooperate on homework and there was no clear line on what is allowed and what is not. Trying to get rid of "cheating" on homework is plainly not realistic and not someting that is decided by MSE policy.

But I do think we should ban verbatim copies of problems that are given without additional context or background. They are just lazy, bad questions. If the truth of an assertion is implied in the question ("Show that every dobs is a dabs."), I would like to know why it is assumed to be true. Is it because the instructor of a course said so? Because you have some intuition why this should be the case? Do you just want this to be true because it would help you in proving something neat? Was this taken to be a well-known fact in a research paper you read? Background is essential. If I see that a question is from an elementary textbook in a field I know about, I might simply think a bit to answer the question. If it is from an advanced research paper, I might consult some standard reference or make use of my knowledge of relevant keywords to google for an answer. If the problem is from a course, an answer that uses some big machinery result not yet introduced in the course won't be helpful. If someone doesn't know the answer ("Is every dobs a dabs"?), they might have already found some equivalent versions of the problem and by giving these equivalences, they can save other people from working too much.

Stating problems without context and own thoughts makes for very bad questions, whether homework or not. We should set the bar higher.

If there is an option of having a new closing reason, it should not be related to homework. There is no point in accusing people of being cheaters. A closing reason that I think would be acceptable is "Question conforms not to required format" or something alike.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This is essentially what I meant when I said that users should write a line about what made them ask the question (glibly dismissed as "a little pointless bureaucratic hoop-jumping" by Brian M. Scott). $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 25 '13 at 1:19
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ +1: I think your bolded summary is an excellent point. Cheating is not the only, and probably not the best, reason to ban acontextual, or purely verbatim-copied, questions. $\endgroup$ – Neal Apr 25 '13 at 2:33
  • $\begingroup$ Totally agree.Moreover,even though the simple homework questions are sometimes annoying, in my opinion, there is no reason to ban this kind of questions. People that, like me, are studying maths by themselves and for pleasure could find the answers to the homework questions very useful. Because of that, Math.SE would be a great tool to promote maths and to provide access to knowledge in this field which can only be beneficial for this subject which we all love. $\endgroup$ – KAT Apr 25 '13 at 18:57
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Here is one thing that greatly worries me about forcibly setting a higher bar of showing some effort. Those who are cheating, lazy, etc will simply inject nonsense into the question to meet the requirement. This will force many answerers to read this nonsense in earnest attempt to help debug the OP's problem. This will end up wasting much valuable time of answerers. The result might well be a situation much worse than the current one, where it ends up being difficult if not impossible to distinguish genuine effort from nonsense injected to meet the bar. $\endgroup$ – Math Gems Apr 25 '13 at 20:35
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @MathGems: Or, it will be noticed by the first or second user which will downvote and close... $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 26 '13 at 6:08
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila, I don't think that's possible. The nonsense will consist of claims to have tried something, trivial observations, semi-trivial observations collected from other sources, seemingly related calculations that go in circles, and so on. Those are signs of effort supposed to make a question better, right? The good faith "showing the work" can be even worse in cluttering the questions with larger more complex paragraphs of rubbish. Really the OP should not show-their-work unless they want the answers to comment on that work and say that in the question. $\endgroup$ – zyx Apr 26 '13 at 11:10
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @zyx: Then let's just shut down the site. That'll show 'em cheatin' bastards! And in all seriousness, I think that both you and Math Gems share an extremely pessimistic outlook. I think that if someone would want to cheat and insert random nonsense it will either be unrelated, and obviously so (which will result in closure and downvotes); or they will put relevant things into the answer, in which case they had to read them and thus work and learn from them. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 26 '13 at 11:14
  • $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila, but from the answerers' and readers' point of view this semi-relevant stuff is a waste of time that clutters the question. An OP can reasonably ask how to get from the work he did to the complete solution, or if the work is correct, but these are different questions. For the question of solving a given problem the important information is perhaps his background knowledge and no more. It just creates extra un-necessary labor to deal with the OP-mathematics in addition to the real mathematics when answering a question on the latter. $\endgroup$ – zyx Apr 26 '13 at 11:19
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @zyx: Yes. For questions like "How to prove this by induction" or "Show that this series is convergent" the background is the only relevant "meta-information", but seeing what the OP had tried is great. It can generate answers which help the OP in more than just how to solve this problem, or even Bill's famous answers including a mini-tutorial in calculus of differences. If I see what the OP has tried, I can help them in another way, I can tell them why their method didn't work, or suggest why they got stuck. I think this is far more instructive to the OP. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 26 '13 at 11:23
  • $\begingroup$ Let me put it another way. There are situations where the question/answer could benefit from demonstration of work and some as you point out where this did take place. But in most cases it is creating lower value, and can be a subject of conflict when the display of work comes after a WhatHaveYouTried auto-query (ie., if show-work is understood as mandatory and people enforce it in the comments). So I greatly prefer that giving the work always be an option, but never become effectively a requirement. @AsafKaragila $\endgroup$ – zyx Apr 26 '13 at 11:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @zyx: Can you substantiate your "most cases"? $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 26 '13 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila, partly, yes. One observation from having searched through a large number of WHYTs during earlier discussion, is that when WhYt gets a response, it is unusual for the information to alter the answers, they don't refer to what was done, or are about the same they would have been without the what-was-tried. The other is in my experience as an answerer. The OPs with the lots of shown work, unless they are mathematically experienced, disorganize the discussion (continuing in comments at length) by asking one question where they should ask 3, one of them the original without work. $\endgroup$ – zyx Apr 26 '13 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ Also I see similar patterns reading other people's Q/A, but there I don't follow the history so the judgement is more superficial. Where work is shown without WHYT generally it does look to me like the answers don't depend strongly on what was given. Sometimes they acknowledge it and sometimes they make a point of incorporating it, but this is artificial in the very frequent case where the OP work does not make significant progress, or goes in a wrong direction. Sometimes it leads to a tutorial but this is an answer to a different question not asked. $\endgroup$ – zyx Apr 26 '13 at 11:45
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Asaf I have seen similar quick-and-dirty attempted fixes backfire spectacularly in other forums. I've seen glimmers of that here already. Reading some attempted solutions, I often wonder how someone could possibly be doing something so strange, only to find out that the "effort" was forcefully injected only to satisfy complaints about no prior work shown. Those who really strive to teach often expend great effort to understand and debug attempted solutions. If we cannot easily distinguish the good apples from the bad, we must frequently bite into the bad ones. The taste will not be good. $\endgroup$ – Math Gems Apr 26 '13 at 18:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Tobias: That’s not a glib dismissal: that’s my honest opinion, and it hasn’t changed. That’s why I can’t upvote Michael’s answer, despite its eminently sane first paragraph. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Apr 30 '13 at 15:36
17
$\begingroup$

We will almost never be able to prove whether a question copied verbatim is a homework assignment or not; it may be a contest problem, it may be a problem from a textbook (but not assigned to that particular user as homework), it may be someone else's homework (I have known enterprising students in the past who get friends to seek answers to problems online, and then "stumble" upon the solution).

This distinction, in my opinion, is irrelevant.

I posit that closing a verbatim question under the suspicion of being homework incurs no loss to the community if the supposition is wrong.

If a user can't be arsed enough to post at least a bare modicum of background knowledge, then I feel that the user doesn't deserve the solution. Furthermore, without some context as to the user's knowledge, we don't know if posting the solution will send the question "down the rabbit hole", with everyone involved eventually discovering that the user is a "run before you can walk" type that is asking questions well over his/her skill level. I'm disinterested in finding examples, but I'm sure most people have come across one or two.

(Bonus points for when the point back to someone trying to solve the Riemann hypothesis without knowledge of proper rules of how to manipulate limits).

Furthermore, posting full answers to such problems doesn't actually serve the community, in my opinion. It robs the other users of the pedagogical experience of experiencing why the question might be interesting, what context it might reside in, and what fallacious solution approaches might appear tempting.

A copied question with a full solution is like a crossword puzzle with the solution published on the same page. It's like reading a dictionary. Maybe it sates some folks' desire for knowledge, but absent any context, it fails to provide any intrinsic motivation.


That said, I've historically voted these questions as "not constructive", but only after giving the user some window to correct the post. A new user might not know how the community works, but in general many of these questions come from users who fail to sustain the community through the typical mechanisms: commentary, answers, and voting.

MSE should not be a factory, and while it is true that we cannot, in the rigorous sense, prove that any given user is using the community for homework solutions, can we please stop being so naive as to think that it's not commonplace?

StackOverflow, along with the dozens of other programming forums, etc. have been used as code factories for years and years. MSE is one of the very few mathematics forums that actively promotes (and provides tools for) problem solving. Why are we so naive to think that it's not suffering the same fate?

$\endgroup$
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ For whatever my thoughts might be worth: I weep every time I see copy-pasta. I weep a bit more when the poster insists on being helpless, even after much nudging in the comments to try to polish his question to something more useful to him/her and to us. And, I weep the most when even after all that discourse, someone just up and writes an answer that in all likelihood the OP will have no qualms about copying and submitting verbatim, in much the same manner that he copied and submitted his question to the site. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Apr 25 '13 at 10:34
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @J.M. I smiled at "copy-pasta". $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 25 '13 at 13:04
13
$\begingroup$

I wish to make a small objection to the proposal. Not because I want cheating to be encouraged but because I have the following objection: Suppose someone is working on a text by oneself as is often the case and gets stuck. Would that person not suffer because of the proposal? Such questions from many not-so-easy books like Artin's Algebra(I am sure there are notoriously difficult ones!) , by default, get classified as homework? How should those people post their questions if they need some help if the ban comes into effect?

A lot of questions seem to be from textbooks and can be easily classified as "homework" if the instructor happens to assign tasks from those books.

$\endgroup$
  • 21
    $\begingroup$ I think that the proposal is not to ban all questions originated from studying. Rather copy-paste questions. If someone is studying on their own, I believe it is less likely that they will copy-paste the question from the book. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 24 '13 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Asaf: We have both interacted quite a bit with one user who was self-studying yet using the copy-and-paste question posting paradigm. $\endgroup$ – user642796 Apr 24 '13 at 10:46
  • 28
    $\begingroup$ @Arthur: And wouldn't it be great if that user would at least write a line or two of their thoughts on the question? Closing on the first offense could easily bring improvement in the second question. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 24 '13 at 10:51
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Asaf: Qiaochu's proposal in the OP says nothing to the effect of "...unless effort has been shown". If his actual proposal is along the lines of simply "homework + no effort shown" then this has been covered before. But it seems Q is being much more absolutist now, which makes me think he'll be departing the site soon. (BTW: My condolences for your loss of troll (for a week); now what do you do instead of work?) $\endgroup$ – user642796 Apr 24 '13 at 11:20
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Arthur: I think this was discussed before, on the previous thread. No one really objects to copying the question and then adding what you have tried and where you are stuck. That would be a good thing. Reading into Q's post that any question containing a copy-paste question should be closed... is a bit of an overkill. (I went to my previous advisor, to do some tangential work... I also sit and try to deduce the identity of a new set theory answerer on the site, and I think I know it too.) $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 24 '13 at 11:29
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @ArthurFischer The OP specifically refers to questions "copied verbatim", which I read as excluding those in which effort has been shown. For what it's worth, I am slightly happier with Eric's suggestion than that in the OP, as it is more specific on this point, and refers to such questions in a way which is independent of them being homework. $\endgroup$ – mdp Apr 24 '13 at 13:55
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ @Arthur: that is implicit. I am (currently) only suggesting that we ban questions that literally consist only of the verbatim text of a homework problem. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ @QiaochuYuan And just to be absolutely clear, I agree with your proposal even with the word homework removed, which conveniently means not having to worry about the tricky issue of determining when a question is homework or not. If you also agree with this stronger statement, it might be worth trying to make the discussion separate from one about homework. (If you don't, then the mix of opinions is even more complex that I'd realised!). $\endgroup$ – mdp Apr 24 '13 at 18:20
8
$\begingroup$

There is no logical connection between posting homework problems on this website and cheating. A determination of cheating can only be made in light of (1) applicable course policy, and possibly also (2) what is done with the answers received. Neither of these is something we can know from looking at the question, even if it were possible to tell with certainty that it was a homework problem for some class. It is possible for a student to copy a question from a textbook, post it here, receive an answer, and then not present that answer as his or her own work in a class assignment. On the other hand, it is also possible for a student to write an original question, post it here, receive an answer, and then proceed to present that answer as his or her own work in a class assignment (or in a journal paper, for that matter.)

This objection is not just nit-picking. I have suggested to my students in the past that they ask questions about their homework on this website. It would not be appropriate for them to post the homework assignment verbatim (and I told them so) but neither would it be cheating. According to the policy that I set for my class, it would only be cheating if they failed to cite the source of their answer. This policy, and whether or not the student posting here is going to follow it, cannot possibly be known by other Math.SE users. By the way, I would be rather upset if someone wrongly accused one of my students of cheating (either with words or with passive-aggressive moderation actions) for posting one of my homework questions here verbatim. A more appropriate response would be "what have you tried?" or "please ask a question rather than giving an order."

$\endgroup$
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Who's trying to be passive-aggressive? I'm explicitly suggesting an aggressive-aggressive policy here. But your point is taken. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 22:44
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I don't understand these claims about logical connections. Obviously in the real world it is impossible to logically deduce any useful conclusions from anything else. That is not how decisions should be made in the real world. My claim is that a policy of being more aggressive in closing low-quality homework-looking questions would, on net and in expectation, benefit the site and its potential users more than current policies. That claim is not refuted by a description of a single kind of instance in which these policies would upset you. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 22:47
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Qiaochu Okay, passive-aggressive is not quite the right phrase, but I meant that I think the best way to say "your question is bad because..." is just to say it, instead of (or in addition to) taking some step that leads to the question being closed. $\endgroup$ – Trevor Wilson Apr 24 '13 at 22:51
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ By "no logical connection" I meant that you could have either one without the other. And my second paragraph was intended to give an example of when the proposed policy might upset me. (I am assuming that the student is perceptive enough to figure out when someone thinks he or she is cheating, even if that person doesn't come out and say it.) $\endgroup$ – Trevor Wilson Apr 24 '13 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Qiaochu: I agree with your statement about what the policy should be, but what would it look like? Let's say such a policy is "in effect". Who is the executive branch? Is it software, moderators, common folk? $\endgroup$ – The Chaz 2.0 Apr 25 '13 at 0:00
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Anyone who can vote to close. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 25 '13 at 0:01
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Saying that all CPHQ is cheating is surely too strong. However, the proportion of CPHQ that is cheating is almost certainly much larger than the proportion of all questions that is cheating, so it would be foolish to suggest that posting CPHQ is not some evidence towards the conclusion the person is cheating. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 25 '13 at 2:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I can understand why someone might be upset at that observation being made, but compare with a formally similar (but more extreme) situation: stuffing store merchandise in your pocket so that it's easier to carry to the checkout register. It's certainly not proof that you are stealing it, but it certainly counts as circumstantial evidence, and I can't imagine anyone reasonably criticizing store employees for confronting somebody who did that and insisting that they carry the merchandise openly. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 25 '13 at 2:20
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl Yes, I'm sure it's correlated to cheating, but that's not always a good enough reason to ban something. Another analogy with stores that is slightly different than the one you made would have the store employee asking me not to put merchandise in my own bag rather than in a shopping basket. I am aware that this might look suspicious, but I would still be mildly insulted if a store employee asked me not to do it. (No one ever has.) $\endgroup$ – Trevor Wilson Apr 25 '13 at 3:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Trevor: Fortunately, we don't have to consider whether it's a good enough reason to ban something, because it's just one of several reasons we have to consider banning something. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 25 '13 at 8:42
8
$\begingroup$

Your proposal is missing an important detail. You propose to close "questions which are obviously copied verbatim from a homework assignment". How do you propose to identify such questions?

Your phrasing suggests that you think that it is "obvious", at least in some cases; I suppose you have examples in mind.

  • If you were to produce these examples, would you also be able to produce evidence that they were, in fact, copied verbatim from a homework assignment? What would this evidence consist of?

  • What makes you think that your particular identifications are correct? is it possible that you might be mistaken in some cases? In all cases?

  • Is there an objective standard for identifying such questions that any user could follow, or would we be dependent on you personally to identify questions that are "obviously copied verbatim"?

Without some details about how you expect this to be done, the proposal is either too vague to take seriously, or else you seem to be proposing an autocracy. I assume that it is the former, and not the latter, but the details are missing.

$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Of course it's possible I might be mistaken, in the same way that a doctor might be mistaken when she diagnoses cancer. Nevertheless a doctor must at some point decide whether to start chemotherapy, in the same way that we must at some point decide whether to start closing questions. The line between cancer and not cancer, or a good and bad question, is fuzzy, but that's not an excuse for pretending as if there isn't one. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 22:02
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ The question in practice is where to set the threshold, and I agree that this is a question that needs to be answered, but many people in this discussion seem to think that it's extremely hard to identify probable homework and so we shouldn't even try, and I just don't think this is true. I think most people, myself included, can use various clues to identify with better than 90% accuracy whether a problem is copied from a homework assignment or not. There are many hints, e.g. in the wording, other questions the user has asked, how close it is to finals week... $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 22:05
  • 1
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Do you disagree with any of those assessments? My confidence in each assessment is higher than 90%, and I would be willing to bet perhaps a dollar on each problem accordingly. We could ask each of those users whether they're homework problems; this isn't perfect but it's probably the best we can do. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 22:09
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "all of which I believe to be homework" does not mean "all of which I believe to be homework and also consisting solely of the verbatim text of the homework assignment." That additional criterion is easy to check for. Obviously there's extra text in some of these questions. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 25 '13 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ @QiaochuYuan Thanks for the clarification. I am very relieved. I will reconsider your comments in that light. $\endgroup$ – MJD Apr 25 '13 at 18:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ (may I suggest editing out the addendum, given the clarification?) $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 27 '13 at 5:37
  • $\begingroup$ I should have done so sooner. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – MJD Apr 27 '13 at 5:38
7
$\begingroup$

I'm not exactly one of the big names here on the StackExchange, but I have witnessed a lot of the things that go on in the meta of several SE sites, including this one, for about one year, and I am fundamentally disturbed by what I see. What I see is a small community of active users trying to decide for the larger community what SE should be, and what it shouldn't be. Ultimately, what I feel is the following:

What passes as an "acceptable" or "good" question should primarily be determined through community upvotes and downvotes, not through adherence to strict rules, except in the flagrant cases of abuse (e.g. attacking somebody, posting a question that is intentionally not about mathematics, spamming). Only in these special cases should moderators manually close questions.

Questions that the community feels are bad will get downvotes and die off. Questions that are highly upvoted will be popular and be answered. If somebody posts some homework verbatim, then people who don't want to do some kid's homework won't answer them.

People have mentioned the Physics StackExchange as an example of a site with more strict rules, but to be honest, their rules are ridiculous. There is only one physics-related SE site, yet they restrict it only to "conceptual questions". I recently asked a question looking for monographs or references on modern developments in a certain area of physics and the question was closed unilaterally by a moderator for not being "conceptual". Maybe my question wasn't of the highest quality, but clearly it was a serious question, and it seems there were people willing to consider the question. If a decent number of people want to answer a question, then in my mind is it legitimate. There is no reason to create rules by which certain questions that people genuinely want answered, and which other people genuinely would be willing to answer, are unacceptable.

$\endgroup$
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ "There is no reason to create rules by which certain questions that people genuinely want answered, and which other people genuinely would be willing to answer, are unacceptable." Yes there is! Creating an environment where people can easily get help cheating on their homework damages the integrity of homework. This is terrible and we should do something about it. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 20:20
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ Also, if most questions are boring homework questions, I wouldn't be surprised if in the long run that drove away the most valuable users, namely the ones who actually provide high-quality answers. I would have already quit using math.SE if I hadn't started aggressively filtering tags, and I still see plenty of homework (it's mostly abstract algebra and combinatorics homework because I'm not filtering out those tags). $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 20:21
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ Who are you to decide what constitutes cheating, a "boring question", or otherwise? If you think a question is bad, you can downvote it and not answer it. I agree with your general view of such posts, but others may not agree and they should have a chance to answer as they wish. $\endgroup$ – Christopher A. Wong Apr 24 '13 at 20:28
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Disagree. I think this attitude hurts math.SE as a whole. There are already plenty of places on the internet where people can go to cheat on their math homework; let's have at least one where they can't. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 20:29
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Perhaps you're right, but where do you draw the line? Broadly, there's no mathematical calculation for deciding what's morally right or wrong. The free market (e.g. community votes) is the only fair judgment. There's a reason people ask questions. So yes, maybe they're a bit lazy, but maybe they're just downright confused. From experience, students who are truly confused can never ask good questions, because they don't even know what they're confused about. How can you separate these cases from "cheating"? At worst, students would be cheating themselves by not learning the material. $\endgroup$ – Christopher A. Wong Apr 24 '13 at 20:38
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Disagree. Community votes are biased towards keeping homework problems open because cheaters don't have an incentive to prevent other people cheating. They allow questioners to have too much of a say over answerers, and I think that an SE site in general needs to value its answerers over its questioners. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 20:40
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I don't understand why you claim that there's no way to make this judgment and then immediately afterwards claim that community votes are a good way to make this judgment. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 20:41
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Ultimately, I appreciate your attitude towards trying to maintain high-quality questions and answers, but I believe in a democratic solution, and if people are willing to answer and upvote questions, then that is what the majority wants. I don't claim that votes are good in any absolute sense, but it is the only metric by which things can be judged numerically. I also agree with your concern that a wealth of HW-type questions might drive away some users. But why should we listen to their preferences over a larger majority's preferences? $\endgroup$ – Christopher A. Wong Apr 24 '13 at 20:47
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ That's what we're doing now: democratically deciding whether or not to ask mods to rapidly close copy/paste homework questions. If accepted, and if we subsequently think it's a bad move, we can post another meta thread and vote on whether or not to reverse it. (Note also: Voting is imbalanced on the main site. E.g. 125 rep is required before downvoting but 15 rep is required before upvoting.) $\endgroup$ – Douglas S. Stones Apr 24 '13 at 22:12
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Why do you believe that democracy is a good way of making decisions? $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '13 at 22:12
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Christopher Wong, it is unreasonable to be so reasonable on the meta. +1. Physics has outrageous posting requirements because most of their answerers are people from the Theoretical Physics site that closed. $\endgroup$ – zyx Apr 26 '13 at 11:26
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "Why do you believe democracy is a good way of making decisions?" -- it isn't (@QiaochuYuan). Votes are a particularly poor way of making decisions when a vote count within one group makes policy that applies to a much larger group, of whom the voters are not a representative sample. For all the current closing/homework/cheating/... discussions the principles ought to be sorted out first. As one example, over the past few months, in several threads the "academic integrity" faction was asked what ethical problem the closing of homework postings is supposed to solve, but no answer was given. $\endgroup$ – zyx Apr 27 '13 at 1:57
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ A voice of sanity. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Apr 30 '13 at 15:15
2
$\begingroup$

Firstly, I'd like to say that I'm a minor user of this site. I don't have an enormous reputation and I haven't earned that many badges. I'm not a Math StackExchange ninja. Rather I'm just a normal undergrad student pursuing a minor in math and I like to get on this site once in a while to ask a question that is just a little out of my understanding. Often times they happen to be homework problems. For example, here, here and here. Those questions were all homework problems from a class I'm taking on Elementary Complex Variables. They are verbatim homework problems i.e. obviously homework problems. (They're copied out of the book for chrissakes.)

But they follow the guidelines of the Math StackExchange FAQ. Namely:

  1. They are narrowly scoped to involve only a single subject and within that subject only a single topic, i.e. related to Complex Analysis and on Residues at Infinity or something to that effect.
  2. They are practical and, to my limited knowledge, answerable. They are not discussion questions.

My point of contention is that while this is quite obviously a question related to homework or to classwork, it is asked in a manner that does not hide where it is from. I am not trying to use the answers I get on StackExchange to cheat my way to a certain grade in my math classes. @QiaochuYuan, I think your desire to eliminate homework questions does a great deal of harm to the study of mathematics in general.

For example, who is to say that a math question asked by one student verbatim is any less worthy of an answer then a question asked by a student whose wording is unique enough to be considered not obviously from a textbook? Furthermore, in my own personal case, should questions that I posit that I have unambiguously cited as from a certain text and most likely a homework problem be any less deserving of attention from the mathematics community?

I think there is something to be said for those questions on Math StackExchange that show a genuine effort to understand principles of mathematics. But this forum is not a very good place to differentiate those that "show effort" and those that do not. Without knowing exactly what the student is asking for, shooting down a question just because it seems like a verbatim homework problem is too pre-judgemental, too elitist and frankly detrimental to the pursuit of knowledge and curiosity, to be of any aide to the study of mathematics in general.

To summarize I have two main issues with the proposal to eliminate homework problems:

  1. First and foremost, eliminating homework problems presupposing that students are using StackExchange answers to cheat on their assignments, is highly detrimental to math education.
  2. Eliminating homework problems simply shows that lack of understanding will not be tolerated at any level. It shows the public that mathematicians are a closed group, uninviting of fledgling members and quick to assume a position of elitism. Math majors in my current school are notorious for being indifferent to the troubles of those who need homework help and it is deplorable.

While I know that this is not true, new members may not be the wiser.

P.S. I study American History with a concentration in the Stamp Act era study of American economics and its role in instigating the American Revolution and the rise of grassroots movements that defeated superhighway infrastructure in the 1970s and 1980s. I study mathematics as a side pursuit for a minor in Applied Mathematics for literally no other reason then the intellectual challenge. I hope that when I graduate this year, I will still be able to ask these ostensible homework questions when I begin my self-study of mathematics.

$\endgroup$
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ All of the questions you've listed are fine. The current proposal is only to close questions that consist solely of the verbatim text of a homework question. You've included your own comments indicating what you've tried and what you have trouble with, which is great. Keep doing that. I have no objection to that behavior whatsoever. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 26 '13 at 18:14
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ Once again, because this is apparently unclear: I am not suggesting that all questions about homework be banned. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 26 '13 at 18:15
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @QiaochuYuan I think the question remains though as to what is a manner in which we can agree to objectively define what constitutes an obvious homework questions, and other suitable questions? Who exactly can we rely on to construct this rubric? $\endgroup$ – franklin Apr 26 '13 at 18:17
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Look, it is difficult to diagnose cancer, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to cure cancer. Saying "this decision is difficult" is not an excuse for ignoring the fact that the decision should be made. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 26 '13 at 18:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Do doctors "objectively define" what a cancer diagnosis looks like? Who knows? What does that even mean? All I know is that doctors do what they can to treat cancer, and at least some people have their cancer cured because of this. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 26 '13 at 18:19
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ But in this case I think the relevant decision is much easier to make than diagnosing cancer. 1) Does the problem look like it is copied from a textbook or homework assignment? (If you don't think you can make this judgment, I suggest you try it out. It's not very hard.) 2) Is there no other text? That's it. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 26 '13 at 18:19
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ If your question about objectivity is a veiled question about whether I'm the only person making this decision, of course not: I don't have the time. Anyone who can vote to close will be making this decision. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 26 '13 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ +1 Very well said. $+1000\ $ if I could. $\endgroup$ – Math Gems Apr 26 '13 at 18:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Voting on anything in MSE is pretty much never something that is completely "objective". That's why humans do it, not robots. At least, I assume most of it is done by humans... $\endgroup$ – Michael Greinecker Apr 27 '13 at 7:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In the cancer story, doctors must diagnose because the patient might die otherwise. Fortunately, on MSE there is no such pressure to decide anything about invisible characteristics of a question (is it homework, was there effort, is it "cheating", is it self-study, etc). Leaving the question alone is a reasonable option, which is not true in the medical situation. $\endgroup$ – zyx Apr 27 '13 at 7:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Qiaochu, the currently 23 upvotes on the first comment under the question seem to say that many people are concerned about instant moderator one-vote closings becoming the norm. $\endgroup$ – zyx Apr 27 '13 at 7:29
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @zyx: ... or maybe they liked the suggestion of adding tags, or maybe they were echoing the "define from a homework assignment" at a time when the OP was more provocatively and less precisely worded. Or maybe they hopped on the bandwagon after only giving the issue cursory thought. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 27 '13 at 11:42
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl, all true (though historically there are similar upvote patterns on many comments and answers by Bill, Brian and others criticizing instant closings by some moderators). Let's remember it when there are claims that the 40-something upvotes for ban policies are definitely favoring this or that. $\endgroup$ – zyx Apr 27 '13 at 13:18
2
$\begingroup$

I'm new here ... coming over from the Mathematica SE. Perhaps because Mathematica itself is not a university/school subject, the standard of questions asked over there is a lot higher than they are here. I am frankly shocked at the appalling abuse of the math.SE site by students, basically getting others to solve their homework problems for them ... whether stated as homework problems or otherwise.

The first posting I saw along these lines looked like an interesting problem and I chipped in like a noob ... only later to see that the same person had 10 more questions listed as he worked his way through his tutorial assessment. Those who answer such questions here are possibly gluttons for 'reputation' (not that it helps - the students are such fly by nighters they don't usually even seem to bother to thank - just moving on to the next question), and at worst doing a disservice to both the student and the university that is trying to assess them.

I would personally like to see such questions banned ... OR ... perhaps alternatively ... a separate mathstudent.SE site created for those who wish to ask such questions and/or answer them. Even if it is disgraceful behaviour, that way I, at least, will not have to see it.

$\endgroup$
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ My experience is quite different from (and considerably more extensive than) yours. Yes, there are such students. But a great many of the students whom some casually dismiss as belonging to that group prove on further contact be willing to work at their problems; they just hadn’t a clue how to begin. I suspect that your experience working with students, especially weak to mediocre students, is very limited. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Apr 30 '13 at 15:21
2
$\begingroup$

Is it possible to create such a function:

When a user posts a question, he/she needs to tick one of the two mandatory boxes "homework" or "non-homework", whenever he/she ticks "non-homework", another mandatory field appears where he/she needs to add some sentences regarding motivation of the problem. After he posts this question, the "motivation" section shows in the beginning of as part of the question.

I believe this is better than the "homework" tag, because if one does not tag "homework", he/she needs to explain. And this is not additional work for non-homework poster, since a good question should always have context (doesn't need to be long).

Further on that, we can have a "vote to shift to homework" where users can vote to shift "non-homework" question into "homework" question when the motivation does not show that the question does not come directly from a homework. And of course have "vote to reshift to non-homework" if the asker then provides better/more convincing motivation.

Just an idea, please comment on pros and cons see if people like/dislike it.

$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ I don't think that such a radical implementation will be considered by the StackOverlords. So whether or not it's a good idea is kinda moot, in my opinion. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 28 '13 at 22:02
0
$\begingroup$

I think there is an option which has not been voiced yet (at least not that I can see), which I have thought for a long time would be useful.

Already I ignore the homework tag on MSE, but of course, many poor quality questions are not tagged as such. Wouldn't it be great if I could ignore users too?!

And I don't mean by specific user name only (although that would be helpful), but by reputation count. Probably it would be best to have these as manual settings, but if I could ignore everyone on MSE with rep below 100, I would be a happier person.

Of course, this would mean I miss all the new users. But any new user that I would want to interact with anyway will quickly cross that 100 rep threshold.

And then of course there are the users with more rep than I have, who post hundreds of calculus problems with no motivation and no context. That is why I also suggest the ability to ignore individual users.

I am probably in the minority when I say that I agree with most of what Qiaochu says. My only reluctance is in the virtual impossibility of identifying such "homework" questions. But I personally believe the average question quality has gone way down (attributed to more users/ higher visibility, I'm sure), and it seems like more and more work for me to wade through the nonsense, just to find the really interesting Q&A's that I come to this site for in the first place.

And there are other users, who come here to help with homework, and are great at it. So I think having the option to ignore users based on certain criteria would appease everyone.

$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ +1: Something like this would be nice to have. For example ability to filter out questions by unregistered users would alleviate some of the problems. Sometimes unregistered users do post interesting questions, so it is not an ideal solution. Also, I've been sometimes wondering that it would be nice to keep private notes about other users. More often than not I remember who to help and who to ignore, but the user base is growing ... $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Apr 26 '13 at 3:44
  • $\begingroup$ Searching for ignore user site:meta.stackoverflow.com gives these two posts at meta.SO, which are related to your suggestion: feature request Add the ability to ignore users and greasemonkey script Ignore Users Script. Note that the feature request on meta.SO is tagged (status-deferred), so it means that it is low priority. $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Apr 26 '13 at 5:11
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "Probably it would be best to have these as manual settings, but if I could ignore everyone on MSE with rep below 100, I would be a happier person." - note that people who have sufficient rep on other SE sites can come fresh into math.SE with a 100 rep bonus, for a total of 101 starting rep. Know also that having sufficient rep in some other SE site does not necessarily correlate with being able to ask at least a halfway-decent question here. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Apr 26 '13 at 5:27
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Your proposal would just hide the problem, and would likely be harmful to the site as a whole. Your idea amounts to just looking away instead of fixing the problem. What if most regular users would switch on this setting to hide posts from new users? The site would fill up with crap and the users that should clean it up, close and delete won't even see it. And any good new user would just be drowned out by all the crap, and the experience for new users would be rather horrible. $\endgroup$ – Mad Scientist Apr 26 '13 at 8:29
-14
$\begingroup$

Just so you don't get swamped, I would like to ban lots of things, raw copies of homework would be a start. You may remember Yemon got briefly interested in MSE, he quit because of "freeloaders." Can't say I blame him.

Clarification from Yemon: "Anyway, small point of correction that you might wish to add to your answer: I didn't so much quit because of freeloaders themselves, but because every time I went on meta I felt like an outsider for voicing dislike of freeloading."

Of course, my preference would be for some system that requires full and correct identification and documentation of each user, with automatic emails forwarded to any instructors, should the user be enrolled in any classes. Then ask anything you want. Instructors could then make up their own minds as to what is reasonable tutoring and what is not.

Note: so that I do not get accused of hypocrisy, along with the reality of having unpopular opinions. I have become friends with Old John, at email distance of course. Perhaps it will come as a surprise that his real name is Old John. You see, newborn babies are often rather wrinkly, and his parents decided to go with that impression in naming him.

$\endgroup$
  • 22
    $\begingroup$ (-1) Such a system would prevent me from contributing to the site -- I cannot provide a "full and correct identification and documentation" of the sort you want, since I have no instructor that the system could send emails to about my activity. Given how difficult proving a negative is, I'd just have to stay away. (I suspect I'm not the only user in this situation). $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm Apr 24 '13 at 11:49
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ It will be very difficult to implement. And instructors surely have lives of their own. $\endgroup$ – Richard Nash Apr 24 '13 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ Who will volunteer for becoming so called Instructors? $\endgroup$ – Inceptio Apr 24 '13 at 16:39
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @HenningMakholm, I used the phrase "any instructors," which I meant to include the possibility of none existing. In case this post has not been system-deleted, I just don't like anonymity, I think it covers a multitude of sins. So I made up something that combined use of real names with homework. I knew it could not be implemented. Oh, Henning, I missed the main thing, you already use your real name. I think that's how it should be, for all. $\endgroup$ – Will Jagy Apr 24 '13 at 18:39
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @RichardNash, also correct, as is Henning. I just dislike anonymity. At 56 years old, I've never seen the appeal. One way or another, I think a student with a real identity and a paper trail is likely to cheat less, ask for actual tutoring help more. $\endgroup$ – Will Jagy Apr 24 '13 at 18:44
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @RichardNash, the whole thing is a fantasy, I know, but a professor or TA would be notified only of questions by students currently enrolled in his/her classes. $\endgroup$ – Will Jagy Apr 24 '13 at 19:11
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ @Will: I'm using something I claim is my real name, but I have not actually proved it to be. Such a proof would be so tedious to provide that I can say with certainty that if I'd been required to do so before I posted my first answer, I wouldn't be here today. And I can't even imagine how I'd go about proving that I'm not a student somewhere. (I could possibly prove that I've graduated, but that wouldn't prevent me from enrolling in some kind of continuing education. And even so, what about people who never went to university, or dropped out, and now want to better themselves?) $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm Apr 24 '13 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ @HenningMakholm, I did notice your point in your first comment about the difficulty of proving a negative, the lack of some possible condition. Ah, well. I did not get interested in online fora the way others did, when I was in graduate school. And I had no time later, until quite recently. So, my enthusiasm has some bounds. $\endgroup$ – Will Jagy Apr 24 '13 at 20:29
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @WillJagy some people prefer anonymity.It isn't always a bad thing. $\endgroup$ – Richard Nash Apr 26 '13 at 19:10
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @RichardNash, well, yes. The rules on MO are pretty good, people are encouraged to use their real names, this usually being a plus for people who are generally trying to publish, establish a name, and so on. The overriding concern is to allow the next Fields medalist to ask a question without any barriers, including real name. Anonymous users are asked to be especially polite on Meta, as there are no consequences for them if they attack someone unfairly. The troubles with MSE include some huge percentage going anonymous. Where is the pride? $\endgroup$ – Will Jagy Apr 26 '13 at 19:48

You must log in to answer this question.

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