The homework close reason is a thing I click on often these days.


Recently, we're close-voting questions as homework that are from a broad range of scope. Unlike what's being seen in that screenshot, we don't really have this documented anywhere. This question (10k rep req.) is on the verge of closing and yet it has no obvious clue to being a homework.

That whether this is acceptable community behavior has been discussed before. It seems we're okay with a bit of more aggressive moderation in order to keep the inevitable drop in the quality of the questions behind the bars.

The intention behind writing this post is reaching meta consensus on what should be closed with the reason above and what should not. Note that there may be some close vote additions in the future, and let's not fit all of the low quality questions into the sack of being closable as homework. The less Jack-of-all-trades a close reason is, the better guidance and moderation will be.

These are questions we should decide the ultimate fate of:

  • Easily Google-able questions

    Why does oil float in water?

  • Questions in textbook exercise format (the standard HW)

    A 500 mL sample containing the two molecules shown below. The sample has two DIRECT absorbance values – 0.310 at 275 nm (E=6000 cm-1) and 0.221 at 356 nm (E=9700 cm-1). How much anthracene is in the sample?

  • Questions touching rather rudimentary chemistry

    Why does a helium baloon float in the air?

  • Data questions

    What is the bond length of $\ce{C=C}$ in ethene?

  • Amirite questions
    What should be done with "Is my calculation correct ?"-type questions?
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ As the guy who pushed the above-linked question into the abyss with vote-to-close #5, I felt that it looked and smelled like "homework" in the sense that the OP did not include their thoughts or reasoning. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2016 at 20:54
  • $\begingroup$ Yes @Todd, and if we do want to keep doing that we have to write some boring documentation as a policy. Users who would cooperate should have something to read that'd help them be helped. Noted: "Homework" rather means "without effort" to some people. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Mar 23, 2016 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ Another key question is, "How do we actually go about getting new close reasons added to the list?" Is it a mod power? Or do the SO staff folks have to do it? $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Mar 25, 2016 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Brian I'm positive it's mod power, and thankfully mods are always around. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Mar 25, 2016 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Brian we can only have 3 custom close reasons, which is why I am for a complete rewrite of the policy. $\endgroup$ Mar 25, 2016 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Martin-マーチン Are we using all three right now, or just two? I would think the 'belongs on another site' and the 'other' are defaults & don't consume slots? $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Mar 25, 2016 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Brian At the moment 2/3. So there would be room for one more. I still would think that we need to take care of the HW policy first, before we consider generating another close reason. $\endgroup$ Mar 25, 2016 at 21:39
  • $\begingroup$ @ToddMinehardt I'm profoundly distrustful of "OP did not include their thoughts or reasoning" rationales. One purpose of StackExchange is to accumulate a resource for future visitors. Said future visitors may not have the same mistaken thoughts and flawed reasoning that the OP did. If the question is answerable, it's answerable, and we don't need the OP's personal saga to justify that they are worthy of an answer. -- Close the question, not the person asking. $\endgroup$
    – R.M.
    Apr 1, 2016 at 18:14
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The question of homework-like questions is, and will continue to be, an ongoing discussion. I will note that Physics SE is starting in to it on their Meta yet one more time. Sadly, I don't believe that the problem is amenable to a simple, prescriptive description. We (the community) knows it when we see it, with perhaps some grey area (but really not that much grey area). While it pains me to see so many questions on hold on the main site, it would pain me more to try and answer almost all of the ones closed due to boredom. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 6, 2016 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ Any question when typed into Google or other engine that leads to Chegg should be answerable here to 1) decrease their revenues 2) increase traffic to SE. Of course all the other criteria should be met once agreed upon as long as the answer does not directly state the solution but guides the OP to research the answer. $\endgroup$
    – DrAzulene
    May 31, 2017 at 16:38

2 Answers 2


The Problem As I See It

I would argue that the underlying reason for the dynamics on the site leading to this question, as well as more than one other recent meta question (here and here too), is:

The scope of the Chemistry.SE site is improperly defined.

In some cases, the scope may be ill-defined; in others, it may be well defined, but badly so. Regardless, a consequence of this is that:

The vote-to-close reasons available are poorly matched to the current needs of the community.

(These notions are not new, nor original to me; they're just important to state directly before proceeding further.)

I think one of the reasons why most (all?) of these recent scope-related questions have met with only light discussion is that:

There are numerous categories of questions needing scope clarification, and some of these categories differ only in subtle ways. It is thus challenging to opine clearly unless each category of question is isolated.

For example, this question. OP didn't do much research before posting the question, so from one perspective the question could be closed by the extended "homework" VTC reason. However, the question clearly derives from someone's industrial experience, and perhaps they don't have much of a chemistry background or have much interest in learning chemistry for chemistry's sake. Does that mean we should answer, even in the face of the lack of research, since it's a real-world problem that someone has encountered? Or should, e.g., a potential lack of interest in the chemistry on the part of the OP bias us even more strongly toward closure?

As another example, this question derived directly from an in-school demonstration. However, the question itself has to do with a curious observation distinct from the educational thrust of the question. No independent research effort was shown. Should its "homeworkiness" militate it be closed? Or should it be left open, since it shows the inclination toward self-education on the part of the poster?

Two Possible Approaches

I see two ways to move forward, not necessarily mutually exclusive:

  1. Clarify the broader site goals; for example:

    • Should we err on the side of aggressive closure, or on tolerating "questionable questions"?

    • Do we want only to be a resource for experienced chemists, or to also welcome students, laypersons, non-specialized industrial users of chemicals, etc.?

    • Do we want to make it sine qua non that askers must have done some research beforehand? Or, do we want to accept questions without research as long as they don't have the ZOMG JST ANSWR THA QUSTN PLZ NEED THIS TONGHT ring to them?

    • Do we want the main site to cater to a smaller, more-constrained, more-expert community? Or, a larger, less-well-controlled community with a mix of expertise and knowledge levels?

  2. Dig into the nuts and bolts of the different types of questions that are coming into the site, and:

    • Identify which types we want to accept and which to reject

    • Flesh out a detailed set of guidelines laying out the site scope based upon the above

    • Summarize the site guidelines into two or three carefully crafted vote-to-close reasons

In approach #1, we would need to identify the key questions to answer in defining the desired site goals, and then each of those key questions would need to be discussed and decided upon by the community.

Similarly, in approach #2 we would have to identify the set of question categories to be discussed, and then each of those categories would need to be discussed and the policies for responding to them discussed and decided upon by the community.

In both cases, I would argue that structured frameworks need to be implemented for:

  1. Identifying the specific things to be discussed
  2. Putting each specific thing before the community for discussion
  3. Evaluating the position of the community on each specific thing
  4. Aggregating the community positions into a coherent form
  5. Distilling the aggregated community positions into, e.g., vote-to-close reasons and meta posts
  6. ...?

I have some thoughts about how some of the above might be structured, but I'll save those thoughts pending responses here.

  • $\begingroup$ 1 is almost purely meta work. I despise purely meta work, since when you write meta a lot, things start to get dull and you get to question whether if it's much ado for nothing. 2 seems to be much more work, yet much more meta fun. Funny thing is, when you start contributing content, most of the scope sorts itself out. Thanks for your insight though. It was insightfully insightful. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Apr 6, 2016 at 10:48
  • $\begingroup$ @IͶΔ Hm...what's your upshot? That in the end it's not worth doing either? $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Apr 6, 2016 at 10:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ No, I'm saying we go with 2, and when it got to some considerable success, try polishing it with 1. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Apr 6, 2016 at 10:57
  • $\begingroup$ @IͶΔ That's pretty much what I was thinking, too. The only point to starting with #1 would be if we didn't want to deal much with #2. $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Apr 6, 2016 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ I completely agree. Unfortunately, the professional Chemistry community (undergraduate research students and up) is fairly inactive on StackExchange, which saw its rise from programmers and IT professionals. This inevitably means that we don't have many users asking relevant and practical questions regarding chemistry and instead have what is ultimately a problem set helpline. $\endgroup$
    – Zeejet
    Jun 2, 2016 at 23:29

My stand on those raised points:

These are questions we should decide the ultimate fate of:

  • Easily Google-able questions

    Why does oil float in water?

Questions of this kind should be (currently) closed as too broad, i.e. the answer is either incomplete or too long.
One example from today is: Solubility of gases (deleted, 10k+), see below

Why does the solubility of a gas decreases when the temperature increase when it is dissolved in water but the complete opposite when it is dissolved in organic solvent?

It is in principle of the same kind as the question above - asking about the fundamentals of solubility. While this could be a homework assignment, that cannot be clearly stated from the context. However, the site's model is not well suited for such a fundamental question. A textbook should be consulted to narrow down the scope. Hence I closed it as too broad. Note that there were already 4 close votes with the homework reason, which I did overrule.

  • Questions in textbook exercise format (the standard HW)

    A 500 mL sample containing the two molecules shown below. The sample has two DIRECT absorbance values – 0.310 at 275 nm (E=6000 cm-1) and 0.221 at 356 nm (E=9700 cm-1). How much anthracene is in the sample?

Yes, without any effort, close as homework.

  • Questions touching rather rudimentary chemistry

    Why does a helium baloon float in the air?

If they do not fit in the first case, it would probably be better to answer them, i.e. leave them open.

  • Data questions

    What is the bond length of $\ce{C=C}$ in ethene?

If it is just data mining, like suggested in Should we allow data questions? then I think it can be treated like homework. This, however, is one of the reasons, why I would like to have a new policy.
If you do not feel comfortable enough to close it as homework, it is possible to close it as 'other' with a link to the above meta.

Well, these are bothering me, especially when they come in an awful formatting. I think such questions may be able to provide the opportunity to review such a solution. Be critical. Consider notation, and maybe present an alternative solution.
Maybe they need a rewrite to be more conceptual to gain traction. I don't know, but I think they should not be closed.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ As to the last, I think "check my math" questions should be closed, but ones along the lines of "did I set this up right?" or "am I using this equation correctly?" may provide useful material. The difficult ones are actually when they have done it correctly, because then there's not much to post as an answer but "Yes," except in cases, e.g., where OP has some uncertainties or ancillary questions that can be addressed. $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Mar 26, 2016 at 3:13
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Waitwait, "too broad" for Googleable? O_o I don't understand your decision. Could you give me an example of where the CV reason fits? $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Mar 26, 2016 at 7:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Brian This is very true and this is also the part where it stops being helpful for anyone. This would be almost equal to proofreading on the language sites. Even if we were going to nitpick everything out of the question, I doubt that this is helpful. We should really have a handle on these cases, since they can easily become noise. $\endgroup$ Mar 30, 2016 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Martin-マーチン This is the sort of logic that led me to much of my answer here. We have expertise enough to help a lot of these posters, but the format is just terrible for it. They would be much better helped, and the site would be better off, for them either to be invited to chat to have their questions answered, or for them to just ask their teacher or classmates. $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Mar 30, 2016 at 14:17

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