What's the current homework policy?

The current HW policy is laid out in this post. In essence, only blatant homework copy-pastes should be closed. These often get closed unilaterally by moderators.

Why do we need to do this? What's wrong with status quo?

  1. There have previously been disagreements over the current HW policy. Similar issues have cropped up on other closely related Stack Exchange sites, and are likely to eventually happen here unless we can offer a convincing reason for the HW policy, which leads to:

  2. There is little or no current justification for the policy, apart from "we don't like homework questions", which is an inherently exclusive argument. There needs to be a better argument for closing such questions.

  3. The word "homework" itself is a poor descriptor. People resent having their questions labelled as HW (which bears a negative connotation) and it leads to a lot of explanation about how "homework doesn't literally mean homework" - in which case, why are we still calling it that?!

  4. "Showing effort" is a poor criterion for determining the quality of a question. In one of the worst case scenarios, OP's "efforts" are way off the mark and simply become useless noise for future readers. In another bad scenario, OP's efforts are entirely correct and the answerer is reduced to saying "yes, you're right".

  5. The HW policy is subjective and open to interpretation. There is occasional "misuse" of the HW close reason - not exactly abuse, but different people have different quality standards. Furthermore, what counts as "effort" is unclear. If somebody simply adds a line at the bottom of their question "I tried to look in my textbook, but couldn't find anything", does that count as effort?

  6. The HW tag currently serves little purpose, except for collecting statistics. Even the application of the HW tag to a question is dubious and controversial. In principle, there should be no difference between answering a homework-type question and one that is not homework, since we are firmly against offering "incomplete hints" as answers to homework questions.

What are we going to do, then?

We're going to go from scratch. So, if you're still thinking about the old HW policy, stop thinking about it. We're not going to improve it. We're getting rid of it and replacing it with something new entirely.

Closure is a way of saying: "This question is not suitable for Stack Exchange". Leaving out homework, there are four existing close reasons, namely too broad, unclear, primarily opinion-based, and personal medical question.

Our aim here is to find out what type of questions, apart from those four types, should be closed i.e. are not suitable for Stack Exchange.

The question that we need to ask is therefore:

What other characteristics of questions might make them a poor fit for the site?

In your time here, have you come across any question that you felt "this should be closed"? (I'm willing to bet 10,000 reputation that you have.) We would like to hear from you about exactly why you think that question was not useful. There is only one requirement:

These characteristics have to be related to principles of the SE network, as well as the aims of Chem.SE in particular. For example, the aims of Chem.SE do not include "preventing people from getting homework help". Therefore, such a reason cannot be the rationale for closing questions, whether we like it or not.

These characteristics will form the basis of the new closure policy. Do not be worried if these characteristics mean that questions that were previously closed may be reopened, or questions that are currently open may be closed. Change has been long overdue.

I acknowledge that any new closure policy is likely to have some degree of overlap with the old HW policy. Therefore, if it helps you to come up with some ideas, start by thinking about bad HW questions: what is it that makes them a poor fit for the site? However, I hope that you do not constrain yourself to such questions. Remember: this is not a rehash of the old policy; it is a new policy.

Chat session

A few of us think that it'd be a good idea to schedule a chat session to discuss the above issues. As such, we'd appreciate it a lot if you could indicate what kind of time you think you might be available in chat. Just a rough gauge would do. I suspect that we will end up using some time around 16:00 UTC.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't have the time to write up much at the moment, but I want to drop this here for some consideration: If a question includes an exercise type statement/question, for the sake of general reference/ further reading/ possible erratum, a source of the original question should be included. I know that this is not really something we should post our close reasoning on, but it would help everyone sort out which level of chemistry it was intended to, it may further help see if some of the textbooks produce erroneous solutions more frequently than others. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 4:01
  • $\begingroup$ Second: Concept & Context. Often enough I see questions asking for something where its use for me is not really clear for me. While this might be okay for a niche subject, and a tailored audience, we should try to cater questions at the biggest possible audience. In this sense I think it is important, that a question in bio-chemistry can be understood by someone who mainly works in inorganic chemistry. For me that means providing the context in which an experiment is carries out and briefly outline the general concept of what is being done. (I'll come back to this when I have more time.) $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 4:05
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding @Mart the mod's second comment, please see What is the XY problem? $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 12:29
  • $\begingroup$ Out of curiosity, @ortho, did this arise from an intra-mod discussion? $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 3:25
  • $\begingroup$ @hBy2Py No it didn't. The origins of it are going back quite some time now (iirc). We briefly discussed in chat and later ortho made a post in the sandbox, which was also briefly discussed. I think the goal was to step wise broaden the circle to not walk into walls with a change as radical as this. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 5:53
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    $\begingroup$ I need to poop something out of my brain before I forget it: Substitute the hw-tag with a tag called review, which is equally as terrible, but wait. Once a question has been sufficiently reviewed, the tag could be removed or so... wow, that reads silly, but I'll leave it here until I have more capacity to think about it again. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 11:53

6 Answers 6


This is not yet a fully-fledged answer, merely a fragment of a thought, but I feel it is important enough for me to drop it here already and come back later™.

Especially for calculation questions, we should make good and frequent use of duplicates. ‘These are my mass percentages, how do I arrive at a sum formula?’ → dupe to corresponding canonical. ‘What’s the pH of a solution of so much ammonium chloride?’ → dupe to canonical Henderson-Hasselbalch. Assuming the canonical has a good answer, this fulfils the following goals:

  1. We don’t have to answer the same questions over and over and over … again

  2. $99~\%$ of those who want homework help will at least have to plug their own numbers so they will at least have to try to understand what they are doing

  3. It’ll be very hard to argue against the closure of a duplicate.

    No, my question is different, it’s not about $\ce{NH4Cl}$ but about $\ce{NaOAc}$

    (Yeah right)

Furthermore, we should be keeping a CW on meta to keep track of the different dupe targets. Travel.SE does this in a nice way with a number of Schengen visa dupe targets (which they get a lot of).

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    $\begingroup$ I agree. This is in part what I wanted to express with my answer on the amirite post... just extended to questions in general. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 3:56
  • $\begingroup$ +53,829 for meta CW for dupe targets. Contemplating plumbing SE-search for duplicates makes me inexpressibly sad. $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 3:26

I would like to propose the following phrasing:

Questions should ask about one specific concept that can potentially be applicable to future visitors and askers.

To give you an idea of what I mean, here are some stuff that I think should be closed:

Conceptual query not identified

Help name this molecule pls.

enter image description here

Quite self-explanatory; most homework questions come under this category.

What is the pH of a 0.1 M solution of acetic acid (pKa = 4.76)?

The conceptual query is in fact: "How do I find the pH of a solution of weak acid?" As such, the question should be closed, or edited to reflect this - and the important thing is once it is edited, we can close it as a duplicate.

What's the mechanism for this step?

enter image description here

This, in fact, has only one conceptual question, which is: "What is the mechanism of the Swern oxidation?" or if the asker does not know the name, "What is the mechanism by which alcohols are oxidised to aldehydes by DMSO, Et3N and (COCl)2"? Again, it should be closed, or edited to reflect that. And tada - we have a duplicate for any future visitor who asks about the mechanism of the Swern oxidation, whereas the initial question is only useful to a visitor who is asking about that specific step.

Multiple conceptual issues

Which of the following statements is true?

  1. Carbon has atomic mass 12
  2. E. J. Corey won the Nobel Prize twice for being a genius
  3. Tosylate is a poor leaving group
  4. AgCl is more soluble than NaCl because it is covalent

Quite self-explanatory. Some of these questions are already closed under too broad; however, I would like to see this be more strictly applied. If we close a question with 12 different concepts as too broad, then we should close a question with 2 different concepts either as too broad or under this proposed policy.

Some comments.

  • Most homework dumps will get closed for not identifying the concept.
  • Amirites will get closed for not even having a conceptual query to begin with.
  • This means that effort shouldn't be used as a guideline to close questions. In the question itself, I already alluded to the problems associated with such a judgement. If it's low-effort, and you want to downvote, or refuse to answer, or scold OP in the comments, that's all fair game - but I don't think we should close simply because of "no effort".
  • If a question does not meet both of those criteria (specific as well as single concept), it is highly likely that it will be of little use to future askers, unless somebody chances upon the exact same question in exactly the same book.
  • In general, if a question cannot be closed as a duplicate or cannot be used as a duplicate in the future, then it is not a good fit for the site. That would be my guiding principle for closure.
  • $\begingroup$ I think I don’t need to expand my above answer anymore; I’m happily piggybacking on this one. $+1$ doesn’t do it justice. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 0:21
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    $\begingroup$ I broadly agree. But I wonder whether there is a simpler criterion which would weed out the really bad questions. I suspect that there are many questions that seek to find just an answer (usually to some exam question) but not any understanding of what reasoning produced that answer. We should automatically reject all what is the answer questions unless they are worded to seek a better insight into the understanding required to get the answer. This would weed out a lot of bad questions. $\endgroup$
    – matt_black
    Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 8:50
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    $\begingroup$ Beware of that potentially be applicable to future visitors requirement. It was a close reason on SO (aka "Too localized"), and proved to be widely abused, and sometimes aimed against experts who come with very specific problems (and you actually want such people on the site). $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for the comment, @Dmitry. I certainly see where you are coming from and I'll take it into consideration. This isn't meant to be a mod-team official proposal, but rather what I personally (as a user) felt. So, this is not necessarily at all representative of what we will eventually adopt. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ @matt_black The more I browse the front page (and closehammer questions), the more I agree with what you say. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 18:45

Wildcat's response to #4 fired off a thought: what if the odious aspect of a not enough effort question has less to do with the effort an OP has put into understanding and working on the question, but the effort the OP has put into engaging with the Chem.SE community?

That is, what if the behavior we're trying to discourage is more about rudeness to the kind of community SE is?

For example, I don't mind engaging in a protracted exchange with someone who is terribly confused about extremely basic chemical concepts, but who is interested in engaging in such discussion because they really want to learn. This stands in stark contrast to how I do mind spending my time providing answers to someone who's terribly confused about extremely basic chemical concepts, but who asks for help by, as was so aptly put, slaps a "scanned or photographed sheet of paper with a text of an exercise" onto the site and WANTS HLP NEED ANSR NOW PLZZ.

So, maybe the reinvented close reason should focus on the level of the asker's engagement with the community and the SE model, somehow?

ADDENDUM: Based on Martin's comments, focusing a close reason on the attitude of the OP is inappropriate; the key is the content.


As a first step, consider the below dichotomy:

Good questions are seeking answers because of a motivation internal to the OP, to increase their understanding of the topic asked about.

Bad questions are seeking answers because of a motivation external to the OP, usually to get the "right answer" for some school exercise.

Now, this still probably focuses too much on scrying the intent of the OP, and so won't do as a close reason.

So, how about this as a re-expression of the above with a focus solely on question content:

Good questions prompt explanatory answers that assist the OP and other readers in increasing their knowledge of chemistry and/or chemical principles.

Bad questions seek specific pieces of chemical information while expressing little or no interest in the broader underlying principles.

It's still not worded well for a close reason, but ... perhaps is a useful starting point for further discussion?

  • $\begingroup$ A close reason should not at all focus in any regard of the OP. The basic principle of SE is that it is about content, not persons. While that is not always possible because we are just humans, we cannot base closing on this subjectivity. As another thing, exchange is also something that does not fit this site at all. While I understand your premise and I am also one who rather helps people than send them to a different place, this is something we cannot do here. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ [...] A scanned or photographed sheet of paper is simply what it is: Not helpful to anyone. In the best case you can actually read what is on there, in the worst case it is rotated and maybe even in some cursive handwriting that only people who actually learned to write this way can decipher. In any case, it contains information that it is not readily accessible and thus is not helpful in building a library of knowledge. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 9:19
  • $\begingroup$ I would expect there to be a correlation between the willingness to learn, internal motivation, and the understanding of basic concepts. If I simply rephrase my school assignment is to explain X to I always wondered how X happens, it doesn't make the question any better, does it? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for 'scrying comment'. This is the real problem with any determination based on OPs reasons. We can never know in advance and even after an inquisition we have no further facts, merely statements and suppositions which often conflict and just clutter the comments. Intent cannot be a valid reason. $\endgroup$
    – KalleMP
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 22:13

Not sure if I will find some time for a chat session, so below are my few thoughts on the matter (just in case if I will miss the session).

  1. The tag should be definitely renamed to something like (as it was done on Physics.SE) and the tag info should mention that the tag applies not only to homework assignments but also to self-study problems.

  2. It is indeed tough to define what "enough effort" actually means, but some hints can still be provided (probably, in the meta guide). For instance, scanned or photographed sheet of paper with a text of an exercise almost always means "not enough effort", while a nicely formatted (especially with the help of MathJax and/or a molecule editor) question clearly shows effort.

  3. I think closing a question as homework (and, in fact, for any other reason) is and will always be a subjective decision unless a set of specific criteria is specified. Even when the currently proposed policy:

    We will only close blatantly obvious homework questions.

    there is still a room for subjectivity out there. All in all, it is still good-old "I know it when I see it", which is inherently subjective, due to the lack of explicit criteria of what constitutes these "blatantly obvious" cases. To avoid subjectivity, hints mentioned in item 4 need to be turned into strict rules, but I personally do not believe that it is possible. Besides, is subjectivity such a real issue here? I mean, if a closure reason was not subjective, it could be formalized and implemented in a form of a computer program (script) to run automatically for us. But instead we have a mechanism for the community to vote on different closure reasons. And we have this mechanism exactly because closure reasons are usually subjective. I don't think subjectivity is a problem there, the real problem seems to be that you don't trust the current mechanism of turning subjective decisions of individual users into a presumably objective decision of the community by a simple accumulation of 5 votes from a relatively high-rep users.

  4. I completely disagree with that statement. On the contrary, I think there should be a big difference in answering homework questions: complete answers should be discouraged (may be even to the extreme when they should be deleted, except when provided by OP), while hints should be encouraged. For non-homework questions the policy is the complete reverse, of course.

  • $\begingroup$ I like what you say at 5. That other day, I also thought to myself; ''what if it never got as objective as we want, the homework close reason?'' $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 17:49

I am not sure how feasible this would be, but an interesting way to handle homework questions might be to create some sort of a community problem solving guide. This would be similar to the Stack Overflow documentation feature, where we as a community write a general guide to solving various types of chemistry problems. As people post homework questions on the site, we can redirect them to the corresponding entry in the problem solving guide, and if no entry exists for the user's question, it means that the guide is incomplete, and thus a new entry is needed. In my opinion, the issue with any sort of homework policy is that it results in numerous closes that are not at all helpful to the original asker. The problem solving guides should not work with specific numbers, but provide a general overview to solving a particular type of problem. This could allow for Chemistry StackExchange to become a valuable resource for a wider audience.

I do not know if such a project is feasible, or even possible under the StackExchange format, but I believe that this could be a good way to solve the homework issue for good.

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    $\begingroup$ That's the idea we are aiming for with our canonical q&a. See Jan's answer for a short outline. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 8:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Martin-マーチン The 'canonical Q&A' makes sense: didactic content in response to didactic questions. Other questions, arising out of independent curiosity about a topic, will of course still attract the more free-form answers that are such fun to read and write. $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 3:28

If I were to use MathJax and/or a molecule editor to generate a question that I copy from a test paper and use Google to make it look like some effort had been made should it be treated as a homework question or an exercise simply because of the layout?

Someone mentioned voting down however currently the reasons are not always appealing. I think the real way of voting is with your feet, just ignore the question. Let those who have more time and less reputation tackle the simpler homework questions. Who cares if there are unanswered homework (or other sloppy) questions out there in SE-land that remain unanswered for ever. Disk space is cheap and even an unanswered pathetic question may contain the answer that someone else was looking for.

My take on this is that tagging questions as poor based on intent is elitist and SE does not need this even if it feels right at times. Who cares, a thousand years from now the good answers will be distilled into an AI and used on planet Bob by engineers to fix a hydroponic unit.

Tagging for review has some merit and it does not prejudice or stigmatise in a bad way and can cover a lot of cases that a review may fix.

The best objective criteria that is hinted in my opening question is if the question is text indexable then it should not be eligible for closing. If it walks and quacks like homework then the valuable minds can ignore it or fix it as suits their temperament.


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