I realize this 'homework' topic has been discussed before, tiringly so, but please Paddington with me. I'll try to attack it from a different angle. If you're not all caught up, check these previous discussions: 1, 1.5, 2, and 3. Maybe also take a look at the related questions in the sidebar of this one.

It strikes me that it's been hinted at, numerous times, in the answers to the discussions, that instead of choosing either side of extreme curation (close and delete unless it's a pearl) or extreme preservation (let randomdude99 just answer them you grumps), there should be a compromise that aims to satisfy both sides, like the bonds in water and HF; while at least my own personal stance was towards either of the extremes when I discussed these things.

Let's cut to the chase. What would our closing system lack without the current 'homework close reason', should we ever get to get rid of it? I should note that this is really not about the close reason, but an attempt at getting some perspective tweaking the policy. If we do agree on what to change, and come up with a better, newer policy, changing the close reason itself would be a matter of labels.

It seems to me that there are several questions we're dealing with:

  1. Questions where the reason perfectly applies. This is one such example. Conveniently under the umbrella of "no effort" (with unintended consequences, as we've all discovered)
  2. Questions where the reason might apply, A.K.A. the grey area. The problematic posts some are inclined to close and others to keep. Not obviously a copy-paste from a book, but lacking a demonstration of research. (See Is "Lack of Research" enough reason to close a question?)
  3. Questions that we should close, just not as homework. I feel like this has been a hidden obstacle obstructing our progress. More on it below.

(1) is not intriguing or controversial. Worst case is, we'd have a peaceful meta post on how to reword a close reason for it. (2) and (3) probably overlap, and they're precisely the areas we can improve our handling of questions.

Specifically, I aim to get the ball of some useful discussion rolling about (2) and (3).

  • What do you think about what type of questions constitute (2) and (3)?
  • What should we do to accommodate for the types you identify? (Reformulate the homework policy to include/exclude them, make a separate close reason, close as the other available options, leave them open, etc.)

The answers don't need to be comprehensive, but please do bring up examples.

This post is meant as a general overview. In my opinion, the way to tackle controversies surrounding the homework closures are effectively discussed if we identify the broad categories of questions unanimously being closed as 'homework', then, and only then, discuss whether each category merits closure.

In the future meta posts, if needed, we might discuss each item separately to reach some sort of a community consensus. You may express your agreement with each answer separately by voting, but let's maintain the general outlook of this meta post. The details can wait.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ github.com/GaurangTandon/ReworkingClosurePoliciesChemSE $\endgroup$ Commented May 31, 2019 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ @AvnishKabaj The content there has definitely helped me gain a deeper perspective on understanding the several issues directly/indirectly related to the homework policy. However, after the excellent discussion with Martin and pentavalentcarbon, I think I have changed my mind on parts concerning how to solve it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 7:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ My answer duplicates many ideas I've seen strewn (sometimes repeatedly) in some of the links you provide. I'll add links back when I get a chance. Also, I am still digesting some of what I've read, including your "monologue". Finally, re this: "I should note that this is really not about the close reason, but an attempt at getting some perspective tweaking the policy." Not clear, please comment! $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Buck I meant that I'm not looking to discuss the wording of the close reason, or the common labels of "effort", "homework" etc. It was likely that this question would have solicited responses like "just reword the close reason", or "let's also close/not close these things with this close reason", but I wanted a general focus on questions rather than closing them. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, still not sure I understand, let me try: you want to see specific examples of questions that people think should be shut down (sorry, closed), categorized into 2 or 3 in your question? $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 20:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Buck I want people to demonstrate what questions they think need addressing (closed as HW, either erroneously, or ambiguously), and examples are the best way to prove that 1) we do get such questions 2) they need or don't need addressing. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 8:45

4 Answers 4


Here's my perspective on tweaking the policy. I've tried to work it from the very fundamentals, rather than carry-forward the three categories you defined.

To be honest, the current homework close reason as it is defined, bending on "effort" as a metric, is not good at all. Effort as a criterion is too vague to implement properly in any way possible, as we have seen in the past. Our site has an audience from several different backgrounds, and different people will almost always have different opinions on "how much more effort should this post have shown?" Any discussion to be able to evaluate a question as "difficult/easy" or "low/high effort" is therefore not practical.

Now, I'd like to point out the site's description, as mentioned on the tour page, which is to "build a library of detailed answers to every question about chemistry." Therefore, it is not about how good or bad the questions are, it is about building a library of detailed answers to every question about chemistry: the asker is just a representative of the crowd requiring an answer to that question, and the benefit to them is merely a side-effect.

Our job - as the regular users we are - is to keep this flow of questions and answers smooth. Ideally, the site can function smoothly only when all four types of users are doing their job well: askers asking questions, answerers answering them, moderators moderating spam users, content, etc., and editors editing posts to make them look tidy. Of course, these roles can overlap, but that's the basic gist.

As expected, this does not happen ideally. Poor questions are often asked, driving answerers away. However, closing too many questions, and with a vague metric like "effort", drives askers away. Both reduce traffic which ain't good. Thus, we need to strike an important balance between them.

It is the easiest to read a question and quickly leave short comments, downvote, or VTC, signaling to the OP they're wrong. Of course, which if they are, it is totally fine! However, a lot of times, the question could be improved into something much more meaningful, by careful editing. It takes time and effort to do so, but once done, the question transforms from garbage to answerable to great quality.

Therefore, I propose that we should tweak the policy about the following questions:

  1. Copy pasted homework images: This is probably the most annoying post, both for the answerer as well as the editor. 90% of the time it's because the asker is lazy, while remaining 10% audience might not know how to use the tools, or not even know that we prefer text to images. (We could have more discussion on tackling these in a separate meta post. For now, I believe we can downvote and move on unless the post is edited.)

  2. Repetitive physical chemistry calculations: We've had several efforts pushing for canonical questions in this area for a long time, and I believe they would help solve this problem perfectly.

  3. Straightforward statement based questions: We should answer them if they are well-posed questions. Telling OP to google them is not good, for which I will echo ringo's excellent comment here.

  4. A "boring/obvious/simple" (but well-framed) question: There will always be some domain experts who will find a question too easy to even answer, and therefore tend to downvote or VTC. However, we should realize that such questions might be interesting to beginners in that field, and hence, we should attempt to answer it if it is well-framed.

(I covered these categories because so far these have been the most popular types of questions VTCed as homework; I also realize there's probably no official policy declaration covering above question types as homework, but they just so happen to be done so)

In effect, what I'm trying to propose attempts to set our site towards the eventual goal of becoming a repository of detailed answers to chemistry questions. I understand there may be disagreement (as this is just my perspective on how we could reach that goal) in which case I appreciate feedback.

  • $\begingroup$ We shouldn't ignore cases where the current policy has worked perfectly. "effort" is only a good metric if you use it as a general means to close the likes of (1) and (2), and my memory is rusty, but I do think the policy defines them to be quintessential homework. It's (3) and (4) that cause problems. I imagine when the reason came to be, people wanted the answerers not to waste time on posts from uncooperative, uninterested askers. Some of (3), and the "simple" questions of (4), are what I compare to 'general reference'. And as I said, it's not "explain enthalpy" itself that irks the expert $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 9:26
  • $\begingroup$ . . . but the fact that a well-composed textbook answers it far better. Basically, it'd be like the tutorial-related questions of SO; and people have decided that SO is not the right medium for tutoring. 'general reference' would overlap with 'too broad', but that's not a problem. If you've identified questions that the experts in a tag don't want, it really matters only to the few of askers who actually read the guidance what we close their question as. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding erroneous closures of questions simply because of intolerance, rather than the questions being problematic (your "obvious" and "boring" categories, and a good portion of statement-based questions), there is the culture of regulars in smaller sites tending to curate every question, which is awesome, but with its side effects. I reckon a clearer stance on what to close and what not to would help reshape the culture. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 9:33
  • $\begingroup$ There are a lot of things to discuss in this post... I'll just say one thing first. In principle I agree that textbook questions should not be closed (taking the opposite stance to the logical extreme, we should close everything, because everything that we know has already been explained in textbooks or in primary literature). In practice I'm not so sure who would answer them. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ I think it would probably be useful to have separate meta posts on each of these things, once we work it out, of course. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 10:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Ortho yeah, I'm planning to come up with a few meta posts. I just wanna have a general view of how things are, and find out how others find them. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 11:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Regarding #4 ("boring/obvious/simple") I'd like to add (1) one should not assume that existing answers are correct or complete, not matter how simple they may appear; therefore there is value to a question being asked again; new users may supply a fresh, original and possibly improved (more correct) answer to questions asked before. (2) People ready to answer questions don't generally browse the vaults of chem SE to see if some random question has been asked before. They stumble on stuff as it comes along on the front page. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 12:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Among the biggest challenges with this site are the "first to answer" fallacy (first answers usually get more upvotes regardless of quality), and the "attention deficit" fallacy (some questions are too complex to answer in a reasonable amount of time and space; interesting questions can get buried even if they are good). There are mechanisms to get around this but this remains a big issue. This does not address the main question of the OP but is relevant to the points you bring up in your quality classification scheme. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 13:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @NightWriter I agree with all your points, however, regarding your second comment I'd like to also point out that these problems are consistent across several other network sites, and not a challenge specific to ours. On other sites like maths or physics, they may be a lesser problem probably due to higher traffic. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ Due to higher traffic, or the fact that physics tried to do away with homework altogether. Math tried to solve it with hinty hints AFAIK, and that's a rabbit hole I'm not willing to go down. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 21:32

Why closing questions helps the site

Once a question is closed, you can't post an answer. In my opinion, the main reason to close a question is to give the OP a chance to improve the question so that answers will be helpful to the OP and to everyone else. This is better than improving the question while it is open because this can result in multiple answers, some to the original question and some to the improved question. When five experienced users (or one moderator) think that it does not make sense to start answering a question in the current state, it should get closed.

There are some side-effects to closing as well:

  • if the OP came across as lazy when asking the original question, here is a chance to prove otherwise (and get the question reopened)
  • if the OP moved on and the question does not make sense in the current state, no further effort is spent on the question
  • if it looked like the OP attempted to cheat on an exam or homework due tomorrow, it provides a delay mechanism (and, it the question is useful for others, it can be reopened after the OP or someone else edits it).

What are the choices we have?

The top-level close reasons (too broad, unclear, personal opinion, off-topic, duplicate) are set Stackexchange-wide, there is no choice there. We have up to three customized choices for closing under the off-topic label. So we can keep it as is, tweak the "homework" reason, or come up with two categories to replace the "homework" reason (this assumes we need to keep the "personal medical question" reason).

Why do we give a close reason?

I think there are two parts.

First, so that the OP does not feel shut out. Rather than just saying no to the question, we connect the closure with a set of the site rules to explain why it was closed. This is different from down-voting, which is anonymous and does not communicate any reason (unless the down-voter does the right thing and adds a comment, unless unless there is a comment already that fits the bill).

Second, so that the OP (or other users) know how to edit the question to improve it. It is nice to write a comment as well, making it specific to the question, but it would be great if the close reason would point the OP in the right direction. I think the "too broad" and "unclear" reasons are such pointers. The "personal opinion" and "duplicate" are a bit different - one says you should not ask that question, the other one says the question already has an answer (neither one are meant to encourage the OP to edit the question, but they can ask a new, related question).

Which questions should not be closed?

I think questions that seem too easy, boring, trivial, eliciting one-liner comments should not be closed. I think these are great questions to learn how to write a nice answer. I think the high-rep users should just ignore those. Just to be clear: "What is a bond" or "I don't understand energy" are not in this category. These ask about fundamental concepts but are unanswerable and should be closed.

Questions that are ready for a great answer but would improve upon revision should not be closed. Instead, I would write a comment (asking to replace the photo with text, typeset equations, have the title match the concepts raised in the question), maybe together with a down vote if I find it annoying. It would be nice to have one ore several documents to post to with more specific suggestions. Or I would just edit the question, especially if I took the time to answer it.

My current reasons to close at the moment

If I had to replace the homework close reason with two new reasons, this is what I would choose:

  1. You did not ask your own question
  2. Your question lacks context

And here are the messages to the OP that would go with these:

  1. You did not ask your own question: It is fine to include a homework problem or other exercise in a post, but you have to ask your own question about it. Please edit, asking a specific conceptual question that arose while you where attempting the problem.

  2. Your question lacks context: This question needs revision before it is ready for a great answer. Please edit to include how this question came up and how you tried to answer it. This will help writing an answer that is useful for you and for others.

Regarding 2., the amount of research (i.e. "how you tried to answer it") I expect from the OP depends on how much chemistry they know and how much access they have to sources. For the most common OP (enrolled in a chemistry course) that would be to look in their textbook and to use a general search engine. For folks that have less chemistry exposure the bar I set is lower. For graduate students and beyond, I would hope that they have access to at least some of the literature, and I would expect that they consult chemistry-specific sources (PubChem, literature, etc).

  • $\begingroup$ Nice well laid out post..but regarding (1) We need to clearly define what are homework exercises and what aren't. A high-school pH calculation is almost certainly a homework, but an industry person working with chemicals having a pH calc isn't probably homework. I think it is easy to identify which one is what given the tone of the question, but how do we deal with the second case? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 9, 2019 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ Moreover, I do not see what is different in the FAQ from your VTC reasons. Also, your two messages are very overlapping. Point 1 states that "...how you tried to work..". But notice that trying to work through the problem will require reading up books, references, and also "how you tried to answer it, and where you need help", which is your direction in point 2. What I mean to say is that trying to satisfy (2) (did not do your homework...) will always satisfy (1) (did not ask a question), so I don't see a distinction here. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 9, 2019 at 17:28
  • $\begingroup$ @GaurangTandon "Industry person working with chemicals having a pH calc": We can leave it open, and someone will answer it. Unless it is a duplicate, which is fine for that person as well, they will be able to figure it out from the answer to the duplicate. $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Commented Jun 9, 2019 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ @GaurangTandon "Your two messages are very overlapping": Yes, because both kinds of posts show low effort. But in one case, the OP is posting someone else's question (sometimes with answer), and in the other case the OP has their own question. What is common is that it does not make sense to answer it as posted, so in some ways what the OP has to do for questions that are closed as "not clear" or "homework" is to provide more information. $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Commented Jun 9, 2019 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ Ok, I understand, but I'm still not understanding how this would fix what the current VTC couldn't. Even the current policy focused on the lines "making sure you tell us how this question came up, how you tried to answer it, and where you need help" and "the amount of research...expected from the OP", so the one you suggest is not really different. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 2:21
  • $\begingroup$ @GaurangTandon I am not trying to redefine the policy. I'm saying the the close reason should come with a prompt giving guidance how to edit the question. If we have multiple close reasons (unclear, too broad, did not ask your own question, lacks context), the reason would show the key flaw, and the prompt would give directions on how to fix it. $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 16:27

The two most common traits of questions in (2), the grey areas and (3), poor questions not necessarily homework, as far as I'm concerned, would be lack of research and basic-ness of the question.

Research dilemma

If a question solely lacks a demonstration of prior research, that is, it's not "basic" (see below), unclear, or obviously from a textbook, we shouldn't close it. Actually, that's not as argumentative as it sounds. Those questions tend to be the very pearl we get, interesting enough one way or another not to get closed.

One thing we could change about our attitude, though, is err on the side of not closing. More often than not, telling apart a very difficult or interesting but short question from the typical sand is expertise on the matter plus giving the question more thought than you'd give the average question in the close vote queue. It seems one example would be this question. No "effort" shown, short question, but the why seems to be very difficult to answer.

This is usually not that much of a concern in interesting questions that are also popular among the general audience, that make it to HNQ (such as Is there radioactivity at absolute zero? — note that there is essentially no research, but (naturally inconclusive) research will probably only be considered clutter here)

There is no shame in using "skip", as I've been exercising it more often.

Basic? No, General Reference.

English Language & Usage (and most other language sites, as far as I recall) has a close reason, known as "general reference", that goes like

Please include the research you’ve done, or consider if your question suits our English Language Learners site better. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic.
emphasis changes mine

Granted, it's essentially a "research" close reason, and has been controversial over on their meta. Perhaps it also contributed to the grim outlook outsiders have of ELU. What interests me, though, is the second part.

It became immediately obvious that, on a site about English, questions you could answer with a dictionary should be off-topic. Incidentally, I noticed a significant portion of questions in the grey area, perhaps also part of (3), is questions that would be closed with "general reference".

Interestingly, the logic of 'answered better elsewhere in Wikipedia or an organic chemistry textbook, resources we're not trying to replicate' sounds oddly familiar to the convenient umbrella we use for blatant homework. And that's not a bad thing, when the close reason is applied according to the definition.

The problem arises because these questions are typically not obvious copy-pastes, and it's not obvious either whether the asker is genuinely confused, or simply doesn't care about the topic, or the answerer's time. More often than not, it would be someone who's really frustrated, with a genuine wish to learn, but without the know-how.

It seems to me that the community is mostly pro-closing these. I also personally believe that re-explaining a topic explained in countless textbooks does not add anything other than a statistical data point to the site.

This should not be conflated with "basic-ness". In my opinion, probably a bold statement, but it's neither being easy to answer, nor commonness of the required knowledge to answer these questions that makes them unpopular, but rather the fact that inferring the answer from the tutorials and study material is trivial provided you have actually done the reading. This is also why they get conflated with homework.

Consequently, I believe this is at least one of the biggest gaps we should fill, besides (1), if we wanted to ever get rid of the close reason, or narrowed down its application. Perhaps it'd merit our final slot of available custom close reasons, and it doesn't really need to link to much more than our Resources post.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think we both are trying to say similar things. However, regarding "I also personally believe that re-explaining a topic...": I believe that defining what exact literature comprises basic questions in chemistry is very vague, enough to not use it as a metric. There's a lot of diversity in textbooks. Different curricula teach different level of detail for the same topic. A question answered in one textbook may not be in another. There's no objective way for us to tell apart this distinction. Therefore, we cannot close questions correctly using such a metric, if one is ever made. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 7:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Gau I feel like that can be adequately addressed by not accepting certain sources to be reliable. "No, your random YouTube channel is not an authoritative source." It's usually not what the sources contain, but merely the fact they tend to contain this material that matters. Dictionaries are also the same, some reputable, some not. But that hasn't stopped the close reason from being effective when applied to dictionary questions (language sites have a tendency to shove several reasons into one, this particular close vote is research + general reference) $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 9:16
  • $\begingroup$ Furthermore, canonicals, if anyone writes them, are usually just our way of saying "we believe this information obtained from and usually found in textbooks to be factually accurate". So they can solve part of that problem as well. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 9:19
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with you. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 14:04

The OP left me somewhat unclear about what answer is sought, which may be appropriate given the long winding history of the "homework" close topic (not to be confused with the deprecated "homework" label).

At least two questions can be identified in the OP and other answers. I'd summarize them as:

  1. What should and should not be closed?

  2. Are there questions that are being labeled "homework" and shouldn't, and if so, what are they? (And, should we care? - see question 1)

The first question reflects what this website wants to be. As Gaurang Tandon points out, the tour page states that this is "build a library of detailed answers to every question about chemistry." Others argue that the aim is to build a repository of high-quality research-grade Q&As.

The second question is self-explanatory. It's about this odd VTC option that has become the "misc" pile among the "out" (VTC) bins: what's going in there? What should be going there? Should we have more bins?

Many posts I've read (linked by the OP) suggest that point #1 should be settled, and that discussions about how many and which "out" bins to have is a task that need only be settled afterwards. In other words, first draw up a constitution, only then write laws and decrees that fit into that framework. Makes sense.

Despite this, since the OP question focuses on question #2 (the homework label, its purported function and true use), I address the first point only in passing and focus my thoughts on the latter.

(Please consider this "essay" a work in progress as I learn more about what this is all about and find myself shifting in opinion on some subjects.)

Who's being closed?

There is the issue of how all this affects people posting questions.

At least one aspect of the closure process appears important to consider:

  1. How important is the reaction of posters to closure

Since there are no guarantees of a question being answered or even accepted when posted on this site (the only guarantee being civilized conduct from other users), closing questions becomes analogous to limiting membership in the club of acceptable ones (a self-evident truth). This just emphasizes that the available VTC choices and other exclusionary measures are an important way of defining what the website wants to be (also a somewhat self-evident truth).

Who's closing?

This site is populated by a large and presumably diverse group of people varying in their proclivity to employ the VTC option. In fact, it seems usually a small subset of all users who bother to apply this option at all. It is in itself interesting to know who these people are and why they are inclined to use the option. They are one of the groups Gaurang mentions in his answer, and their behavior is obviously central to the proper function of the VTC mechanism, to the extent that it is important. Since this active group is small, it would seem in principle that it should not be hard to enforce a uniform policy, provided one can be agreed on. But the group is potentially varied in their opinion how the option should be used.

So it leads us naturally to wonder, what are they doing, and why, with the VTC options they have been handed?

A slew of additional questions can be asked surrounding this. Some of course double back to the original question of what the site is all about.

  1. What are legitimate reasons to vote to close (irrespective of actual current VTC options), and how does the choice of reasons to close reflect on the goals of this site and its membership.

You can't expect its users to apply rules properly when it is unclear what those rules are. And even if there are rules, how can you ensure that users follow them? This is one way ambiguity wrt the "homework" VTC (or any VTC for that matter) can become a problem. It becomes a tool for users to operate outside of the scope of what's considered the norm, as set by the goals of the site. People will close questions they don't "like" ("like" being a catch-all for whatever mechanisms they employ to judge a question unworthy), an ambiguous term for an ambiguous process. I echo opinions I've encountered during my readings on this subject, indicating that "effort" and similar terms are poor descriptors of the property that triggers the VTC urge.

  1. But, is there a minimal set of perfect VTC choices?

I'd guess (probably correctly): no.

What is being closed?

So, subsets of the community regularly agree that select questions should be closed because they are of "low quality", applying the indirect and potentially misleading "homework" VTC. This leads to one important question posed by the OP:

  1. What exactly is gauged as wrong with "low-quality" questions that end up in the "homework" VTC bin but are not really homework?

I suggest that "duplicates" make up one significant group. Assuming these ambiguous questions should be closed, one reason the "homework" VTC is applied to these questions is because it saves effort identifying duplicates, an effort the OP should have made in the first place.

Finally, in what follows I attempt to address one question in your post a little more directly, based on what I've learned so far:

What would our closing system lack without the current 'homework close reason', should we ever get to get rid of it?

This is related to questions (1) and (2) above in my answer. In particular, I am not sure you can come up with a satisfying answer to this without first answering (1) (as Gaurang Tandon's answer also suggests).

In any case, an experiment was apparently performed not so long ago to answer precisely these questions. The result is summarized here (I need to add links - this may happen in due time):

    Questions Closed: 378
    Questions Asked: 984
    Close percentage: 38.41 %

Closure statistics

    Close reason, no. closed (% of total), no. edited (% of closed), no. reopened (% of closed), no. edited and reopened (% of edited)
    too broad, 55 (14.55%), 8 (14.55%), 2 (3.64%), 1 (12.50%)
    off-topic other (custom), 11 (2.91%), 2 (18.18%), 0, 0
-->      off-topic homework, 174 (46.03%), 11 (6.32%), 3 (1.72%), 2 (18.18%)
    off-topic medical, 5 (1.32%), 0, 0, 0
    duplicate, 45 (11.90%), 4 (8.89%), 3 (6.67%), 1 (25.00%)
    unclear, 72 (19.05%), 10 (13.89%), 2 (2.78%), 1 (10.00%)
    opinion-based, 9 (2.38%), 0, 0, 0

    Questions Closed: 325
    Questions Asked: 855
    Close percentage: 38.01 %

Closure statistics W/O HWK available as close reason:

    Close reason, no. closed (% of total), no. edited (% of closed), no. reopened (% of closed), no. edited and reopened (% of edited)
    too broad, 53 (16.92%), 1 (1.82%), 0, 0
    off-topic other (custom), 107 (32.92%), 5 (4.67%), 1 (0.93%), 1 (20.00%)
    off-topic medical, 8 (2.46%), 1 (12.50%), 0, 0
    duplicate, 55 (16.92%), 1 (1.82%), 0, 0
    unclear, 82 (25.23%), 18 (21.95%), 4 (4.88%), 4 (22.22%)
    opinion-based, 10 (3.08%), 1 (10.00%), 0, 0
    off-topic (other SE), 2 (0.62%), 0, 0, 0

Seems what happened is that people opted to close with "off-topic other" when homework was not available. Little else changed. The remaining options did not absorb many of the questions that would have been tagged as homework. This evidently required more effort from moderators to process (did it?), so it was not a positive result (interesting, useful even, but apparently not positive). However, my reading on the subject did not fully clarify the reason why this was regarded as a bit of a failure (was it?).

The OP suggests that homework may be capturing non-homework problems because an appropriate VTC label is absent (even though choosing labels is not something you want to discuss right now, if I understand correctly). In addition, and perhaps more importantly, these questions should not be closed. Both of these are bad things (I agree that certain kinds of ambiguity are bad). Certainly this is bad insofar as it leads to friction between the actions of a potentially rogue or misinformed subset of VTCers and the standards defined by the community. On the positive side, at least VTC has one advantage over downvoting: it is transparent.

Conclusion: an ode to closing

This is in fact not an ode to closing. I've applied closing sparingly in my time here. Other sites (SO) are militant about closing. It is a badge of honor to have closed as many questions as possible.

After considerable thought and reading, I think I finally figured out what the OP is about: people are using the "homework" VTC to close questions they don't like but are not really what you might call homework. What are these questions and should they remain unclosed?

I more or less agree with everything Gaurang Tandon has written in his answer (except the strange opposition to repetitive p-chem calculations :-) - repetitive organic reaction mechanisms are ok?). In particular I like that he bothers to attempt a defininition of what should be closed, even if one might disagree on specifics.

I've come to the understanding (possible false) that closing exists as a quick initial sorting mechanism to optimize use of resources by responders, and it is probably the closest to a reflection of what the active community (and designers of the site) think the composition of questions and answers should be.

It is important to have an official policy, even though implementation in such a decentralized unsupervised environment is very difficult: the tone in this site fluctuates and seems more a function of the whims of those present at any particular moment than of the quality of the questions, or of any particular policy. Also, it is not clear to what extent users are properly instructed on standard policy.

The editorial power of the active community provides an initial kick to good Q&As and trips up ostensibly poor ones. And it saves data storage resources down the line as the worst are destroyed.

Upvoting should in principle be enough to make the good answers surface to the top and show up atop searches, which will further encourage voting on these (and presumably reinfocement through further upvotes).

One point I make in this answer is that giving the VTC option to some of the regulars on this site is akin to giving a gun to a trigger-happy nut. You can provide them with instructions but it's unlikely to make a difference.


Shutting down:

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  • $\begingroup$ You speak of 'shutting down a post' throughout your answer, but it's such a broad term IMHO that is just impractical for the sake of this conversation. Downvotes tend to follow with close votes, but each is designed to convey a different meaning, and they don't and shouldn't align all the time. (See chemistry.meta.stackexchange.com/a/3167/7448) $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 19:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That said, I think your conclusion is it should stay because if it's gone people will just use other options, right? That's precisely the problem I want to avoid by having composed this meta. It's to gather ideas on what questions would receive that treatment, questions that are rightfully closed but with a currently flawed policy. I assume good faith in people, and with a more clearly defined scope, people would ideally change their behavior to downvote the low-quality, and close the unanswerable. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ @M.A.R.ಠ_ಠ"Closing is the official "sorry, this doesn't fit our model and hence we refrain from answering it" response." How is this different from "shutting down"? $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @M.A.R.ಠ_ಠ No, I think you may misunderstand me. I am hypothesizing on what will probably happen, not on what should. And I am not the architect of the site, just a user and spectator, and am willing to make suggestions without bad will, which you should be thankful for. I am not sure what kind of concrete answers you expect on a question that has lingered for years. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ @M.A.R.ಠ_ಠ I analyze the mechanism of closing as I see it. I conclude: "Unfortunately, "homework" is less clear and open to dispute than "low quality" or some more benign label." Previous posts (eg by Karsten Theis) suggest using a different label. You should as Gaurang Tandon suggests seek to streamline. Substituting "homework" might be a good step, avoiding the crooked ->offtopic->homework route and potential complaints from the OP. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't say it wasn't, I'm saying 'shutting down' is so vague and broad it just means little more than 'disliking something strongly', and that'd be a valid reason for someone to exercise their downvotes, but it doesn't necessarily mean the question should be closed. Closure is meant to stop a flow of bad answers, there can be a good quality question that doesn't fit the SE format, is likely to attract bad answers, and hence ends up being closed. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 19:48
  • $\begingroup$ I believe we can discuss this more effectively if you come to chat. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ "Shutting down" is vague if you define it vaguely. My definition is not vague. It means "closing" :-) Sorry about the confusion. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ Alright. :) I still feel like we can discuss it more easily in a more relaxed environment than comments under the answer. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ Somehow this isn't vague: "Closure is meant to stop a flow of bad answers, there can be a good quality question that doesn't fit the SE format, is likely to attract bad answers, and hence ends up being closed." Sorry, I know it's the site's policy you echo, but, well, that doesn't make sense. Imagine a duplicate question that according to site policy is a good question but according to your definition would lead to bad answers, receives an answer that is a duplicate of the duplicate question's good answer. How does that make sense? $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry I'd love to chat but timing is not good- maybe tomorrow. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, I'd leave my thoughts there and you can come back and respond when you had the time. It's getting pretty messy here tho'. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ @M.A.R.ಠ_ಠ I think it's good you re-opened the topic and hope you succeed getting the answer you (and the site) need. Personally I think more choices should be added to the close list, but closing should not require unanimous agreement on the reason to close. My point is that the absence of choices is not what keeps questions open. If people want them closed they will. The absence just adds ambiguity to the closure process. It'd help if someone could explain why there are not more choices. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 20:11
  • $\begingroup$ And a parting thought.I understand the need to tidy up the site and avoid accumulation of bad questions and answers, but the emphasis on closing is one aspect of SO and SE that has never quite appealed to me. I think merging, aliasing and linking (starting with IDing duplicates) is the better option (if more costly, as I mention). $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 20:14

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