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Occasionally, we get questions on main taken from old contests, such as Olympiads and Putnam exams. These questions are inappropriate for MO, and they get closed, which is as it should be. However, before they get closed, they sometimes get comments along the lines of

Do your own homework.

It's usually not that hard to tell a homework question from a contest-type question. People who are posting contest-type questions are showing an interest in Mathematics beyond passing the course they are enrolled in, and I think we should be encouraging their continued interest in Mathematics (or at the very least, not discouraging it). I don't think "Do your own homework" serves this purpose. I'd rather see a comment along the lines of,

Nice question! But not suitable for this website. Try Art of problem solving, or math.stackexchange

So, may I suggest that 1) if we leave any comments on contest-type questions, they be encouraging comments, and 2) if we see rude comments on contest-type questions, we flag the comments for moderator attention?

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    $\begingroup$ I think it is hard to tell with what intention a contest-type question is posted -- it may show interest in mathematics as you say, but it may also be an attempt to cheat in some competition, or whatever else. -- We can't read minds, in the end. $\endgroup$ – Stefan Kohl Oct 28 '13 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ I think there's just no payoff to being rude about inappropriate questions. We might wish that it discourages later inappropriate questions, but the people asking them aren't reading the comments on earlier inappropriate questions anyway. If you feel like being rude about such a question, just leave the question for someone else to deal with --- there's no real shortage of users ready to close and delete. $\endgroup$ – Scott Morrison Oct 28 '13 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ People have also been wrong in their assumptions about what is homework; this is a demonstrable truth. In any case, I don't think nastiness is justified even in the case of blatant HW questions. If you want to vent, feel free to do so in a comment attached to a flag that the moderators will read! $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Oct 29 '13 at 0:04
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    $\begingroup$ It's true that expressing disapproval of a blatant homework question won't discourage future posters, who aren't reading those comments anyway. But it just might cause the current poster to think twice before posting elsewhere and to consider the option of, well, doing his or her own homework. And that, I think, is a service. $\endgroup$ – Steven Landsburg Oct 29 '13 at 2:18
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    $\begingroup$ I think in fact that the current close as homework option is not a great idea. It arose from Mark Sapir's proposal to have a close as homework option which requires only 3 close votes and leads to immediate deletion. The second two parts of the proposal were not implemented. So as it currently stands the only difference between the close as HW and the close as not research level choices is in the level of aggressiveness. I am not convinced that the extra level of aggressiveness dissuades the kind of person who is going to ask HW questions but it can convince people doing contest-type (ctd...) $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Steinberg Oct 29 '13 at 2:23
  • $\begingroup$ (...) questions that mathematicians are a bit brutish, not to mention it can be put offish for those who are not asking homework but phrase their question in a HW-type way. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Steinberg Oct 29 '13 at 2:24
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    $\begingroup$ It seems that you are equating not being kind to the OP with rudeness. "you should do your own homework" might not be very nice but I don't think it is really rude. I think it is wrong to remove comments unless they are really rude. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Oct 29 '13 at 8:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Kaveh, I see a difference between the advice, "you should do your own homework," and the command, "do your own homework." And when it should be clear that the question isn't homework, I think it will be received as rude, and I think it is rude. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Oct 29 '13 at 9:44
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    $\begingroup$ I changed the format. The old one, using MathJax, was too broad for the mobile version so it was cut-off. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 29 '13 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ @StevenLandsburg you are doing a service in your opinion to who? (I read your comment multiple times but it is still not quite clear to me what exactly you mean.) $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 29 '13 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ quid: I think it is a service to a) the (possibly rare) student who might reconsider the possibility of doing his own homework, b) the instructor of said student, who might well have a strong preference that students do their own homework, c) the fellow students of said student, who might prefer to be judged on an equal playing field, d) the consumers of said student's transcript, who might prefer that the grades reflect individual effort a little more accurately, and e) the denizens of other question/answer sites, who might find these "do my homework" questions just as annoying as we do. $\endgroup$ – Steven Landsburg Oct 29 '13 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ @StevenLandsburg thank you for the detailed reply. So if a) does typically not happen b) to e) are moot, but anyway. It is interesting how here you are quite confident about what might be good for all kinds of people, having no information about the precise circumstances whatsoever [while you are so worried about migrating things]. Maybe instead the fellow students might prefer to copy the homework from the one asking here, and we should thus give an answer? :-) $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 29 '13 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: Surely any policy we adopt is going to involve making guesses about what's good for at least some people other than ourselves (e.g. at a minimum, we'll have to guess about what's good for other members of MathOverflow). But these are educated guesses based on a lot of years teaching at several universities in several departments, and a lot of conversations with colleagues and students about how to control cheating, and why. $\endgroup$ – Steven Landsburg Oct 30 '13 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ @StevenLandsburg of course. Only, for other memebers of MO we do not even have to guess so much, since everybody who wishes to can express their opinion here. And, so some did. It seems there is quite a lot of sentiment against commands and advices of this form, while you yourself admit that if ever it has a positive effect it will be rare. (You say a. should be rare, and personally I'd add an 'extremely', and if a. does not happen I repeat all the rest is moot.) Thus, it seems quite clear to me that the policy should be that such commands and advices are not done anymore. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 10:04
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    $\begingroup$ @StevenLandsburg I based my reply on your explication for who it is a service. But, for my opinion, all things considered I consider these expressions of disapproval as on the one hand pointless while on the other hand creating a hostile atmosphere. If somebody truly believes they have a relevant positive effect then I consider them as quite naive. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 22:47
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I would like to submit for general consideration a somewhat alternative formulation (also tested in practice), both for (suspected) homework and contest question, along the following lines.

This question looks like/is presented like a homework question/contest problem/exercise. Please note that this site is not intended for such questions, but only for research-level questions. If your question should arise in a research context, please, provide this context.

Those that feel like it could add another sentence either pointing to other sites or general advice like better trying it by oneself for the case it actually should be a homework question/contest problem/exercise.

This formulation is a bit longer but in mind it has the advantage that it leaves open the possibility of an error in judgement/a misunderstanding and thus in the (rare) cases where a legitimate question gets it it might be less of a problem. And, for the other cases it also can have the advantage that OP has a harder time to start some debate, they were asked for something specific if they cannot provide it then what to say.

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    $\begingroup$ Small suggestions: one of "looks like" or "is presented like" should be sufficient. It would be clearer to write "homework question, contest problem or exercise" than use the slashes, because of the spaces. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Pressland Oct 29 '13 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ How about tightening it a little? "This forum focuses on professional research, not homework or contest problems or exercises. Your question does not look like research. If it is, please provide (more) background and motivation, and resubmit for professional consideration." Gerhard "Better Than Saying 'Go Away'" Paseman, 2013.10.29 $\endgroup$ – Gerhard Paseman Oct 29 '13 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ @MattPressland yes, but, I did not mean the text as a verbatim template. If I were to actually use it, I would choose what seems fitting or still do something slightly different. The idea was more to convey the general pattern. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 29 '13 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ @GerhardPaseman IMO to say directly the question does not look like research is already more likely to cause hard feelings. The point often is really that it looks like homework and related in some "formal" way. And, sometimes users react based on this appearance-heuristic, without detailed consideration of the content. (Some have strong feelings against doing this. I do not see that much problem there, but I think it should be comunicated that this is what happened). Also the word "resubmit" seems unfortunate as it seems to suggest to ask another question, which is not what we want. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 29 '13 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ Also personally I would not write "professional consideration" but this is a matter of style. And, I, for one, am anyway rather against actual templates. My point was more to suggest the pattern of leaving open the possibility it actually is an accapteable question if something happpens. And, one can be rather generous in the usage of this; even if it is really really unlikely, nothing much is lost, the true homework-askers often anyway do not follow up in any way. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 29 '13 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ @quid I see - sorry. There has been lots of work on MSE on creating standardized comments, so that's what I was expecting... $\endgroup$ – Matthew Pressland Oct 29 '13 at 19:16
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While we're on the topic of contests, HW, etc., I wanted to remind people of this thread: Request from PRIMES to keep an eye out for their problems Generally, use caution around the handling of student problems (there is an argument for never addressing them at all, although Putnam-type problems have come up before in discussion at MO).

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If the community had a consensus on behaviour, and a semi-private messaging system, community members with some standing could try countering rudeness by sending the poster little reminders of how such-and-such comment runs counter to the behaviour/culture/atmosphere being maintained for the forum. In some cases, posting an additional comment would suffice, but at the cost of having such comments contribute to the noise level.

Here is an idea, assuming that Gerry's suggestion or something like it is generally agreed upon: for every such "do your own homework" comment, send a tsk-tsk to the commenter. A tsk-tsk is either a follow up comment posted to the same question which links to this meta question (or appropriate section within this question), e.g. "Tsk @Gerry, Do your own homework", or it is a comment posted in this question with enough context for the commenter to take action, e.g. "Really @Gerhard, in https://mathoverflow.net/questions/abcdef you could reflect community ideals by commenting as Gerry suggests above, or not commenting at all." The point of this convention is to move noise away from the questions and toward meta. Also, some rules should be followed, the most basic one being that if the commenter fixes the associated problem, the tsk be removed by the tsk-er or moderator.

If such a community-correcting system is implemented, I intend to keep a count of how many tsks I receive.

Gerhard "Of Course, Not For Signatures" Paseman, 2013.10.29

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  • $\begingroup$ I intended to have just the link address display, not "Tsk @Gerry Do your own homework". Does someone know how to escape so that the http address itself appears instead of the title reference? Gerhard "Prefers More Direct Redirection Forms" Paseman, 2013.10.29 $\endgroup$ – Gerhard Paseman Oct 29 '13 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ I downvote this as I do not consider it a good suggestion. While I think it is a good idea to have dicussion of community standards and deviations of them, the proposal of some quasi institutionalized tsk-ing here strikes me as something that will create quite a bit of noise and annoyance for very little benefit in return. Especially what is the point of the 'tsk'? If somebody feels like calling somebody out on something they can do so. It might or might not be helpful for the situation at hand. They can also (typically better, IMO) say something nicer to OP instead. (cont.) $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 29 '13 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ (cont.) And, the discussion of the deviation from some norms (in non-extreme ways) is IMO better done somewhat abstract or at least with some distance from the actual event, else one runs the risk to have the comment thread under that poor new users question 'explode' leaving them with a still much worse experience, IMO. Alos, if you notice some regular contstantly doing something you disapprove of you might raise the issue with the moderators. Depending on ones personality it can be (a lot) easier to change ones behavior after a private note than after public discussion over it. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 29 '13 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ The point is to abbreviate/reduce the chatter on the commentary in the questions. There may be a point to keep comments regarding normative behaviour with the offending comments, but that will also introduce noise. If you want to moderate community behaviour, is it better to do so and keep a public record of it, or not? The convention above assumes only temporary gentle reminders are needed; if so, the reminders can be removed and little trace remains, or can be kept with a smaller footprint. Gerhard "Feel Free To Suggest Alternatives" Paseman, 2013.10.29 $\endgroup$ – Gerhard Paseman Oct 29 '13 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ My issue is not with the public trace, but rather with the annoyance in the very moment, which actually could lead to a rather harmless incident getting blown-up. And, a specific issue is that personally I really really dislike the idea of this 'tsk' or anything like that. To me this has some elementary school touch to it that alread then I really disliked. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 29 '13 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, there is that risk, if this were applied generally. This is why I put this conditional on there being a consensus of what is SPECIFIC proper behaviour/misbehaviour. I could extend this to tsking you on your wordiness, and you tsking me on signatures and levity: I do not want to go there. If it is agreed however that "Do your homework" comments are discouraged by the community, this serves (hopefully) as a temporary gentle reminder, as it is linked to the meta question that discusses the issue and consensus. Gerhard "Better Suggestions Are Still Welcome" Paseman, 2013.10.29 $\endgroup$ – Gerhard Paseman Oct 29 '13 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ Two features I like about this system are: the comment under the question is essentially Tsk, name, link, and nothing else, which reduces some visibility on main, and the alternative on meta , Tsk, name, link to offending comment, brief additional comment on how to fix. It could blow up, but it could also be used successfully and briefly, so there should be rules for using this convention to avoid the troubles that you point out. Gerhard "Or We Always Stay Nice" Paseman, 2013.10.29 $\endgroup$ – Gerhard Paseman Oct 29 '13 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ I still do not understand the need for all this. If we find such a consensus, and somebody deviates from it, then, yeah, anybody can (if they feel like it) remind anybody. And then if we have rules for tsk-ing and somebody does not follow these rules we need some tsk-ing for the bad tsk-ing... Sorry, to me this is too reminiscent of Jasper 'Talking out of turn...that's a paddling. Looking out the window...that's a paddling. Staring at my sandals...that's a paddling. Paddling the school canoe...ooh, you better believe that's a paddling ' $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 29 '13 at 19:45

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