As I've been thinking about the challenge of interdisciplinary research on this site and beginning to review the closure queue, I've noticed two key areas of problematic definition, both of which are linked to the notion of "homework questions":
- "You have made the effort to research the topic": This criteria focuses judgement on the relative effort expended by the question asker rather than the quality of the question.
- "Addresses a basic biology concept that may seem trivial to biology professionals": Biology is an extremely broad and heterogeneous topic, and what seems trivial to a field ecologist, a computational modeler, a bench immunologist, and a biosynthesis scale-up researcher may be wildly different. Again, the focus is on a subjective opinion about the people involved, rather than the quality of the question.
Reading through some of the extensive history of discussion of "homework questions", I believe that I have come to some appreciation of how these criteria came to be. The key issue seems to be having a good way to rule several problematic classes of question out of scope, so that effort is not wasted blindly solving people's problem sets, arguing fruitlessly with creationists, collecting pointless trivia, etc.
With criteria scoped for subjective judgement of the questioner, however, it seems to me that these criteria can be applied in a highly inconsistent manner, including against well-formulated questions that have good and useful answers. Two recent examples:
- Forward or Reverse Strand: Is there a difference when encoding constructs? This question is based on a common confusion rooted in the frequent conflation of relative orientation and historical accidents in plasmid architecture by practicing biological researchers. In short: it's not ignorance at work here, but a genuine and reasonable confusion, carefully explained and well-illustrated in the question and addressed with a well-targeted answer that solved the OPs question. This question currently has two votes for closure as a homework question.
- Why does UV radiation from the Sun cause skin cancer? This question begins with the common knowledge that ionizing radiation causes DNA damage, notices that UVA and UVB are not ionizing and yet cause DNA damage, then asks about the mechanism. I find the question well-reasoned and well presented, and it has drawn two well-received answers. This question currently has two votes for closure as a homework question.
Given all of this, I would like to propose that the criteria be reformulated around more objectively assessable criteria about the question, rather than subjective assessment of the questioner.