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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":

  1. "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.
  2. "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.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm all for revising this policy into something easier to explain and define. Might you make a specific suggestion? Thus far the difficulty has been (at least from my perspective) a way to state the policy that doesn't invite rules-lawyering or very low quality questions, and provides the best protection possible against people using the site to cheat. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Apr 5 at 15:32
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    $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause Absolutely: I'm thinking about what that might be, and do plan to provide an answer when I come up with something. I wanted to start by seeing if others liked the idea in the first place, and am also interested to see if others have suggestions as well. $\endgroup$ – jakebeal Apr 5 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Jakebeal the issue of question quality, on-topicness, and "homework" questions have long been a point of confusion and discussion here (as I'm sure you're now aware from scouring meta). I agree that the policies are not always clearly written, closing and voting is often times subjective to the point of being inconsistent with site policies or history, and policies sometimes just feel defeating for well-intentioned folks. I think we'd all like to see improvements (and have certainly tried catalyzing change previously), so I too welcome revisiting this topic (again :p). Propose away! $\endgroup$ – theforestecologist Apr 6 at 3:17
  • $\begingroup$ I'm sure there are more developed opinions stated below, but I personally don't see SO as having a duty to prevent people from cheating on their homework. If someone want to cheat by posing a well written question that satisfies all other rules, then that's fine with me. We live in a modern world where people find out information online. Of course, many questions where people are trying to cheat also happen to be violating other rules (no prior research etc), but 'cheating' (whatever that means) doesn't bother me on its own. $\endgroup$ – user438383 Apr 10 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ @user438383 To the contrary, the only reason I am willing to participate here and answer questions is because this site has better control of what sorts of "homework" questions are allowed compared to certain other sites. I believe other regulars here feel similarly. That doesn't mean people can't get help with assignments here, but that help should be focused towards helping them learn rather than helping them fill in the right answer. There's a huge difference. Biology.SE's homework policy has always been about preventing the latter, there's nothing wrong with the former. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Apr 10 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ So far, it looks like nobody likes either of the proposed solutions... any additional suggestions from anybody? $\endgroup$ – jakebeal Apr 13 at 2:17
  • $\begingroup$ @jakebeal I've been thinking about it and started a couple failed drafts, but of course this is pretty difficult to summarize in a way that is both comprehensive and specific, both direct and friendly. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Apr 15 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ If you want to try to workshop something back and forth, I'd be happy to have an offline discussion. $\endgroup$ – jakebeal Apr 15 at 18:52
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Note: adjusted from replacement to narrowing scope of "homework" per discussion in the comments

I having now spent some time swimming in the sea of poorly received questions on this site, and would like to propose to return the "homework" criteria to a narrow scope while adding a new close reason that better targets "lazy questions".

New close reason for "lazy questions"

I propose to add a close reason that targets how clearly the questioner is able to explain their problem, rather than how hard the questioner has worked or the "level" of the concept involved:

  • Needs relation to biological principles/mechanisms: The question should be updated to explain why established biological principles or mechanisms do not already provide a satisfactory solution for the questioner.

Notice that this close reason requires no judgement of the relative effort by the asker, nor the relative complexity of the principles or mechanisms involved, nor whether or not it is homework. All that it requires is that the asker be able to understand the biology well enough to explain why understanding the biology hasn't already solved the problem for them.

I believe that this close reason will help sort out good questions about basic mechanisms from questions that are lazy or unsalvageably bizarre. Some examples of questions that can be readily closed through its application:

At the same time, its logical converse will support the asking of questions like the forward/reverse strand and UV radiation ones I used as examples in the question. Although in both cases these questions have an answer that is "simple", they explain clearly why the OP is confused despite (or even because) of the biological information that they do have.

Homework means "coursework" not "go do more homework"

To clearly also serve the goal of not doing people's homework for them, I propose to narrow the scope of the current "homework" reason back to focusing specifically on homework. The current close reason prose is fine, if it is used for "we won't do your homework" rather than "we want you to do more homework". The help page, however, would need to be adjusted to remove the bullet saying "A question that addresses a basic biology concept that may seem trivial to biology professionals"

This new pairing would still close questions like this punnet square question since the OP is just asking somebody else to solve the problem too, while this linked genes question would remain open since the OP has shown how they applied biological principles to get an answer that differs from the correct answer, and are asking help to understand why.

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    $\begingroup$ I have no qualm with your redefinition! But a grasp of principle and mechanism are something that one learns to appreciate in higher education; I know of many researchers that continue to struggle with crystallizing their thoughts down to mechanism/principle. There is also a growing fashion in biology which prioritizes system over mechanism; these would escape the scope of your proposed redefinition. I guess most questioners are laypeople, but I'm sure your redefinition would do more to bring along those astray. The indeterminacy of the existing "homework" reason should be straightened! +1 $\endgroup$ – S Pr Apr 8 at 8:35
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    $\begingroup$ While I think the idea has merit, wouldn't entirely getting rid of the homework criteria allow people to basically copy-paste exam/assignment questions which already include the "relation to biological principles/mechanisms"? Bio.SE has the relatively unique issue that a lot of people knowing very little about the subject have access to very good questions produced by professionals, and it seems to me that asking people research their question beforehand and show what they've tried is a good safeguard against people posting their teacher's questions without making any effort to understand it. $\endgroup$ – rotaredom Apr 8 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ At the moment, we have the following close reasons among others: "does not meet bio.SE guidelines", "needs more detail/clarity", and "need more focus". I personally think those adequately cover lazy copy pasta from exam sheets. I think lazy questions get closed well enough, there are always enough of us that point out that we don't do exam answering for people; and yet others that guide the questioner to motivate it sufficiently. Omitting 'homework question' from the close reasons will not change anything, really. It may discourage some from seeking answers. After all, all students struggle. $\endgroup$ – S Pr Apr 8 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ I'll just react at a high-level for now. I think the close as homework reason is valuable for actual homework questions. I don't think we should eliminate it. Instead (as I think others have echoed through the years) it would be nice to have 1-2 additional close reason(s) to better capture, guide, and educate those asking low quality posts that aren't actually homework. Something capturing "lack of research effort" and "trivial" either collectively or separately. $\endgroup$ – theforestecologist Apr 9 at 3:24
  • $\begingroup$ Also, I appreciate the thought and effort here, but I also want to echo some other comments in thinking that narrowing to principles and mechanisms perhaps too narrowly defines our scope and also may not provide much useful guidance to those who would fall into this close category. So, IMHO, nice first attempt, but let's keep brainstorming :) $\endgroup$ – theforestecologist Apr 9 at 3:26
  • $\begingroup$ @theforestecologist I'd like to ask two questions in response: 1) Can you give an example of homework/unresearched/trivial questions that you think should be closed that would pass the filter of reasons, if this criteria were added? 2) How do you think this narrows scope? In my view, this reason would only apply to questions that can be readily solved with information about biological principles and mechanisms. For things like species identification questions and protocol debugging questions, the reason wouldn't typically be relevant. $\endgroup$ – jakebeal Apr 9 at 8:13
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not really understanding how this close reason is more clear or requires less judgment call. While I think it could successfully target a certain class of problematic question, I'm not sure this really relates to the homework questions issue, and I agree with theforestecologist that this seems to leave a big hole. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Apr 9 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause My belief is that this close reason is less subjective because it focuses on how clearly the questioner is able to explain their problem, rather than how hard the questioner has worked or the "level" of the concept involved. These are the areas where it seems to me that "homework" has metastasized from "we won't solve homework problems for your course" to become "we won't help you with your problem unless you do this new homework that we are assigning you". $\endgroup$ – jakebeal Apr 9 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ As for whether there is a hole: can you give an example of a question that would fall into such a hole? $\endgroup$ – jakebeal Apr 9 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ I think the hole it leaves is more on the side of explanation. I'm sure you can make an argument for why every homework question you want closed would fit into some other reason, but ultimately the reason they should be closed is that they are basically people cheating on their homework. We aren't closing those questions because they're unclear and I don't think most of those askers will understand what is meant by "needs relation to biological principles/mechanisms" - from their perspective it definitely relates to biological principles because it's on their biology exam. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Apr 9 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ I can appreciate that "please solve this problem for me" is not only supporting cheating but also is not usefully reusable information. I'd be fine with the homework reason staying in addition if it goes back to being narrowly scoped, letting the "not enough research" aspect be replaced by this new reason. $\endgroup$ – jakebeal Apr 9 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ I'd support that as well. There are some limits in that we need to request special staff permission to add a reason (whereas replacing one can be done by the site Mods if there is consensus), but I think if we have a sufficient consensus and reasoning we can get it approved. Might be worth revising all of our custom reasons like Academia did at the same time. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Apr 9 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause I've adjusted the proposal accordingly; let me know what you think of the new version. $\endgroup$ – jakebeal Apr 9 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, I'll have to think on it a bit. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Apr 9 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ I think this cure is almost as bad as the current disease, as it is too narrowly defined to cover most of the bad questions one just wants to dispense with. $\endgroup$ – David Apr 10 at 12:05
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I agree that the current situation with the Homework category for closure is unsatisfactory, but there are certain things that need to be considered before making any changes.

1. Is it possible to make changes?

The impression I got last time I was involved with this discussion was that there were only a limited number of closure reasons we could choose, and it was important to retain Homework because of the large number of “help me cheat” questions. I personally would like to see options for bumping questions to SE Medical Science or Bioinformatics.

2. Does it matter that much?

In general the novice poster is not aware of the reason for close votes, and only occasionally does someone complain after closure, when it is explained that the heading is used to include lack of research before posting.

3. Is it possible to find a good portmanteau category?

Off the top of my head the sort of questions that I tend to vote to close are:

  • Elementary questions, answers to which can be found by reading introductory text books, Wikipedia etc.
  • Stupid or Guinness Book of Records type questions that have no scientific interest — ”which animal has the longest penis“ etc. (I sometimes give “stupid and boring” as custom reasons in response to this sort of question, although it tends not to endear me to people.)
  • Questions from non-biologists of the type “can we program the brain?”.

It seems to me that there is a feeling among members of other SE groups — especially those in the computing, mathematical or physical sciences — that biology is not a specialist discipline and anyone can come along and ask anything. I would like to see a hard line taken on

site for biology researchers, academics, and students

In particular, students should be taken to mean those studying biology formally in college (and perhaps school).

To deal with this I would go the totalitarian route of closing questions that…

“…are not at a level appropriate to this site, as explained in the Tour”

That would be wildly popular, I am sure, but it would allow those of us who sustain this site to do what is necessary to save it from the Philistines.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm quite happy to see "Guinness Book of Records" and "not even wrong" questions like "can we program the brain" getting closed. I think my main issue is what I see as an over-application of the "elementary questions" category. To that point, I'd like to know what you think of the "forward or reverse" and "UV radiation" questions I linked in the OP. Do you find that these are "elementary questions" that should be closed, or do they explain their point of confusion well enough to be good questions? $\endgroup$ – jakebeal Apr 10 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ @jakebeal — I made a constructive comment on the forward and reverse strand question. It seemed quite possible to me that transcription of one gene might affect another, but I don't have experience with those synthetic biology constructs. The poster was in a difficult situation as he seemed not to have the background molecular biology. I did not vote to close. I thought the UV radiation question was on topic, as I was aware of the effects on DNA thymidine dimer formation, although thought it might be regarded as text-book stuff, and might even have been raised before. I just left it. $\endgroup$ – David Apr 10 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ Psych&Neuroscience added a "not framed in psychology or neuroscience" close reason: psychology.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/2277/… to fight some of the issues with novices asking super wide open or hypothetical questions where OP hasn't tried to ground it in anything known to actual science. I don't think that reason would translate perfectly to Biology.SE but perhaps it's a starting point for thought. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Apr 10 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ @David Sounds like we're on the same page with those. I suspect that synthetic biology questions may pose a particular categorical challenge (unless we're able to get its own SE off the ground), since the field is so polyglot in nature that there is no such thing as a typical background that can be assumed, even for tenured professors or other well-established professionals. $\endgroup$ – jakebeal Apr 10 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder if a good approach to a portmanteau reason could be the one taken at Academia.SE, where they have an "out of scope for this community" reason with a heterogeneous list: "This question is about the content of research, education outside a university setting, or otherwise clearly outside our community’s scope. Note that questions on undergraduate education are within our scope unless about undergraduate admissions, life, and culture." $\endgroup$ – jakebeal Apr 10 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ "Does it matter that much" +1. I have a feeling that changing the homework policy will only really make a difference internally; the same posts (in the vast majority of cases) will end up being closed, simply for slightly different reasons. The average new user doesn't go hunting all over the help section for details on how they should ask a question, so apart from the feeling of satisfaction from having all our ducks in a row, I see no concrete difference between a custom close reason and an off-topic close with a link to a pertinent meta site-scope discussion. $\endgroup$ – rotaredom Apr 14 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ @rotaredom I think the goal is that for questions that are closed, as many askers as possible can read the close reason and understand either what they would need to do to have their question reopened or why their question cannot be answered here. I think people are more likely to read the custom close reason as written than to follow any links it contains, so that would be the biggest difference: how exposed the information is to the casual, lazy user. Of course, SE/SO has been trying to years to refine how this information is delivered on SO in particular and have mostly failed. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Apr 14 at 17:50
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I created a chat room here:

https://chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/123054/biology-close-reasons-discussion

for further discussion on this, since it seems like some back-and-forth iteration may be necessary to come to a proposal that most people in the community can support. Anyone is welcome to participate but I ask anyone who does to keep an open mind and be respectful of all suggestions.

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