On Physics Stack Exchange, people asking questions are expected to demonstrate that they've put a certain amount of effort into answering the question themselves. What exactly counts as sufficient effort?

up vote 19 down vote accepted

What research do I need to do before asking a question?

Here's the general rule:

Before asking a question, do anything else you can think of that might get you the answer.

In particular, you should probably do all of the following before asking here:

  • Think about the question. What do you already know that relates to it? Narrow it down to the specific physics concept you are really asking about or are confused by.
  • Type the question title into Google (and/or another good-quality search engine) and look at the top few (at least 5-10) results.
  • Also search a few combinations of key words, and again look at the top few results.
  • Identify what physics concepts are involved and look at the relevant Wikipedia pages.
  • Look in a textbook or equivalent resource on the appropriate subject. If you don't have actual textbooks, there are plenty of online resources, like Hyperphysics, that you can use.
  • If you're asking a more advanced question which concerns current research, look for relevant papers, including checking on arXiv. You may find it useful to use a dedicated scientific search engine, such as Google Scholar, INSPIRE, or ADS.
  • Use the search box in the top right to check this site for similar questions. Also, when you're typing your question in the form, look at the suggested similar questions the system shows you.
  • If you have friends, colleagues, teachers, or so on who would know something about your question, ask them for input.
  • And anything else you can think of that you think has a reasonable chance of getting you the information you're looking for. (For example, if your question is about a calculation, try working through the math yourself.)

If you find the answer to your question while doing all this research, great! You can, if you want, post your question here (if it's not already on the site) along with your own answer describing what you found.

OK, I didn't find the answer. Now what?

If your prior research didn't give the answer you were looking for, tell us what you checked. Don't explicitly list each one of the steps above to say that you followed it, but do mention anything you found that is close to the topic of your question, and point out why it didn't give you the answer you wanted. If someone reads your question and immediately finds a standard resource (Google search, Wikipedia, HyperPhysics, another SE question) that seems to answer it, it's going to look like you didn't do your research, unless you explain why that resource doesn't actually contain the information you're looking for.

What if I think I know what the answer is?

If you have a guess or hypothesis about the answer to your question (one that is grounded in solid physics), that's fine, but you should go out and check that hypothesis yourself. Maybe it'll be correct, in which case you can post the question here with your hypothesis (and the evidence that shows it's correct) as an answer. If you think it's incorrect, on the other hand, mention it in the question and say why you think it's wrong. A question that just ends on "My hypothesis is XXXX" comes across as lazy, but if you instead write "My hypothesis is XXXX, but that doesn't seem correct because Wikipedia says YYYYY," and so on, that shows research effort and makes a better question.

What happens if I don't follow these guidelines?

People trying to answer your question will follow the steps in the first section: they'll search Google, check on Wikipedia, on Hyperphysics, in textbooks, and do some simple calculations if it's that type of question. If, by doing so, they find the answer to your question, they're likely to downvote your question for not showing research effort. You may also get comments pointing you to the answer on Wikipedia or a top search result.

Questions that show a particular lack of research effort may be put on hold (or "closed"). In many of these cases, the advice in our homework policy may be useful in improving the question enough to have it reopened.

Possible footnote for the search box bullet: The SE search bar isn't quite up to par with Google/Bing/etc (cf this Mother Meta post). An option would be to add site:http://physics.stackexchange.com in Google's search bar (unsure if that works with Bing/etc). – Kyle Kanos Jun 17 '15 at 2:04
If everyone had done all the research, do all the calculations before asking, then having this site would be pointless, as it would contain only questions no one on the globe can answer. – Calmarius Mar 20 at 20:41
@Calmarius no, that would only be true if our definition of sufficient prior research was asking everybody (or at least, tracking down the experts in the topic of the question and asking them). That's not what we're saying. People don't have to do all the research. They just have to do a basic level of research. It's not too much to ask that you copy and paste your question title into Google, for example. – David Z Mar 21 at 5:53

Sure, people shouldn't just blurt out whatever question pops into their minds without thinking about it and making at least some attempt to find the answer. The real question is how much is enough? What is a reasonable level of research? How do we measure that or even decide how much research was actually done? Should the bar be lower for a more beginner question?

I agree with the sentiment here, but I think our implementation sometimes goes too far. My answer here was brought about by this question. John Rennie wanted to close the question. His comment got 4 upvotes, and 3 close votes have accumulated so far. On the other hand, my comment saying it was a good question got 3 upvotes and the question itself got 9 upvotes, no downvotes, and three answers.

I think the real problem is that this is a rather "low level" physics question, and people are really responding to that. That's short sighted and will eventually leave only experts here with nothing to say to each other because nobody has anything to ask. With enough research, any question could be answered without asking here. This site is trying to be a repository of good questions with good answers. This can't happen if we refuse to answer anything that isn't answerable by other means. Even if the answer is out there elsewhere, for some questions we want this site to be where people go to do the reasearch and find the answer.

This site shouldn't be only about high-falutin physics. We aren't here for stupid questions either, but there is a important distinction between stupid and ignorant. The question I linked to above was ignorant but not stupid. It was well asked and actually about a clever observation for someone that doesn't already know the answer. That makes it a good question. Just because the answer doesn't require invoking relativity or quantum mechanics, doesn't make it a bad question or not useful to include in the repository.

Lighten up a little.

Added in Response to Comment:

David Z points out that this answer doesn't really answer the original question. That's strictly speaking correct. This was somewhat of a comment, but too long to be a comment. But, another point was that this is impossible to measure in a reasonable way and therefore will always be very subjective. To put it more directly, my points relative to the original question are:

  1. Whatever we say is the minimum level of research will be impossible to quantify by any standard metric, so will always be mostly subjective.

  2. Even if there was some quantifiable measure we could all agree on, it will be difficult to determine whether that minimum level of research was actually performed. In cases of blatant laziness it could be easy to show, like by entering the question title into Google and finding the first hit being a direct answer. However, most of the time there won't be a nice and easy smoking gun like that.

  3. The level of dilligence must necessarily depend on the questioner's level of physics knowledge. A professor of physics would know where to look up things and has access to such resources. A high school student can't be expected to know about any physics journals, and probably doesn't have access to them anyway.

  4. It can be hard to know where to look if you don't already know the answer.

  5. We are the research. Asking here is part of finding a answer to a physics question. It shouldn't be the first knee-jerk reaction, but ultimately that's what we're here for.

So here is what I suggest someone should do before asking:

  1. Think about the question a little bit. What do you already know that relates to it? Try to identify what physics concept you are really asking about or are confused by.

    This is the missing step that make too many "homework" questions so bad. It's not that they are contrived or assigned questions, but that the asker hasn't bothered to identify what part exactly they are having trouble with.

  2. See rule #1.

  3. See rule #2.

  4. Do at least a basic keyword search. Sometimes you get lucky and you will find the answer easily. Sometimes you don't find the answer but learn a few things anyway. That's all good.

    However, we also realize that finding the right keywords is not obvious when you don't already know the answer and know what things are called. Even then, it can be easy to have the search swamped with hits that match other uses of the same words.

    So definitely give it a try, but don't sweat it too much. I'd say 5-10 minutes of honest effort is sufficient.

  5. Ask around if you have someone to ask. Unlike the previous rules, this is not a requirement since not everyone has someone they can ask or has access to them. If you're a high school student at school, you should ask your physics teacher. But if it's the weekend, that's not going to help. We don't expect you to wait until Monday morning to get a basic physics answer.

  6. If you are more advanced in physics, then you will be held to a higher standard. This includes various search engines, textbooks, and the like that you should be familiar with that ordinary folks aren't.

  7. When you've gotten to the point of deciding to ask here, use the search feature on this site. You might be surprised how many people have had the same question before you and that there are already some good answers.

In short, there is a bare minimum amount of research anyone should do, but the appropriate level depends a lot on how advanced you are in the topic. The most important points are 1-3. After that it's mostly to ask a good question for your level that is self-consistant with that level, and to write the question properly.

It's OK to be ignorant, but never OK to be stupid. There is also never any excuse for sloppiness. Taking some care includes breaking thoughts into sentences, capitalizing the first letter of sentences, capitalizing the word "I", and never ever ever using text-speak.

Keep in mind that you are asking a bunch of people to volunteer their time to answer your question. If you keep that and rule #1 in mind, and show the appropriate respect by doing the simple things that have nothing to do with level of physics knowledge, you'll most likely do fine. Go ahead and ask.

Actually I have a lot of sympathy with Olin's point, and I VTC'd partly to try and establish where the boundaries are. As Olin says, the votes on his and my comments are fairly even, but the relatively high number of upvotes on the question suggest the site users consider it a fair question and therefore presumably shouldn't be closed. I do believe we should be more aggressive about lazy questions, but I was probably a bit over zealous in this case. – John Rennie May 13 '14 at 16:16
"The real question is how much is enough?" Scroll up ;-) That's the whole point of my answer, to tell people just how much research is enough. Of course any question can be answered with unlimited research, but we don't expect askers to do that. Also note that nothing in my answer says anything about the level of the question. There is no distinction between "high-falutin" physics and whatever the opposite of that is; it's reasonable to expect everyone to do some basic research before asking. – David Z May 13 '14 at 16:21
Also I don't think this really answers the question I posed: it doesn't give a set of guidelines for what constitutes sufficient prior research. And since this is going to become an faq question (unless there are serious objections to the whole idea, which there don't seem to be), it might be best to have only one answer. If you disagree with the content of my answer, we should open a discussion and come to some consensus; that's why this isn't faq yet. (A separate meta question might be appropriate, even.) – David Z May 13 '14 at 16:24
@David: See addition to my answer. – Olin Lathrop May 13 '14 at 18:12
OK, well what you're proposing seems to have a lot in common with what I had in my answer. I notice you mention asking someone, if you have someone to ask, which is a good idea (but not part of the prior research that we will implicitly verify by doing it ourselves). Perhaps you could identify the specific points that you think should be added to my answer? Again, I think it will be best to have one canonical answer. – David Z May 15 '14 at 5:17
@David: Mostly I think your answer comes off too stiff, intimidating, and unwelcoming. Those that are just going to blurt out whatever question pops into their minds aren't going to read it. Those that are trying to do their homework that we actually want asking here might get scared off. I'm trying to say something roughly similar, but more welcoming. – Olin Lathrop May 16 '14 at 13:20
Conversely, I think your answer is (a little) too weak, ambiguous, and verbose. Perhaps I've just seen too many instances where people take anything less than a direct statement as an invitation to argue against the policy. We can work this out with the community; I plan to make this the subject of our next chat session. – David Z May 27 '14 at 20:10
Your points 3,4 and 5 really resonate with me. – Floris Jun 13 '15 at 2:08
I remember when I was at school (that long ago) I had real trouble multiplying out $(a+b)^2$, my teacher got really annoyed at me, but I had spent about 25 minutes trying to do this getting more and more frustrated. When something just isn't obvious to you, then even if someone finds it trivial, people shouldn't be hurt and made to feel humiliated about not being intelligent. Now, sure I see why it really annoyed my teacher. But I'm sure I would approach the situation in a different manner had the roles been reversed. In this way I would be hesitant to close "easy" questions. – AngusTheMan Jul 30 '15 at 10:37

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