In the past couple of days one user has asked over 6 questions per day. Is this behavior that we should allow?

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What do you think is bad about this? –  Larry Wang Aug 13 '10 at 22:12
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They could be someone trying to meet a commitment for some reason. I believe it's 10 questions and/or answers fulfills that commitment. –  Thomas Owens Aug 13 '10 at 22:18
    
See my comments to the answers below. –  Bill Dubuque Aug 13 '10 at 22:20
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This site is for questions! –  anon Aug 13 '10 at 23:23
    
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9 Answers

I don't have time to write a lot - but please focus on the format of the questions rather than on the user(s). This needs to be a discussion about broad and consistent policy for this site.

EDIT: Consistency is very important to establish. If I copy verbatim a question from my calculus book, and then one from a copy of Hoffman and Kunze, and then one taken from Counterexamples in Analysis, the following sequence of outcomes is sure to occur on this site as it stands now: Closed and berated, answered and accused of posting homework, and finally answered with up votes. This inconsistency is dangerous and is unfair to new and current users of this site. (On MO each would (and should) be closed and mildly berated, along with receiving at least one pointer toward the faq and suggestions for reconsidering the question.)

Now, if I were to be wondering where the heck the Jacobian comes in when transforming coordinates during integration, or questioning my intuition about commutators, or trying to reconcile my understanding of the derivative with the information that there exists a continuous strictly monotonic function with a vanishing derivative almost everywhere - rather than slapping down the question as phrased by the textbook authors - the outcomes above would be much different.

With respect to building a community, the more nuanced, genuine issues in the second paragraph will cultivate mutual respect and provide an interesting place to visit for mathematicians of all levels. A site catering to questions stated as textbook problems will create a repository of homework problems populated by askers only, and I think there are enough sites like this out there already.

The fight here is to save math.stackexchange from becoming an uninteresting place, and grow it into one where genuine, incremental difficulties are explored. At the moment, any newcomer will see verbatim textbook questions being fielded left and right with glee - and will be seduced into submitting their homework question for the doing.

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On the other hand, too much focus on "big picture" questions is not good. The precise questions asked by this user are more mathematical than such half-speculations. The question "why does the Jacobian appear in the derivative", while being a good question, just shows that the asker didn't look through any of the proofs of the statements in which it appeared. This user made an effort to select good and nontrivial questions and asked them. It is much better than asking, "why is derivative behaving so badly", which is almost like asking "why is the world such a difficult place". –  user1119 Aug 14 '10 at 9:05
    
This user does not seem to be asking textbook questions, btw. –  user1119 Aug 14 '10 at 9:06
    
For example: math.stackexchange.com/questions/2335 which seemed to be a nontrivial question for which the answer was already known to the OP. –  user1119 Aug 14 '10 at 9:13
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Note: regarding the user whose behavior motivated the question. His most recent questions appear to be quoted verbatim from a problem book, see my comments here. Moreover, said book has complete solutions, so it is not clear what his intent is in posting the questions here.

Update: Alas, it gets even worse. In this answer he has copied without any attribution Zagier's celebrated one sentence proof on primes that are sums of squares. Here's another question (and answer/proof) without proper attribution (followed by his comment to "please vote". Hmm....)

Update 2: He's still posting problems without citing their source, e.g. see his latest problem quoted without citation from the India National Olympiad 2009. This is borderline plagiarism, is it not?

Update 3: Here's another duplicated problem. (Tom)

Update 4: He's at it again. This time he posted a tricky number theory problem whose solution is readily available on other math forums. Later he answered his own question with the precise answer from these other forums. I recognized it immediately since I had posted one of those solutions. When asked for the source of the answer he claims that he devised it. I think that is highly unlikely based on the knowledge level that he's demonstrated in his prior posts (those few that were not quoted verbatim from elsewhere).

UPDATE 5: Once again, in another miraculous coincidence larger than the peak of a Goodstein sequence, he claims to have dreamt up two problems by looking at another thread here. But the truth of the matter - as someone pointed out - is that these two problems are yet again copied without attribution - this time from the 2010 Vojtěch Jarník International Mathematical Competition.

UPDATE 6: After his 2-day suspension he's back to his old tricks, posting yet another problem "from a friend" that was quickly discovered to be from a Chinese Mathematical Olympiad. At this point it seems quite clear that his goal is to amass a huge reputation by posting problems and solutions lifted from collections. Perhaps one way to discourage this behavior is simply to refrain from upvoting his posts till he shows some integrity.

UPDATE 7: Yet again, this time caught red-handed. Here it is quite clear that he didn't spend even a moment thinking about the competition problem because the problem was misstated on the web site that he copied it from - which made the problem trivially solvable with only a moments thought.

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There should be a less embarrassing and more friendly/relaxed way to deal with this "problem". Mostly I think argumentative discussions centered on telling someone off and getting evidence about what they did should be on meta. –  anon Aug 14 '10 at 19:56
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Asking someone for the source of questions and answers that were clearly copied verbatim from textbooks is hardly "telling someone off". The discussion would have ended with two comments had the OP simply replied with the source(s). –  Bill Dubuque Aug 14 '10 at 20:06
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@Bill: thank you for your diligence. –  Tom Stephens Aug 14 '10 at 20:13
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Zagier's one-sentence proof is due to Heath-Brown: eprints.maths.ox.ac.uk/677 –  Robin Chapman Aug 15 '10 at 16:06
    
@Robin: thanks for the link to Heath-Brown's paper. Finally it is online after four decades. Some authors call it the Liouville Heath-Brown Zagier proof to properly credit all who contributed. See Heath-Brown's notes for the history. –  Bill Dubuque Aug 15 '10 at 18:26
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@Bill: I have added back attributes for questions which are obviously quoted (Google-able). Also, Chandru1 have promised "not doing it (leaving out references) any more". I hope this problem regarding this user is resolved. –  KennyTM Aug 15 '10 at 20:15
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He seemed to reform after making said promise above. So perhaps this is an isolated case of him having subconsciously remembered a solution he'd seen elsewhere. I think a more constructive solution is to attempt to teach him the norms about attributions since this will be important if he goes on to become a mathematician. I think part of the problem is nowadays many students don't think twice about quoting results verbatim without attribution because it is a widespread web abuse. Indeed, it is so widespread that some companies exist merely to scan student papers for plagiarism. –  Bill Dubuque Sep 6 '10 at 21:33
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So much for wishful thinking - see Update 5. –  Bill Dubuque Sep 8 '10 at 17:46
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I noticed that KennyTM fixed Chandru1's citation issue with regards to Update 5. I don't know what the solution to this problem is, but it is not to simply keep editing in the proper citations for him. –  Jason DeVito Sep 8 '10 at 21:35
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Chandru1 has been emailed and suspended for 2 days. –  Larry Wang Sep 9 '10 at 2:48
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I disagree with this suspension. I think it is a shame to push good people away from the site (as well as counterproductive). –  anon Sep 10 '10 at 8:44
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@muad: I think it is worth taking seriously Bill's claim that Chandru1 is posting contest problems for the reputation. It explains essentially all of his actions on the site, especially his insistence on upvotes and his refusal to attribute his solutions (including to other problems). –  Qiaochu Yuan Sep 13 '10 at 3:06
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Bill, what is the actual problem referenced in Media Bulletin no. 7, the highlighted and colored link entitled Caught Red Handed? Especially in light of the discussion that took place in that thread? Posting a problem in a formulation that misses trivial counterexamples is within the scope of a Q & A site. Of course, an FAQ entry on "10 things to attempt before posting" (web search, try solving it yourself, etc) might be useful. But that is different from antagonistic filekeeping on individual users. The search should be for ways to help well-formulated questions rise to the top. –  T.. Sep 19 '10 at 19:20
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@J.M. : I'm glad someone wrote an FAQ already. But is there something actually wrong with the question from Update 7? People seem to have gotten past the trivial counterexample and answered the question with material that was apparently of interest to people other than the poster. If there is in fact a problem with the question per se, what is it? ("Posted by controversial user" or "tenth posting that day from the user" are not explanations of something wrong with the question itself.) –  T.. Sep 20 '10 at 3:49
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@J.M.: more personality is better, so I vote against "improvement". –  T.. Sep 21 '10 at 6:39
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The questions should be judged on their individual merits. The site should be filled with good questions, and have as few not-so-good ones as possible. I don't think the source matters so much.

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as pieces of math they are excellent - but as questions to a site like this they are very poorly posed. –  Tom Stephens Aug 13 '10 at 21:48
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I support Matt E.'s view. The site needs good questions and this user is contributing them more than anybody else. Thus in fact he should given more acclaim than others. –  user1119 Aug 13 '10 at 21:56
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The problem with this viewpoint is that anyone could simply pull many questions out of problem books, journals etc as a quick way of attempting to quickly gain reputation. –  Bill Dubuque Aug 13 '10 at 22:16
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@Bill This is why we have started a thread about how to make his questions better. In fact, he has already started to show great improvement in the quality of his questions. In general, if the questions are good, they are good, it matters not who posts them. And being random problems out of a book doesn't sound very good to me :/ –  BBischof Aug 13 '10 at 22:19
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@Bill Dubuque: At least as of now there is nothing wrong with that. The user is clearly not asking trivial homework questions. You seek reputation by answering questions; some users seek reputation by providing questions. Both are important for the site. But an upvote on a question gives only 5 rep whereas an upvote on an answer gives 10 rep. So things are in fact in favor of people who answer questions. –  user1119 Aug 13 '10 at 22:19
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@George. It seems to me that the user is not giving the questions serious thought before posting them. Imho, that's not a behavior that should be encouraged. –  Bill Dubuque Aug 13 '10 at 22:28
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@Bill Dubuque: It appears to me that the user is simply using a chance to ask problems that he encountered through the course of his study and didn't have much of an opportunity to discuss previously. He seems to have taken care to ask good quality questions. This is not sustainable. After a while the rate should peter out. If the problem continues then there needs to be more discussion. But as of now I would rather welcome the positive activity on this fledgling site. –  user1119 Aug 13 '10 at 22:33
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@George +1 This is a good observation. I understand where Bill is coming from, but I agree that new users follow this pattern. –  Jonathan Fischoff Aug 13 '10 at 22:53
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@George. Yes, it had occurred to me too that perhaps he was simply going through a backlog of "open" questions. But even if so, it would be better to not pose them so quickly. As it is he's probably having difficulty finding enough time to properly engage the answerers and/or digest the replies. Such engagement is crucial to keeping experts interested. There needs to be two way engagement to keep a healthy balance of students and experts. E.g. experts would leave if they thought they were simply replying to random questions posted by some AI program. –  Bill Dubuque Aug 13 '10 at 23:22
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+1. re: "...and have as few not-so-good [questions] as possible": I think this is impossible. Mediocrity predominates, almost by definition, and particularly on an all-of-math site with a broad and unrestricted user base. WHICH IS ABSOLUTELY FINE provided that filtering and amelioration mechanisms are available and are themselves sharpened over time (e.g., new FAQs, more tags, more editors who can improve questions, additional informative numerical ratings, branching into subject-specific sites like stat.SE and calculus.SE, cross-fertilization with Wikipedia, ...). –  T.. Aug 14 '10 at 19:35
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I agree with both Tom and Matt. Especially, I think our responses should:

1) Be applicable to any user fitting a certain pattern of behavior and activity, rather than one particular user;

2) Concentrate at the level of the individual question, not the pattern of posting lots of questions.

I think 1) is self-explanatory. As for 2), this issue has come up at MO and I have expressed the opinion that if N questions are each appropriate individually and not related to each other in some problematic way (e.g. duplication), then it should be appropriate to post the set of N questions. This was not universally agreed upon: IIRC, someone said something like "What if all the questions on the front page were by a single user?" But I don't see what is inherently problematic about that. Indeed, if a single user is asking lots of good questions in an irredundant way, I say kudos!

I would push for 2) even more strongly on this site, since to my mind one of the biggest shortcomings in math.SE so far is that there are simply not enough questions to make browsing the site a suitably rewarding and addictive experience.

I do think that with these provisos, some criticism / advice should be given, but I do not have the time just now to do so in a suitable way. So right now I'll just say one thing relatively briefly: to my mind, one of the biggest problems on this site is with OP's not editing and clarifying their questions in response to the comments and answers they receive. This applies in particular to the questions, um, in question, and I think this may be a good place to focus a discussion.

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I can understand that viewpoint, but where should we draw the line? What's to stop someone from posting all the old Monthly problems at say 10-20 per day? There should be some policy. –  Bill Dubuque Aug 13 '10 at 22:18
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"so far is that there are simply not enough questions to make browsing the site a suitably rewarding and addictive experience." Ugh, my research hates you Mr. Clark, it hates you... :D :D :D –  BBischof Aug 13 '10 at 22:20
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@Bill Dubuque: What is the difference if one person posts 10 monthly problems in one day, and if 10 different people post one monthly problem each in different months? At least for now some tolerance is needed. I do not feel good about persecuting a good contributor. –  user1119 Aug 13 '10 at 22:25
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@BD: I take your point as well, and you are touching on something that I have mentioned in other comments but not yet here: one should include information about the provenance of a question. Your example brings this up quite well: it would be silly to post all Monthly problems to this site because it will turn out to be a rehash of past affairs and cheapen the process of answering these questions. However, if one could come up with ten new questions a day of Monthly caliber, then it would be a fantastic contribution to post them here, I think. –  Pete L. Clark Aug 13 '10 at 22:46
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@George The difference is that its much less likely that one user has the time to give all 10 problems serious thought before posting them all on the same day. –  Bill Dubuque Aug 13 '10 at 23:07
    
@Bill Dubuque: Maybe it is a concern in the longer term. What do you feel about allowing any number of questions at least in the beta stage of the site? Even if questions are lifted from well-known sources, they can be thought of as "seed" questions to help the site take off. –  user1119 Aug 13 '10 at 23:13
    
@George. If the user is seeding then I think he should explicitly say that, as others have. Personally I'd like to know that so that I can give priority to genuine questions that puzzle students, as opposed to artificial seeded questions. –  Bill Dubuque Aug 13 '10 at 23:27
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@Bill Dubuque: The user may not be explicitly seeding. But the outcome is anyway beneficial for the site at least in the beta stage. My own feeling is that the user is just asking questions which were in his mind for a long time(as I mentioned elsewhere). Also I have seen him trying to get back to prof. Robin Chapman regarding the hints he was given. –  user1119 Aug 13 '10 at 23:38
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@George: But I think the outcome would be much more beneficial to all if he didn't ask the questions so quickly, and he spent more time posing the questions so to convince experts of his genuine interest. –  Bill Dubuque Aug 13 '10 at 23:43
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Dear Pete, I agree that communication through comments on questions and answers is an important part of the site, and that when OPs don't react to these, it can be frustrating. In the case of the questions in question, even though some of them could do with further clarification, there have been positive interactions of this form. I hope that if all participants (especially those who are more experienced) do their best to make constructive comments while staying patient, the situation regarding the questions in question will continue to improve. –  Matt E Aug 14 '10 at 0:33
    
I agree with the general sentiment that enthusiastic posting of math should be encouraged not discouraged because of some perceived desire to gain rep quickly. I mean, is the point of rep. to dangle a carrot to make users write nice answers and questions? As silly as it is, we work for this site for effectively no real compensation. I say, be happy the user is producing math and work towards improving his posts with the usual disciplinary measures. Genuine interest is impossible to effectively moderate. Imagine getting a paper rejected because your "heart was not in it" –  James S. Cook Sep 12 '13 at 18:31
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I have no issues with someone posting 6 (or more!) well thought out, well written questions a day. I want to echo the sentiment that this isn't about users but about questions.

What bothers me about a large number of questions in a short period of time is that typically the effort put in by the poster is minimal. I'd rather see fewer well thought out, well written questions than many adequate questions.

Here are two (and a half) ways, I think the posts can often be improved.

First, (and there is plenty of wiggle room here) there is generally little or no motiviation. A simple "this theorem would help me to understand X" or "I've been told this theorem is foundational in subject X, so it's crucial that I understand it" would make the question better. The question asker needs to convince potential answerers that their time will not be wasted in answering the question.

Second (and this is by far the most crucial issue), I'd like to see some indication the author thought about the question for an appreciable amount of time. When I see 6 unrelated questions being posted a day, it's hard to imagine the author having spent a few hours a piece or longer on each of them. This is especially bad with questions like "The following fact is true. Prove it." As a general rule of thumb, I think it's very irresponsible to ask someone to do more work for you than you did for yourself.

The half issue (and, admittedly, more of a personal gripe) is the tone. People responding on this site are doing so because they like solving problems, not because they owe anything to the original poster. In this spirit then, I far prefer questions of the form "How can I see this is true" rather than commands of the form "Show this is true", even when the questions contain the same mathematical content. The question asker is getting a favor from everyone else and should act like it.

Finally, I just want to say +1 to Pete's criticism of questions not being appropriately edited by the OPs.

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I posted this earlier and want to explain why I deleted it (and then undeleted at Pete Clark's suggestion). In short, I'm from MO and wrote what I want out of an MO question. I didn't stop to think (and still really haven't) about whether or not I think those standards should change for this site. On the one hand, this is not a site for professional mathematicians, so the tone need not be as professional. On the other hand, a little bit of courtesy and effort never hurt anyone ;-). So, rather than take the time to sort out my opinions, I just deleted the whole thing. –  Jason DeVito Aug 14 '10 at 0:08
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I agree to a large extent with this answer, especially with the first point, and also with the half issue at the end regarding tone. I think that these are issues that can be addressed through comments to the OP. (In practice, not all OPs respond as rapidly as one might like, but --- as others have pointed out --- this sight has a potentially very large and very heterogenous audience, and so patience on the part of all the participants parts will probably be necessary.) –  Matt E Aug 14 '10 at 0:27
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@Matt: "Show this is true" is the language often used in maths problems, so we shouldn't read too much into it –  Casebash Aug 14 '10 at 2:45
    
@Casebash: Agreed. In fact, this exactly fits my reservations for deleting what I had written. Professional mathematicians do not command each other to solve problems, but homework problems are often phrased as commands. –  Jason DeVito Aug 14 '10 at 3:44
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@Casebash - it is precisely this language that clearly separates a struggling student's questions with a textbook author's questions. We don't need a list of textbook questions and answers on this site. –  Tom Stephens Aug 14 '10 at 3:50
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Thanks to all for the thoughtful replies. I should emphasize that my intent was to pose the problem in the abstract - motivated partly by one user's recent behavior. I thought it would be interesting for all to see different opinions throughout the community - from students to professors.

Almost surely it is the case that if one poses questions too rapidly then the quality of the Q&A experience will deteriorate - simply because the questioner and answerer will have less time to chew on the problem. The user at hand may be so caught up in the novelty of having access to so many experts that he has not spent the time to introspect on the whole process. If he did he might realize that spacing out the questions temporally will likely lead to higher-quality replies and, moreover, will provide more time for him to engage with the repliers.

We should strive not only to give solutions to problems but also to teach how to solve problems. One of the important things to stress in that regard is that to succeed in mathematics requires sustained effort attacking problems. If students don't spend enough time chewing on problems before they post them here then they will not learn essential problem solving skills that are crucial to succeed as a mathematican.

Perhaps an analogy is appropriate. Since students now have easy access to calculators many of them no longer know how to calculate. Hopefully the analogous thing will not happen here. It would be a shame if some student never learned how to solve problems because he gave up too soon before posting them here. That was never a problem in the old days. But now it may well be with such easy online access to a large community of diverse experts who can quickly tackle almost any question posed by an undergraduate. We should do all that we can to discourage that from happening. Otherwise we may be robbing the student of valuable learning experiences.

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Dear Bill, This is an important point. (BCnrd frequently makes similar remarks on MO.) One possibility, when confronted with a question which you suspect is from a student who hasn't thought sufficiently about the question themselves, is to post some guiding remarks that don't give a complete answer. (I have done this on several occasions.) I don't know how welcome this will be by the OP, or other participants, though. –  Matt E Aug 14 '10 at 0:43
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Another comment: the question you raise could sensibly stand as the topic of its own thread, where it could be discussed more fully. It is related to, but not the same as, the older threads on homework. I think (but might be wrong) that there could be some tension between those who view this site purely in Q&A terms and those who have a more academic view of things, in which there are teachers and students, who stand in a particular relationship to one another. For this reason, I'm not sure that discussing this issue will be conclusive; but it may well be productive. –  Matt E Aug 14 '10 at 0:46
    
Nice comment. But then why do you keep me pin pointing out, with reference which the problem is taken. We batch of students go and discuss some problem, at our university, and if some my friends gives me some problems, then i try it for some time and then post it here. If you think that i may know the site at by which i am posting a problem, i really don't know what to say. –  Chandru1 Aug 15 '10 at 18:17
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I admit that i did some mistakes before, but i am not doing it any more. Its just that more people scrutinize me as to where i take the problems from. –  Chandru1 Aug 15 '10 at 18:51
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HI Chandru. You should wholeheartedly encourage your friends to sign up to this site. –  Unreasonable Sin Sep 13 '10 at 18:14
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Is the user fulfilling their duties such as engaging with the answers, improving their question according to suggestions and accepting answers when appropriate. Are the questions of appropriate quality? If so, then this practice seems to be acceptable.

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How about a tag to indicate that the Questioner knows his answer (and/or that his is a published "Challenge" problem), and an explicit policy that the Questioner should use that tag?

I see my role, as an Answerer, as providing insights (when I have them) about the question at hand. Ideally, the Questioner would provide enough context for me to know just how much insight is sought.

When a Questioner asks for "intuitive" descriptions of topics or asks for alternative approaches to a solution, it's reasonably clear that I have an opportunity to help that person, and this is my primary motivation for participating in this site.

When a Questioner posts yet another Olympiad problem, I'd like to know that before I invest time on attempting a solution and typing it up in LaTeX, especially when the Questioner already has access to a perfectly good answer (and plans to post it after a few days). After all, if I wanted to work through dozens of Olympiad-style problems, I'd get my own compilation books or visit ArtOfProblemSolving.

All I'm asking for is warning about the nature of a question, so that I can set my Answering priorities appropriately. A tag would help me filter questions better, and adding a tag should be dead-simple for a Questioner. (If he still doesn't bother, someone else can add the tag later. Of course, it shouldn't be the job of others to police questions like that, which is why excessive negligence on the part of the Questioner constitute some kind of policy violation.)

Relatedly, I'd appreciate having the Questioner's name in the "Top Questions" list, since this is the primary face of M.SE (and what I check most often). Not only would this sometimes tip me off about questions I might want to ignore, it would likely also clue me in on questions I might really enjoy.

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Here's something else that might be worth considering, provided it's technically feasible:

Allow moderators to void the reputation points assigned to a question that comes verbatim from a textbook, Olympiad, or other published source.

(Up-votes and down-votes should still be recorded, to provide feedback about the value of the question itself. These votes simply don't contribute to the Questioner's reputation total.)

Granted, there's a fuzzy line here. After all, I think it's perfectly legitimate --and quite common-- to post an exasperating textbook exercise and ask for help with its solution. That said, the casual visitor who drops in for emergency homework assistance probably doesn't care one way or another about any of this "reputation" stuff.

If there's some concern over having reputation points voided, the Questioner might be more inclined to provide appropriate context: "This is what I've tried", "Here's the answer from the solution manual, and I just don't understand Step 5", "The standard approach would seem to be algebraic, but I suspect there's a geometric truth here somewhere", etc. Context is key.

And, hey ... If you've decided to pass along a question from an Olympiad that you thought was interesting, that's great! (I do hope it's tagged appropriately, though. :) Just don't expect to take credit for someone else's thought-provocation if you have nothing to add. That's simply dishonest.

So, you should earn reputation for your question. It's perfectly okay that yours be a question about Author/Teacher/Contest X's question, but just asking X's question doesn't make it yours.

Of course, with this all being highly subjective, any reputation-voidance should allow for appeal, as with closing questions.

Just a thought.

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I'll add here that the Questioner should be given the opportunity to forfeit reputation from the get-go (or at any time). This would allow anyone to post published --or (in)famous-- questions and proactively refuse to take undue credit. A "Forfeit Reputation Points" checkbox on the question submission form might gently proselytize about academic integrity in the posting of questions. I know I wouldn't have any problem ticking such a checkbox if it were available (even though I could really use some reputation! :). –  Blue Sep 13 '10 at 14:00
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The normal way of forfeiting rep is to set your post "community wiki". –  J. M. Sep 13 '10 at 14:20
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@J. M.: Interesting. I hadn't thought of it that way. (Is that really the purpose of "community wiki", though?) Would imposing wiki-ness on a post be a way of void someone else's reputation for a question, then? –  Blue Sep 13 '10 at 14:29
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If the question is marked as CW by the Quetioner, then all answers are automatically also CW. That's probably not intended in this situation. –  Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Sep 13 '10 at 15:04
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We can't change a user's rep directly. The only way to remove the rep gained by upvotes of a post is to delete it. But this will remove all its answers too. So currently it's not feasible for moderators. –  KennyTM Sep 13 '10 at 17:32
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