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This policy is now in effect, with 13 votes in favor and 2 against. In addition, three of the amendments suggested in comments passed as well. The new policy on 'topic of research' questions is as follows:

POLICY: Thesis topic questions are only within site scope if the asker requests feedback about a specific proposed topic. Questions like “What would be a good topic?” will be deemed to be general and unfocused and therefore will be closed. The OP has the option of requesting a reopening of the question if it is modified as per the above policy

A special exception can be made for specific programming-style projects on a specific topic, or requests for ideas for implementation, along the lines of this question.

When closing a question using this policy as the basis, please link to this discussion.

From time to time, someone posts a question requesting advice on choosing a research project. This might be a project for a class, a Master's Thesis, or even the focus of a doctoral dissertation. We believe the best resources to consult are your course instructor, teaching assistants, and thesis advisor. They can provide better, more in-depth, advice than brief answers on a web site. For anyone who would like to ask such questions here anyway, please be aware of the following policy:

POLICY: Thesis topic questions are only within site scope if the asker requests feedback about a specific proposed topic. General, unfocused questions like, "What would be a good topic?" will be closed as off topic.

One of the objectives of this site is, "Knowledge sharing, not shirking." An essential part of research is to brainstorm project ideas that may or may not be sound, so it is reasonable to use this site to ask for feedback about a project idea you thought up but have not thoroughly investigated. On the other hand, if a project (or thesis) is supposed to be yours, it is inappropriate to leave all the conceptual work to others.

Update: Note that there are now suggested modifications to the policy in the answers. Please vote on them as well (the same rule applies for adoption).

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locked by Suresh Venkat Dec 15 '10 at 4:27

  • $\begingroup$ Started on request of Suresh, as a result of this question and discussion in comments. Intended as community wiki. $\endgroup$ – Aaron Sterling Dec 11 '10 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ Reminder: This is a policy discussion, and the voting rules should be followed. $\endgroup$ – Hsien-Chih Chang 張顯之 Dec 11 '10 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ I believe that “the voting rules” in Hsien-Chih’s comment refers to this. (@Hsien-Chih: It is better to provide a link when appropriate, because not everyone reads all the threads on Meta.) $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 11 '10 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Tsuyoshi: Thanks, I had put the link in the comment, but I found that I don't know how to make a link on the sentence like yours, so it became pretty messy. After that I removed the link. So how did you do that? $\endgroup$ – Hsien-Chih Chang 張顯之 Dec 11 '10 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Hsien-Chih: See my other post. It is probably easier to write a bare URL. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 11 '10 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ A minor point: I think closing as not-a-real-question is probably more suitable than as off-topic, the text for not-a-real-question reads: "It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form." $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Dec 11 '10 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with @Kaveh. However... Kaveh, given this new policy about policies, I think you need to post your comment as an answer, so it can be voted up or down. $\endgroup$ – Aaron Sterling Dec 11 '10 at 22:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Aaron: Thanks, I didn't post it as an answer because I did not intended it to be a policy proposal, it was a suggestion. But feel free to post it as a policy proposal if you think it should be a policy. :) $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Dec 11 '10 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Kaveh, i think it's a great idea too. it seems very non-controversial, but just so everything is clear, I agree that you should post it as an answer. $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Dec 12 '10 at 0:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Suresh, thanks, I posted it. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Dec 12 '10 at 4:43
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I'd like to propose an addendum:

The OP has the option of requesting a reopening of the question if it is modified as per the above policy

I want to make this a 'post-closing' policy, so that we don't end up with drive-by posters who don't bother to fix their posts. In other words, close first as per policy, and then reopen if needed, rather than waiting endlessly for someone to reword.

locked by Kaveh Apr 30 '11 at 21:44
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  • $\begingroup$ As I understand it, whenever a question (no matter it is asking for topics of research projects or not) is closed, the asker has an option to edit appropriately and ask moderators to reopen it. Should we adopt the close-edit-reopen model in cases other than questions asking for topics of research projects? If so, this is not an addendum but a separate proposal. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 12 '10 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ this is merely to assuage the OP's (sure to be) hurt feelings. $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Dec 12 '10 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ Fair enough, thanks for the explanation. Although the problem that closing sounds rude should be addressed in some way in general in the future, we cannot expect that it will be solved in the full generality soon. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 13 '10 at 2:16
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I cannot understand what is exactly being proposed. You state:

POLICY: Thesis topic questions are only within site scope if the asker requests feedback about a specific proposed topic. General, unfocused questions like, "What would be a good topic?" will be closed as off topic.

but “general, unfocused questions” are closed even without this policy as e.g. “not a real question.” So, what exactly do you want to achieve by proposing this? I think that it is better to rephrase the proposed policy to reflect what you really meant.


Update: Based on your comment to this answer, I propose to rephrase the policy as follows:

POLICY: Thesis topic questions are only within site scope if the asker requests feedback about a specific proposed topic. Questions like “What would be a good topic?” will be deemed to be general and unfocused and therefore will be closed.

Some people have already interpreted the original proposal like this, but I believe that this wording is clearer in what exactly is being proposed. At the same time, I removed the close reason “as off topic” because I agreed to Kaveh that “not a real question” may be a better reason to use and that which reason to use is not of primary importance.

locked by Kaveh May 18 '11 at 2:52
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    $\begingroup$ It's not true that unfocused questions are closed. See for example cstheory.stackexchange.com/questions/979/… and cstheory.stackexchange.com/questions/2974/… and cstheory.stackexchange.com/questions/710/… . Moreover, even if we always do something, it's easier to have a policy statement we can point to so that the decision doesn't come across as personal. See also meta.mathoverflow.net/discussion/819/am-i-a-bully/#Item_3 $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Dec 12 '10 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Suresh: Those questions should be closed even without this new policy. The fact that they are not closed in the real world means that having this as a policy will have no impact on the reality. Writing down a policy for what we already know but is unenforced sounds like adding yet another unenforced policy, which is a bad thing. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 12 '10 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ I'm suggesting the community deem "What would be a good topic?" to be unfocused. Currently there's debate over this, showing up in comments etc. $\endgroup$ – Aaron Sterling Dec 12 '10 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ Put differently, the only reason they are not closed is that it is not absolutely clear whether they are “general, unfocused questions.” Since the new proposal has exactly the same problem, I cannot see how that would be solved with this new proposal. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 12 '10 at 17:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Aaron: Then the proposal should be phrased that way. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 12 '10 at 17:53
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    $\begingroup$ for me personally, if I had a policy like the above in place, I wouldn't hesitate to have closed those questions unilaterally. As it stands, I don't know what to do because there is no policy. As we get more users, having such a policy only helps. Tsuyoshi, your argument that "they would have been closed anyway" doesn't work because I claim that we need the policy to encourage users to close such questions, instead of having to apply their judgement in each case over and over again. $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Dec 12 '10 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Suresh: I thought that Aaron agreed with me that the wording of the policy has to be rephrased (because his proposal in the comment is entirely different from what is written as the proposed policy), but anyway, with the new policy currently stated in the question, you have to exercise your judgment whether each question is a “general, unfocused question” or not. If you do not think you have to, then you are misreading the written policy. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 12 '10 at 18:49
  • $\begingroup$ doesn't sound like he's agreeing. what he's asserting is that the example of such a question, i.e "what's a good topic in X' should be defined as general and unfocused, and then it WOULD capture the three questions I listed, as well as the new one. $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Dec 12 '10 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Suresh: He said so in the comment, and that is very different from the proposal. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 12 '10 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ I guess I'm missing something, since both versions of the proposal read the same to me. $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Dec 12 '10 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Suresh: In the original proposal, it is not clear which questions should be closed, because it only states “general, unfocused questions like, ‘What would be a good topic?’” and does not state which questions satisfy this criteria. In the revised proposal, which questions should be closed is clear. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 12 '10 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ I would support @Tsuyoshi's revision (and I just upvoted), but it seems inappropriate for me to edit the original question, since so many people have already voted for (and against) the text as-is. So -- the original proposal stands or falls on its own merit, and a modification like this stands or falls with the same voting criteria as the original proposal? $\endgroup$ – Aaron Sterling Dec 12 '10 at 19:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Aaron: Thank you for the explanation. After reading your comment, I agree that it is not exactly appropriate to edit the original question after people started voting on it. Maybe it is better to leave it as is and see how things go. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 12 '10 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ This modification still needs some support. there are 11 upvotes for the original wording, and only 2 (so far) for this mod - it needs 5 $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Dec 12 '10 at 20:42
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This is a suggestion for users to use not-a-real-question as the reason for their close. The text for this reason is as follows:

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form.


Since this is a minor issue and some users might not like choosing this reason for closing I personally feel that it probably does not need to be in our policy and might be better to remain as a suggestion. Not having a specific policy on this should not cause a problem.

locked by Kaveh Sep 20 '11 at 21:58
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I think we should distinguish between asking for a research topic and asking for a topic for an undergrad programming project (like in this question: Ideas for a project in Mathematica related to (Theoretical) Computer Science ). Of course this site is not the right place for asking for a topic of a PhD dissertation, but I think we should accept questions like "How can I put 10 thousand lines of Java code to a good TCS-related cause?" (or maybe better we could create a big list of ideas for such projects). Moreover, questions like these seem welcome on mathoverflow: https://mathoverflow.net/questions/18440/what-algorithm-in-algebraic-geometry-should-i-work-on-implementing/

When I was an undergrad I had to write thousands of lines of code in various languages, quite often with a free topic (and the topic didn't really count towards the grade, the only criterion was a solid amount of working code). It is usually the case that such projects are used just once for 10 minutes by the grader, and then thrown away - so it's like a week of effort wasted (and there are also courses where for example four people write a project together for a year, so the outcome could potentially be really something very useful).

I think it would be a win-win situation if researchers would be able to put on this site (for example in a big-list topic) announcements like: "I need a program searching for a small counterexample for some conjecture" or "I have an idea for an interesting game/simulation spreading the ideas of TCS, but I don't have the time to write it" and so on; the students could then use these ideas for writing their projects, and if successful they would afterwards share the result with the scientific community.

locked by Kaveh May 18 '11 at 2:53
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    $\begingroup$ Partly agreed. Something like What algorithm in algebraic geometry should I work on implementing? should be on-topic. However, I am not sure if that is really about the distinction between “asking for a research topic and asking for a topic for an undergrad programming project.” It appears to me that that question on MathOverflow is good because it provides enough background to answer something constructive, rather than because it is asking for a topic of a programming project. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 12 '10 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ This is a nice idea. $\endgroup$ – Peter Shor Dec 12 '10 at 22:27

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