This question is potentially related to Should seemingly hard-to-answer questions be downvoted (and closed)?

Our help center don't ask section includes some generic text that is used SE wide:

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face.

In a pervious question: Are realistic hypothetical situation based questions permitted? it seems clear that the community thinks that to an extent hypothetical questions are okay.

A number of the questions do not provide the practical problem that the requested information is needed to solve. In some cases the applicability is obvious, but in other it is not clear.

Should questions that are merely asking for a reference, and not asking a bigger question, be off topic?

  • Up-votes here mean "yes" to the question in the title?
    – Cape Code
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 10:29
  • @CapeCode man, I knew I was going to screw it up. I am going to flip the question in the body now ...
    – StrongBad
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 13:48

4 Answers 4


I think that the "practical answerable questions" line should be interpreted quite permissively. I think that its real value is to permit closing of questions that are basically silly wastes of time because they aren't even vaguely close to the real world, e.g.,

What would happen if PhD programs required students to switch what professor they were working for every two weeks, and you couldn't go back to a professor?

Would a scientific paper still count on your C.V. if it got published, but then the journal was shut down by the government and you could only get copies of the paper through WikiLeaks?

Likewise, sometimes a question is unanswerable because it depends on too many particulars that can't be filled in since the situation doesn't actually exist.

There will not be a clear black and white about which hypotheticals are OK and which are not, but I think that we should be fairly permissive, since many hypotheticals are close enough to real situations to be readily answerable.

I think the issue that comes up with many questions is not about being hypothetical, but rather is often some sort of XY problem, in which the asker has refined down to a request for a highly specific piece of research that has probably not been carried out, when a slightly less precisely targeted question would likely have been readily answerable.

  • I think the part about the XY issue is pretty close, but I am not sure it is a refinement issue. Rather, I think the asker may be interested in a reference for theoretical reasons and the only question that the reference may answer is some sort of hyper-refined XY problem.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 13:13

I don't think that line in the help center applies to questions.

In most cases, if you really had to, it is trivial to connect those questions to an actual problem.

For example, the most recent is How random is the graduate admission process in the United States?. This question corresponds to the actual, real problem (for example):

"I am interested in reducing the randomness of the graduate admissions process in computer science PhD programs, but in order to convince anyone to act, I need some reliable, verifiable data to show how bad the problem really is."

In other cases, such as my question What is the origin of the “underwater basket weaving” meme in Academia?, where it is very difficult to connect the question to an actual problem, the community didn't seem to mind. (That question currently has 79 upvotes and 0 downvotes.)

So, it seems that a question does not necessarily need to be explicitly attached to a problem. I think questions that are clear, specific, and relevant to the topics in the help center are on topic here. (As evidenced, perhaps, by my being a top answerer and one of the top askers in that tag.)

I interpret

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face.

mainly to exclude hypotheticals that lack context, where the answer depends very much on the specific circumstance.

To take your question Can I teach in the nude? as an example (I hope you don't mind), I commented there

Also, per the help center: "You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face." This does not seem to qualify. – ff524♦ Jul 14 '15 at 16:54

and further clarified that I find the question problematic because it is a hypothetical given without context:

I don't think it would be a bad question if it was given in the context of a specific scenario, like this one. As a general question, I still think it's terrible. – ff524♦ Jul 14 '15 at 17:06

That's the kind of question I think is excluded by "practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face."

  • In regards to the first example, I think that might be an xy problem. In regards to my teaching in the nude question, I am not really sure what I was thinking.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 1:54
  • @StrongBad I don't think it's necessarily an XY problem. An XY problem is one where you really care about X, and don't care about Y except inasmuch as it helps you with X. Here, we care about the answer to Y even if it turns out not to help with X.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 1:56
  • Good answer (+1), but, also considering your commentary here, I think @StrongBad is still pointing to an faq formulation that doesn't quite fit the modus operandi here. Should one consider to change the faq to something like "...actual or hypothetical problems that you face, or one might face in academia." (Not this exact formulation, but something more elegant to its sort) Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 3:53
  • @gnometorule The "What types of questions should I avoid asking?" page in the help center is the same across all SE sites. It isn't customizable.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 3:55
  • @ff524: Thanks for letting me know. That's a bit unfortunate, in my eyes. Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 3:56
  • 1
    @gnometorule while we cannot change it, the SE team presumably can. Other sites are discussing changing the text: meta.law.stackexchange.com/questions/373/…
    – StrongBad
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 13:11

I think hypothetical questions to better understand common rules/policies of universities should be accepted. For example, while one could ask for a reference to better understand "what is the NIH policy on _______", it can be much more natural and illuminating to ask the hypothetical "If a PI submits a paper with ________, but _________, is the PI following policy?". Sometimes this could be acceptable even if the applicability is unclear if the question helps one understand what the policies actually mean.


A potential policy: "Stack exchange is not a suitable tool for literature search. Questions solely requesting literature search are off-topic."

  • I asked in the SE wide super secret mod room and it sounds like most sites do not like them. Some of the academic sites allow them, but there I think it is more "I read this idea, what is the original source". Not really sure how I feel still.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 22:47
  • 2
    The issue is that sometimes an OP may want answers supported by some facts, not just guesses or personal experiences. Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 3:26
  • 1
    @FranckDernoncourt that does not seem to be "solely requesting literature search" ...
    – StrongBad
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 13:53

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