In this question, JeffE says that academic research questions are firmly on topic. However, this question is about undergrad research and it seems the question could just as easily relate to graduate level research but it was closed as being off topic.

It seems either the rules are unclear or they are being followed inconsistently. Or, am I simply not seeing something that other people can see?

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    To clarify: I see the scope of this site as academia as a human activity, regardless of who is doing the acting. The knee-jerk rejection of undergraduates as "real" academics, even when they are doing exactly the things that PhD students, postdocs, and faculty do, is frankly mind-boggling to me. – JeffE Oct 15 '13 at 18:30

I think that I would not be nearly so categorical as Jeff—or perhaps I'm viewing what he perceives as "academic research" to be more expansive than my definition. Questions about how to prep for the Intel science fair would be off-topic, but asking how to design a research topic would certainly be fair game.

I think the correct rule to apply in such matters is if it's a question a PhD student (or higher) could reasonably ask. If so, then it's appropriate. So I very much disagree with the close votes, and would support reopening the question.

  • @DanielE.Shub Presumably, questions that would only be helpful for tenured faculty (or asked by tenured faculty) are also welcome here. – JeffE Oct 15 '13 at 18:27
  • @JeffE of course. I was trying to mimic what aeismail wrote changing only "question" to "answer" and I clearly left out the key "or higher" part. I replaced my comment. – StrongBad Oct 15 '13 at 18:51
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    I don't think it is about the question, rather, I think the rule should be "if the answers could be helpful to a graduate student (or higher)." – StrongBad Oct 15 '13 at 18:51

If the question is about research or anything research-related—e.g., publishing, presenting, literature, professional networking, etc.—it's on topic. If the question is not about research—coursework, specific software questions, generic career advice, homework, etc.—it's off topic.

Undergraduate research, industry research, amateur research; these are all research-related, and therefore on topic.

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    But when do we move from research to non-research? Presenting and discussing research is part of the process. – aeismail Oct 15 '13 at 13:39
  • @aeismail - I completely agree. I clarified the answer. – eykanal Oct 15 '13 at 14:42
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    But then that means that a topic about putting together a junior-high science fair poster becomes "academia." That seems to be taking things a bit too far. – aeismail Oct 15 '13 at 15:22
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    @aeismail junior-high science fair posters generally don't include any/much "research" – StrongBad Oct 15 '13 at 15:55
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    Are questions about graduate school admissions/departmental politics/professional etiquette/how to format a vitae, etc., not on topic? --I wouldn't call these research-related any more than coursework or software questions – SAH Feb 16 '15 at 8:14
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    @SAH - Good points, we've been treating all those as on-topic, but this answer doesn't explicitly call it out. My take is that they're on-topic, as they're related to the research environment, but that's just my opinion, and I'll be the first to admit it's pretty fuzzy. Feel free to start a new meta question asking about that distinction! – eykanal Feb 16 '15 at 19:14

I think questions about research are on topic. I dislike the idea that any "magic word" (be it the dreaded 'homework' on other sites, or 'undergrad' here) automatically makes a question less valuable, off topic or not worthy of being answered.

Research, even research that will get published in good peer-reviewed journals, presented at conferences, etc. is not the exclusive domain of post-bachelors students and faculty. To give a brief personal example, if this site existed when I was an undergrad, I could have asked questions about how to deal with co-authors who weren't pulling their weight, how long it's reasonable to wait for a journal article to come back from review, what to expect from your first conference presentation, how to handle some drama around publishing, and how to handle some press coverage of your work.

The idea that I wasn't yet in graduate school shouldn't apply to any of that.


I believe that research questions should be on topic. I also believe that questions about "research" projects that are part of the requirements for an undergraduate degree are off topic. I feel this way because in my opinion these types of projects rarely make a sufficient contribution on interesting projects to warrant authorship on the resulting outputs (in the cases where there are any). In this way I don't think of these questions as research questions, but instead as undergraduate course work questions. These types of "undergraduate" questions can be on topic if they are asked in regards to transitioning from undergraduate to graduate researcher. In this way questions about working as an undergraduate in a research group (e.g., the US REU program) in preparation for graduate school would be on topic.

As for the argument that both an undergraduate and a Phd student might ask the same "question", in the case of proc/cons of choosing your own topic, the answers are very different.

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