As a PhD student, I am expected to do research on my own, possibly assisted by my supervisor or colleagues. Like any researcher, I sometimes spend days looking for a small piece of information, sometimes just a single sentence, that answers a question whose lack of an answer was preventing me from moving forward. Sometimes, it was enough to stumble upon the right article after several days to get the answer directly, so it didn't require any real research work, except for browsing the internet.
What is absolutely wonderful about Stack Exchange is the ability to simply ask such a question and get the answer, without doing anything. Without doing anything ... That's not really true. It's not even true at all! Asking a question on a specific subject requires quite a lot of work, which in my opinion can be summarised in a few steps:
- Research to see if the question has a direct answer to be found (a few hours of research via various articles, or even a few days)
- Establish a developed context so that anyone with basic knowledge can access the question
- Formulate the question in the most understandable and educational way possible (this step is not so obvious: putting words to a question is not easy and requires serious knowledge of the subject!)
- Pay attention to the comments and answers to either edit the question and improve it, or to judge whether the feedback offers us a real answer to our question or not. In the latter case, it is then necessary to state how the answer does not answer the question.
- Once a tangible answer has been received, do some research to verify it and then accept it as the official answer to our question.
All this work is, in my opinion, absolutely necessary, both out of respect for the people who are going to read the question and try to answer it and for oneself in order to obtain the much-desired answer to our question. But despite the work that I believe a serious question should represent, I can't avoid feeling uncomfortable when I ask a question on Stack Exchange and the answer unblocks my research.
Is it ethical to use Stack Exchange for research, following these steps carefully?
I would like to make it clear that I have no intention of making the people who answer my questions work for me. When I ask a question on the site, my only goal is to get an answer that helps me get unstuck, not to expect someone to do a scientific research job for me. I see Stack Exchange more like an interactive service that tells you what has already been done.