I do research in math. A lot of times, I get stuck. I wonder if it's considered ethical to post questions on which I get stuck on internet sites, for example Math Overflow or Math Stackexchange.

If the question is just a small step or something already well-known, it is probably a waste of time to reinvent the wheel myself (and I don't get credit for doing so.) On the other hand, if it turns out to be a crucial step, then I could potentially be dishonest if someone on the internet solves it and I claim it's my own work. Sometimes it's not easy to tell beforehand which case the question will fall into.

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    It seems to me the only unethical thing would be claiming you did it when you didn't. If it's actually hard, I doubt anyone on MO is going to just dash off an answer, but they might be able to point you at relevant work. This seems fundamentally not very different from a literature search. – zeldredge Jun 30 '15 at 1:00
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    @zeldredge: There are definitely things that are "actually hard" that nevertheless the right MO contributor might be able to dash off. But this is not inherently problematic: if you get signficant help on MO, you should acknowledge just as you would if it came from elsewhere. If the help is significant enough, the appropriate response may be to offer coauthorship. So one should not ask for help if that eventuality is not a desirable one. But in most cases: why not? – Pete L. Clark Jun 30 '15 at 4:36
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    Reinventing the wheel could be a major development if you do it in a way no one else has. That being said, all mathematicians waste their time pointlessly reinventing wheels, or doing other stupid things that we might be too embarrassed to actually own up to. That's most of the research process, I'd say. The papers that get written are just the tiny fraction of work that wasn't garbage. Getting through that faster is exactly why we talk to each other, or coauthor papers, or talk to people on the internet (a subcase of talking to each other). – zibadawa timmy Jun 30 '15 at 11:59

Posting questions is ethical, the issue is with appropriate credit and potential collaboration. I would say that most answers will be directions to published work that covers your question, if the question is about problems already solved. In this case, you just have to reference the books or papers that you used.

If it turns out to be an open question, it probably won't be answered in a simple post on internet sites. In this case, in the best scenario, you could find people that will collaborate with you in a more permanent way, till you both solve the issue and, eventually, publish a paper.

  • Of course, that part of the question which turns out to have been previously solved doesn't count as part of your new research. But that would be equally true if you found it in a book or journal. – keshlam Jun 30 '15 at 23:37
  • Though in the first case, it may be nice to also give an acknowledgement to the people who pointed you to the right references. – Kimball Jul 2 '15 at 7:10

If the question you post to math.stackexchange involves your personal education, and specifically you are seeking help to overcome an error you are encountering applying a specific method to a specific problem, then there is no need to acknowledge or give attribution.

If, instead, you post questions that are directly related to your research question and essential to your research progress, then you have an ethical obligation to provide notice and attribution in the body of your published research. This could be done in footnotes/endnotes associated with those specific steps, or in an Acknowledgements section. For example, in a footnote you might say:

"This solution [formulation/approximation/step...] comes from 'ysk', a member of the math.stackexchange online community, in response to my posted question (https://math.stackexchange.com/myquestion/answered). I am grateful for his/her assistance."

EDIT: added URL to footnote. However, since some communities are not publicly available and those that are may not have permanent URLs for posts, this may or may not be appropriate for published academic articles.

While some people might consider this to be ethical "overkill", I believe that it is better to err in the direction of giving more credit to others rather than less. Anything that appears in our paper that is not yours originally deserves to be credited to the original author. Mostly this is done through citations, but there are times when other methods are needed.

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    I agree that it is not unethical to ask for help in online communities, but that it would be unethical not to properly attribute the information. There are related threads on this site (this and that). They explain how to cite a MathOverflow post. – henning Jul 2 '15 at 7:33
  • @henning I have updated my answer to include the (optional) URL to the question and answers. I have explained why this is optional. – MrMeritology Jul 2 '15 at 8:07
  • No, the URL is not optional. – JeffE Jul 2 '15 at 13:06

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