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    • CommentAuthorMartin B.
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2010
    Currently I am working on my diploma thesis. It is about an unsolved problem in algebraic geometry / homological algebra, which I should at least approach by learning the work which has been done so far. Many of my recent questions were directly or indirectly inspired by this question and already show my ideas how to attack the problem. There is many literature about it, which I have not finished reading at all, but I think the focus is always another one.

    Now I wonder if it's actually appropriate to ask that unsolved problem on mathoverflow directly. Because here on mathoverflow I can contact directly the experts who are dealing with the subject. But I wonder if this is acceptable because this is my diploma thesis and I should do all the work. I've already emailed some professors around the world (which my professor also did to learn the current status of the problem) which were very kind and gave me some references. So basically I've already started to contact other professors which take some of the work away from me. Well, and the same of course holds for my recent questions on mathoverflow, which were partially answered already.

    What do you think?
    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2010 edited

    Well, I think it would be unethical of you to take credit for it if you ask it on mathoverflow and receive an answer. You can't "unsee" such an answer. If you still want to ask it here, you should ask your advisor, since he or she will be probably be the one in charge of making sure you followed the rules.

    @Martin B: your own university will have its own rules, and it's not clear to me that asking in this forum is the way to proceed. It seems to me that this is an internal matter for you, your advisor, and your university. When it comes to doing research I don't see any harm at all in asking about how to prove a lemma/proposition at MO, and then you can just say "thanks to ... for telling me how to prove lemma xyz" in the paper---indeed, this sort of thing has been going on for centuries before MO: it's not hard to find examples of very old papers with the author saying "thanks to prof x for telling me how to prove lemma y". But when you're doing something like a diploma thesis there are extra rules which, at least in my experience, are university-dependent.
    • CommentAuthorCSiegel
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2010
    Generally, asking open problems on math overflow is discouraged.
    Let me tell you another story though. Once a masters student at a university I was at, asked me how to solve a certain question. I could instantly see an approach which should work. I told it him, and he went away and thought about it. Six months later he gave a talk at my university, on his masters thesis, and only then did I realise that his entire masters thesis was this question, and that I had told him how to do it. At one point during the talk he said "...and thanks to Kevin, who gave me a lot of help" or something. I realised that if I opened my mouth I could probably get him into some trouble. I decided it was wiser to keep it shut---not least because I liked the guy.
    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2010

    ... and when there is a "paper trail" on MO, keeping one's mouth shut is not going to be enough.

    @Martin B : Coming up with good thesis problems for students is very difficult. They have to be meaty enough that the student learns a lot and has plenty of places to go after they do them, but not so hard that they spin their wheels indefinitely. It's fine to ask specific mathematicians questions about it, but describing what you doing in an uncontrolled public forum like MO is asking for trouble. Certainly I wouldn't steal a problem from a student, and that applies to all the regulars that I know personally. However, who knows who else is reading?

    The phrase "diploma thesis" suggests to me that this is for a lower degree than a PhD, in which case the above is even more true.
    • CommentAuthorMartin B.
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2010
    Thanks for the answers. I think I have to clarify the question a bit.

    I don't want to ask someone to solve the problem (which will probably not happen). I just want to know what is known, who is working on that and which is the direction the current approaches. I mean, isn't this the same as browsing through papers (which I have already done quite a lot), but more personal?

    A diploma thesis has similarities with a master thesis, but it's not the same.

    @Kevin: Interesting story. So if I understand correctly you regret that you have told him your idea? And the student should not have asked you?
    • CommentAuthorHailong Dao
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2010 edited

    @Martin B: asking what is known is certainly OK, but even that is a little dangerous if this is your thesis problem, as Andy pointed out. If my memory is correct, asking who is working on a certain open problem and what the approaches are was discouraged on MO before. Certainly it is a sensitive subject, especially if the open problem is important.

    Here is a related question that I have been wanting to ask for a while. The existence of MO raises a new ethical issue which will become more common in my opinion. A lot of people around the world will realize that substantial progress on Master or even PhD thesis can be made just by asking questions on MO. It may have happened already, I have noticed a few users with a lot of related questions without motivations. And most of them are anonymous! What would be our community consensus on this matter?

    My initial thought is that this MO does not in fact compound this problem -- in fact, the high visibility of MO (especially with regards to Google) makes it extremely dangerous to submit a thesis (of any sort) the bulk of whose questions have been asked and answered here. It seems much easier to circumvent the system by other methods, e.g., digging up old papers in obscure journals and re-publishing long-forgotten results, asking Kevin, etc.

    So I'd say we shouldn't alter our behavior too heavily to accommodate this concern. If anything, this just emphasizes the importance of the "well-motivated" clause of asking an appropriate question, and suggests we should step up our "enforcement" of it.
    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2010

    +1 Cam.

    Also, in my naivity, I want to believe two things: (1) If a question, technical and unmotivated, can be solved quickly by MO, then it probably won't qualify as a (good) thesis topic anyway and (2) (especially for the Masters thesis) sometimes even just understanding what the expert told you and writing it down in a sensible way is good training toward research.

    So I wouldn't worry too much about this possible abuse.

    @Martin B: I have no real understanding of either (a) the level of a "diploma thesis" (this phrase, I think, means different things in different countries) or (b) the rules that your specific university has on what does and does not constitute plagiarism. So in some sense I do not feel qualified to answer any questions that you have on the matter. However, I am happy to make the following observations, which I think are uncontroversial: (1) trying to find out what is known about a specific question is visibly not plagiarism! (2) When I was a PhD student, the way I found out what was known about a given question was first by asking my advisor and, if he didn't know, by emailing the people he suggested I ask. Ultimately I wrote some paragraph in the acknowledgements of my thesis saying "thank you to a,b,c,d,...,x,y,z for answering my questions and making helpful comments". (3) the bottom line is that many of the key ideas in my thesis were had by my advisor anyway.

    As to your question about my masters degree: I didn't mind at all that the other guy got the degree, not me. After all, he put in the perspiration (checking the details, writing it up). I just had the inspiration.

    @Cam, Willie: fair point. I am not worried about the good thesis, by the way. People who are working on deep problems probably already know enough about what to post on MO. However, in countries around the world, a Master or Phd can be obtained with varying standards and protocols (I have certainly seen thesis problems which can be answered on MO), and it is generally harder compared to the US to obtain public records.

    • CommentAuthormuad
    • CommentTimeOct 12th 2010
    How often are the undergraduate people working on a diploma thesis solving a new problem? (I mean closing an open problem or just producing something original?)

    Muad- A Diplomarbeit (which I assume Martin is referring to) is a much more serious piece of work than most undergraduates in US or UK do; a Diplom should be compared to something like a research-based Masters in a US context. It's usually something small, but is supposed to be somewhat original.


    Most Diploma theses that I have heard of compare rather favorably to the average US Master's thesis (in which there is usually no serious requirement for originality). Now it may well be that I have heard only of the better Diploma theses, but I also assume that there are fewer European Diploma theses produced per year than American master's theses, so knowing about the best may not be too unrepresentative. Anyway, it is often the case that these things result in publications.


    Why would you assume that there are fewer European Diploma theses produced per year than American master's thesis. I have no idea, but I would assume it's the other way around since in Europe it is very common to do a masters and then a phd, where as in America you go straight from undergraduate to doing a phd.


    @Gretar: Well, I certainly don't know: let's call it a "guess" rather than an assumption. Regarding your last line: first of all, there are many master's students in the US who do not go on to a PhD (for instance, I just directed one such student, who graduated with a master's in 2010. She does not have any current plans to get a PhD). I suspect (or guess, or whatever; again, I don't know) that this phenomenon is more common in the US. As for going straight from undergrad to PhD, I would say that is the most common route but there are plenty of exceptions: my current PhD student is such an exception, and in fact a non-negligible percentage of the PhD students in our program (at the University of Georgia) did separate master's degrees elsewhere.


    In some (most?) European countries, there is nothing really comparable to a US bachelor's degree; the standard undergraduate program is more similar to US bachelor's + master's. That is, the "Diploma" is the first university degree. So getting the rough equivalent of a master's without then pursuing a PhD is actually much more common in such countries than in the US.

    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeOct 13th 2010

    Of course, the Bologna reforms wants to bring it a lot closer to the UK model, where a Bachelor-equivalent degree is given. (While at the same time, forces in the UK is trying to push for more of a USA model of 4 year PhD with coursework requirement, while not sacrificing the masters/Part III requirement.)

    One can waste entirely too much time trying to figure out how to compare degrees across international boundaries.

    • CommentAuthortheojf
    • CommentTimeOct 13th 2010

    I don't understand some of the worries in this post. I would have assumed that creating new knowledge by eking it out of experts on MO was no worse than creating new knowledge by eking it out of the aether. What is required is for the writer to correctly attribute and acknowledge others' contributions. But I do think that when writing a thesis, it is highly important to find out and synthesize all other related work, and MO is well-suited to that.

    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeOct 14th 2010

    @Theo: the worry is one not "up there" in the planes of greater human understanding, but "down here" in the mud of practical human behaviour. In particular, the practical worry is that if a student posts too much details of his problem on MO, he may (a) soon no longer have a thesis, by virtue of someone else solving it or (b) have his work, especially his contribution to it, questioned by whichever committee.

    In particular, the worry beneath Harry and Kevin's observation is: what happens if someone does post an answer on MO that solves said thesis problem? Sure it is unlikely to happen. But is it a good idea to risk it?


    If a thesis problem can be solved in the span of one MO answer, then it's probably not a good thesis problem.


    @Tom: We have numerous fields medal winners here, and some of the top mathematicians in their fields otherwise. If anyone could answer it in the span of one question, surely the people here have as good a chance as any, no?

    I've had a question answered here that would have made a very good thesis problem:

    On the other hand, the answer was too long to fit in a MO answer box.

    I'm sure I told this anecdote in a MO comment once (but we know how hard it is to search for old comments). My wife's grandfather apparently said that a good (mathematics) master's thesis problem was one he could solve in an afternoon, whereas a good PhD thesis problem was one for which he could come up with several good approaches in a week.

    • CommentAuthorShevek
    • CommentTimeOct 14th 2010
    I'm quite interested in the differences in university education systems among different countries. I did my undergraduate education in Australia and then moved to America to work on my PhD. I find it quite surprising how my university here in America (which is in the bottom end of the top 10 math departments in America) has an absolutely horrible undergraduate curriculum. I feel really bad for the undergraduate students here who are actually interested in pursuing mathematics, because I don't feel that they will be at all ready to go into a serious graduate program unless they do a serious amount of work of their own on the side. I'm sure that it is much, much better at the top schools, but I still find it ironic that there can be such a divide between the undergraduate program and the graduate program.