What disqualifies a solution from being "original"

I am writing this text two and a half years after "Using your Head is Permitted" first began publishing monthly riddles. For two and a half years I refrained from adding it, believing that everything written here below should be obvious to all readers. However, after one-too-many-times that this turned out not to be the case, I am reluctantly adding this text to the site. I'll give you the bottom-lines here, in a single sentence: don't send me solutions that aren't yours and don't search the Internet to find solutions, because then they will not be yours.

Seems obvious, doesn't it? Well...

It is obvious to most "Using your Head is Permitted" solvers that if they have prior familiarity with the riddle presented, then they shouldn't send in their solutions because these would not qualify as "original" solutions.

Similarly, if you are familiar with a sufficiently similar riddle that is solved in the same way as the presented riddle or that demonstrates the solution for a/the major roadblock on the way to solving the current riddle, your familiarity also taints the originality the solution. Although more of a gray area, this requirement, too, is obvious to most solvers.

Where I found in the past that there were problems is in the legitimacy of the use of the Internet (or, otherwise, your favorite reference source). Usage of the Internet is legitimate in one of two cases:

  1. If your Internet searching was done before you ever read the riddle. This can be described more generally as a case where you simply have general background education that helps you with the riddle. (Which is legitimate, as opposed to specific background knowledge pertaining to the riddle or one of its variants, which is not.)
  2. If your searches are restricted to sites that define the terminology used in the riddle and you use them only for this purpose. "Using your Head is Permitted" riddles are for the most part worded to minimize unnecessary nomenclature. Where the introduction of terminology is indispensable, the riddles tend to either define within the text or provide links to specific reference sources (often both). This is meant specifically to minimize the need for this second reason, so make sure you fall clearly within the exception to the rule if you do relevant Internet searches between the publication of the riddle and the publication of the solution.
Besides these two cases, if you searched the Internet in searches related to this riddle, do not send your solution for that month in. By all means, it does not disqualify you from enjoying the riddle, but it does disqualify you from appearing alongside solvers who did so solely by using their own head.

Occasionally, people write to me to say that they discovered this-or-that fact while searching the Internet for "the basics of what is known about this problem" as they would have done in any academic research. They write to me because they want to argue the point that this is insufficient reason to disqualify a solution. Well, on "Using your Head is Permitted" it is sufficient reason. A riddle is not an academic research task. Academic research broadens the knowledge of humanity, and for that purpose do what you like. It's a noble cause, and as long as what you're doing is FDA approved, I'm certainly not going to raise any objections. If you want to use reference texts, use them. If you want to use your head, use it. If it really is research, and if it really broadens the knowledge possessed by humanity, what you're looking for will ultimately not be found in the references. The last mile you will have to do on your own, using your own head.

Riddles, if anything to do with research, are a practice arena for that last mile. I certainly don't expect you to broaden the knowledge of humanity in answering any of the riddles on this site. Everything I ask I know the answer for, and so do (usually) a great many other people. In fact, I will go so far as to say that many - if not most - of the riddles on this site merely point the reader to an area of research that is specialized enough for me, the puzzlemaster, to assume that most readers have no prior familiarity with it. These riddles ask one of the most basic questions in the field. I will be very happy to know about any solver that the riddle triggered in him/her the motivation to learn more about this subject and to delve deeper into it, but if said reader wants to be credited on the solvers' list, he/she should make sure that any such learning happens only after his/her name already appears on the list.

For this reason,

  1. The comparison of riddles with research is not relevant in supporting the thesis that Internet searching should be allowed in solving "Using your Head is Permitted" riddles
  2. If there is any real connection between riddles and research, this connection is one that actually suggests the opposite: that the using of reference texts should be forbidden as a riddle-solving method.
  3. Any Internet search to "discover the basics of what is known about the problem" is likely to either hand the reader the riddle's solution on a silver platter or at least to point him/her in the right direction. I consider this both an unfair advantage and a case of said solver missing the point of what riddles are all about.
Having said all this, there are always some readers who happen to have prior familiarity with any subject I raise. (Well, almost always.) These readers sometimes send me references to papers that discuss the problems I raise and their generalizations, and do so with much more rigor than I afford here, on the "Using your Head is Permitted" site. I am always happy to receive these references, and generally mention them (and the people who pointed them out to me) on the respective solution page. These readers definitely receive credit for the references, but for the most part they cannot appear as solvers (and for the most part, they know it without having to ask): they fall under the first category, that of people with prior familiarity with the riddle. They cannot be considered "original" solvers.

Bottom line: if you want to be credited on the site, don't use the Internet for any related search. That's like asking the person sitting next to you in an exam what he knows about the solution to the question. If I had wanted to credit Google on the solvers' list, I would have.

Michael Brand
August 2009