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    • CommentAuthorvinoth
    • CommentTimeNov 15th 2011
    Suppose I have been reading a paper, and I have a very specific question about a small detail from this paper that I do not understand.
    Is it acceptable to post such a question on MO?
    The reason I'm asking this, is because the last few times I did this, the questions didn't receive many upvotes.

    My opinion is that it should be completely acceptable. Of course, a very specific question might be interesting to only a very few people, in which case it's not likely to attract more than a few votes. But I wouldn't take that as a sign that it's not acceptable.

    I agree that there's nothing wrong with such a question.

    You could also consider sending an e-mail to the author directly.
    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeNov 15th 2011

    If it is well motivated and enough background/reference is given, and if the paper is of research level, then such a question should be acceptable. If it looks like a homework question in disguise without motivation, there will be objections.

    I think a good example looks like the following: "I am researching X using the paper Y, where on page 6 the author says Z. I am surprised because I thought Z' was true, and it seems that the context (specifically the assumption of W), would prohibit Z because (something W implies that is far from Z). Can someone help clear this up for me?"

    The example above can be modified to show what work you have done in attempting to resolve your own difficulty, and where you got stuck. You might include pertinent online references that are freely available if the paper itself is not.

    Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2011.11.15


    @vinoth: what Tom said. It can help to bear in mind that voting on MO is sometimes a little weird. You shouldn't worry unless people complain!

    • CommentAuthordeane.yang
    • CommentTimeNov 15th 2011
    I think asking a question about something you don't understand in a paper is perfectly fine. What I don't like, however, is a question that relies on the reader having a copy of the paper. If you ask such a question, it's fine to mention that your question is arises from a specific point in a paper but you should try to write the question so that it is self-contained and can be understood and answered by someone without having to look at the paper at all. I concede that this isn't always possible, but you should try to come as close as you can to doing this.

    +1 Deane. Not all MO users have institutional affiliations, and even those who do might not want to track it down.

    When questions are unacceptable, they get closed. If your previous questions haven't been closed, that's prima facie evidence that they are acceptable, regardless of the number of votes they get.
    All of us who replied here appear to be in agreement. Few upvotes does not mean that the question is inappropriate, but you'd better be comfortable with the idea that a very specific question on a very specific paper is not going to inflame the passions of the crowd. Giving a lot of context can help a little, but the more obscure questions will never be popular. Still, it's better than nothing!

    I think one of the interesting differences between MathOverflow and StackOverflow is that, on MathOverflow, the most appropriate questions are the ones that don't get very many upvotes, because one of the features of mathematics is that important technical questions are only understood by a few people.

    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeNov 28th 2011

    @dan petersen : sometimes the question gets asked because e-mailing the author isn't exactly possible

    I also completely agree with Deane. And I put my money where my mouth is (see the above link).