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    I have a sense that mathoverflow is much less welcoming than it used to be of questions that can be understood by non-experts. I'm not talking about philosophically-oriented questions, which I think are received about as well as they always have been, but rather technical questions that might reasonably be answered by a graduate student who is specializing in the relevant field. And when I say "less welcoming," I'm not just talking about having questions closed. If someone asks a question and receives no upvotes and a comment (with a number of upvotes) that the question would be more appropriate on math.stackexchange, then they are hardly likely to feel "welcomed," even if the question is left open and they receive useful pointers in the comments or in an answer.

    If the questions would receive good answers on math.stackexchange, then this might not be a bad thing. But here's the thing: they won't. I have asked a few questions on math.stackexchange; in every case, I ended up feeling that, while nobody thought the question was inappropriate, no one could answer it--or at best, there was a small pool of people who had a chance of answering it, all of whom were also mathoverflow participiants. I also feel that when I do get answers on math.stackexchange, the answers tend to be addressed "under my head," so to speak; the answers I get on mathoverflow tend to be better for a student at my level, even when the question is not particularly "welcomed."

    The result is this: Sometimes, there are questions I would like to ask that occupy a sort of "middle ground": I know they are too hard for math.stackexchange, but I don't want to risk the embarrassment of being told (explicitly or implicitly) that my question is too easy for mathoverflow. The end result is often that I never find out a good answer to the questions. Moreover, I have the sense that other people--especially new users--have a similar experience, which has led to a dearth of questions asked by others that I, as a graduate student, can actually understand. Mathoverflow used to be useful to me as a place where I could learn new math simply by browsing. Now, it is much less so. (Admittedly, this may have something to do with the fact that Brian Conrad no longer seems to post anything, but I don't think that's the primary reason.)

    In the provocatively overstated language: I sometimes feel that mathoverflow has become too elitist since the introduction of math.stackexchange.

    Do other people have the same experience? Or is the general sentiment relief that graduate students like me have stopped crowding the forum with too-easy questions?
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2012

    (I fear that it is more or less useless to discuss this subject without reference to concrete questions. Abstract discussion will lead to the inevitable conclusion that some of the questions that are redirected to could have probably stayed here, that others had their natural home there, that we should all be civil and exercise our good will, and so on)

    • CommentAuthorRyan Budney
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2012 edited

    I agree with Mariano, it's best to keep things concrete and on a case-by-case basis if we want to make any progress.

    I suppose you could easily make a counter-argument: perhaps the only reason why questions appear to be better-answered on MO is because of whose mouth the answer is coming out of? I haven't seen much evidence to support your claim, Charles.

    And MO has always been elitist in a certain strict sense. MO is about research mathematics, which basically by definition is a type of elite. There's a criterion, is what I mean.

    In that regard, an abstract discussion is kind of pointless.

    • CommentAuthormarkvs
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2012
    @Charles: For me, clearly unwelcome questions are 1) homeworks, 2) badly formulated questions, 3) questions whose answers are easily googled and 4) questions that have nothing to do with mathematics. It is true that there are many more very technical questions now (which is unfortunate and makes it much harder to learn by browsing for me too) but I think it is not because the other questions are closed or unwelcome as too elementary. As for "upvoting", the voting system is so unpredictable, that the number of up or down votes does not really correlate with the quality of a question. It has something to do with the time of the day when the question was posted, the number of reps of the OP, etc.
    I'll try to get some concrete examples, but obviously I won't be able to provide concrete examples of questions that should have been asked, and were not. On a larger scale, I'm not so much talking about specific cases of an inappropriate reference to mathoverflow, as a general trend to be too quick to put in a stackexchange reference. Even if each individual reference were defensible, the number of them makes mathoverflow feel unwelcoming--especially since a referral to math.stackexchange, even with the best of intentions, can feel humiliating to someone who is, in fact, a member of the mathematical establishment. I am not sure I myself have ever received such a comment, but I can't help fearing it when I see it applied to questions that I do not immediately know how to answer. And I doubt I am the only one.
    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2012

    One example would be Yemon's 'group theory excercise' I guess; asked on math.SE than idling around there until Will Jagy started 'advertising' it here on MO meta and then answered by an MO regular, Noah Snyder if I rememeber right.

    Here's a question that I first asked on math.SE; it was fairly well received, but not very well answered. When I finally decided to try posting it on mathoverflow, most of the "answerers" left their answers as comments, which suggested to me at the time that they did not really think it was a difficult enough question to be interesting, even though it was too difficult for math.SE.

    Here's a question for which I specifically replied to a comment that it would be more appropriate on math.SE. I don't mean to suggest that an exercise from Hartshorne is typically a good question on mathoverflow, but I don't think math.SE should be suggested as a viable alternative. (I should probably add that, generally speaking, I have very high respect for Sándor Kovács's activity on mathoverflow.)

    There have been a number of other examples in which I have considered leaving such a comment, but since I did not, I don't know how to locate them.

    +1 Charles Staats for voicing your concern.

    MO questions are supposed to be of interest to research mathematicians. This doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as research questions. Many questions that are "sent" to MSE would probably stand if the OP had given a little background on themselves and the problem (and in particular make clear it is not HW). That said I think it is also confusing to potential posters that the reaction to more elementary questions is very field dependent. For example rarely are Set Theory or Category theory questions closed in my experience. In part I think most mathematicians aren't so familiar with these areas and so are less likely to close and also I think the experts in these areas are friendlier to questions from non-experts.

    In part the field variation may be caused by whether that field has a standard graduate class/textbook/exercises. If something is part of the "standard graduate curriculum" there may be less of a welcome?


    Just as another data point (I make no claims that it is representative, but I do agree with Mariano and Ryan that the discussion really needs some specifics)

    This question struck me at the time, and still does now, as something where it's not a question of the level being inappropriate, or necessarily being homework, but where more thought should have been put in. Then again, here is another example where the OP should really have just thought harder, but which didn't get redirected to MSE.

    In general, I instinctively agree with Benjamin Steinberg's view that "many questions that are "sent" to MSE would probably stand if the OP had given a little background on themselves and the problem (and in particular make clear it is not HW)", but I admit this is based on my impressions and memory rather than an actual count.

    • CommentAuthorRyan Budney
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2012 edited

    I think the threads you bring up more or less correspond to the norm on MO. If the question appears to be a grad-student homework-type problem, especially if it's not well-motivated, it might be closed. If it's a well-motivated question and well-written, it might be answered (in part) in the comments, with a hint to get a person going (and there's varying standards from subject to subject). But such questions tend not to get long answers.

    I suspect most people are worried about creating a repository of answers to homework problems, or doing someone's homework, or doing the leg-work that they should be doing, telling them what they should have been reading in their course-book, or should have got out of their homework assignments. If the question does not appear to be from the heart in some sense, there's little initiative to answer it. In that regard, my impression is your first thread seems more like idle curiosity than a real desire to know, but that's just a first-impression bias. I think in part it's because you never said why you want to know the answer to your question.

    I apply similar standards when people ask me questions in person. If it's a grad student laying on a couch, barking off idle questions, they'll be ignored unless the question is awesome. If they seem to really have a reason to want to know the answer, if it's clear they've thought about it, with examples and such, then I'll engage them.

    There's a phenomenon one notices as one gains seniority, more and more people start to treat you as if you're some walking automated library, with free answers to everything. When answering a question one wants to feel like you're not putting in any more effort into it than the question-asker. Otherwise one may feel like they're not really getting anything out of the answer. So there's a reverse desire to want to see the question-asker sweat a little.

    Somewhere in there lies roughly the kernel of the push-back to your assertion that MO is becoming elitist.


    Charles, there is a world of difference in the two examples you give. The first is clearly stated and references SE. It is the type of question that a non expert in a subject might ask. You got good responses, I think, even if possibly not the complete answer (which, as far as I know, might not exist) you hoped for.

    The second question is a good example of a bad question. The grammar is bad, part of the question is unclear, and the question is an exercise from a book. When this last is pointed out to the OP, the OP acknowledges that he or she knows that! Thanks for pointing it out--I just cast the first vote to close while wondering why mine is the first.


    As for Yemon's second example, this is exactly the kind of dumb* question that I (and, I think, most mathematicians) might ask. I have asked much worse ones, at least within threads. It is great that we have MO to help us when we have blind spots.

    *Before I get deluged with outrage, let me add, as Yemon knows, that I intend no disrespect to him.


    I'm sorry if you feel if this forum has become less friendly to grad students. I sincerely hope it isn't the case. But speaking entirely for myself, since I don't have a huge amount of free time, I admit to being unlikely think about a question unless I feel that the person asking has put some serious thought into it, or if it is sufficiently interesting. The last question you mention is a good example of one where I felt that no effort was demonstrated. Had s/he said "I know this is a problem in Hartshorne. I tried the following but got stuck. ", some of us might have been inclined to say something like "write the divisor as a difference of two ample divisors..."

    Thanks, Bill. I still maintain that to ask a question, while mentioning the very result needed to solve it is, let's face it, unfortunate if not downright foolish. Still, one hopes that the effort put into writing a readable question made it even easier to answer effectively.

    To follow up on Bill's comment on Charles's examples: I am not competent to judge how easy or difficult that second question is, nor to know if it is a standard exercise which people set students as part of the learning process. What I will say is that it displays a fault which I'm sure all of us have displayed, but which we as researchers ought to grow out of: it doesn't say what the OP is stuck on, or what he or she already knows.

    Actually, on reflection, my feeling is that the question is deficient not because "it is an exercise in a book and so should automatically go to MSE", but because it is poorly worded and seems to want "money for nothing", see Ryan Budney's comments above. In a sense I think Charles has a point, in that the question is unlikely to get a good answer on MSE. On the other hand, I don't think it particularly deserves a good answer on MO in its present form.


    Or: what Donu Arapura just said.

    • CommentAuthorJDH
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2012
    To respond to BSteinberg's claim about frequency of closures, I just did a quick count of the number of closed questions among the most recent 50 questions in a few tags:

    set-theory 5 closed among 50
    algebraic-geometry 2 closed among 50
    category-theory 2 closed among 50
    number-theory 5 closed among 50
    group-theory 10 closed among 50

    Perhaps someone else might want to do a more thorough data mining of the archives.
    I think that counting by tag is not so accurate. I would only count 2 of the 5 closures listed by Joel as being questions about Set Theory. One was about basic facts about injective maps, one about the definition of a relation and one about T-shaped sets in the plane. Probably the other tags above also have mislabeled questions. But in any event my unscientific memory is that many textbook level questions about choice do not get closed (which is not a bad thing since I have learned a lot from them :))
    A quick clarification here: I am NOT suggesting that the question that is a problem from Hartshorne is, in any way, a good mathoverflow question. I am simply suggesting that this question, and others like it, should probably not be referred to math.SE.
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2012

    How are you proposing those questions be handled?

    As I am reviewing my own thoughts, I think that the title I gave this thread, while hardly irrelevant, is really missing the point. A lot of the questions I come up with are about "fundamentals"--questions basic enough that I am surprised to realize I don't know the answer. When I first joined mathoverflow, it provided an outlet to ask these sorts of questions. Once math.SE came into existence, it presented a dilemma. If I asked a "fundamental" question on mathoverflow, there was a chance that at least some members of the community would feel that I was abusing the site and asking questions that would be better-suited for the "lower-level" math.SE site. But asking a question on math.SE presented, first, a decreased possibility of getting an answer, and secondly, a sort of embarrassment of its own, that I, a member of the mathematical establishment, should resort to asking mathematical questions on a forum for the general public. These concerns, together, inhibited my asking of questions for a while, until I got over it enough to put a couple of my questions up on math.SE. Seeing how these questions were answered, and by whom, led me to realize that I, personally, am probably better served by asking questions on mathoverflow rather than math.SE--even when the questions are "fundamental." But I am reasonably sure that other people have shared my anxieties and may have ended (or just never begun) their participation in mathoverflow, or at least their asking of questions understandable to a graduate student.
    Mariano: I think that the OP should be told nicely in the comments that if s/he wants help on an exercise from a textbook, s/he should give more information--how s/he has attempted to solve it, why s/he is interested in this question, and the like. I see the closing of questions as a necessary evil. If questions like this one should grow in number, then closing them would be an appropriate tool to keep them under control. But since this question has not received an answer in this long, it seems unlikely that a "cheap answer" will be forthcoming for the OP. My perception (which certainly may be mistaken) is that questions from graduate-level textbooks are not currently a big issue, and people who ask them might one day be useful contributors to mathoverflow. While I don't think such questions should be answered, I also am inclined to think that closing them is not necessary--at least, not with the dynamics of the site as they are at the moment.
    • CommentAuthorRyan Budney
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2012 edited

    Regarding post number 22 "reviewing my own thoughts..." this is something like the saying "a man with one watch always knows the time precisely, a man with two watches always has doubts." I'm sure there's an expression along those vague lines.

    IMO the two forums have a wide overlap and there's really very good mathematical questions that will get a far better response on the StackExchange site than on MO. One of my favourites would be this one: also this one:

    • CommentAuthorWill Jagy
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2012
    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2012
    I see MathOverflow as a trio of (1) a small community I call moderators, who founded and set the goals for the type of content to appear, (2) a larger community who provide and use much of the content, and are not quite united in what is appropriate and how it should be handled, and (3) the outcome or collection of content that results from the push and pull of the first two groups.

    I doubt that the community at large will ever get fully united on how to deal with questions of various levels. I have had examples of questions that I suggested be posted elsewhere which turned out to be answered by community members and have become (or so it seems) acceptable. There are other questions which I myself have asked which got gracious treatment from the community, but which might be considered not acceptable for MathOverflow because of insufficient scholarship.

    One thing I have tried to do in my comments is to request a quality improvement, primarily by asking for for motivation or by asking the equivalent of "What good is the answer going to do for you?" . I have also tried to provide some help so that the original poster could solve or make progress on either the posted question or the question behind the question.

    One thing I have tried to do in my answers or questions is to provide relevant and interesting material for the forum. Of course, I use my opinion of what I think is relevant and interesting, but much of what I have contributed is (or seems to be) accepted.

    There may be a way to address Charles's problem about how welcoming the community should appear. I think that having some good examples to follow on how to respond (and having the community agree to use them) will help. However, I think we should continue insisting on higher quality questions, in particular asking for more clarity and less ambiguity, more motivation and background, and such that it would be clear what answers would help. Perhaps more rewriting of new questions (or asking improved versions of old questions) would address both concerns.

    Gerhard "Ask Me About Question Asking" Paseman, 2012.02.06
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2012

    I have written uncountably many comments saying all that. Saying it as nicely as I managed.

    Isn't all this spelt out clearly in the FAQ? If not, we should strive to make it clearer, possibly pointing to good real examples of questions. But familiarizing oneself with a site, seeing what gets asked, what gets answered —even the average level of grammar and punctuation!— is something that I expect users to do as part of the work of asking a question. Most people would not enter a bar without checking out first what's going on inside... yet we end up coming up with the nth rephrasing of "you will get more luck if you tell us what you have tried".


    Suggestions for edits, additions, or other modifications to the faq and how to ask pages are always welcome. Specific suggestions are preferable since it takes a fair amount of time to come up with the right wording, especially when starting from scratch. Send suggestions to

    I'd like to push back against some of Ryan's comments, because I think they are a very good explanation of how many "closing" users are thinking, and I disagree with them.

    "If the question appears to be a grad-student homework-type problem, especially if it's not well-motivated, it might be closed... I suspect most people are worried about creating a repository of answers to homework problems..."

    If it weren't for the word grad-student, I would agree with all of this. When I'm answering questions over at math.SE which strike me as undergrad homework level, I try to give hints rather than answers, and I tend to direct those questions to math.SE when they show up on Mathoverflow. But, at the grad level, if the question asks for a solution, I usually give it. This is for a couple of reasons:

    * I view graduate students as young researchers. I think they have the maturity to decide for themselves what kind of answer they are looking for.

    * There are cases where, as a researcher, you really do need to just get an answer and move on, rather than understand all of the background. Now grad students have more free time than professors/postdocs, and they have more future years to reap the benefits of a deeper understanding, so they more often should learn the background. But not always. My advisor (Bernd Sturmfels) tells the story of, in grad school, needing the lemma that, for any polynomial p(t) and q(t), there is a point (x,y) in R^2 not of the form (p(t), q(t)). He went to one of the local algebraic geometers, who pulled out the section of EGA on dimension theory. That strikes me as a wildly bad answer to this question. Two better answers would be "see Sard's theorem" or "consider the monomials p(t)^i q(t)^j for i+j \leq N. There are roughly N^2 such monomials, and they have degree O(N) in R[t] so, for N large, there is a linear relation between them. This gives a polynomial relation between p(t) and q(t), which will not hold identically on R^2." Neither of these is as deep, but they would have allowed Bernd to move on and apply this result.

    * Graduate level questions are not only asked by graduate students. In recent years, I have taught myself the basics of quiver representations, triangulated categories, the analytic Peter-Weyl theorem, Hodge theory and Riemmannian geometry. All of these are things which would be grad-school material for a grad-student with a particular syllabus, but none of them are things that I learned in grad school. I want MO to be a place that I can come and ask about the basic things that confuse me when I am learning new fields. As I mentioned on another thread, I have gotten a very positive response to these questions, because I have a very good reputation here. But I also want MO to welcoming to people who ask those questions without establishing their bona fides first. I have the impression that, at least here at UMich, grad students feel intimidated to ask questions on MO.

    "as one gains seniority, more and more people start to treat you as if you're some walking automated library"

    I definitely experience this. But the great thing about MO is that it is so easy to not answer a question! When someone stops into my office or sends me a personal e-mail with a question like this, there is real pressure to give an answer. I constantly see questions on math.SE which I think "that's not worth my time to answer", so I don't! MO has many fewer such questions, but I ignore questions here too.

    Here is a proposal. I sometimes view MO by going to . That will give you questions which have gone about 12 hours without being answered . It is a pretty safe assumption that none of these are too basic. Maybe Anton could create a convenient link to do this?
    I strongly agree with David's post.
    • CommentAuthorRyan Budney
    • CommentTimeFeb 7th 2012 edited

    I think most of your concerns are pretty standard and already-voiced, David. For example "I have the impression that, at least here at UMich, grad students feel intimidated to ask questions on MO". Isn't that to be expected? I mean, MO is meant to be something like tea-time. When I would walk up to John Milnor to ask him a question at tea time, I certainly felt intimidated as a grad student. Perhaps I shouldn't have but I did. It's not clear to me it's possible to create a completely non-intimidating environment when you're not only asking experts, but there's essentially no privacy (unless you're anonymous), and on top of that there's an essentially perpetual public record (which does not happen at actual tea time, thankfully).

    But I think we're getting off-track by not talking about specifics and instead picking at my comments in isolation. Much of my comments had to do with asking questions in a respectful way, where you do your due-diligence and put together a question that not only shows you really care about an answer, but that you've tried things yourself. The kinds of things we'd pretty much expect of any colleague.


    Another example. Neither of these is something I immediately know how to do, because I did not have any "standard comprehensive grad school courses etc". However, questions phrased in this way, like a demand for a Big Mac at a drive-through, really really really really really really get on my wick.

    So here is an instance where I might be tempted to vote to close, or to recommend trying elsewhere. I can see why there is a case against doing so, but it isn't the kind of question I want to see on MO.

    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeFeb 7th 2012 edited

    Is anyone for not closing questions like the one Yemon just linked to?

    (That question IMO makes for a good example for the Do Not Do This list...)


    David Speyer said above: "* I view graduate students as young researchers. I think they have the maturity to decide for themselves what kind of answer they are looking for. "

    This may be true where you are, David, and be true among most of those you knew as a grad student, but at least in the initial stages it is most certainly not always the case. In the less illustrious levels of maths where people like me work, it's not clear to me that people with PhDs whose work I have to read have attained that maturity, perhaps because no one educated them as to how to ask and solve questions.

    I am forced to admit that the last two questions Yemon linked to should definitely have been closed. However, I do not think that for this sort of question, a recommendation to math.SE is necessarily appropriate. These questions are being closed, not because the content is inherently unacceptable, but because of the manner in which they were asked. I do not think they would be all that much more acceptable on math.SE.

    Perhaps the following policy might be the best one, at least in my mind: If a question is inappropriate for MO because of its content (an undergrad level question, for instance), then a referral to math.SE is appropriate. If a question is inappropriate for MO because of the manner in which it is asked, but might be made appropriate if the asker had, for instance, demonstrated that they had already put a fair amount of thought into the matter, then comments to this effect are appropriate; closing may be appropriate, depending on the severity; but recommendations to math.SE should be avoided. In particular, graduate-level questions should rarely be referred to math.SE.

    If a policy like this were implemented, the biggest potential difficulty, at least in my mind, is that the people who really need to know about it are the experienced MO users, who I imagine rarely feel the need to check the FAQs and the like.

    As Charles surmises, it might be pretty hard to implement (much less enforce) a "policy" for experienced MO users to follow, although we might try to come to some consensus on reasonable guidelines.

    They don't come much more clueless or more obnoxious than the homework grubber of Yemon's Exhibit A, and I don't think much effort should be expended on such cases. If there were a bullet point in the FAQ that "blatant requests or demands to do the OP's homework, without reciprocal effort shown by the OP, will be summarily closed" -- or something similar -- then I guess we could point to that. But honestly, that's such a no-brainer that violators are probably lost causes to begin with. (What I really want to do is tell such clueless types to go to hell, and telling them to go to seems an acceptable substitute. (-: )


    @Todd: late at night I have a couple of times written appropriate responses to such posters, but, fortunately, have not put them on MO.

    Todd, while I agree that "homework grubber" questions deserve little or no effort on their behalf, I do not think that pointing them to math.SE is helpful to anyone. For one thing, if the problem really is a graduate-level problem, math.SE will probably not be a great place to get it answered. More significantly, do you really want to inflict such "homework grubbers" on the math.SE community?

    This actually leads to the following suggestion: questions that are simply bad (as opposed to being at an inappropriate level) should probably not be referred to math.SE--out of courtesy to the math.SE community, if for no other reason.

    Charles, I was actually being a little tongue-in-cheek there. I think maybe you have a point.

    • CommentAuthorWill Jagy
    • CommentTimeFeb 7th 2012

    I agree strongly with David Speyer's comments.

    When I was a second-year graduate student, I struggled for a number of months to understand an exercise on the second page of the book by Ballman-Gromov-Schroeder. The exercise was the most elementary case of the problem I was working on, so my lack of progress was quite frustrating. Eventually I was at a conference and asked a senior mathematician, who informed me that in fact this was a major open problem. (Needless to say, I changed directions.)

    If Math Overflow had existed at the time, I hope I could have asked for some hints and, one way or another, broken through the roadblock I had hit. But in the current atmosphere I cannot imagine a graduate student having the courage to ask about an exercise that appears on the second page of a textbook.

    I have to say that my objection is almost never to a question itself but whether the person asking the question demonstrates at least some reasonable effort towards answering the question. If someone asks a question that can be answered almost directly from the definitions involved and shows no sign of having tried to do just that, then I am quite unsympathetic. If a person asks a question, indicates some effort made, and where the roadblock occurs, then I am much more likely to want to help.
    • CommentAuthorShevek
    • CommentTimeFeb 8th 2012
    I agree strongly with Charles, David and Tom.

    There's a specific example I have remembered. I could not find it--I suspect it has been deleted--but at some point after math.SE opened, I noticed a question on mathoverflow about whether a group is isomorphic to its "opposite group." The question was quickly closed, and the user directed to math.SE. Another comment--apparently made after the question was closed--was from some user I recognized (I can't remember who), linking to his "first question" on mathoverflow and talking about "how far mathoverflow has come." The question linked to was the exact same, asked when MO was in its infancy, and had a number of upvotes.

    I think it would have been entirely appropriate to close the question as an exact duplicate, but my impression (which I cannot now verify since I can't find the question) was that the question was closed as being "off topic" or some such before it was recognized as an exact duplicate. The impression I took away from this (the closing, the redirection to math.SE, and the comment left afterwards) was that "low-level questions that might have easy answers, even ones that mathematicians might find interesting, are no longer welcome on mathoverflow," and that this was progress. I can understand why the question was closed--the answer was easy and, in retrospect, the first thing someone would try if they had put any serious effort in before asking; whereas the original question was probably asked at a time when mathoverflow had only a few users who were struggling to come up with questions to keep the project going. But the fact remains that the question was closed--quickly--as being too low-level, even though it is the sort of question that mathematicians find interesting.

    But there is a key point here. When you leave a comment that a question is inappropriate (and would perhaps be more appropriate on math.SE), or choose to post an answer as a comment, or decide that a question is too easy/basic to be upvoted even though you find it at least marginally interesting (I am certainly guilty of the last), you are not just giving a message to the asker. You are also giving a message to everyone else who looks at this question to get an impression of what sorts of questions are appropriate on mathoverflow--and, in particular, whether their own question(s) at a similar level are likely to be welcomed, tolerated, or closed. I think it is important to consider this second audience; a comment that is entirely appropriate to the asker, may still give the wrong impression to an observer.


    Incidentally, I appreciate David Speyer's excellent and well-thought-out post, and I agree with it except to the extent that Ryan Budney's comments are taken out of context. (That last bit is intended to prevent my statement from feeling like an accusation to Ryan; I certainly am not trying to accuse David of anything.)


    +1 David. And -1 to the concept of "graduate level material": it's an almost meaningless term.

    Charles, the example you're looking for is which was asked and closed on 26 April 2011, and deleted 23 December 2011.

    But the fact remains that the question was closed--quickly--as being too low-level, even though it is the sort of question that mathematicians find interesting.

    I'm very sorry to say this, but I don't get why this is the sort of question that mathematicians find interesting. IMO the question was trivial (even for beginners in group theory), and I think the OP (who is a respected member of the MO community) simply wasn't thinking. Why was closing it as off-topic so inappropriate?

    I agree that the question about the opposite group is boring and should be closed. I'm not advocating that we allow questions at the undergraduate level, or even questions on "first year graduate" topics (ie the topics that appear on qualifying exams). But I am saying that we should not close questions that are

    1. On topics at the second year graduate level or above.
    2. Not utterly trivial (ie immediate consequences of the definitions, and no reasonable person would not realize this).
    3. Precisely formulated.
    4. Asked in a professional manner.

    I definitely bristle at the thought that you shouldn't ask questions from books! I read a lot of stuff that isn't in my area (for fun!), and I usually try to do the exercises. Certainly I feel like I know when it is in my best interest to think about something vs asking someone, and I'd feel insulted if someone didn't trust me to know this. Once someone has made it past the initial hurdles of grad school (prelims, etc), then I think we should trust them too.

    Also, I really don't like all the calls for people to "show that they've worked on it" or "explain why it interests them". I think it is fine to ask a question out of simple curiosity! And what are you supposed to say -- "I thought about it, tried a few things, and nothing worked"? Let's not nit-pick to death people who add value to this site by asking real math questions.

    Everyone has to make a personal decision as to what kinds of questions they will answer, and I think it is fine to not answer questions that you feel don't meet whatever criteria. My own criteria is "I can answer this without thinking, and I don't think that someone else will do it" (though sometimes I'm bored and violate the second part). But there should be a huge difference between "I don't want to answer this question" and "This question is so bad that it should be closed and the author criticized.".