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    Lately, I've seen some questions (not very many) along the lines of "What is the definition of X?" or "What do you think about X?" where X might be something quite involved, and the asker doesn't provide any background or motivation. I'm tempted to close these as "not a real question" because it feels to me like it's wasting the time of whoever is polite enough to answer. If I were a 3000+ rep user rather than a moderator, I would definitely vote to close. For now, I just downvote the question and leave a comment to the effect of "please ask a more specific question."

    Am I over-reacting? Do other people want to see these kinds of questions? Certainly there are some examples where the question is appropriate (e.g. What is the field with one element?) which don't fall into the offensive category I'm trying to describe.

    I think you may be over-reacting a little bit. I mean, downvoting such questions and complaining in comments is reasonable, but I think that's about the right level of opprobium. Honestly, it sounds like you're annoyed with one particular person who's been posting a long series of questions like this, so maybe you should have a chat with him.
    • CommentAuthoralekzander
    • CommentTimeOct 27th 2009
    I think I have to agree with Anton. It's hard to gauge what level of response to give to such a vague question: definition, or motivation, or historical context?
    I agree with everyone :-) I'm not too enthusiastic about these questions, but downvoting and a chat seem most appropriate.

    I also think we should consider a "mathoverflow is not an encyclopedia" ethos at some point. People shouldn't be asking questions just because they'll prompt someone (else!) to write an encyclopedia entry.

    @bwebster: I wanted to confirm that I'm not the only one who feels this way. I also wanted to get other peoples' opinions about the right way to handle this kind of thing. A chat is a most appropriate suggestion. Also, now I can point people to this thread whenever I come across this kind of a problem.

    @Scott: I really like the "MO is not an encyclopedia" slogan.

    One question I was worried about as encyclopedic was
    @alekzander: That's fair, but I think we should encourage people to ignore these questions, rather than close or delete them.

    @Scott: Just one more piece of evidence that this is a one-person-trend.
    I'm glad this interesting question came up and is being discussed.

    First a little introduction. I'm the author of the question about Floer homology ( which apparently started this topic as well as the author of

    Second, I do strive to learn to write things better, which is one of the reasons why I often revisit my old questions and edit my new questions a lot. It's indeed very often that I myself find my question not well-written and completely reedit it, so I know you must have the urge to edit, downvote or close my questions as well.

    If you're interested in this discussion, would it be possible to have it in a conversation format? I see I've been identified me as the person behind an unwelcome trend, but I don't think this should be bad news. Rather, I think it should be good news: I certainly know I'm here to learn; given that, identifying the problem would improve an already great site a lot.

    If you want to talk about the specific question of mine, that one isn't as general as many people have naively guessed - read the comments, the Wikipedia page and the answer for details if you prefer. But I agree it could be much better.

    If one talks about the general practice of me posting vague questions -- well, I'm putting a moratorium on it indeed if the consensus has found it to be detrimental to the well-being of the community. You do need to tell me how my questions are different from those of others for me to be able to be more effective.
    Next, here are my comments from the question, which I posted since I started replying to Anton's comments without noticing the meta discussion.

    I think you're misunderstanding what I was asking for in this question. I provided the details about what I know (Floer homology) and asked what properties does some well-known construction have. I expected my level and question to be quite obvious for an expert in symplectic geometry. So I don't really see it as different from the questions other people ask in areas like algebraic geometry. Now as for "serious thinking" -- if right now I open a reference and spend an hour trying to answer a specific question, does that count to you? – Ilya Nikokoshev 1 hour ago

    "It wastes the time of whoever is polite enough to answer the question because it doesn't give them any idea where you're coming from; the only option is to write an article. " -- just to let me stop wasting your time having this discussion, could you verify this with Steven Sivek, the poster below, before continuing to make this claim? – Ilya Nikokoshev 1 hour ago

    But for the record, yes, I know that I often pose ill-defined questions and everybody will benefit if I put more effort into improving them. – Ilya Nikokoshev 1 hour ago

    Also, I looked into nLab and I agree it's better suited for long questions that ask things like "What is the area X". It's good you helped me to find it. If I knew where to put it, I would be happy to write a post about "What MathOverflow is and isn't" with references to sites like nLab, and explanations that would also help others. – Ilya Nikokoshev 1 hour ago
    To summarize everything in one sentence, can we meet halfway on this: I won't be posting inappropriate questions, and you'll discuss here which ones are inappropriate and be slightly more gentle about giving people the ability to respond before branding the person as a problem?

    @ilyani: I'm glad you joined this discussion, and that you're thinking about this. I hope you don't take my objections to your questions personally.

    The reason I brought this up here on meta is that I can't quite put my finger on what it is that I find objectionable about these questions. But it looks like other people agree with me that MO is best suited for "questions that have an answer". Obviously, "what is X?" is a question that has an answer, so let me try to elaborate what I mean by this. Everybody who visits MO knows basically how to learn and do mathematics. But we all get stuck sometimes, and this is where I imagine MO saving the day. When you're stuck, you can go to MO and say "I'm trying to do X. How can I do that? Does this work? Does anybody have a reference?" The idea being that for an expert, it should take very little effort to understand your confusion and set you on the right path. Or maybe a non-expert has come across the same sticking point and can explain how she resolved it.

    Of course, I do think there is a place for big picture questions on MO, but even these philosophical questions should "have answers." An excellent example of a big picture question (and answer) is Limit Linear Series. Notice that even though this is a big picture philosophical question, it is definitely very to the point. In this case, an expert was able to see the question, understand very quickly exactly what problem the asker was having, and provide a succinct to-the-point answer.

    Even opinion questions have some place at MO. Though the MO framework is terrible for discussions (by design!), the voting mechanism makes it useful for making sorted lists of useful resources. Obviously, these kinds of questions should be community wiki.

    Obviously, I don't actually have any more experience with MO than anybody else, but I did spend several months thinking about it. I'm glad that there are smart people here on meta to discuss exactly what niche(s) MO should fill. Here are some of my opinions about what MO is not (subject to change/addendum, of course). I'm happy to hear other people's thoughts.

    • "MO is not the place for help with your homework." Hopefully, this one is crystal clear to everybody by now. There are lots of other sites where students can ask for math homework help. I don't think MO should take over that niche.
    • "MO is not a discussion forum." Though there's place for opinions, MO is absolutely the wrong framework for having a discussion. Discussions are more appropriate on blogs or threaded forums. I don't think MO should take over that niche.
    • "MO is not an encyclopedia." As I discussed above, MO should be a place for "questions with answers." My understanding is that nLab is a good place to ask for expository articles about a topic. I don't think MO should take over that niche.
    @ilya My apologies for picking on you. I've been really impressed by your enthusiasm for the site, and I'm even more impressed by how willing you are to discuss and argue about its appropriate future development!

    Can we move the "MO is not" into the FAQ? I'd like to be able to link to it when leaving comments to close. For "MO is not an encyclopedia" I think we should actually point to wikipedia *first*, then nLab, as Ben said elsewhere.
    I have a stupid habit of thinking about the idea, posting it and only then finding out that this idea has been already posted by the others :) As you see from my new topic I think the regular FAQ can't cover all the topics, mostly because one needs to have certain familiarity with MO to be able to understand the contents of new FAQ I propose.

    I've updated the FAQ. As always, feedback is welcome.

    The FAQ formatting is currently broken starting from "use your real name as your username".

    @Ilya: good catch. I missed a slash. It should be fixed now.

    • CommentAuthorKevin Lin
    • CommentTimeOct 31st 2009
    I think I am also guilty of having asked at least a couple "what is X?" questions. I'll try to cut down on it. I think that there should be a (either implicit or explicit) rule of "check wikipedia/nLab/google first before asking a general-ish question". Maybe you can say something along these lines in the FAQ?

    @Anton: The sentence "People who visit this site knows basically how to learn and do mathematics" is a bit weird/confusing.

    @Kevin: You're right that is an awkward, non-grammatical sentence. I've changed it in the FAQ to "Math Overflow visitors should know how to learn new things and do mathematics on their own, but we all get stuck sometimes, and this is where MO saves the day." I was considering using "Math Overflowers" instead of "Math Overflow visitors", but I wasn't sure if it would abbreviate to MOers or MOflowers.

    MOflowers, definitely.

    I'm a bit worried about being referred to as a "MOflower" as I'd be very worried about meeting a "MOwer".


    What about this question:

    The wikipedia article is pretty terse, and categorification seems more like a yoga than a precise thing, so I feel like it might be okay, but it feels borderline.


    My personal thoughts without any pretense they're useful and without any conclusion + a crazy idea.

    People upvote both the question and the answer, so this question must is useful -- I quick glance confirms that the answers are useful. Does the one-line question itself add more value then an average voted-10 questions? Perhaps yes.

    On the other hand, sure, I also wanted to learn about categorification but I took time and read the Baez text some time ago, long before Math Overflow existed. Most regulars here likely did something similar at some point of their lives as the resources are plentiful.

    Does it make sense that a person who doesn't provide any indication that s/he actively thought about the question (there's no indication to the contrary, either, so this should not be interpreted as picking on the particular question) is now directing the discussion about it, and, yes, reaping the reputation benefit? If it does, tomorrow a nontrivial number of people will be posting a list of questions "What is XXX" using the dictionary. Heck, it's not hard to write a bot to do that and the competition in bot writing doesn't seem like a good plan for the site.

    It's ironic that initial part of this thread was devoted to discussing essentially one person (me) using as the main example the sl_2(R) question -- that one actually was a continuation of an old conversation, both spoken and email, with David Vogan, where I wanted to learn a bit of "real" representation theory and he should get the credit for answering the "stupid" parts of my question (which were therefore not posted). And no, even though I accepted the answer with the reference to park city/ias proceedings, that answer is useless to me about 300 miles away from any half-decent public math library - writing an overview article would be a much better answer for me. One is welcome to say, of course, that having a smart person who could be doing something else instead wasting time on writing overview articles for me (or someone else, for that matter) would lower the overall society benefit -- I won't argue with this point of view, it may very well be so.

    Also, some of my other questions were worse, and given that I know about my conversation problems, including "annoying people who have better things to do rather then explain me obvious things", I plead guilty as charged (sometimes better to try to work it out with the prosecution :) )

    This makes me go back to the original question: what is the strategy to apply to what-is questions. The only suggestion I came up with so far is thus: [turn the craziness filtering off] one could write a bot that posts all possible what-is questions using Wikipedia + the dictionary, as well as all open problems. Then if somebody wants to post another one, it can be immediately closed as a duplicate. Meanwhile, there will be nothing preventing people who want an answer to particular what-is question from upvoting it and nothing stopping people who like it from writing overview articles, with everyone clearly understanding how the process works. [turn the craziness filtering on].

    Now the above strategy might sound impractical, but perhaps the policy exists with practical results that would be indistinguishable from the results above for a typical observer. That is, one could try to act as if such a bot existed and had already posted all what-if questions and open problems.