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    • CommentAuthorJason Dyer
    • CommentTimeOct 21st 2009 edited
    I'm really starting to think the FAQ isn't clear enough to the newbies it is trying to target:

    This is not the place to ask for help with your homework. Try to make sure your question is of interest to at least one other mathematician. Though there are no hard and fast rules about who may post here, the intended audience is professional mathematicians, mathematics graduate students, and advanced undergraduates.

    Yet if you aren't a professional mathematician (or close to becoming one), how would you know what they're interested in? Some of the public likely thinks mathematicians spend all their time sitting around finding the next number of the sequence.

    Some examples (or at least links to ones) of what appropriate and inappropriate questions look like would be really helpful.

    Ultimately, you can't give a formula for what mathematicians will find interesting. If you're not a mathematician, then the only way to find out what they are interested in is to see which questions they think are good and which ones they think are bad; you just have to lurk for a while and get a feel for it. Alternatively, you can be bold and just ask a question, and if it gets down-voted or closed, it's not the end of the world.

    Here's a list of recently closed questions. Non-closed questions can be assumed to be appropriate.

    As we get better indexed by Google, you can produce a good list of examples of inappropriate questions using the search

    Also, as time goes on, which questions get closed will be more organic. Once a user has >3000 reputation, she can vote to close a question, and five such votes automatically closes the question. To a certain extent, this happens now when some people flag a question for moderator attention with a comment explaining that the question is not appropriate for MO. The moderators see these flags and decide to close the question (or not).

    • CommentAuthorajtolland
    • CommentTimeOct 22nd 2009
    Part of the problem may be that people who post inappropriate questions are not the sort of people who read FAQs. (I recall someone complaining that mathoverflow needs to change its motto. Does it even have a motto?)

    @ajtolland: that was this question. The user's comment was

    I see. You know, you guys really need to change the site motto. I suggest "A place to ask questions about Mathematics but only the mathematician type of questions - you know, stuff that isn't talked about as much as having papers written about it. Basically you must have published a paper or in the process of to really make use of any of the resources here."

    and my response was

    When you first visit the site, a bright banner shows up saying "First time here? Read the FAQ" with a link to the FAQ ( If you read it, you'll see that the very first thing it deals with is which questions are appropriate for the site. Our "motto" is pretty close to what you suggested: The primary criterion for determining whether a question is appropriate for Math Overflow is "is this of interest to mathematicians?" By a "mathematician," we mean a person whose primary occupation is doing mathematics.

    I think you're right that there's very little we can do about such users by modifying the FAQ. If you're diligent enough to look at the FAQ, then you're probably going to look around to see if your question is the sort of thing people discuss on the site.

    • CommentAuthorKeci
    • CommentTimeNov 25th 2009
    If we reword this question [] to be: "If you were going to name a math holiday (or make a math joke) about the reason why there are no Clay Liftoff what would that holiday be?" would it then be up to mathoverflow standards?

    If questions of this form are unacceptable that's fine. But could we update the FAQ to reflect this. Currently the only requirement is that the question is of interest to a mathematician. If you don't think this is the case walk down the hallway in your department, stop a random mathematician and say "Do you want to know why Clay has suspended it's liftoff program?" and see how many people say "no." Also in support of the view that this is of interest to mathematicians I offer;
    a. Several mathematician's have asked me this question.
    b. The question got at least two upvotes (presumably by mathematicians).
    c. The question has a very large number of views.

    I can also foresee the argument that the Clay question is a discussion question (which is discussed in the FAQ). However, I fail to see how this is more of a discussion question than, say, "Is there a good math joke?" In fact, while there is no answer to "Is there a good math joke?" presumably there is an answer to "What happened to Clay liftoff?" On the other hand, I can understand prohibiting speculation (discussion of the implications, etc).

    One user who voted the question down said "Seems like something better discussed on a forum or a blog (or in a pub)." This is very misleading. There ISN'T another online forum where this would be answered. Now that isn't, in itself, a reason to allow the question on MO. But let's be honest (I think that is also discussed on the FAQ). If you vote down the question, say something more along the lines: "Off topic. Sorry. Unfortunately there isn't a good way for you get an answer to this question. Sorry!" Alternately, suggest a place where the question would be appropriate and answered.

    Postscript: I apologize for being a bit sarcastic at the top, but I think the point that is made is appropriate. I really do think that the rules need to clarified, or rather made in the first place, and that the current enforcement isn't uniform.

    Also, as a technical matter, isn't it supposed to require 5 votes to close a question. There were only 3 to my question!

    @Keci: some comments:

    0) I agree that the rules need to be clarified. We're working on it through this forum and questions like yours help us in figuring things out.

    1) I believe the people who wanted it closed flagged it as `Gossipy", in contrast to the soft questions you compare it to.

    2) I don't really like the questions you reference either. I'd like the content of this site to be pretty serious overall, and the math jokes question snuck in in the beginning, before we started cracking down on discussion questions.

    3) I think your point "a" is good evidence that this is a question interesting to mathematicians (I'M certainly interested in the answer), but disagree with b and c. As for c, your metric should be votes, not views. Soft questions and questions that could potentially get closed simply get more views. As for b, it got more than two flags, and comments by people who didn't flag it.

    In any case, the reaction your question got from MO users was that it was too gossipy and therefore not appropriate for the site. Maybe we should clarify that gossip is not welcome here? On the other hand no one responded negatively to the question "who might be the next Fields medalist" (though that was before we were discouraging soft questions).


    @Keci: please don't take it personally. Unfortunately, there isn't a secret set of rules for which questions are appropriate on MO that I can just put in the FAQ. It's an evolving standard, and it's largely community driven. Moderators (users with a ♦), 3000+ rep users, and other active users have opinions on what kinds of questions do and don't belong, and these opinions carry various amounts of weight. Moderator votes to close take effect immediately, five votes to close from 3000+ rep users closes a question, and any >15 rep user can flag the post for moderator attention and make the case that the question should be closed (with similar rules for reopening). I think all the above mentioned individuals are reasonable people, whose opinions can be changed. That's part of the point of meta.MO.

    If you (or somebody else) can make a good case that the question should be reopened, I'm happy to reopen it, but let me point out some reasons why I think this particular question should remain closed. If somebody knows the answer to your question, they can leave it in a comment. There isn't any advantage to encouraging people to leave answers as answers. In the other questionable posts you mentioned (math jokes and holidays), there is some value in having people vote various answers up and down, but for your question, if there were more than a single answer, something would probably be wrong. This is the sense in which your question is very much a discussion question. I also think it's a bad discussion question because there are so few people who could provide any input of any value, so it's basically just asking for irresponsible speculation. If you really want to know what's going on with the Clay Liftoff program, you should just email CMI and ask, not post about it on some random place on the internet and hope they come across it.

      CommentAuthorJon Awbrey
    • CommentTimeNov 25th 2009

    Being the sort of person who does read the FAQ when I enter a new site, I wonder if the MOF Management actually read the FAQ they appear to have copied whole hog from SOF — with little more than a few patches here and there. The task of clarifying the real aims and values of the site managers probably ought to begin with reviewing that document and removing the statements whose validity got lost in the translation from SOF to MOF.

    For example:

    Reputation is completely optional. Normal use of Math Overflow — that is, asking and answering questions — does not require any reputation whatsoever.

    Remember, Math Overflow is run by you! If you want to help us run the site, you'll need reputation first. Reputation is a (very) rough measurement of how much the Math Overflow community trusts you. Reputation is never given, it is earned by convincing other users that you know what you're talking about.

    At the high end of this reputation spectrum there is little difference between users with high reputation and moderators. That is very much intentional. We don't run Math Overflow. The community does.

    Seriously, I know it was all the rage a few years back to throw these sorts of sops to community, consensus, and democracy, but that isn't how mathematics works, and it sure isn't how the current management of this site works. Anyone who has made any examination of unchecked-reliability rating systems knows that they never measure what the participation mystique mythology would have us believe they measure. Anyone who has any experience with group dynamics and social networking knows that a whole arena full of up and down thumbers is no substitute for genuine scientific collaboration.

    So I continue to suggest that the site owners examine their true aims and values and make a real attempt to articulate them in a mission statement. It will save everyone who passes this way a lot of wasted time and effort.

    Jon Awbrey

    @Keci, David.
    re: the maths jokes question.
    There's nothing to stop us from closing the question now is there? I just saw it appear again on the front page and flagged it as spam, and I've heard that if enough people do this, it gets automatically closed. Is that true?


    PS, regarding the metric of votes or views I don't think either is adaquete for discerning quality. Perhaps votes per view would be a better approximation, but as long as the votes is positive, I can't see how to discern quality, since different types of people are looser or tighter with their voting powers.

    @Peter: I'm unhappy with the idea of flagging this kind of question as "spam". By all means, vote it down, but I would rather that "spam" be reserved for questions or answers that actually fit the "spam" profile; either being completely irrelevant to such a site or containing offensive words or something like that. To correct you on one thing: if enough people flag it as spam then it gets deleted not just closed.

    Since you seem to be at one end of the spectrum on the issue of "soft questions", maybe I can get you to tell me which of my questions you deem as too soft for MO. I've asked generally a couple of times just so that I can get some sense of what people are actually objecting to.


    Maybe we should clarify that gossip is not welcome here? On the other hand no one responded negatively to the question "who might be the next Fields medalist" (though that was before we were discouraging soft questions).

    In my point of view there is a big difference between two questions. Their most natural interpretation is:

    who might be the next Fields medalist: based on the publicly available information estimate the profiles of mathematicians under 40, then try to select a few who appear to deserve Fields. Use your own judgement.

    why there are no Clay Liftoffs: if you possess an information about the financial state of Clay Foundation, preferably a verifiable information for which you know the chain of how this information was passed from somebody at the Foundation -- then please post this information here together with the brief description of your chain. No, you don't need to post actual names.

    As you see, the questions, as I reformulated, are of completely different type -- successful answer to the last one would require disclosure of private information originally available only to the foundation. If they want to do it, there are, as Anton correctly says, much easier ways for them than posting on Math Overflow.

    In general, gossip can cause an active harm. If we allow this type of questions, somebody will sooner or later cause harm by gossiping and perhaps break the law about the disclosure of confidential information. And if you think about Pentagon papers, note that Consitution prohibits government from censorship, but leaves open the possibility of private lawsuits about breach of privacy (IANAL).

    Therefore I would put my weight (albeit limited) to say that gossipy questions should be actively closed. I also think they should be deleted.

    Online communities have encountered similar problems before. For example, Wikipedia allows quite a lot of pages, but there are special rules about the biographies of living people. There's no reason we should set the bar for ourselves lower than

    Such material requires a high degree of sensitivity, and must adhere strictly to all applicable laws in the United States and to all of our content policies, especially ...

    We must get the article right.[1] Be very firm about the use of high quality references. Contentious material about living persons that is unsourced or poorly sourced—whether the material is negative, positive, or just questionable—should be removed immediately and without waiting for discussion.[2]


    It might be useful to have a bit of the FAQ clarifying things for people who do know about the stackoverflow site. There was a question recently (can't find it now) about '0.999 = 1' which was closed. The asker wasn't too happy about it because it wasn't what he was used to from stackoverflow. Something that got across the basic point that mathoverflow is not "stackoverflow for mathematics" but "stackoverflow for mathematicians".