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    Ravi tells me he's applying for a large grant with a bunch of people. He wants to know if he should put MO in the buget. Here are the relevant bits of the email he sent me.

    (i) As I understand it, the actual necessary costs remain $0, and will be so for the foreseeable future. If that's not true, or if some money can help at all, please let me now.

    It's correct that I haven't even given SO Inc. any kind of billing information (they haven't asked for any). I've actually tried to press them a bit to take some money from us, but without success. Why do I want to pay them so much? If we pay them for the site, it's clear exactly how everybody benefits, but if they're doing us the "favor" of hosting the site for free, it's not sufficiently clear what's in it for them, so I worry that we may end up in a position where we have make a decision which does wrong by MO to repay the favor. Unfortunately, it looks like this will remain up in the air for the forseeable future.

    (ii) If (i) is completely taken care of: I know that MO takes a lot of volunteer time. I'm not sure about the distribution of the back end effort (not the moderating, which should certainly be completely volunteer), so I'm going to assume for the sake of argument that it is all you. One possibility we'd like to think about is to ask for $10000/year to pay (you) for this. More precisely, we would ask for $5000 per month for 2 months in the summer (although of course the effort wouldn't be concentrated in the summer). This would reasonably combine with grad school or a postdoc.

    I certainly don't object to getting paid for things I'm going to do anyway, but I want to be extra careful not to create any conflict of interest, or even the possible perception of a conflict of interest. As far as I can tell, there wouldn't be any such conflict, but this is an issue where I think community opinion is very important, so I'm bringing this question to meta.

    Cons: If many people feel like introducing money spoils the intention, goals, or decision processes involved in running MO, I'd rather keep things just as they are. We have an awesome community of volunteers running MO, both as official moderators and as helpful high-rep users. I don't want these people to feel like the project has been compromised. Any decision that would reduce this kind of generous participation would be a bad one.

    Another important question is whether many people feel like this would compromise my ability to make future decisions on behalf of the MO community. Perhaps this is mitigated by the fact that this money would be coming out of Ravi's grant, so he effectively becomes an oversight committee.

    When migration comes up, I'd like the MO community to be united on terms of migration and the reasons for them. We've already decided that maintaining administrative access (e.g. full database dumps, control of banners, control of custom javascript) is extremely important, otherwise we would be putting too much power in the hands of a for profit company run by non-mathematicians; nice as they are, their interests could very easily part with the interests of the mathematical community. I worry that demanding administrative access might be recast as an attempt to protect a source of income.

    Pros: Aside from the obvious pro of padding my buget, I like the idea of being able to allocate some money for things like stickers, t-shirts, cakes, and posters. These expenses are tiny enough that they've easily been paid out of pocket so far. One real potential benefit is that if we can convince SO Inc. to take some money in exchange for more control after migration, I could comfortably pay that out of pocket so we wouldn't have to wait for another grant application to go through.

    If you have any thoughts or opinions about this stuff, please post them here. My feeling is that community opinion is the most important factor in this decision, so I'd really like to get some feedback. Ravi says he needs to get the grant together very soon (next couple of days). Hopefully that leaves enough time to hash things out an make the best decision.


    I should probably preemptively clarify that this money wouldn't be for moderation duties, but for long-term development of MathOverflow. I can't say exactly what this will mean in the future, but I can give some examples from the past:

    • getting math to render, integrating it into the editor
    • writing code for producing public database dumps
    • generating arXiv trackbacks
    • adding citation links

    @Anton: I am distinctly in favor of your getting paid for your administrative work on MO. To me it sounds like a confluence of interests, not a conflict.

    @Anton : I also think it is a fine idea for you to be paid for your administrative work. I can't imagine that anyone would protest, especially given that things are set up so that most moderation is done by other people.

    As far as how that would affect our relationship with SO, I suspect that we all see the (long term) writing on the wall anyway, so I wouldn't worry about it.
    I think it's totally reasonable for you to get paid, and especially if we're not getting tech support from the SO people it'll be important to have someone being paid some amount of time for improving the site.

    I like this idea a lot, especially if it means that you'll stay as MO administrator for as long as possible. You said that you were considering stepping down at some point within the next two years (or something like that), and I hope that this will change that. I'm very happy with the way you run things, so I hope you'll stay on as administrator and leader for many years to come!


    I'm in favour of paying for MO with grant money in whatever respect Ravi and Anton think reasonable.

    In general, I think that things like MO should be controlled by the mathematical community. In practice, this means that they should be controlled by specific mathematicians.

    Incidentally, Anton's point about the relationship with SO could extend further to the other technical stuff like getting MathJaX to work. It would be fine to pay a non-mathematician to do that - thus freeing Anton up for doing some research! - so long as the decisions were made by a mathematician. Indeed, it may be that paying someone to do the technical stuff would make it possible for Anton to stay on as Top Mathmower for a little longer.

    • CommentAuthorHJRW
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2010

    Anton, I second (or is it sixth?) the idea that it's completely reasonable for you to be paid.


    Eighthed. And I second Andrew's long-term suggestion of potentially hiring someone else as technical staff, with Anton or another mathematician still calling the shots at the top.

    NInthed and thirded. Especially the bit about cakes.
    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2010
    As long as MathOverflow remains "your baby", it seems reasonable to have you manage it as seems best for
    the goals you have in mind for it. However,...

    Consider the analogy of a private company going public. When outside funding is received, then
    a CEO, board of directors, and stockholders meetings become more important. A corporate entity
    can make certain decisions and be sued for whatever harm, real or imaginary, it can create. I don't
    know about the legal responsibilities of philanthropic foundations, but I imagine something similar holds
    for them.

    At some point, Math Overflow may need to become official, either as a corporate entity, a unit of
    some larger research entity, or in some other form where it is managed by many in a large and systematic
    fashion. In such a form it may need a rainy day fund, or a war chest, or something for legal defense.

    If something like the above is intended for the long term, I recommend drawing a prospective
    budget, getting a treasurer, and setting up a bank account. Maintain enough records to be
    transparent as needed, but let as few people as need to know how much money is available so that
    the organization keep a low profile.

    For the short term, many of us think that you deserve some reward for your efforts. People who
    are further removed might think "Why is this guy getting money when there are other moderators
    who aren't getting a dime?", and so might think something funny is going on. So however it turns
    out, keep your policies of accountability and responsible management, and you should find enough
    people in your corner to help you defend your actions, if it ever should come to that. I count
    myself as one of those people.

    (Most people would not object to a low budget party thrown for the moderators and a few, shall we say,
    "clients". Just keep the receipts and make sure your accountant says you can expense it off.)

    Gerhard "Don't Ask Me About Taxes" Paseman, 2010.10.11
    Sure it makes sense for Anton to get paid.

    Following up on Gerhard's comments: it might make sense to get in touch with Neil Sloane and look at the model that the Integer Sequences site has followed.

    On the "other moderators" aren't getting a dime issue: I'm very happy with the proposal, and I expect the other moderators are too. For one, Anton is currently the "most junior", professionally speaking, so the support proposed is certainly best directed at Anton. But much more importantly, this isn't intended as payment for moderation. It's a little confusing, as Anton does also do moderation work, but it should be kept clear that moderation is a volunteer and community process. It's best if this is thought of as for "development" work, although not necessarily in the sense of writing code.

    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2010
    Where money is involved, indeed it is best to keep things clear. I think it's OK for the money trail
    to look funny to outsiders, as long as you have a written explanation for why it is so, and the
    explanation makes sense. Thus my use of the words accountability and responsible and transparent.

    The suggestion of looking at projects like OEIS is a good one. It might help to talk to someone
    inside the National Science Foundation, or some similar government agency, to get their take on
    the possibilities.

    Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2010.10.11
    • CommentAuthorE.S
    • CommentTimeOct 12th 2010



    Is someone going to use inaccessible cardinals next? Anyhow, I have no objection to what is being proposed.

    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeOct 12th 2010

    I take the first cardinal inconsistent with ZFC...

    I too think it would be great if this were done à la OEIS.


    @Anton: +$10000

    • CommentAuthorRavi Vakil
    • CommentTimeOct 13th 2010
    Thanks for everyone's comments! Sadly, for unrelated reasons, this grant application isn't going to happen, so in some sense this discussion is moot. But I think this discussion will be relevant for things that could happen in the future. As all of you know, MO is greatly appreciated far beyond the (large) numbers of people who are posting a lot. The work that goes into it tends (in my opinion) to be of the sort that is sometimes under-appreciated by the larger mathematical community. Moderation should (in my mind *must*) be volunteer. The back end work takes a lot of time, and MO has only worked because this back end work was done out of the goodness of people's hearts. If some financial support makes its way to those putting in this time for a year or two, this is only a good thing (so long as there are zero strings attached, and the community fully sees that). No one is going to retire to the Bahamas on this of course; but it may help ensure MO's longevity. On a related note, if MO starts to need funding to continue, I think there are avenues to pursue, but this seems not yet relevant.