MathOverflow + Math.StackExchanage are great resources for learning and talking about mathematics. Often, I can get constructive and informative discussions leading to progress.

MathOverflow is a web site for experts, but what happens if I have a question that is graduate-level but outside my field of expertise. I have gotten down-votes for misusing the terms in a field which I never had a chance to learn. And that point, I don't even know if my terms are incorrect or well-known.

This could create a dis-incentive to be curious and could hinders people in different fields from talking to each other, or learning something new. Sometimes, we are brought to this area naturally by research in another area where result $X$ is not very well-known. And the things experts consider "new" can be somewhat surprising.

Or conversely, can I only ask question on MO in areas where I am already an expert?

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    $\begingroup$ Well thought out questions from non experts are generally well received on MO. I checked a few of your questions. Most got only up votes or no votes at all. Only one got many down votes, and not because of the question, which was fine, but because your comments were deemed unacceptably impolite. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 12:56
  • $\begingroup$ @BillJohnson That particular thread is very interesting. I was not satisfied with the answer given, should I be forced to accept? Maybe my question was phrase wrong. There was a comment about "idle curiosity"... I did not feel it was his place to decide that. So yes, I am asking here about academic best practices, at least as far as MO goes. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ Since that earlier regrettable thread was brought up, and while we are on the topic of dis-incentivizing, it could also be argued that downvoting a mathematically correct answer that was trying to be helpful is also dis-incentivizing. (No, of course one doesn't have to accept that or any answer. But marking it down is something else. A "thanks, but what I was really looking for was..." probably wouldn't have garnered such a counter-reaction.) $\endgroup$
    – Todd Trimble Mod
    Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ @ToddTrimble: Several comments in that thread seem to have now been deleted (if I recall correctly, some of the deleted comments are from other users besides OP). Perhaps that is for the better, but it might make incomprehensible to anyone viewing the question now the reasons for the ``counter-reaction" that you mentioned. This is certainly off-topic, but perhaps a little relevant to incentives/disincentives for activity on the site. $\endgroup$
    – Lucia
    Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ @ToddTrimble the act of pressing the "Ask Question" button and typing has often clarified a lot of doubts on its own before going to press. I have to look up all the references in order to make a sensible question. Sometimes I post questions on Math.SE that I had personally resolved but may be of interest to others. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Lucia Yeah, I deleted those comments (partly in response to a bunch of fresh flags), but only after a long period of hesitation before I decided in the end it really would be best for the health of the site. The ones not from the OP were deleted either because they too were heated, or because they made no sense after deleting prior ones. I'm sorry if that makes matters now hard to follow, but think of me as the cop who says to curious onlookers at an accident site, "nothing to see here, folks; move along now..." $\endgroup$
    – Todd Trimble Mod
    Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ @johnmangual I know the feeling. That's interesting (and generous) what you do at MSE. $\endgroup$
    – Todd Trimble Mod
    Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ There is an opposite problem I have seen. A good question is asked, but non-experts vote to close it, mistakenly thinking it is just an exercise. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 15:39

2 Answers 2


No, of course you should be able to ask questions in areas where you are not expert: that is in large part the point of MO, or is supposed to be the point!

There is however usually an implicit feeling (which seems more and more in effect as MO gets older) that people who bring their questions here should have already done some preliminary work on their questions: making sure they make sense first of all, and that it's not something that a quick google or consultation of standard easily available sources or 15 minutes of good old-fashioned thinking for oneself can clear up in a jiffy. My own experience is that process can take at least 30 minutes or an hour, in cases where you are asking outside your field of expertise. And sometimes significantly longer. Remember what the message says when you hover over the downvote button, "This question does not show any research effort: it is unclear or not useful," and that some users are hard-nosed in interpreting that.

There is no doubt that MO can be rough or intimidating -- just like real life. But we should, generally speaking, honor thoughtful well-posed questions that are (as a rough estimate) past the PhD qualifying exam stage. You should always feel free to bring up concerns that a specific question was unfairly treated here at meta.

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    $\begingroup$ I think that the community should choose with care when to be rough or intimidating. In particular, if a new user is not familiar with how to ask a question, there should be a moderator (or moderator-like) reminder of what should be done to improve the question. In particular, if we want good questions, we should act more in terms of a) editing the question toward the direction desired, and b) explaining the edit (possibly even in the post instead of commenting) to whoever views the question. Gerhard "With Less Intervention Upon Maturation" Paseman, 2014.06.29 $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ @GerhardPaseman Yes, that's sensible advice to keep in mind where applicable. I'll only say that experts can sometimes intimidate even when they don't really mean to and even when there's nothing the matter with the question, and there should be a little more sensitivity on that score as well. $\endgroup$
    – Todd Trimble Mod
    Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ I would hope that we would never choose to be rough or intimidating! $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 18:53

To be on the safe side, you should assume that any question that amounts to an exercise in an undergraduate or graduate textbook will be ignored. To be extra-safe, you should assume this for any mathematics below the level of, say, Harvard's qualifying exam syllabus. That doesn't mean that no one here will answer such a question . . . it just means that you're less likely to get an answer. That being said, I've been stunned at the productivity and helpfulness of this online community. I've had some very useful guidance from several mathematicians here.

I'd guess that your best chance to get input on graduate-level ideas (especially with experienced research professors) is to take an example, rip it to pieces, and have something interesting to say about it. Talking about theorems is a bore. It's much more fun to discuss an example that shows why people care about a theorem. And you might benefit someone by providing them with a new example or a fresh perspective on a standard one. It's still a long shot, though.

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    $\begingroup$ Your remark reminds me of this quip by Beresford Parlett: "Only wimps do the general case. Real teachers tackle examples." (Disclaimer: I don't agree with that.) $\endgroup$
    – Todd Trimble Mod
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 12:19

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