To help keep Mathoverflow tidy, by speeding up the removal of inappropriate questions, I often flag them and vote them down. In every case, the need for removal is obvious. Almost none of these postings is offensive, and few are spam. Most of them are school homework problems, along with a sprinkling of crank postings. Both these categories are well covered by the description off topic. However off topic doesn't feature among the named options for flagging; so I have to select the other option and type off topic into the box (along with some padding to make up 10 characters).

My question is: Would it be useful to add off topic to the list of named reasons for flagging?

  • $\begingroup$ You description confuses me. If you really flag as "other" and then type "off-topic" this is not what you should be doing. Instead, choose "this question should be closed for another reasons" then selected the appropriate reason for closure (which includes "off-topic" but also "unclear what you are asking" and so on; for "off-topic" there is still one more click as you select the particular "off-topic" reason among several). Sorry, in case this is what you are doing anyway. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Nov 30 '14 at 14:05
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: The OP is not talking about close votes (he has not got enough reputation) but moderator flags. $\endgroup$ – Emil Jeřábek Nov 30 '14 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ If you think a question is inappropriate and should be removed, you should flag it as "low quality". I think this option is available unless the question has positive score. $\endgroup$ – Stefan Kohl Nov 30 '14 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilJeřábek Yes, and so am I. The flagging reasons (can) include "should be closed for another reason" and I recommend to use this flag, the purpose of which is clearly what OP wants to achieve, namely to get a question closed. I added the 'can' since this option is not always present, e.g., it is not present for users that can vote to close, which might be the reason why it was not immediately clear to you what I meant but you could (start to) flag an open question on Mathematics to see what I am talking about. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Nov 30 '14 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ Aha, sorry, I was not aware of that. $\endgroup$ – Emil Jeřábek Nov 30 '14 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ @StefanKohl "school homework problems" should not be flagged as very low quality (except they qualify as very low quality for another reason). Of course they should be put on hold/closed. Therefore OP should flag for closure ("should be closed for another reason") not as very low quality by default. The difference is the review-list in which they are placed and (I think) what happens in case of disputed flags. (IIRC a disputed LQ flag is escalated to a moderator flag, a close flag is not.) $\endgroup$ – user9072 Nov 30 '14 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: Well -- the OP asks about questions where "the need for removal is obvious". Also, as far as I have seen, a "very low quality" flag is considered "helpful" as soon as the flagged question gets closed: e.g. when flagging a question with 4 close votes as "very low quality" and then casting the 5th close vote, the flag is immediately considered "helpful", whereas casting the 5th close vote first and then flagging as "very low quality" doesn't work since that flagging option doesn't exist for closed questions any more. $\endgroup$ – Stefan Kohl Nov 30 '14 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ @StefanKohl homework problems should not be flagged as very low quality in general. I acknowledge that there is some room for interpretation what questions OP had in mind and in my answer I elaborate under which conditions I consider it appropriate (which might or might not be all the OP had in mind). Anyway, I stand by my assertion that the default flag against homework should not be LQ. Yes, closure, is a way how a LQ flag can be cleared. I was talking about what happens if the flag is not cleared by community moderation. (That OP thinks it's obvious does not mean nobody will disagree.) $\endgroup$ – user9072 Nov 30 '14 at 17:55
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    $\begingroup$ It seems that the above comments refer to a list of options different from the 3-item one I get when I click on flag: namely (1) spam, (2) offensive, (3) other (needs moderator's attention). The first type of posting arises rarely, and the second almost never. The third is frequent (mostly school homework questions that are not about research-level mathematics by any stretch of the imagination). $\endgroup$ – John Bentin Nov 30 '14 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnBentin I expanded my answer. It seems you are talking about questions that already are [on hold] (though you did not confirm this despite me asking) while both Stefan Kohl and me where proposing options for open questions. The "other" flag is completely different from spam and offensive flags. To put them in one list as you did obscures the matter and hints at you misunderstanding the respective effects. The first two autodelete the third does not; it really only does what is says, it draws the attention of the mods by creating a notice for moderators in a certain inbox. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Nov 30 '14 at 22:16
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: I did not pick up your question before posting my last comment. Probably the questions I am referring to were already "on hold". But they still clutter the screen, and I flagged them in the (mistaken?) belief that my extra little flagging would help to speed their removal. I did not "put" the 3 options in one list: they are presented on the screen as a single, equally weighted, 3-item list when flag is clicked on. $\endgroup$ – John Bentin Nov 30 '14 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the clarification. What I meant is that you put them in one list for the purpose of this discussion; I should perhaps have said instead treat them as if they were similar. Because, yes, the believe that flagging as "other" speeds their removal is somehow mistaken (at least it does not speed the process as a "spam" flag does), as said, it only brings the post to mod attention and they might do whatever with the information; they might even delete the post, but even if so, this is not the way the system is designed. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Nov 30 '14 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: Only after your explanation do I now understand that there are two quite different ways to delete a question; this is not made clear on the menu. Actually, I haven't thought about whether off-topic posts should be removed one way or another. Perhaps they should be removed like spam and trolling, to avoid bothering the moderators, but with a higher number of flags needed to effect the removal. Slightly off the point: all the posts I flagged were removed in the end. So the removal system is working. If it works faster, then the site benefits from the corresponding reduction in clutter. $\endgroup$ – John Bentin Dec 1 '14 at 0:59
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    $\begingroup$ With that many really low-level rightly so downvoted and clearly inappropriate questions of 1 rep users on the first few pages, I was already wondering if MO is under some kind of (homework) spam attack at present ... So finding a way to deal with them as efficiently as with other kinds of spam might be beneficial to the site. It already does look cluttered to an outsider ... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Dec 1 '14 at 4:54
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    $\begingroup$ You should certainly keep downvoting as this has a direct effect. At -4 a question disapears from the frontpage and it can also be relevant for autodeletion. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Dec 1 '14 at 7:09

If a question is already closed but not particularly offensive, it isn't really necessary to flag for moderator attention. Such posts will be cleaned up by some routine process after a while.

If you do flag such posts with text like "off-topic", it just means that some moderator will take a few seconds to close the flag by clicking a "helpful" button. Most likely, we won't do anything more, but if the front page is really cluttered by such questions, go ahead and flag so we can delete the most noisy ones.


The thing to do if one thinks a question should be put on hold/closed for being off-topic or otherwise unsuitable (while not being offensive or spam), but one does not yet have enough points to vote to close is to flag for its closure. (For details and commentary, see below.)

If the question already is on hold usually the only thing to do is to downvote it if one wants (except if one has enough points to vote to delete, in which case one coudl consider doing this). Closed questions with low score (including the answer score) are autodeleted quite quickly. To do this faster has some drawbacks. In particular, I do not think that to have a flag "off topic" with similar functionality as "spam" and "offensive" is needed or desirable. (The proposal seems to be about introducing this, not about improving it as the "other" flag is completely different in its effect.) To use the "other" flag saying "off-topic" in such a case, seems a strange thing to do to me. This flag only informs the moderators and is completely different from the two other flags. If at all I would flag with saying what I want, namely that the question be deleted. However, I think this is a misuse of a moderators flag. (It appears, however, that in a discussion about a year ago some assertion of a moderator of this site could be taken as encouragement for this type of action. So maybe they want this, though, it still seems strange to me.)

Below I give the details on the flagging dialog for open questions, as there is some confusion in the comments (note this is different for users that can vote).

Flagging for closure is done like this:

  • click "flag"

  • select "it should be closed for another reason"

  • select the more specific reason, which includes "off topic," but also "too broad", "primarily opinion based", "unclear what you are asking" and (again) "duplicate"

  • possibly some additional action, like choosing the sub-reason for "off-topic"

  • press "flag question"

As Stefan Kohl mentions it is also possible to flag as "very low quality" but this should not be done to a question that is written well but too simple to be on-topic; rather it is mainly to be used for posts that are "very low quality" for general reasons, like gibberish. (The consequences of this flag are somewhat different from the one mentioned above.)

The flag "other" plus explanation should not be used for signaling questions that are merely off-topic in a general way. This flag is the way to signal/communicate something to the site's moderator and should be used only if the matter requires the attention of a moderator specifically, that is when the general process of community moderation seems not capable of handling a particular matter.

One could imagine to streamline the above process a bit (it might be this was the purpose of the request), via exposing off-topic in the initial list (as is done for duplicate) for instance, but then the initial list is already somewhat long, too, so it is not clear what is preferable. And, the process of actually voting to close is not much simpler either. I thus do not see an urgent need or even clear benefit for saving a couple of clicks at this point while making the initial list slightly less handy.

It should however be possible to have a bookmarklet that saves some clicks; this exists for for votes to close (but I have not tried it), it should also be possible to have it for flags to close.

  • $\begingroup$ "... but then the initial list is already somewhat long, ..." The initial list has just 3 items (I cut-and-paste; the formatting is lost): "I am flagging this question because it is spam This question is effectively an advertisement with no disclosure. It is not useful or relevant, but promotional. it is offensive, abusive, or hate speech This question contains content that a reasonable person would deem inappropriate for respectful discourse. other (needs ♦ moderator attention) This question needs a moderator's attention. Please describe exactly what's wrong." $\endgroup$ – John Bentin Nov 30 '14 at 21:01
  • $\begingroup$ Where did you try it/on which question? Was the question open? If it is already on hold, just downvote and leave it alone (except there is a huge problem with it, but then this while not being offensive is rare). $\endgroup$ – user9072 Nov 30 '14 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ The list of options I get when flagging on a site where I have points similar to the amount you have are (and open question with score 0): I am flagging this question because: 1. it is spam 2. it is offensive, abusive, or hate speech. 3. it is a duplicate... asked before and already has an answer. 4. it should be closed for another reason... does not meet this site's standards and should be closed. 5. it is very low quality; has severe formatting or content problems. 6. other. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Nov 30 '14 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ The massive amount of low-level clearly inappropriate questions posted by 1 rep users looks like a spam attack of some kind or at least very weird to an outside observer. So efforts to deal with them as efficiently as possible by using the features of the software available that do the job, seem reasonable and can not be called inappropriate at present imho... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Dec 1 '14 at 5:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton: Spam flags are now automatically fed into a system that works to keep actual spam off the network (not just one particular site). By feeding false positives into the system one is decreasing its effectiveness. Also, "spam" it not a shorthand for "I don't like this post". $\endgroup$ – user642796 Dec 1 '14 at 5:20
  • $\begingroup$ @ArthurFischer then MO (and not the whole network as keeping up the level is not important for all sites in the network) probably needs a new feature to deal with the present situation ... The first pages of a research-level site flooded with a massive amount of low-level content has thr same effect as a conventional spam attack; and this has nothing to d with any "I personally dont like such questions". A similar thing happend on Physics SE at the beginning of 2013: The site was suddenly flooded by basic school homework, it was not properly vdealt with, today the level has massively dropped. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Dec 1 '14 at 5:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton I do not know what specifically you are talking about. Moreover, OP posted something similar a year ago, so it is rather not really something that specific I think. Anyway, there are IMO enough measures in place to deal with this. And, I explained some of them. Casting moderator flags is not one of them, as also confirmed by a moderator. Except one believes there are sockpuppets or whatever in the mix, in which case one should however cast a more specific flag than "off-topic". In case of an actual attack one could resort to using the "offensive/abusive" flag (yet not "spam"). $\endgroup$ – user9072 Dec 1 '14 at 7:01
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    $\begingroup$ @quid the first few pages are full of closed downvoted very low-level stuff posted by 1 rep users. I noted this already a week ago or longer before this meta post appeared and wondered what in the world is going on here ... So to me it looks as if the existing measures to deal with the situation are not really efficient. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Dec 1 '14 at 7:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton among the last 100 questions I counted about 30 that are on hold. I do not see anything that unusual there; that's the way it is since a long time. Further, if there were users with many points that would see a problem with those questions only getting deleted after about a week they could cast votes to delete. Hardly anybody does, so it seems not like a major concern for that population. Users with not so many points could donwvote the questions so that they dissapear from the front page and get savely deleted later (as I explained). Some of them might do this frequently. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Dec 1 '14 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ But most do not. (You, for example, cast a grand total of 10 downvotes.) Anyway, I am all for improving the means to keep the site free of off-topic stuff, and I feel I contributed (and continue to contribute though less so) my share to this effort. Even on this very meta question I expanded considerable effort to explain what can be done and to understand what the OP actually wants to achieve and does, since this was not clear, as meanwhile documented. The current proposal is not really a propsal as it is based on a misconception. Do you have a specific proposal? (@Dilaton ) $\endgroup$ – user9072 Dec 1 '14 at 11:08
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    $\begingroup$ Ok @quid concerning the downvoting. About a more specific proposal I would have to think a bit ... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Dec 1 '14 at 11:39

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