I recently made the transition from student to professor, and now I have a research student of my own. She keeps coming up with wonderful ideas, and I keep feeling like "surely this has been studied somewhere already." It doesn't help that the directions she is interested in going are different than what I've studied in the past. What I do in a situation like this is ask a question on mathoverflow for a reference request. So I was about to do that, but then I realized that it's her research project so she should be the one asking. Furthermore, she'll probably be the one interacting with those who answer, so she really needs to be the one asking because she's never had an account before and doesn't have the reputation to comment.

I'm mildly concerned that her question will not be well received by the community, whereas if it was posted by me it would be (since I have a high reputation already and experience asking questions). I want her to be comfortable using MathOverflow, so I'm trying to smooth over her first interaction to help achieve this goal.

Q1: Do we have or would we like to have a mechanism in place for faculty members and their students to co-own a question?

Q2: Do we have or would we like to have a mechanism in place for more experienced members of the community to "endorse" a new question from a new user, e.g. if it's a student.

Q3: Can you think of some other mechanism which could help with this situation? Or do you think the situation is fine as is?

I feel like these mechanisms would help encourage student users, who might not currently be asking questions out of fear that they'll get closed. I'm looking forward to hearing what people think about this issue.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you can judge what is on-topic here, and guide your student to write a well-formulated MO question. At least in my opinion it is better that the student owns the question if it is theirs -- introducing advisors 'co-owning' posts on MO would feel strange, I think. If you feel you would like to give some support, you could encourage your student to refer to you in the question, and afterwards maybe post a supporting comment. $\endgroup$
    – Stefan Kohl Mod
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ A group of people can decide to formulate and ask a question together even if there is no student-advisor relation between them, but I think it is always best to have a clear corresponding author. If necessary, you can indicate co-ownership with a little end remark. Also vote up and add to favorites to follow! If someone (professor, student, or anyone else) has good questions and answers to offer, their contribution will be received well. If you help her get started, I'm sure she'll be welcome and learn quickly how MO works. I see no reason to keep your student away from the wonderland of MO. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ Having people share an account seems to have fewer issues (the major one being appearance of multiple styles and personalities, in my opinion) than people forming a cabal and abusing the voting system with multiple accounts. Make sure that you and she do not create the appearance of the latter, primarily by having her not vote initially. Gerhard "Multiple Accounts, Not Multiple Votes" Paseman, 2015.01.27 $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ What should be the technical effect of this "endorsement"? $\endgroup$
    – user9072
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ Well, she asked the question last night and it got closed. So now I am going to edit it and try to re-open it. I believe that when I try to re-open it'll ask me if I'm willing to sponsor it or something, so that answers quid's question about what an endorsement might look like. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, I edited it. Here's the link if anyone is interested to see how this plays out: mathoverflow.net/questions/195046/…. I should have vetted the question as Gerhard suggested, but now we'll see if the edit and reopen strategy works or not. We do seem to close questions from new users very easily nowadays. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 13:09
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    $\begingroup$ I reopened. As I said in a comment there, I do think the closing votes were reasonable. You might need to guide your student in the craft of formulating good MO questions. $\endgroup$
    – Todd Trimble Mod
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Todd. Thanks. I agree about the closing votes, which is why I made such an extensive edit to give the context. I'll use this as a teachable moment. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ I do not feel my question was answered, and I have no idea what you mean when you say that "it'll ask me if I'm willing to sponsor it or something" as there is merely a confirmation dialog. $\endgroup$
    – user9072
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 21:27
  • $\begingroup$ @quid: when I voted to reopen, a dialogue popped up saying "are you sure you want to sponsor this question for reopening?" So at that moment I was throwing my support behind my student. My question here was wondering if any formalized method of professors mentoring their students on MO would be supported by the community or what that would look like. I explicitly did not propose a model; I was hoping one might bubble up. The effect would hopefully be that the community would interact with the student in a mentoring way rather than in a harsh way as we sometimes seem to do. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ I think MO has gotten less friendly towards new users. Many of my early posts would now be closed and I probably would have become disillusioned. I suspect others who joined as grad students in 2010 or so feel similarly. Personally, I blame the close queue, since people can vote to close without really reading things (and they even get a badge for slogging through the queue long enough). I'm not sure if the community wants to be friendlier to students or not, so that's what I was trying to get at. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ This is a broad issue. The threshold for a question to "pass" definitely increased. I would not blame the close queue too much as this happened earlier already. It does contribute though likely. But this leads us off-topic. $\endgroup$
    – user9072
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ On the proposal: I do not like the idea for a multitude of reasons. A main one is that if there is a problem for new users/students then we should try to fix it for everybody, not just those that happen to know somebody around here. Going the way that you propose might well make the situation for those "outside" still worse. One of the nice things about MO is/was that it opened a way to a community of research mathematicians also to those that did not have access to it naturally. $\endgroup$
    – user9072
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ On the technicality: it does not say "sponsor" at least not for me, it says "nominate." And this is as standard a confirmation dialog as it gets. It could say just as well "Are you sure you want to vote to reopen?" $\endgroup$
    – user9072
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 10:30

2 Answers 2


Regardless whether there is a need for an endorsement mechanism, here are a few useful things to help students.

  1. Help your student compose the question. MO users love well worded and well researched questions. As an experienced MO user, you know what that means and you know what kind of flaws get a question closed. If possible, immediately give an upvote: that's good for your student's ego and most users will look more carefully at a question before voting to close if it has one upvote.
  2. Allow your student to mention you by name as well as your relationship to them. (Do help them wording this!) That helps in two ways. First, it gives some context that the question is not asked for homework that students are expected to complete or to do research for on their own. Second, it gives a certification that basic research has been done. (It's perfectly fine if the question ends up being an easy question outside your areas of expertise. That's what you would use MO for anyway! Isn't it?)
  3. Don't underestimate student's ability to handle the community closing their question, but do offer support if it does happen. Everybody gets their ego bruised now and then. Students are especially subject to this. (Instructors know "there is no such thing as a dumb question" but we also know that's not always what the classroom thinks!) Most students have healthy ways to deal with this. In the event their ego gets bruised on MO, make it clear that has zero impact on your relationship with them nor does it have any impact on their academic progress nor does it have any impact in their future career in mathematics.
  4. Keep in mind that nothing is obvious to students. By definition, students have little to no experience, or they at least have some lacunas: even our best students have something to learn! Fortunately, they have a fantastically experienced instructor like you to rely on...

To repeat all of the above in a simple motto: be supportive!

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    $\begingroup$ I think this answer is great! (and I thought that even before I got to the part where you called me "fantastically experienced"). Thanks for sharing your advice. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 2:17

If you have closed questions, you could use those to point out that not everyone asks a good question the first time. She needs to develop her own resources as well as her own way of asking, otherwise there is the risk of her forming a dependence or developing a bad habit instigated by others.

Encourage her to post. Vet the question, and respond with something like "It might fly." if, well, if it might fly. If it gets closed, pay attention to the comments, and other useful feedback. Serve as a MathOverflow guide, but not as a MathOverflow teacher.

Guidelines for a new student/member: pace yourself. Don't ask too much too quickly. Get a well focused and narrow question that is ideal for the site. Save the other questions for later. Include brief motivation. Don't advertise. Check the search function to see if there are related questions before you ask. Do a web search before you ask. Include references as needed. If a similar question/answer is helpful but still not on the mark, explain why and what kind of answer might be useful. Read the FAQ one more time before posting. If in doubt, try meta.mathoverflow.net or math.stackexchange.com first. Don't take the votes too seriously, and don't worry about how long it takes to get feedback.

Gerhard "Use Signatures Carefully And Meaningfully" Paseman, 2015.01.27

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    $\begingroup$ If she provides useful answers, you can upvote one or two of them to get her toward commenting reputation, as long as it does not become an abuse of the system. You can also upvote her question, but that is a slower path to functional reputation. Gerhard "Voting Up Comments Feels Good" Paseman, 2015.01.27 $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer. I should have done a better job of vetting it, as you suggested. I will also direct her attention to the FAQ before her next post. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 2:18

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