I'm personally quite bothered by the statement on the MathOverflow main page (when not logged in) that "MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians." It seems both false and unnecessarily exclusive, even pretentious. I much prefer the terminology, used elsewhere on the site, of "research level mathematics," e.g. "MathOverflow is a question and answer site on research level mathematics." That sentence's grammar is a bit clunky, and perhaps that's even why the term "professional mathematicians" got used in the first place. But I'm sure we can think of a more inclusive tag line which still reads well.

Again, whatever the alternative should be, I find it highly distasteful and in fact, problematic, that we are suggesting that one should be a paid mathematician in order to use the site -- thereby, on the face of it, rejecting even well-informed and competent amateurs, who certainly can appreciate the beauty and interest of the subject as well as we can. Does anyone else in the community share these views?

Please feel free to edit the question if its wording is problematic, clunky, or too argumentative. Thank you!

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    $\begingroup$ The trouble was, I gather, that people don't know what 'research mathematics' is: often students (or just people generally) trying to find stuff out, i.e. 'researching' a topic, would ask questions (and this is still the case). I hold myself to be a professional research mathematician even though I hold a corporate job that does not use my skills in that area. $\endgroup$
    – David Roberts Mod
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 2:15
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that the term "research mathematics" is rather open ended, and could convey very different things to different people. Perhaps there is a better alternative; in any case, any one sentence description is bound to be incomplete. But the "professional mathematicians" description is simply false! You hold yourself to be a professional mathematician (as do I, though I moved into neuroscience), but I assume there are many people who we'd permit, even encourage, to use the site, who do not? Am I wrong here? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 2:23
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    $\begingroup$ How about, "MathOverflow is a question and answer site for the kind of mathematics that professional mathematicians do"? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 5:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Gerry: If someone pays their five years old niece to sit down and learn basic arithmetics. Is she now considered a mathematician by profession, and if so, can she ask questions on MathOverflow about calculating $124\times 3$? :-) $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 7:22
  • $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson it ought to be a group of persons as it is the value of the variable "target audience" that is displayed there. Now one could do something similar with a group too like "persons with skills comparable to professional mathematicians." But either way I feel such constructs rather draw more attention to this and are ultimately worse. $\endgroup$
    – user9072
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 9:00
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    $\begingroup$ "MathOverflow is a question and answer site for people isomorphic to professional mathematicians." $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 11:00

1 Answer 1


There are several aspects to this questions. But in brief:

Almost noone likes the text "professional mathematicians" but it still felt like the relatively best solution.

Now several points in detail:

  • Historically, we had just "mathematicians" there, which caused some confusion and some said we should be more clear regarding the level of the site to avoid frustration with closed questions.

  • Technically, the phrase you mention is not really free-form. But of the form

    {Site-name} is a question and answer site for {target audience}.

    In addition there is also the sites {on-topic}, which is "research level mathematics." These variables are used elsewhere too. So, to change that phrase would be first inconvenient and second it would nor fully solve the problem as the {target audience} is used elsewhere. For example in this list of all sites Moreover see this old meta question and the comments there What should the "hover text" for the MathOverflow link on all SE sites be?

  • Community opinion in the end was in favor of this phrase, even though many of those in favor still shared some of you misgivings. Note that the wording was decided by vote What should the "hover text" for the MathOverflow link on all SE sites be?

  • Other sites use a similar phrasing and it seems more clear than alternatives. In an academic context the word "professional" is perhaps not optimal, but it will be easier to comprehend than alternatives for many.

  • Target audience does not mean that it is exclusively for this audience. The site is for professional mathematicians, in the sense that it tries to satisfy the needs of this community. It is "designed for" them, not "reserved for" them. Like, some high-end printer, camera or other tool might be produced "for professionals," but everybody that knows to handle it and is willing to pay for it is still welcome to buy it.
    See this earlier discussion Are professional Physicists, Computer Scientists, Engineers, Economists... not allowed to ask questions at MO?

To sum it up: there were many discussions on this point over the years, I only linked some of the most recent ones, and you are certainly not alone in your concern. However, many things considered, it still seemed like the best solution.

  • $\begingroup$ I suggest the option "professional mathematics" to replace "professional mathematicians". We are more interested in controlling content than in controlling contributors. I see it as a minor improvement on not excluding people by description. Gerhard "Or Perhaps Say 'Grant-Funded Mathematics'?" Paseman, 2015.07.24 $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ @GerhardPaseman there is "target audience" and "on-topic" the latter is research-level mathematics. To have "professional mathematics" as target audience just does not work so well, see: "MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematics. It's built and run by you as part of the Stack Exchange network of Q&A sites. With your help, we're working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about research level mathematics." Okay, it is not terrible there but really not good either, and I think there are other places where it is worse. $\endgroup$
    – user9072
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that there is potential awkwardness (awkwardosity?) in my suggestion. However, does it cost more than it gives in return? I understand wanting to stick to type for the purpose of the templates, but such sticking to type may be even more expensive than the alternative. Gerhard "Be Individual In Your Conformity" Paseman, 2015.07.24 $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 22:48
  • $\begingroup$ @GerhardPaseman IIRC, that paragraph used to be: 'MO is a Q&A site for research mathematicians to ask questions about research-level mathematics.' it would then have read 'MO is a Q&A site for research mathematics to ask questions about research-level mathematics.' which seems just impossible. My point is it is quite likely at some point somebody will write some template using {target audience} that just does not work if it is not a group of individuals. (Maybe there even is one 'live' but I do not know.) $\endgroup$
    – user9072
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ It is also not quite clear to me why this is such a relatively big deal here. For example (my emphasis) Mathematics is for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. $\endgroup$
    – user9072
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 23:07

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