(Neil Strickland provided a link to early graduate level questions: MO or Math.SE? which more or less answers this, so I have marked it as a duplicate)

Every now and then I encounter questions which are like this.

It is next to trivial not only for specialists in the corresponding field, but also for those who have studied that field a bit.

On the other hand, it seems to be quite probable that this question occurs to a newcomer in the field who has just begun studying it, and it might be very helpful for such a person.

In such cases I stay uncertain whether I should upvote the question or, on the contrary, it even does not belong on MO.

On one hand, it might be quite helpful for, say, first year graduate students.

On the other hand, the question is not very deep, and may be viewed as research level only in the sense of some earliest stage of research, involving studying existing knowledge in the subject.

Are such "newbie-style" questions considered as appropriate for MO?

Note that it is not unusual for such questions to have quite a few upvotes.

  • 9
    $\begingroup$ That depends on the nature of the question, and to some extent on the user who is asking it. If they are someone who has earned some leeway (through real world reputation, or through activity on the site), I would imagine people could swallow that pill. If it is asked by a relatively new and unfamiliar face, it is likely to be met with more scrutiny. Nevertheless, there is no exact threshold to be crossed here, it's all very fuzzy, and is therefore often played by ear on a case to case basis with variables such as direction of the wind or alignment of Jupiter and Mars. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 8:52
  • 28
    $\begingroup$ The answer to the question asked is "no, there doesn't seem to be a consensus on this." Personally, I believe that our standard should be that questioners have the sophistication of someone who is doing research in math as a whole -- so faculty or grad students from the 2nd year up or so -- not that they specifically are as knowledgeable in the area of the question as someone who is studying that area. I want to be able to come here and ask basic questions about differential geometry, logic and analysis when they come up in things I am thinking about. $\endgroup$ Commented May 25, 2017 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ I think how to deal with such questions depends mainly on how they are formulated (did the asker take the time to formulate a clear and concise question without a lot of grammar- or spelling mistakes?) and who has asked them (is it an anonymous user who has contributed only other poor questions or nothing so far, or is it rather a known colleague or an established user of the site?). The goal should be on the one hand to prevent abuse of the site, and on the other to make the site as useful to the community as possible. $\endgroup$
    – Stefan Kohl Mod
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 16:48
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    $\begingroup$ See also meta.mathoverflow.net/questions/2399 $\endgroup$ Commented May 26, 2017 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, @Neil, I was not attentive enough when looking for related questions, this one seems to subsume mine. $\endgroup$ Commented May 26, 2017 at 16:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of early graduate level questions: MO or Math.SE? $\endgroup$ Commented May 26, 2017 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ I think that such questions are appropriate for MO if the relevant information can't be found online using the terms in the formulation of the question (sometimes things go under "strange" names) and/or if a random professional mathematician could not provide the information ad hoc (by random mathematician I mean someone capable of mathematical reasoning, but possibly from an unrelated field) $\endgroup$ Commented May 27, 2017 at 7:20
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    $\begingroup$ @StefanKohl I really don't like the idea of dealing with a question according to how established the asker is on MO. E.g., people might have closed mathoverflow.net/q/38639/6518 if it were asked anonymously. $\endgroup$
    – Kimball
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 0:27
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ It may be defensible, but to me it feels a little weird to close this as a duplicate, as if the older thread has an answer and that settles the matter. MO is still evolving, and this is a topic we have to keep revisiting and asking each other about. $\endgroup$
    – Todd Trimble Mod
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 1:31
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    $\begingroup$ @ManfredWeis Well formulated! This reminded me of one of my own questions which is an example of that: I had hard time trying to identify a combinatorial object I encountered. It was immediately recognized by a specialist (Pat Devlin) as certain kind of balanced code. The question currently has 25 upvotes (and Pat's answer has 37). $\endgroup$ Commented May 29, 2017 at 6:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Kimball: I think you are mixing here two different things -- asking a question anonymously and asking a question as a new user. -- In fact, when Bill Thurston asked the question you referred to, he was indeed a new user of MO. $\endgroup$
    – Stefan Kohl Mod
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 9:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @StefanKohl I may not have given an entirely appropriate example (but even though Thurston was a new user then, he was certainly known in the MO community). What I was trying to say is I don't like treating a question differently according to what I know about the person asking as a matter of principle (which is not to say I don't), but rather the question should (in as much as possible) stand on its own. (Users repeatedly misusing MO is a separate issue.) $\endgroup$
    – Kimball
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think I'm contradicting anything that anybody has said in response to this question, but I think that an important and relevant point (that I think is sometimes overlooked by people downvoting or voting to close), is that how trivial a question is for an expert or near-expert is not necessarily a good measure of how off-topic it is. For example, I've answered several questions close to my field which have been very easy for me just because I'm familiar with relevant examples. But I thought they were on-topic because I wouldn't expect a non-expert to have the same arsenal of examples. $\endgroup$ Commented May 29, 2017 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidSpeyer Thank you and (+1) for your comment. I think that MO is a paradise of math democracy and openness. $\endgroup$ Commented May 29, 2017 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ @JeremyRickard Thank you and (+1) for your interesting comment. $\endgroup$ Commented May 29, 2017 at 21:07

3 Answers 3


A question my be trivial for a specialist in a field, or even for those who have studied the field. But the same question may be non-trivial for a mathematician who is not a specialist in THIS FIELD, or has never seriously studied it. After all, mathematics is very large, and most of us have not studied ALL fields of mathematics. For this reason, I usually answer such questions when I can. And also ask such questions sometimes. On my opinion, MO is a useful tool for a mathematician who encounters a question outside of her field; it gives a great opportunity to ask experts.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I agree wholeheartedly: this was always the aspect of MO that attracted me, rather than the encyclopaedic aspect (although I accept that other users may have different preferences and priorities). $\endgroup$
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 1:24

If students are redirected to Math.SE when they ask basic questions then so should be everyone else. Whether a question is for MO or Math.SE should depend on the question and not on who is asking it. We have enough people active on both sites to field the questions, and it is bad form to treat people based on their academic status instead of the content of their words.


As David Speyer commented, the answer is that there is no consensus on this issue.

As part of my ideal for MathOverflow, I imagine an encyclopedia of questions: well written, brief but not cursory considerations on various topics, with answers that give references and connections. Each post would have something that relates it to the growing body of literature, and that it encourages one to follow a trail of ideas through the forum, inspiring one to add to the trail. Especially with collaborative editing, I think MathOverflow could be that resource. I would like to see more discussion on how to revise questions and the system so that a) questions and posts could be morphed into a style convenient for such "random graph walk" type of perusal/research, and b) the morphing process is made accessible to those studying how knowledge representation changes over time. (I think the present system does not emphasize considerations a and b.)

I would hope that all questions with an honest attempt at achieving the mission of this forum could be guided toward being transformed into ideal questions. Thus , ask not whether to accept or reject; ask how to improve toward the goals.

Gerhard "About Doing For The Forum" Paseman, 2017.05.25.


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