In an answer to another question discussing possibilities how to decrease the number of off-topic questions1 it was mentioned that: Perhaps we should force a person to read the rules before posting the first question? By clicking some button "read and understood the rules".

Something similar was implemented on some other sites, I am aware of Stack Overflow and Mathematics. In both cases, the user who posts a question for the first time is shown How to ask page and only can proceed only after confirming that they have read the advice.

Do you think something like this would be useful for MathOverflow and could possibly help to get smaller number of posts which actually do not belong there?

If https://mathoverflow.net/questions/ask/advice is going to be shown to new users before the first question, are there some improvements to this page which might make it more effective? (Perhaps stating clearly at the beginning that this site is for research-level questions? This information is displayed on another page in the help center, but probably it might be worth including here, too.)

Are there some other possibilities what can be chosen to be displayed as the "welcome page" to the user asking the first question? (I am not really sure whether it is possible to use something different that "How to ask" page, but if some options are suggested and if this is seriously considered, I suppose the moderators can find out from SE staff whether it is possible.)

1Such questions are usually relatively quickly closed and downvoted - which means that eventually roomba takes care of them (or the question might be deleted even sooner by users with sufficient reputation). But still, having less such questions would mean less work for users who cast close votes or do close votes reviews. In the past some users complained about off-topic posts on the frontpage, for example: Can the clutter of obviously off-topic questions be removed faster?

In the comments some concerns were raised that this idea (or some variation thereof) could lead to some users losing the question they typed simply by clicking incorrect field.

@MattF., that seems like a great idea. The only concern I'd raise is: would the 'wrong' answer automatically trigger rejection of the post, or just a warning that it might not be appropriate? If the latter, then people might just ignore it as they would ToS. If the former, then good questions could be lost to people giving overly honest answers. -- LSpice

So I'd like to clarify that the proposal is to show How to ask page (or something similar) before the user starts typing their first question.

To check how this work on other sites, I created a completely new account on Mathematics. Immediately after creating an account, the invitation to view the tour was shown in my inbox. (However, this is easy to ignore. Still it is interesting that this was not shown when I created MathOverflow account - but perhaps a user gets this into inbox only for the first account they create...?)


Then I clicked on "Ask question" button and I was shown How to ask page:

How to ask

At the bottom, the checkbox saying "thanks, I will keep these tips in mind when asking" was shown.


If I clicked on proceed, I was directed to the same page again. Only after checking the checkbox, clicking on proceed took me to the page where I enter the question.

checkbox checked

When I tried this with an entirely new account on MathOverflow I was taken directly to https://mathoverflow.net/questions/ask - the system does not force me to read anything before that. (Of course, the same thing happens when I try to ask a question on MathOverflow while I am not logged in at all.)

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    $\begingroup$ As to a proposal for such an info text, see here. $\endgroup$
    – Stefan Kohl Mod
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ While there is a link to this answer on the help/on-topic page, meta.mathoverflow.net/a/883 , I think including a link to it (or perhaps most of the advice) on a page shown to new askers would be a start in making it more prominent and accessible. If I remember correctly, this answer was the old MO 1.0 "how to ask" page and there was a link to it at the top of the site design. $\endgroup$
    – j.c.
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ @j.c.: I think Scott Morrison's text is much too long. To me it seems unlikely that many new users will bother to read it, regardless of how prominently it is displayed. Rather it would just be dismissed like the common lengthy Terms of Service of any other website. This already by native speakers of English, but even more of course by others. $\endgroup$
    – Stefan Kohl Mod
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ I'd remove the checkbox but ask them to answer 3 or 4 questions, e.g.: "Is this homework?" "Is this research-level mathematics?" "Have you looked for an answer on Google or Wikipedia?" That way, if the list requires both a yes and a no as answers, they will at least end up reading all the questions. $\endgroup$
    – user44143
    Commented Sep 17, 2017 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ @MattF., that seems like a great idea. The only concern I'd raise is: would the 'wrong' answer automatically trigger rejection of the post, or just a warning that it might not be appropriate? If the latter, then people might just ignore it as they would ToS. If the former, then good questions could be lost to people giving overly honest answers. $\endgroup$
    – LSpice
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ @LSpice: If people give an honest answer yes to the question "Is this homework?", then likely making this trigger rejection is the right thing to do. Though "Is this research-level mathematics?" is different in that mathematicians will likely often hesitate to claim yes, even for quite interesting questions. So it depends. $\endgroup$
    – Stefan Kohl Mod
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ @StefanKohl, indeed, the latter is what I meant. I have definitely seen questions that I thought were good, and that seemed well received, that the poster explicitly described as not research-level. One of my first questions was about an exercise in a text that arose in connection with an (undergraduate) course I was teaching; it is decidedly not research-level, but it seemed to provoke no dissatisfaction. $\endgroup$
    – LSpice
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 1:13
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    $\begingroup$ Shouldn't we have two answers for and against so that users can upvote at their discretion? I'd go ahead and do it, if not for slight fear of presumptuousness. Btw, I like this idea and would upvote a yes answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 2:04
  • $\begingroup$ @LSpice At the moment, I do not have time to create a new account just to test this. But I think that the way it works on the site where this is implemented (like SO and math.SE) that this page is shown to users before they enter the first question. (I.e., a user clicks on the "ask question" button, they are shown the page with advice "How to ask". If they still think the question belongs to the site, they check the checkbox and then proceed to writing the question.) $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 3:58
  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate Stefan Kohl's point about the old advice page being long, though I still believe that it should be more accessible than it is now. $\endgroup$
    – j.c.
    Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ Here's an independent thought: perhaps we should suggest and link to math.SE on this "basic information" page, or even on the "ask page" for math questions that are not research level. It seems that some portion of the off-topic questions are asked by people who aren't aware of math.SE and there don't seem to be any suggestions about math.SE on the current ask page or on-topic pages. I vaguely remember that there was some discussion (here? or on tea?) about the appropriateness of directing askers to another site but I can't recall when it occurred. $\endgroup$
    – j.c.
    Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 22:11
  • $\begingroup$ @silvascientist The faq page What is "meta"? explicitly says: "On posts tagged feature-request, voting indicates agreement or disagreement with the proposed change rather than just the quality or usefulness of the post itself." So voting on yes/no answer is precisely the same thing as upvoting/downvoting question (assuming that users actually vote according to this rule). Much better than simply posting yes/no answer would be posting an answer saying yes or no but explaining the reasons why the poster thinks that implementing this would be good/bad. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 9:44
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    $\begingroup$ There is also this older suggestion: Explicitly pointing out math.stackexchange when (new?) users ask a question, So maybe information about Mathematics StackExchange could be also included in the text displayed to the new users. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 8:53
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    $\begingroup$ In case somebody stumbles upon this post, it is probably worth mentioning that Todd Trimble promised in chat that moderators will look into this. (This comment is kind of "status udpdate".) $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 13, 2018 at 11:37
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    $\begingroup$ When a similar feature was implement on ServerFault, Shog9 collected some stats on whether there was some visible change: Should folks have to click through an interstitial page to ask questions on Server Fault? I have asked about the same data on Mathematics: How much did “advice for first-time askers” help? I'll mention it here when some actual data are available, some data excluding deleted posts have been posted in this chatroom. $\endgroup$ Commented May 15, 2019 at 4:47

4 Answers 4


Maybe we could go in a similar way as on Mathematics where the How to Ask page1 is shown to a user who asks their first question. But on Mathematics the How to Ask page is slightly modified to include some additional points at the beginning. The relevant discussion on Mathematics Meta can be found here: Show “how to ask” advice before a new user asks a question.

The question is what to include there. Maybe it could look rather similar as on Mathematics.

I am making this post CW, feel free to suggest improvements in comments or directly edit the post.

To improve the chances of your question getting an answer:

  • Make sure that your question is on-topic on this site, which is intended for research-level questions in mathematics. (There are other sites for general mathematical questions.)
  • Use TeX-like formatting for math formulas, e.g., $\sqrt{x+y}$, or double dollars $$a^2+b^2=c^2$$ for a centered formula.
  • Provide an informative, specific title that summarizes the question.
  • Include what you already know about the problem, some basic references, background and motivation.
  • For more detailed advice, see How to write a good MathOverflow question?

Here are some additional tips:

1As far as I can tell, this page is not linked anywhere in the help center, but on some sites it is user precisely for this purpose - it is displayed to the first-time askers. See also: List of unlinked pages on Stack Exchange sites. Although at the moment the content of this page (here on MO) is almost the same as "How do I ask a good question?" in the Help Center. So maybe if we are going to make improvements to one of these two pages, it would make sense to edit the other one in a similar way.)

  • $\begingroup$ Since the question was bumped by Federico Poloni, I went ahead and create some basic suggestion what to include - to great extent it is "plagiarized" from Mathematics site. I hope other users will join and improve the initial version. I will mention here in the comments some problems which I see with this initial version. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2018 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ 1. I think that it is reasonable to mention other sites such as Mathematics. They are mentioned in the help center in: What topics can I ask about here? However including here the whole sentence from there might be too lengthy: "But there are lots of other math Q&A sites where your question might fit right in, like math.stackexchange.com, Ask Dr. Math, Art of Problem Solving, Physics Forums, ... $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2018 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ ... NRICH." I have included link to the specific section of help center - is this a good option? $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2018 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ 2. Another question is what to use as target link for MathJax. One possibility would be to create a short MathJax help here on meta. Another possibility would be adding entry to the help center - similarly as on Mathematics. (This help entry could contain further links.) Another option is the link to MathJax guide on Meta Stack Exchange. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2018 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think that including link to the tutorial on Mathematics Meta into this page would be good - if not for other reason, new users already have enough confusion between MathOverflow and Mathematics and this link would send the new user to another site. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2018 at 8:26
  • $\begingroup$ Agree completely. If anything, I would just replace "Mathjax formatting" with "Tex formatting, e.g. $\sqrt{a+b}$ or $$a^2+b^2=c^2$$". A mathematician in our audience is surely already familiar with Latex, but might not know what Mathjax is. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2018 at 9:33
  • $\begingroup$ @FedericoPoloni I have edited this a bit following your comment. Feel free to edit it further. (Especially if this is not what you had in mind.) Personally, I would prefer keeping at least some mention of MathJax, since calling it TeX or LaTeX is technically incorrect. But it is certainly a valid point that more people have heard of (La)TeX than of MathJax. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2018 at 9:41
  • $\begingroup$ If you want to be technically correct, then $$...$$ is not "Latex formatting": Latex requires \[...\] for displayed equations. Double dollars are deprecated plain-Tex syntax. A keep-it-simple solution would be calling it "Latex-like". Also, I don't think it's necessary to show the result as well; mathematicians are well trained to read simple Latex formulas directly from their source. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2018 at 9:47
  • $\begingroup$ @FedericoPoloni As I said, feel free to edit. (The post is CW explicitly to encourage editing by several users - after all this is what community wiki posts are for.) $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2018 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ I should probably include also a link to Federico Poloni's answer to: “Stack Overflow Isn’t Very Welcoming.” — are we? (It is, at least to some extent, related to this.) $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2018 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe we could make a question on Meta MathOverflow along the lines: "My question was closed on MathOverflow as not reasearch-level? Where should I ask instead?" This could be used in the above template (in the part which currently looks like this: "There are other sites for general mathematical questions.") And also we could direct users to that question in comments to questions on main which are put on hold. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 10, 2018 at 6:37
  • $\begingroup$ I have changed the target of the link suggesting other sites to this recent post: My question was closed on MO because it is not research level. Where should I ask instead? Similarly I have changed the "TeX link" to this post: How does one type mathematical formulas on this site? The advantage that I see is that these pages can be edited by the community and changed whenever needed - perhaps it is better to have as the target of those link something that can be easily updated. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ I believe that the how to ask page should be replaced by the old one you link to. That was removed after the move to the stackexchange network, but it is far superior $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2018 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Daniel Well, the page you mention is linked at the end of the text proposed above. If you suggest to use the page from your comment as the page shown to first time askers, to me it seems to be a bit long for this purpose. Still if you think it is a good idea, you could post this as a separate answer. In this way it is more likely that other users might notice your suggestion, vote for/against, say in comments what they think about it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2018 at 18:22
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    $\begingroup$ Uh I meant as the latter sorry. And I also think that people asking a new question could benefit more from reading it than the generic "how to ask" page anyway $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2018 at 18:27

Regardless of any advice pages, perhaps mandatory before 1st question by new user, how about getting the attention of everyone who views any math overflow page?

Include a prominent banner on the top of every page, perhaps (with portions) in bold red.


For research-level math questions only. See [link] for where to post non-research level questions.


That sets expectations from the get-go. Minimizes wastage of time for everyone.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe it's worth mentioning that for unregistered users the page mathoverflow.net contains the text "MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians." near the top left corner. But it is not displayed, for example, once you go to: mathoverflow.net/questions And AFAICT it is not displayed to registered users. Also while asking question mathoverflow.net/questions/ask the sentence "Is your question about research level mathematics?" is displayed in bold on the right under "How to ask?" $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2018 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ Some previous discussions which seem to be related to your proposal: Why is “what is the difference between mathoverflow and math.stackexchange?” not prominently displayed? (on Meta MathOverflow) and Clearly distinguishing Mathoverflow and Math.StackExchange directly on the frontpage (on Mathematics Meta). $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2018 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Martin Sleziak Thanks for the links. The time for talk should be over, it's time for action. It seems pretty easy to implement suggestions along these lines - just do it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2018 at 13:19
  • $\begingroup$ OK. Can we add "please address all complaints about this banner to Mark L. Stone at ..." or something like that? You will need to provide your email address, and it might be good to have you archive a copy of the complaints in case someone else wants to read them. Gerhard "Time For Action Is Soon" Paseman, 2018.06.16. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2018 at 16:46

Yes, we should have a page (or a box in the "ask question" page) filled with basic instructions, including "this site is for questions that are non-obvious to professional mathematicians" and "use Mathjax, formulate your problem clearly with all the relevant definitions and describe what you have done to attack it".

I'm answering mainly to bump up this question, and to attract the interest of moderators / site administrators.

It seems like it would save a lot of time for everyone, and I am surprised it hasn't been done yet in a site that has been around for ~10 years.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your interest in this question. I have tried to suggest some initial proposal what could be added to the How to Ask page - which could then be displayed to first-time askers. If you have some suggestions, please go ahead and edit it further - I have made it CW explicitly to encourage editing by other users who see possible improvements. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2018 at 8:31

While we are fantasizing about such features, I would like to suggest that this advice on cross-posting between MSE and MO by Joonas Ilmavirta be displayed for new askers and included in one of the how-to-ask / on-topic pages.

Possibly (decades from now when such things become technically possible :)) this could be shown just for MSE users or if the software detects that a question is very similar to some recent MSE question.


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