# Should we exercise a bit more tolerance towards newcomers?

What bothers me quite a bit is that many people come to MO to get some help with their mathematical problems and are met with nothing but our standard "closed as not research level" verdict and a few comments about which written and unwritten rules they have violated 30 minutes after they make their first post, after which they

a) get scared away for good

b) leave with the impression that mathematicians are utterly obnoxious and arrogant people

c) still have their problem unsolved

I'm not talking about obvious nonsense (I have zero tolerance for that myself) or pre-calculus homework questions (though even in this case I do not see why the redirection to MSE should be done with a crushing blow of an iron fist instead of a push with a firm but reasonably soft hand). What I'm talking about is people who just really face some mathematical questions in their work that are above their head.

Whether those problems are "beneath" the level of the current MO frequenters or not doesn't matter too much. The person who asks a question here for the first time has no clearer idea of what is expected and what is considered fitting than I have about what is "Hodge theater" in Mochizuki's papers and telling them to look at our written explanations about what is a research level question and what is not is about as useful as telling me to quickly learn the theory of Frobenioids. They often have already enough struggle with figuring out what exactly to ask (and on average they are doing a good job: many questions are crystal clear from the beginning, and many other require just a couple of inquiries to make sense of). So why to repel them so harshly right from the start?

Let me make it clear (if somebody hasn't figured it out yet) that I can be as arrogant as anyone else and if somebody asks me a question of the type "What use is for me in what you are doing?" about my work, I respond with "And what use is your existence for what I'm interested in?". Also, I do not come here (or anywhere else on the web) to "serve". I just come to play and there is no way to force me to think of any question that is not to my liking.
However I stop at that and find it a bit strange to meet an open hand stretched in my direction with a slap in the face and this comparison is an understatement in some cases.

I do not think that we will change our official policies or even that there is any need for that. The policies are fine; it is their interpretation and implementation that often frustrates me. I have no idea why quid left MO, but I suspect that he (or was it she?) might have felt the same way.

So what do you think (or feel)?

• Typically, closure is accompanied with one of a few canned messages, e.g., the one mentioning Math.SE as a site for general questions in mathematics, and no other accompanying comments. Is that an example of intolerance or use of an iron fist? I'm trying to get an exact idea of what you mean. – Todd Trimble Dec 14 '17 at 11:47
• @ToddTrimble The "not research level" canned message is somewhat irritating the way it is formulated now (the rest are reasonable), but I rather mean the speed of closure, comments like "We are doing research here", absence of any hints as to what the solution is when it takes one line to give a full answer or a good advice, voting to close without being able to solve the problem, etc. My own way to handle reasonable questions that do not belong to MO can be seen here: mathoverflow.net/questions/288481/… – fedja Dec 14 '17 at 12:30
• Thanks, fedja. I think a concern a lot of people have with answering in comments is that it will attract still more questions deemed too "low level" for MO. (I agree with you though that a lot of snap decisions to close are made where the question does not seem at all trivial, at least not to me. I struggle every day with this.) One thing I've done, if I feel a question really would be better asked at Math.SE, is say, "if you ask at Math.SE, I would be happy to answer there". – Todd Trimble Dec 14 '17 at 12:37
• @ToddTrimble The point is that I would prefer to send a person away (when he needs to be sent away) a) with a full answer to his request, b) without any comments or canned messages that any normal person will interpret as "your problem is beneath us", c) with a clear idea where to ask similar questions next time (if applicable). – fedja Dec 14 '17 at 12:38
• it will attract still more questions deemed too "low level"* From newcomers? Do you think they scroll the history before posting? Of course, if somebody is told to use MSE twice and still posts the same level question on MO, the iron fist is appropriate, but most people exhibit some common sense when treated politely. And a question that is "too low level for MO" but otherwise clear and reasonable can be migrated to MSE and answered there. I have no problem with that, but we often just vote to close without migration in such cases. . – fedja Dec 14 '17 at 12:48
• I doubt people are going to check the history to see whether someone has been told to use Math.SE more than once. Actually, now that you bring it up, the fact that many newcomers don't even glance at MO first to see what kind of site it is before posting is itself part of the problem. As for migration: as Martin said, that can be tricky. What people here might consider clear and reasonable might not be considered reasonable at Math.SE, since they usually want to see some effort from the poster to solve it himself or herself. – Todd Trimble Dec 14 '17 at 13:02
• To add to the above comments concerning MO $\to$ MSE migration, people with sufficient reputation can check migration stats on MathOverflow or on Mathematics. From the migrations done in the last 90 days, 20% got rejected. – Martin Sleziak Dec 14 '17 at 13:06
• @ToddTrimble Actually, now that you bring it up, the fact that many newcomers don't even glance at MO first to see what kind of site it is before posting is itself part of the problem Yes, it is. However, my point is that many of them may just not have sufficient qualifications to figure that out even if they stare at it for an hour (it is still quite mysterious even for myself). They just know that what they want to ask is "mathematics" (which is correct in 90% of the cases) and that MO is a mathematics Q&A site. – fedja Dec 14 '17 at 13:14
• @ToddTrimble So they just do exactly what I do when coming to some big and confusing bureaucratic building, which is to knock at the first office door that is unlocked, state my request, and wait for the instructions as to which floor to go to. – fedja Dec 14 '17 at 13:16
• @MartinSleziak I agree with you that incorrect migration is just as bad as an unwarranted closure. Indeed, what was the point of migrating this one mathoverflow.net/questions/282730/… say? Note that the migration was done on the same very "not research level" basis I abhor so much, while the real issue with the question is what I pointed out, say, here mathoverflow.net/questions/288411/… Do you agree with this assessment? – fedja Dec 14 '17 at 13:29
• @fedja Since only 10k+ users can view deleted posts, I don't really see what your "batch" example actually said. If the contest is actually the same thing I was able to get from Google Cache, then I think it was reasonable to expect that the post is going to be closed on the target site. To me it seems that post with such content should be closed (but not migrated). – Martin Sleziak Dec 14 '17 at 13:53
• @MartinSleziak Yep, it is. And any person who would care to think of whether the question is clear or not instead of thinking whether it is up to his standard of research level or not would vote Close(Unclear what you are asking) instead of Migrate(Not research level). So IMHO it is still the same attitude I lament about and not a system defect or MO/MSE standard differences that leads to the high percentage of migration rejections you are unhappy with. – fedja Dec 14 '17 at 14:58
• @fedja It seems to me that we have digressed from your original problem to question what should and what should not be migrated. If we want to continue this discussion, maybe it would be better to do so in chat, so that we do not leave here too many comments that are unrelated to the issue at hand. – Martin Sleziak Dec 14 '17 at 15:02
• I logged out and checked what mathoverflow.net looked like. It has a prominent message saying, "MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians." This seems perfectly clear to me. People know whether or not they're professional mathematicians. I'm a physicist, not a mathematician, and that's why I mostly lurk. My experience here has been that when I do participate in limited ways that are appropriate based on my area of competence, people have been very welcoming. – Ben Crowell Dec 20 '17 at 1:25
• @BenCrowell Followed by "Join them, it only takes a minute!", right? Many people read to the end and then the meaning of the message becomes a bit less obvious. Besides, in all honesty, I cannot count myself as a "professional mathematician" too. Terry and Timothy certainly are, but I'm way below that level. All I can say is that I'm trying to make my living doing and teaching mathematics and have managed to get away with it for the last 30 years or so. Also, "mathematician", "physicist", what's the difference? You speak the language fluently. I'm talking about people who don't. – fedja Dec 20 '17 at 4:51

I think one of the key issues here is in the comments between fedja and Todd Trimble, and I want to elaborate with it.

If someone asks you a question, and you know the answer, and can explain it quickly, it's almost always impolite to not say the answer.

On the other hand, many MO users (including me) are uncomfortable answering certain questions. Of course when the question appears to be a homework question, there is a clear ethical reason not to give an answer. But in other cases, why is it?

Todd Trimble points out that people worry that answering these questions will lead to more of these questions being asked. I think there is also a broader discomfort with effectively rewarding someone for breaking the rules of the site, even if this doesn't lead to additional questions.

I think fedja makes a good point that (1) if politely told where to go along with an answer to the question, the asker is unlikely to return to MO with similar questions and (2) other people are unlikely to go back and read these questions and decide to post on MO.

This seems reasonable to me. There must be some limits to this - I imagine if we all answered questions by exactly the same standards math.stackexchange does, eventually our forum would become very similar to math.stackexchange - but it seems like a small increase in welcomingness right now will not have a negative long-term effect on the quality of questions.

Furthermore, I think the impulse to avoid rewarding bad questions is a bit silly, especially because in most cases the person is breaking the rules out of confused ignorance rather than willful ignorance, or, more fantastically, malice. Maybe the exception here is questions that appear to have been written quickly by a lazy question-asker. Hopefully, though, someone who writes such a lazy question will not consider a terse, lazy answer to be too impolite.

So maybe people like me should feel more comfortable answering low-level and low-quality MO questions, with full answers or in the comments, but combining the answer with a suggestion to take the answer to math.stackexchange or another similar suggestion.

• Answering questions in the comments is against the rules of Stackexchange sites and should be discouraged, not encouraged. While I'm happy that the rules about answers in comments and discussions isn't enforced on MO as violently as on other sites, the fact stands that it undermines the core principles of the system: visible usable answers and threads in Q&A format. – Anton Fetisov Dec 16 '17 at 19:53
• Even though I do not identify MathOverflow with a StackExchange site (and in other situations I would challenge Anton Fetisov's comment in more than one way), I agree with the intent of the comment: this forum works well because the signal to noise ratio is high. While such questions and comments redirecting the posters are not noise, they are part of what we do not want much of and need to manage their quantity. Not answering questions may be impolite, but answering them on this forum may also be impolite. Gerhard "Learning To Manage Impoliteness Politely" Paseman, 2017.12.16. – Gerhard Paseman Dec 16 '17 at 20:28
• @AntonFetisov You may be right, but I think that is a separate discussion, on the merits of answering in the comments vs. writing an answer. Many people do answer questions in the comments, or give partial answers / hints, and it is certainly possible to do so in a polite and friendly manner. – Will Sawin Dec 16 '17 at 21:15
• @GerhardPaseman I must confess I don't fully understand what you are trying to say, and how it relates to Anton's comments. In terms of noise, noise is handled by closing, migrating, or deleting inappropriate questions, and I don't think it matters very much what happens with them before that. However there is an interesting conflict between the signal-to-noise ratio and fedja's suggestion that questions not be closed / migrated / deleted too quickly, that I am not sure how to resolve. – Will Sawin Dec 16 '17 at 21:19
• Re: with full answers or in the comments. The advantage of posting a short answer (or pointer to where answer can be found) in a comment rather than in an answer is that once a question has an answer and the answer gets positive score, it is no longer removable by roomba. – Martin Sleziak Dec 17 '17 at 6:13
• The advantage of giving an answer is that it no longer shows up in the unanswered list. I will sometimes think "I feel like solving number theory problems" today and go hunting through the unanswered list, and it is a bit annoying to run into all the old questions with answers in comments. – David E Speyer Dec 22 '17 at 20:46
• @DavidSpeyer I agree that if a question is answered in the comments, it should almost always either have an answer written and accepted explaining the comments, or else be closed. This can be consistent with answers sometimes appearing in the comments, e..g if the answer is only one sentence but you are not sure if it is correct or if the asker wants to change the question, as long as you or someone else follows up later. – Will Sawin Dec 22 '17 at 21:47
• @DavidSpeyer (and Will Sawin) - I thought this was implied but to make it clearer: I was talking about questions which do not belong on the site - so they should be closed and deleted anyway. But some users want MO to be a bit more welcoming (as at least voting on fedja's post suggest so), so apart from the message that the questions belongs elsewhere, they might want to nudge the user towards answer at least in comments. – Martin Sleziak Dec 24 '17 at 13:13
• I think it is generally agreed that if a question is off-topic, then it should not be answered (i.e., answer should not be posted for off-topic questions, posting comments is probably ok). But if a question is on-topic, answers should be posted as answers, not as comments. – Martin Sleziak Dec 24 '17 at 13:14

There are people persons. There are professional mathematicians. Some people are both. I suspect very few attend this forum regularly. (I guess a notable person among this few is Anton Geraschenko.) This small collection are the most likely to greet and direct newcomers properly.

I see myself as neither a people person nor a professional mathematician. I can also be grumpy and displeased by posts at times. However, I cannot recall a time when I greeted a newcomer to this forum who came in good faith without some courtesy and a reciprocal show of good faith. I think it is possible (especially if directions come "from on high") to train all who frequent this forum to be more welcoming, or at least distant (and so less unwelcoming), to new posts, no matter how one feels.

The custom comment for each new questioner adds to this. Having a standard plan is also good. My standard plan is to start with "This is the wrong forum for your question." Following fedja's suggestion, I might follow with a better forum name, along with a recommendation of how to improve the question for that forum. I might add a hint of how to approach an answer, but normally don't answer directly. (When readily able, I close with a custom signature.)

If we want to add an air of welcome to inappropriate but well intentioned posts, the simplest solution I see is to have some of the community appoint themselves greeters, and be as close to the frontline for processing questions as they come in. When enough greeters perform, more of the community may follow. For the next week, I will put myself on greeting duty for about two hours each day. Hopefully others will also.

I also recommend being the second commenter on a new post, to reinforce or defuse the first comment. This can add an air of welcome, encourage more people to check out the forum, and (we hope) put them in a receptive mood to learn how to play in this sandbox. This may increase the need for greeters. Those who do not want to greet can be third or fourth commenter, or raise a flag if they do not feel people-persony. If this is to succeed though, the word should get out from the moderation team that this is how we want this forum to roll.

(This will play into some future plans for promotion at ICM2018. More on that later.)

Gerhard "Is A Bit Of Both" Paseman, 2017.12.14.

• Based on the response to date, it seems welcoming newcomers is at best a low priority for the community. I'll wait a little longer to see how bad an idea this answer appears to the community. Gerhard "Maybe Take Welcome Mat Inside" Paseman, 2017.12.14. – Gerhard Paseman Dec 14 '17 at 21:17
• The response might have more to do with your opening statement that not many of us are "people persons". It's a wee bit insulting. – Tom Leinster Dec 16 '17 at 3:24
• It may come across as insulting. If it were false, I suspect the question would not be asked. However, anyone who feels insulted by the first paragraph AND is a people person AND a professional mathematician AND a contributor to this forum AND is willing to serve in a capacity as greeter, let me know; I will edit my response, and you are welcome to downvote it again without comment. Gerhard "This Means Most People, Right?" Paseman, 2017.12.15. – Gerhard Paseman Dec 16 '17 at 4:10
• If a newcomer is greeted with a custom signature that flouts stackexchange network rules, it may not promote the desired behavior on the site. mathoverflow.net/help/behavior – Matt F. Dec 19 '17 at 5:02

Yes you/we should. I am "almost a newcomer". Also, I am an amateur with almost no formal training at a college but I have some training at a college and some of my own self-studied.

And, although this is a site for professional mathematicians even some amateurs can surprise you with their questions and ideas, so, I think that we should award those who really show an effort and are doing their best to help community grow.

There is some injustice here done, and it is easily seen by some closings of some questions that are not of research-level by opinions of some of you here, although researchers sometimes are not able to answer them. I am talking from my own experience because I have and I had had such questions.

First, innovative spirit should be awarded, and there should be no or almost no envy toward some that show creative spirit (and I do not see myself as one of them) but I feel that some questions are not awarded enough, either in the sense of responses or in the sense of upvotes.

It seems that amateurism is seen as something distant and strange, but are you sure that some amateurs cannot succeed in knowing all that you know?

This starts to look as some promotion of amateurs on the site for professionals so there is a feeling to stop talking about that relationship(s) here and to move on onto newcomers.

I am of the opinion that the more is someone endeavouring to know something by asking something brilliant inside well-studied fields or succeeds in creating/finding some new concept or new problem, that then she/he must be appropriately awarded, be it newcomer or no, but if a newcomer then she/he should be even more awarded, so to witness care and encouraging of the community here.

But if some newcomer asks something too trivial or not so appropriate for this site then she/he should be very politely leaded to other options,for example, to ask for help on MSE (if the question is too trivial), or she/he should receive careful explanation in the comments of why that question of hers/his is not appropriate for this site. If some of you have "power" to just click the button "close" to some question(s) without explaining in the comments why the question is not for this site then , if you ask me, some kind of injustice is done.

I would never personally (or at least I hope I would not) close some question just because it does not reveal something "deep" about distribution of zeros of Riemann zeta, or it does not go far enough into the Hodge conjecture, because, some questions that do not appear to be for this site, can, after studying of them, appear to be very fruitful and inspirational, and can reveal something that was not seen at the first glance.

Treat newcomers as you would like to be treated if you were a newcomer.

Explain as precisely as possible why something is not for this site, or why it seems that it is not, and avoid closing because your personal interpretation is such that you just, because of some reasons of personal nature, think that the question is not so appropriate as you would want it to be.

Sorry if I hurted someone, or if I missed the point, just wanted to say a few words.

• You would get a more well-rounded view of what MO is about by answering questions instead of simply asking them. On MO, we reward asking questions a little bit, but we reward answering questions much more. – Joseph Van Name Dec 27 '17 at 0:40
• Most of this answer seems to be a promotion of your own beliefs that (a) we should encourage amateur mathematicians to use MO to further their own efforts at research (b) amateurs can solve some questions even though professionals say they are out of reach of current techniques. I think both of these points are debatable; but more importantly, they aren't really what the original question was about, in opinion – Yemon Choi Dec 28 '17 at 12:54
• Sometimes users vote to close a question as "not research level" whereas what is really meant, I think, is something like the following: in mathematics, especially in number theory, it is very easy to come up with a myriad of questions whose statements are elementary, whose truth or falsehood seems very hard to determine, BUT whose solutions do not seem to offer us any insight into the wider contexts/structures that research mathematicians are really interested in – Yemon Choi Dec 28 '17 at 12:56
• As another amateur I understand everything you're saying and I wish MO was more like that too. But I don't have very high expectations of getting the same point across since the key word is professional, it's sort of like complaining about prices at the supermarket or that you have to wait in line at checkout, those are just the rules, can't argue with people who are getting paid to do a job. Good points about the value of the innovative spirit and treating newcomers with the golden rule in mind. – Dan Brumleve Dec 31 '17 at 3:19