When a user asks their very first question on a Stack Exchange site, they are shown a modal window with a short advice. The content can be either a generic message or it can be customized for a specific site. This was announced in March 2020 in this post: The new ask page is now live on the network!

On MathOverflow this modal window contains a generic text:

You’re ready to ask your first question and the community is here to help! To get you the best answers, we’ve provided some guidance:

Before you post, search the site to make sure your question hasn’t been answered  to make sure your question hasn’t been answered

  • Summarize the problem
  • Provide details and any research
  • When appropriate, describe what you’ve tried

For comparison, this is what it looks like on Mathematics:

To improve chances of your question getting an answer make sure that it:

Here are some additional tips:

Before you post, search the site to make sure your question hasn’t been answered

  • Summarize the problem
  • Provide details and any research
  • When appropriate, describe what you’ve tried

As you can see, Mathematics doesn't use the general boilerplate, but customized wording. You can also see the screenshot from some other sites where the modal window has been customized in the MO chatroom. (This is a part of a longer discussion about this topic.)

The post on Meta Stack Exchange has a section What's per-site customizable, and what's the procedure to get it live? which says in the bullet point about the modal window:

The "welcome modal" for new askers (seen with the default text in screenshot 1), everything between the title and "Before you post..." (this is only custom on 4 sites at the moment, such as EL&U.

Question: Should MO also create a customized version specific for this site? If yes, what would be used as the text?

So the intention of this post is that we should

  1. Discuss whether changing the modal window for the first-time askers might be actually useful for the site.
  2. And we could discuss what wording could be used in this modal window.

If some consensus is reached, hopefully moderators will take some action to make this happen. (I'll add that it is now easier for moderators to escalate various issues to Stack Exchange staff, AFAICT the initial step in the process is basically just adding the status-review tag to the question.)

On one hand, the focus of MathOverflow is somewhat different from what somebody would expect just from the site name - so it is good to advertise this somewhere. This would be a place visible to the first-time askers. On the other hand, while the how-to-ask page existed, it does not seem to make much difference on the sites it was actually used. See also: Should folks have to click through an interstitial page to ask questions on Server Fault? on ServerFault and How much did “advice for first-time askers” help? on Mathematics.

Some time ago I posted a somewhat similar suggestion: Should users be shown some basic information before posting the first question?. It gained some support from the local community - judging from the comments and upvotes - but not enough to persuade the MathOverflow moderators. That feature request is now moot, since the /aks/advice page is no longer used in the network. Possibly something similar to the text proposed there could be considered - but we would need to shorten it a bit, since here we have less space.

Here is another older post which is - to some extent - related: Why is “what is the difference between mathoverflow and math.stackexchange?” not prominently displayed?

Similar discussions I was able to find on other per-site-metas:

(I found also these, but they are not specifically about the modal window: How should SFF's “Ask Question” page be customised?, How should M&TV's “Ask Question” page be customised?, Use of new screening tool from SE.)

Here is a screenshot showing this modal window on MathOverflow:

screenshot - MO

For comparison, this is what you get on Mathematics:

screenshot - Math

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    $\begingroup$ It would be nice if there were some wording we could count on to cut down the number of off-topic posts. By the way, I can't edit, but you might want to change modal to model throughout. $\endgroup$ Jan 4, 2021 at 5:29
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson As far as I can tell, the right word is modal rather than model. Modal window seems to be a common technical term for this type of windows, see Wikipedia and several links given in the above question. (I have rolled back your edit on Mathematics Meta.) $\endgroup$ Jan 4, 2021 at 5:48
  • $\begingroup$ OK, sorry. News to me. $\endgroup$ Jan 4, 2021 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ We should definitely put up front and a very clear text, what MO is and isn't for. Just saying "no undergraduate mathematics questions" is blunt and maybe very slightly inaccurate (depends on the asker, etc) but seems to be the biggest problem that I see. $\endgroup$ Jan 4, 2021 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ A link to Math Stackexchange in this form might also make sense. $\endgroup$ Jan 5, 2021 at 3:41
  • $\begingroup$ @SamHopkins Concerning the link to Mathematics, we should keep in mind that some MO users are against sending people there. (E.g., see the opening paragraph of this question: Homework and migrating to math.se.) The FAQ post here on meta and the help-center currently link a to list which mentions also other websites. $\endgroup$ Jan 5, 2021 at 8:56
  • $\begingroup$ It could be recommended explicitly not to simultaneously (i.e. $<48$h?) crosspost with another site, esp. MathSE, and provide the link in case of a crosspost. $\endgroup$
    – YCor
    Jan 8, 2021 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinSleziak For example I am reluctant to sending people to math.SE because I'm not active there and I'm unfamiliar with what kind of questions are on topic there. Sending someone to another place where their questions are off-topic feels like the summit of unwelcomeness to me. $\endgroup$ Jan 17, 2021 at 21:21
  • $\begingroup$ @DenisNardin Still, in practice any question which gets closed on MO as being low-level sends a user to other sites. There are two standard close reasons, one of them explicitly mentions Mathematics, the other one links to the help center - and if the user follows that link, they get among other things this link - I have used the same one in my proposal below. $\endgroup$ Jan 17, 2021 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ As a side note, I have already mentioned in a previous comment that some MO users do not like sending people to Mathematics. (And added a link to the relevant discussion and some other related stuff.) $\endgroup$ Jan 17, 2021 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ There is a newer question about this (posted by Tim Campion): What should the modal window for first-time askers say? $\endgroup$ May 24, 2021 at 13:49

4 Answers 4


Let me give some initial suggestion. (I hope that somebody proposes a better version - seeing many well-written posts both on main and on meta, clearly many MO users are able to do so.)

I have tried to keep it short - after all, the window is not very big. So I did not include some suggestions from the comments - such as a note about cross-posting. I did not link to Mathematics Stack Exchange - but there is a link to the same list of sites which is included in the help-center.

It is a bit similar to an older suggestion from here: Should users be shown some basic information before posting the first question? (But the text proposed there was a bit shortened.)

I have also included the default version after the three MO-specific bullet points. (The wording is based on the version Mathematics Stack Exchange is using.) As explained by a CM the wording in this part cannot be changed (although the third one can be omitted if needed). You can find the whole conversation in the MathOverflow chatroom.

The text includes several links. It is clear that many users will simply read the text without clicking on them - but since various FAQ posts are available here on meta, it is useful to make such links accessible to new users. In this way, the links are available here at least for those who want to have a look.

I have changed research-level mathematics to a different wording (although I am not entirely happy with the current version). As David Roberts pointed out in a comment, it could be confusing to have the word research in this short text in two different meanings.

To improve the chances of your question getting an answer make sure that it:

Before you post, search the site to make sure your question hasn’t been answered

  • Summarize the problem
  • Provide details and any research
  • When appropriate, describe what you’ve tried
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Any research" and "research-level mathematics" is conflating two different meanings of the word, I feel. $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2021 at 7:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @DavidRoberts Since I have learned from Catija (a community manager) that the text in the three default bullet points cannot be changed, I have tried to change the wording in the part about "research-level mathematics" to avoid this problem. (I am referring to this message and hereis a link to the whole conversation. $\endgroup$ Jan 15, 2021 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ Better! I would say 'at graduate level', not 'on', and if we could lose the 'Here are some additional tips:' that would be good. It seems superfluous to me. Then: 'try searching the site' $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2021 at 1:22
  • $\begingroup$ @TheHigherGeometer In the current discussion on finalizing the wording here, I have included a proposal to essentially undo the change you suggested here. It's still up in the air which way we will go, I think, but it might be nice to hear from you over there on the matter. $\endgroup$
    – Tim Campion Mod
    Apr 24, 2021 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinSleziak See my comment to TheHigherGeometer; you also put effort into this change. $\endgroup$
    – Tim Campion Mod
    Apr 24, 2021 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ @TimCampion I saw that proposal, and the discussion about the meaning of 'graduate'. I haven't seen the conclusion yet, but I agree that the particular term "graduate" is only good for those that know what that word means in the US context. I wouldn't have used it in my own university system, where we would have said something like 'higher research degree/HDR-level' or, less accurately, PhD-level $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2021 at 23:49

We used to have a page about how to ask a question on MO back on MO 1.0 that was quite good. The current one is kinda crap. I would suggest bringing back the old text explaining how to ask a question on MO (maybe a summary with links for further information).

That is the wisdom of the past, for all wisdom is not new wisdom.

Edit: I also want to point out that the 'how to ask' link was featured quite prominently in the old layout: old how to ask.


I'd add that the current help page on "What topics can I ask around here?" probably isn't helping.

After the bolded phrase

mathematical questions related to current research in mathematics

I would add something like

which you are well-placed to ask if you've had graduate-level training in mathematics or another mathematical discipline. (If you haven't had that training, the question is likely to be off-topic.)"

which is a warning that does not appear anywhere on the page now.

This key content is also obscured by the first two paragraphs on the page, which showcase such details as

It’s also OK to ask and answer your own question


If no site currently exists that will accept your question, you may commit to or propose a new site at Area 51, the place where new Stack Exchange communities are democratically created.

Those two comments are so rarely relevant that I'd put them much lower on the help page, to let the more relevant comments float to the top.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the response - I think it is worth considering posting this as a separate question rather than answer, for several reasons. Firstly, it is about a different topic - the question at hand about the modal window for the first-time askers, your post is about the help-center. Moreover, in that way it would be more likely that you post gets more attention: 1) If it is tagged (discussion) and gets to the score +3, it would get into the community bulletin. 2) Every new question is posted into the moderator inbox for every moderator. 3) If you tag it as (feature-request), ... $\endgroup$ Feb 18, 2021 at 1:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ ... you're more likely to get some attention from the CMs. (However, the attention from the MO mods is probably more important here, AFAICT this is a part of the help center which can be edited by the moderators.) Speaking of tags, (help-center) would be suitable too. Another advantage of separate question would be more space for feedback from other users. (In this way, it can only be posted in comments under the answer.) $\endgroup$ Feb 18, 2021 at 1:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Please post this suggestion as a separate meta question. It deserves proper attention. $\endgroup$
    – Tim Campion Mod
    Apr 22, 2021 at 1:43
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Just in case somebody stumbles upon this old post, I'll mention at least here in comments that now there is a separate question: Revising the help page on “What topics can I ask around here?” $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2021 at 15:38

Perhaps the following ideas are outside the scope or the original question. But in an ideal world, I think it would be useful to make the question editing window a bit more interactive for first time or beginner users. It is already the case that when you type the title of the question, the site dynamically matches the keywords in it and brings up links to possibly relevant past questions. Obviously, such functionality could be greatly expanded. Here's a list of dynamical suggestions the user could see depending on what they are typing into the question box.

  1. Reminder that it's nice to use your real name or an easily recognizable alias (no value judgment here, just thinking of any alternative to 'user####'). Though, the question box may not be the best place to do this.

  2. Reminder that formulas can be typeset using LaTeX notation (link to documentation if the user is not aware how). In the same vein, remind about basic Markdown syntax/features.

  3. Suggestions for potentially appropriate tags. I can imagine a "latent keyword" approach here, based on the question text and how the existing tags match up to the extensive existing question database.

  4. If there's any hint of homeworkness or of an uninformed elementary question, explain the scope of MO and that there exist other SE sites where the question could be asked (math.SE, stats.SE, scicomp.SE, cstheory.SE, etc.).

  5. A small checklist of ways to improve the question (question clearly stated? reference included if needed? your level of understanding? type of answer expected? etc.)

  6. Some words about how to interpret reputation.

In the ideal world that I have in mind, these suggestions would be raised automatically, possibly by a clever AI/machine learning component integrated into the site. Then, as the user gets more acquainted with the site (by some metric, e.g., reputation), the suggestions can be phased out.

These are all things that currently the responsibility of other more experienced users, supplied in comments or answers as perceived needed. Sometimes, though, that kind of interaction feels aggressive and unwelcoming. I suspect that it would be received much more neutrally if coming from an automated system. Obviously, we don't live in an ideal world, but perhaps some day some of these features will be implemented by the SE platform.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Some people will find fault in any comment that doesn't amount to complete acclaim. When criticism is offered by experienced users, it's usually because the new users ignored the various resources on how to ask questions or was unable to replicate the tone and structure of posts that meet the community's standards. As a technical solution, this is fine, but as a way to make the site more welcoming, this seems like it won't change anything $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2021 at 3:37
  • $\begingroup$ I will add to some of the points in the current revision of your answer: 0. Here is a feature request posted by you: Encouraging new users to provide a name or a nickname 2. It's already implemented and can be switched on - if the site has large enough database of questions: Should MathOverflow request suggested tags feature? (Of course, one should keep in mind that this is limited by the quality of the training dataset, and many MO questions are tagged incorrectly.) $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2021 at 6:22
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinSleziak, thanks for adding the context. I will be the first to admit that this list is subjective and probably not complete if one were try to imagine a perfect 'Clippy' for MO. I'm glad to hear that at least 2. is partially implemented. I would side with turning it on, if that's still under discussion. $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2021 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ @IgorKhavkine Well, if that's the case, why not posting an answer to the thread where I suggested it. (Or maybe posting a new feature request and closing my old suggestion as a duplicate.) It is unlikely that the feature request from 2018 will get much new response. (Back then I got no comments, no answer, a few users voted on that suggestion.) $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2021 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ You have mentioned that such suggestions could be added automatically and they would be different depending on what the question contains. One user on Mathematics was running a bot for such purpose, you can find examples of those comments in his chatrooms. There are also some related discussions on Mathematics Meta: Suggestions of tags and title edits by user NormalHuman - How to do it? and Question about Normal Human. $\endgroup$ Jan 12, 2021 at 5:00

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