Right now, there is a question posted on MO that rightly does not belong to MO: The equivalence of the mathematical induction and the principle of the smallest. Of course, such questions comes and goes every-MO-days. More often than not, if they are lucky, they get one or two polite comments that MO is not right place for asking such questions. What if they also get a comment that also adding that "look at that reference" or "maybe you could find an answer in this (other) site", or even a very short hint as an answer. Indeed, I was about to put such a comment for the question linked above. Then I said to myself, maybe it is wrong doing. Is there any general policy for putting comments on such questions? Or better to ask: Should there be a general policy for putting comments on such questions?

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    $\begingroup$ I think your question is fine, but I don't understand what you mean by your title $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 20 '13 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ @YemonChoi Please feel free to change the title. Indeed, I wasn't sure about it as well! $\endgroup$ – Amir Asghari Aug 20 '13 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ @YemonChoi I have changed the title. Please let me know if it is OK now. $\endgroup$ – Amir Asghari Aug 20 '13 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ The new title looks fine $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 20 '13 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ I used to try to explain why a question was unsuitable, it just made the OP angry. I did want to tell some to move to MSE...so i am finding the current setup relaxing, either vote to close or vote to migrate. $\endgroup$ – Will Jagy Aug 20 '13 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ @WillJagy you make it look as if each OP gets angry. This was not at all my experience. First-time askers getting angry were more an exception than the rule, in my experience. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Aug 20 '13 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ @quid, I see what you mean. It happened a few times too often for my taste. Granted, I am on the thin-skinned end of the spectrum. $\endgroup$ – Will Jagy Aug 20 '13 at 19:40

My feeling is that one should not give answers (or hints) to questions that are not appropriate for MO, even in the comments. Doing so encourages people to post inappropriate questions in the hope that they'll get an answer even though the question is closed.

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    $\begingroup$ Documentation? Can you cite an example of someone who was encouraged to post an inappropriate question (I mean, a question the poster knew to be inappropriate) to MO by seeing answers or hints posted as comments to previous inappropriate questions? $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Aug 21 '13 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson in numerous discussions about on-topicnes precedence where brought up and sometimes people said they were sure this is alright as the found a similar question on the site via a search. Granted, this is mainly for soft-questions not what is mainly discussed here, but then how would you show or know what precsiely encouraged a passing-by asker to ask there question here. Sure, it is a bit of a guess, and I might agree some people worry too much about it, but your precise requests still strikes me as slightly unfair as even if it happens frequently might be impossible to show. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Aug 21 '13 at 2:13
  • $\begingroup$ @quid, had Andy presented it as a guess, I'd have had no problem with his post. He presented it as an established fact, and mathematicians don't do that if they don't have a proof. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Aug 21 '13 at 5:43
  • $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson thank you for the clarification. This a fair point. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Aug 21 '13 at 5:51
  • $\begingroup$ I sometimes wonder, why it is possible to vote on questions that are not appropriate for MO; isn't a vote also a kind of comment? $\endgroup$ – Manfred Weis Aug 28 '13 at 18:30

I am on the opposite end from Andy. My (humble, as usual) opinion is that (barring complete trivialities where you intend to send the person the direct message that he is either too stupid or too lazy to waste your time on or that his question has absolutely nothing to do with mathematics), you should demonstrate that the problem is easily solvable before casting the first vote to close. So, my current policy is to give out enough information for a reasonably clever reader to finish the solution without too much effort (and even then I sometimes abstain from voting to close myself). I understand what Andy is afraid of, but I am much more reluctant to make the error of the opposite type and drive someone away without a really good reason. The inappropriate questions that hang for a day or two can always be deleted automatically after closure but the reopening of a decent question may easily happen too late, when the OP has already sent us to the Hell after seeing his question downvoted and closed without any comment (or with some meaningless and technically wrong comments, I'm not sure which one is worse) within half an hour after posting.

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    $\begingroup$ What about the situation where 'the empty information' is already enough for the "reasonably clever reader to finish the solution without too much effort". (In my opinion, this being so does not make the OP ncessarily stupid or lazy.) $\endgroup$ – user9072 Aug 20 '13 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ {'the empty information' is already enough for the "reasonably clever reader} and {"this being so does not make the OP necessarily stupid or lazy."} are compatible only if the empty information is actually the information that the empty information is enough, i.e., the empty comment has the meaning "We all believe you can do this yourself!". Why not to write it then explicitly in this form? $\endgroup$ – fedja Aug 20 '13 at 23:31
  • $\begingroup$ I do not consider everybody falling either under "reasonably clever reader" (of MO) and "too stupid or too lazy to waste my time on." Thus, I do not consider your statement regarding the compatibility as valid. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Aug 20 '13 at 23:42
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    $\begingroup$ Here is where we digress (as it has often happened before :)). I see things in black and white and you in shades. However, I hope, we agree that the default meaning of a closed post with the empty comment for the OP is "You aren't welcome here". (We can talk about the difference between "you" and "this particular question of yours", but, frankly speaking, IMHO, the cases when one person can ask questions of wide range of interest and difficulty are pretty rare). Anyway, I guess we can see each other's point despite very different usage of language ;). $\endgroup$ – fedja Aug 20 '13 at 23:52
  • $\begingroup$ I agree regarding what one typically will infer from a closure without a comment. And, I almost never voted to close anything without either leaving a comment or there already being one I found alright. The only point of difference, if it is one, is that I do not think the only options are leaving mathematical information or telling them they will be able to solve it themselves. But, for example, one can also tell them that they could ask this elsewhere. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Aug 21 '13 at 0:07
  • $\begingroup$ Sure. However, if you think of the time the person needs to read your suggestion to ask elsewhere, to ask elsewhere, to get a (possibly wrong because MO has more qualified people) answer, etc., and the time you need to type essentially the full solution, you'll realize that you value your time at least 100 times as much as his time. There are people for which I would agree with this comparison, as far as my own time is concerned, but they all belong to the two categories I mentioned (in my classification). :) $\endgroup$ – fedja Aug 21 '13 at 0:12
  • $\begingroup$ OPs time and the person closing time are not the only relevant quantities here. When I want to optimize for my time, I simply ignore such things completely. (Which actually is what I do since some while mainly, since for reasons not needing discussion now, I reevaluted the value of the other quantities.) Sometimes it took me more time to write the comment to explain that they should ask elsewhere, than it would have taken to sketch an answer to the question. It is not as black-and-white, indeed. But, I think, essentially we agree anyway. :-) $\endgroup$ – user9072 Aug 21 '13 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ "But, I think, essentially we agree anyway. :-)". As usual, again. It is the language barrier that really separates us (plus the choice of the side of the story to present first). I also don't mind the sketch + the suggestion to ask elsewhere NEXT time, or the internet {link/search query} that would lead to the answer in a matter of seconds, say. Those are completely fine. I just mind implicit de facto message "Get out of here!" without readiness to say so openly. $\endgroup$ – fedja Aug 21 '13 at 0:34

It is considered bad form (at least by some) to answer off-topic question.

This applies mainly to proper answers, but one reason being that receiving answers encourages to come back with more questions, it extends to answers in comments. (Added: The answer appearing while I type confirms this view.)

That being said, certainly a hint here or there occurs with some frequency and is not considered as some violation of a policy.

However, some more points to consider against giving too much information in comments (sometimes I do this myself, also see at the end):

  1. It can happen that one comment is not enough. Then there are requests for clarfication. Maybe even an edit of the question, keeping it still longer visible and so on.

  2. Until now I only gave reasons why it is not good "for MO" but I feel it is not only this. It can also be bad for OP. There is a site math.SE where many questions that are off-topic here as too low level but otherwise reasonable (such as this one, I think) are perfectly on-topic. And there they would typically receive a proper or even several good answers. And not just some quick comment. Giving a quick answer might have as effect that OP does not ask there and get a better answer. Also, this might not be the only question an OP has, and the next ones will likely also fit better there on math.SE. I think the best course of action is to direct such posters, having reasonable math questions but not at the level appropriate for MO, to math.SE as directly as possible. (If not via a proper migration, just via telling them about the other site.)

There can be cases where sending an OP to math.SE is not optimal. For example, the question could be very unclear or likely mistated or some other things. In these cases I sometimes leave a comment making OP aware of these issues, with the encouragement to fix them first and then ask on math.SE if still needed.

So, in brief, while I do not consider it as a big problem if people answer off-topic questions a bit in comments, I do not think it is good to do so in general also as most of the time it seems to me it is not even the most helpful course of action for OP.


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