What is the general point of view of the mathematical community about MO ?
Do you talk about MO with your colleagues non-"MO users" ? What are their views?
Is it acceptable to cite MO's posts in a paper for a peer-review journal ?

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    $\begingroup$ Your post includes at least two questions that are somehow unrelated. When I talk to my non-MO colleagues, I usually tell them it is very interesting forum, in particular, if you use one question per post! :) $\endgroup$ – Amir Asghari Aug 30 '13 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ @AmirAsghari : if you prefer, the second question is a specialization of the first, in the sense that something is "acceptable" if it's accepted by the community. So the views of the mathematical community contains this acceptability. What do your colleagues respond to you, are they curious, unconcerned, afraid ? Is there a natural difference between your young and old colleagues ? $\endgroup$ – Sebastien Palcoux Aug 30 '13 at 11:17
  • $\begingroup$ The part about citing MO posts has been discussed before, either here or on tea (I will try to dig up the relevant posts when I have the time unless someone does it before I get around to it). $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kildetoft Aug 30 '13 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ The part about citing MO posts has been effectively answered by the multitude of references to MO in existing mathematical papers (do a search on arXiv). $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 30 '13 at 12:29
  • $\begingroup$ @darijgrinberg, yes thanks. Here is the arxiv's paper (4 May 2013) : What does mathoverflow tell us about the production of mathematics? $\endgroup$ – Sebastien Palcoux Aug 30 '13 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ I think you may have misunderstood what @darijgrinberg meant. I think he meant that there are several papers on the arXiv which reference MO (in the same way one would reference another paper), not that there is a paper specifically about MO. $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kildetoft Aug 30 '13 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ @TobiasKildetoft : oh ok, I understand. $\endgroup$ – Sebastien Palcoux Aug 30 '13 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ @darijgrinberg : But everyone can post a paper on arxiv with MO's reference, this does not show that it's acceptable. Acceptable means accepted for a peer-review journal. Perhaps some journals accept and others not, in this case, which ? $\endgroup$ – Sebastien Palcoux Aug 30 '13 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps, but what choice do they have? You always can just copy (with all required attributions, etc.) the corresponding part of the discussion into the paper and say that it is the only source currently available, so no "respectable reference" is forthcoming within the next several years. Of course, like with every other citation, you have the responsibility to check that the argument you cite is correct and here you cannot rely on the "historical acceptance" and on other people doing this work for you. $\endgroup$ – fedja Aug 30 '13 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ @SébastienPalcoux: When you wrote "acceptable", the last thing I had expected was for it to mean "accepted by publishers". $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 30 '13 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think "acceptable" really makes sense here. In academia, you must adequately report all your sources no matter what or where they are. If you make use of an equation from a graffiti on a pillar of the Brooklyn Bridge, then you have to figure out a way to cite it. A journal may require a specific mechanism for unusual citations but they can't reject the citation itself. $\endgroup$ – François G. Dorais Aug 30 '13 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ "In academia, you must adequately report all your sources no matter what or where they are" Ah-oh, given that I got the key idea for one lemma from a Russian street song with words not quite suitable to reproduce in print and another from a friend who, in my student years, challenged me to compete who can say more of abacabadabacabaeaba... without mistake or a break to inhaling (no jokes: he second paper can be found at arxiv.org/abs/1008.3077 and the connection is obvious, though I'll abstain from demonstrating the first one), I'm in big trouble now... $\endgroup$ – fedja Sep 1 '13 at 15:20
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    $\begingroup$ @FrançoisG.Dorais, interestingly, I've had a journal (PNAS) reject, in any form, a citation to notes published on a web page. $\endgroup$ – Scott Morrison Sep 12 '13 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark Meckes In both cases it was more than "inspiration". Understood correctly, it was a full solution modulo routine (for a professional analyst) technical details. If we go into inspiration, the list will be endless. Renyi said that a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems but he mentioned only the fuel, not the raw material consumed by this machine. Starting at some point, you take in just everything (like any other good artist) and see the whole world as inspiration. If you want, we can talk more about that when you drive 30 miles South or I go 30 miles North :-). $\endgroup$ – fedja Sep 13 '13 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ @fedja: I think you're being rather too modest in your personal role in "understanding correctly". Maybe we can compromise and agree that in any case the song was more than "inspiration" but still less than a "source". I'd be happy to talk more about the subject with you sometime, though if I drove 30 miles south right now I'd be in the Pyrenees. $\endgroup$ – Mark Meckes Sep 15 '13 at 12:51

In my experience, MO mainly satisfies the following need that conferences used (for me) to fill: After thinking about a question for a long time, usually something technical that is holding you up, you have the opportunity to directly ask an expert. At the conference you'd think really carefully about what you say and brace yourself for the answer, hold your breath, and then ask. You'd have to be very careful when you ask, because the expert might have a Fields medal or be a rising superstar...they were, after all, invited to speak at a conference. So you only have one shot to get a good answer and the question should be formulated very carefully.

The community is now the expert, but the idea is the same.

A second fortunate function of MO is the presence of the CW option. We can ask experts about their ideas that might direct or affect our, and the community's, approach to mathematics in general...as well as glean ideas that don't appear in papers. The answers to these are like the things speakers will mention in a talk that are complementary to, or that motivate, their results.

The second feature has developed despite the intention of the site playing the first role. I think this is mainly because a few high-profile members (like Bill Thurston) have opened the door to broader questions.

The strongest criticism of MO by certain of my colleagues is that MO might discourage young mathematicians (graduate students, for example) from thinking hard enough about their problems before looking for help with them. This is a valid criticism, if you believe in the mathematical process as put forward by Hadamard/Poincaré for example. Briefly put: long periods of being stuck after working hard with no progress at all are often critical to kick the subconscious into high gear.

Colleagues have also advised me to refrain from asking questions too frequently (understandably, if you regard MO community as a fields medalist...for example). They have advised that it looks more appropriate to answer questions more often, since it doesn't appear that I'm trying to take an undue amount of attention from the community on the front page. This was good advice for me, since I'm rather excited about MO, don't have graduate students, and have a lot of questions that I'll probably never get around to working on.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for this witness ! I didn't know the book of Hadamard/Poincaré, it looks very interesting, I just buy it on ama---. $\endgroup$ – Sebastien Palcoux Aug 30 '13 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ "it might discourage young mathematicians (graduate students, for example) from thinking hard enough about their problems". Only those who are not willing to think from the beginning (and, frankly speaking, I do not really care what happens to them). Those who are willing to think and, especially, those who are willing to think of other people's problems may find it rather stimulating (plus much more exciting than Fox news or Obama speeches as a topic of the afternoon tea discussion). ;) $\endgroup$ – fedja Aug 30 '13 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ @fedja: A nice point! $\endgroup$ – Jon Bannon Aug 30 '13 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ @fedja I agree to some extent with your underlying sentiment, but there are those who start their graduate studies without having been told/taught to think from the beginning, yet on suitable encouragement will develop such skills. For those, I think there is some merit in encouraging them not to use MO as their own Jeeves, at least not at the start. $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 30 '13 at 22:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Yemon I come from the culture where future mathematicians were supposed (and taught) to think from day one of their undegraduate studies for sure and from the 7-8th grade of school en masse. If you were to get the idea that you should think and solve problems by yourself only as a graduate in Leningrad, you just wouldn't be in the graduate school. Most likely, you wouldn't be in the undergraduate school either but I admit that this may be questionable. We asked each other and shared our ideas much more than it is customary here and yet, we knew that we should be able to hold on our own. $\endgroup$ – fedja Aug 30 '13 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ @fedja That is laudable (I mean this with utter sincerity) but that's not the "initial condition" that I find myself in as a teacher and supervisor :( As it happens my own mathematical origins are closer to what you describe. $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 30 '13 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Yemon Yeah, I know it is different here and now from how it was there and then. However, I sincerely see little chance that somebody whom you drag through the graduate school and whose first impulse when presented with a challenge is to pass it to somebody else will ever become anything worth of being called a professional. If I had an infinite lifespan and 200 hours in a day instead of 24, I would, maybe, show more "humanism" and less desire to "cut corners". As it is, however, I prefer to take care of those who, I believe, deserve it, and simply leave the rest to kinder souls. :) $\endgroup$ – fedja Aug 31 '13 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ @fedja: (Sorry to "eavesdrop") Arguably, it is not kinder to encourage the weaker students you describe. It is kinder to be honest with them. $\endgroup$ – Jon Bannon Sep 1 '13 at 0:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Jon Bannon Perhaps, but since those are pretty much exactly to whom the "most valid criticism of MO" applies, and since it was not I, who invented this criticism, I suspect that it is also not I, who should be convinced here :-). $\endgroup$ – fedja Sep 1 '13 at 9:20
  • $\begingroup$ @fedja: That is why I think your original comment above was an appropriate one! $\endgroup$ – Jon Bannon Sep 1 '13 at 12:32

What is the general point of view of the mathematical community about MO ?

The community I am going to talk about is just a handful of mathematician colleagues of mine whom I was talking with today about a "simple" mathematical problem. I think it is worth hearing.

We tried to solve the problem and we failed. I suggested: okay, I'll ask the question on MO. Their reaction was telling: "What if the question is so simple?" Somehow, they was afraid of asking a probably "simple" though for us a genuine question on MO. It is interesting that It was me who was at danger of losing reputation!! I don't know how this fear of MO is general, but I think MO should encourage genuine questions more. Although, I don't know how.


Is it acceptable to cite MO's posts in a paper for a peer-review journal ?

Currently neither more nor less acceptable than citing other web sources in a paper.

We hope MO will be around for many years to come. But many other resources which had that same hope invested in them have now faded away, making papers that cite them less helpful. If MO is still going strong in 10 years, then a citation to it may be as acceptable as a citation to a paper journal.

Working on fractals, I had once a reference to HAKMEM ... which fortunately was found on microfilm in the basement of a university library.

  1. I do talk to my friends about Overflow. I find it somewhat entertaining and sometimes useful. Some of my friends (a minority) like it, others (a majority) are indifferent, but nobody said that it makes any harm.

  2. I do cite several MO entries in my papers intended for publication in journals. (Not published yet). Why not, if we can cite arXiv? The only objection that I know against citing such sources is that there is no certainty that they will be available in the future in exactly the same form. I mean people can edit or withdraw entries, or the whole site may disappear. The last possibility does not seem to be very probable.

Against the first possibility, perhaps it is worth to consider making some questions and answers impossible to edit or remove. Say after 3 months since a question or an answer is posted. We can allow the author of the question/answer to exercise this option.

This is my suggestion to those who run MO.

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    $\begingroup$ So MO, like the planet Earth, is mostly harmless. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mostly_Harmless $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Sep 12 '13 at 0:01
  • $\begingroup$ It does suggest that we should think about long-term archiving of MathOverflow. Perhaps we should print the entire site to a giant PDF and put it on the arXiv. (This is at least half-serious.) $\endgroup$ – Scott Morrison Sep 12 '13 at 0:11
  • $\begingroup$ @ScottMorrison: I agree that there should be a long-term archiving plan (but putting it on the arXiv wouldn't make sense, or even be particularly useful if it lost all the structure). Convincing a university library to archive it would be a good start. There are probably people who have more useful contacts than I do, but I'd be happy to help with this. $\endgroup$ – Henry Cohn Sep 12 '13 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ I think the first thing to do is to introduce a special status of problems/answers that cannot be altered, edited or removed. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Sep 12 '13 at 3:03
  • $\begingroup$ I do not think that putting a giant pdf file on the arxiv is a good idea. It will be impossible to find anything interesting in this hudge file. When I started using MO a year ago, I first tried to search for interesting problems, but soon gave up, and now I am only checking the new ones. What interests me in MO makes < 1% of all problems, and I think this is the case for most users. Tags do not help much. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Sep 12 '13 at 3:08
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko I do not consider it as necessary to enforce that some posts cannot be edited. You mentione arXiv, also there people can and do post updated version (that is 'edit' their paper). Of course, old versions are preserved on the arXiv and if one wants to be sure one will mention the precise version. And this is exatly the same for MO. The full revision history stays visible. If you are worried about later edits mention the revision number of the post/the date. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Sep 12 '13 at 10:22
  • $\begingroup$ Deletion could be a problem; but I think it should be quite rare and undeletion (which is always possible) could be handled on a case by case basis; every post is undelete-able. Also, it would seem better to me rather than to alter the functionality of the main site for some rare cases to perhaps create a mechanism to 'save a frozen copy' as a backup of something one quoted. If one does not insists on automating this a lot, it seems easy to do this. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Sep 12 '13 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ All that is needed (for citing MO entries) is the ability to fix these entries, so that they are never altered/deleted, and their URL is fixed. The main principle with references in a published paper is that every cited reference must be available to any reader in the future. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Sep 12 '13 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ You can cite a specific version of a post, like arXiv, so future edits should not be a problem. In fact, if you are using the cite link under the questions it contains the date of the revision you are citing. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Sep 15 '13 at 23:06
  • $\begingroup$ @quid - If questions or answers are deleted (which the users can do for their own content more or less as they please), then that content will not be generally visible through the site, and good content does sometimes get deleted. It is possible to externally "back-up" site contents by using the site's data dump, but this is not useful for the community until someone (better, some institution) makes the effort to regularly keep and make visible their own mirror of the site contents. $\endgroup$ – Charles Stewart Oct 8 '13 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ @CharlesStewart 'more or less as they please' seems like quite an exaggeration. For questions it seems completely false as one can not delete ones aquestions as soon as it has an answer(s) with some upvote(s) (I do not know the precise thresholds by heart yet could looke them up but they are very low, something like one answer with score +1 or +2 suffices). I highly doubt there are that many questions that are so worthy of preservation that do not meet this. Also accepted answers cannot be deleted, which often will suffice in standard usecase for quoting (quote 'the' answer to ones q) $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 9 '13 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ @quid: I should have recalled the point about questions with answers, and I did not know that accepted answers could not be deleted - you are right. That said, I think that Stack Exchange policy and implementation mean the site is not good as a reference resource without some kind of external archiving. Some questions of interest to me on the Stack Overflow site were deleted, because despite their interest and quality of answers, they were regarded as being too "soft" some years later. What happens to our high-quality soft questions if we have a regime change here? $\endgroup$ – Charles Stewart Oct 14 '13 at 14:41
  • $\begingroup$ @CharlesStewart yes I do not disagree that MO in its current form is not optimal regarding archiving. Meanwhile there is a meta-thread dedicated to this. My point here is mainly that in practice the problem is not that big in my opinion and in any case I am against changing the core functionality of the site for what is actually (regarding frequency) a corner case. (In addition to me not following some of what is claimed in comments by OP, there are plenty of reference in the literature to private communcication, letters and what not where it is not at all true that they are available) $\endgroup$ – user9072 Oct 14 '13 at 16:22

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