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To make a long discussion short, this is one suggestion to help reform the public image of closure at math.SE. I'd like to propose that we should be thinking of it more like a wheel clamp, and less like a car crusher.


For a long time closure has had a really bad reputation here, and as far as I can tell it is mainly a cultural thing here at math.SE. Other SE have been using closures frequently and constructively for a long time even without the new paint job of "on hold." I know I certainly experienced no small culture shock in my visits to those sites. I see a bit of wisdom in their actions now, though.

With such a high volume of questions, we really need to figure out how to use closure constructively. There are plenty of users who get all bent out of shape about closures (both posters and kibitzers), possibly because they view it is a death sentence for a question.

From other SE's examples, we can see that it doesn't have to be used/viewed that way, and insisting closure-is-the-devil-forever is just isn't constructive.

One way to make closure less scary is to make it easier to reopen stuff. Here are a few ideas I had, not guaranteed to be good ones:

  1. When a question is nominated for reopening, notify the users who closed it and make their reopen votes count for more. (In several cases I left advice about what would make the question reopenable, but I lack the energy to track and follow through, so they probably just slip through the cracks.) There could be reasonable limits to keep the volume of these notifications under control. Ideally the nomination would be resolved quickly so that the notification would expire and disappear before users saw it.

  2. Keep questions which are nominated and accumulating reopen votes near the top of activity. (Of course it ought to speedily drop out if the reopening motion is defeated.)

  3. Devise (if there isn't one already) a good audit on the reopening review queue. (Anyone who is rubberstamping reopens with "leave closed" is not helping the reputation of closure at all.)

I guess answers to this question should mainly follow the discussion aspect of using closures this way with the intent to reopen, and finding holes or expressing support for the three ideas. If you've got other good ideas, those would probably be best put forth in a new feature-request :)


Update: And to clarify I never meant to imply that there aren't appropriate reasons for permanent closure. I meant to imply that the damage done by closures which don't have to be permanent can be mitigated to a great extent by helping ensure that deserving ones get reopened.

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    $\begingroup$ What I wonder is, if this is a cultural thing unique to math.SE and the problems don't arise on other sites using the same software (I don't know from experience but take rschwieb's word), why is the software the target of change? Is there something we users of math.SE can do to make better use of the software as it exists, like they do on other sites? $\endgroup$ – Jonas Meyer Sep 4 '13 at 2:39
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    $\begingroup$ I like the goal of people realizing that closure is not scary. After all, it simply means that the asker did something five regulars didn't like. Extending the idea might be to make people realize that a downvote is not scary. After all, it often means that the poster did something one regular didn't like. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Sep 4 '13 at 3:40
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    $\begingroup$ There are only one and a fraction kinds of closure that I consider problematic. The one is closure for ‘naked’ questions; I consider such closures both scary and an infringement on my ability to decide what questions I wish to answer, I automatically vote to re-open these questions, and I will continue to do so. The fraction consists of questions closed as unclear when I can in fact figure out what was intended. (Most questions closed for this reason actually are unclear, though I prefer to give the OP a day or so after this is pointed out before actual closing.) As far as I’m ... $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Sep 4 '13 at 6:00
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    $\begingroup$ I have seen a couple questions nominated for re-opening just after they were closed, when the questions have not been edited to fix the problems noted. I've automatically voted to keep those closed. Res judicata and all that. $\endgroup$ – dfeuer Sep 4 '13 at 7:05
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    $\begingroup$ @user1729 simply throwing your hands up and saying it IS a death sentence is unhelpful, as I mentioned. If it's a death sentence or close to one, then we work to fix it. $\endgroup$ – rschwieb Sep 4 '13 at 10:16
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    $\begingroup$ Dear @BrianM.Scott: please don't start a digression into reasons for closure. This thread is about making reopenings easier. if you need a place to continue venting, there are plenty of threads about closure reasons. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – rschwieb Sep 4 '13 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ although I suppose "almost never close anything" is a way to make closure less scary, it also seems like a sure-fire way to encourage and grow the world's least searchable q+a site for students wanting free answers to their homework. $\endgroup$ – rschwieb Sep 4 '13 at 10:29
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    $\begingroup$ You’re the one venting when you gratuitously bring in ‘students wanting free answers to their homework’. I’m sure that there are some, but I’m appalled at the number of people here who see them under every bed. I know better: I get lots of interaction with people who have asked ‘naked’ questions. And what I wrote is not a digression. It is entirely on point to observe that making it easier to re-open questions isn’t going to help with the class of questions on which there is substantial disagreement: it just makes it easier for the two sides to play ping-pong. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Sep 4 '13 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ If it's a death sentence or close to one, then we work to fix it. You’re still missing the point. For any given question there are three cases. (1) There’s general agreement that closure is appropriate: a death sentence is fine. (2) There’s general agreement that closure is not (or is no longer) appropriate: these death sentences seem to get repealed pretty consistently, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with making such questions easier to re-open. (3) There’s significant disagreement over the appropriateness of the death sentence. In this case the death sentence isn’t the ... $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Sep 4 '13 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ ... problem: the problem is the disagreement, and tinkering with the mechanics of re-opening isn’t going to change that. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Sep 4 '13 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott My understanding was that this post was to do with how to encourage users to edit their questions from case 1 into case 2, which is a perfectly reasonable discussion entirely separate from controversial reasons for closure. $\endgroup$ – mdp Sep 5 '13 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ Dear @BrianM.Scott : This has frequently happened in our discussions where you fixate on something which I've written to be non-focal. (In this case, upon the overarching issue to a smaller issue, reopening.) Then you claim I'm missing the point because I'm not focusing on what you want the focus to be. Then you follow with a lot of stuff which is relevant to the overarching issue, which is incredibly distracting and disruptive since it is so contentious. I ask you again as a gentleman: can you please stick to refining reopening procedure $\endgroup$ – rschwieb Sep 6 '13 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott ... and cease and desist trying to derail the main topic with generalities? I would be incredibly surprised if you were somehow opposed to making reopening better. Regards. $\endgroup$ – rschwieb Sep 6 '13 at 12:53
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    $\begingroup$ Dear @BrianM.Scott It's perfectly fine if you think that this isn't the cure-all to fix our closure problems. I agree with that! But that isn't a valid reason to discard improving reopenings. I also agree with much of what you've said about closures. I get the distinct impression that you're communication toward me is warped by some sort of personal feeling to me. If that's the case, please accept my apologies for whatever it was. I'm just leaving some of my stupid energies of youth behind, and I would much prefer to avoid such stressful conflict. Regards again. $\endgroup$ – rschwieb Sep 6 '13 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ If you think that I am ‘trying to derail the main topic with generalities’, you’ve not understood a thing that I’ve written and probably don’t understand the implications of the wording of your question. I’m telling you that if your goal is to make closure less scary, you’re out of luck, because you suggested remedy won’t have that effect. If you wish to delete that and simply propose making re-opening easier, that’s fine, but you’re addressing what is for the most part a non-problem. In the one case I’m wasting my time; in the other it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the thread ... $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Sep 7 '13 at 8:19
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As of this moment, the "on hold" mechanism seems to work fine. At least to the newcomers, it didn't generate that much of bad impression as the original "just close it" mechanism. The "on hold" change is only implemented a few months ago. I don't think we have enough data point to pinpoint any of its shortcomings.

I'll suggest we wait for a few more months. Collect more data point for the strength and weakness of current implementation before we decide what need to be changed.

For any mechanism to be usable, it need to be semi-stable. If policy are changed too frequently, no matter how good is original intention, it will only cause more confusion than it worth.

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As to the first idea, I support its main incentive. I would however like to make the implementation a per-question opt-in -- this way, closers won't be bothered with posts they consider unsalvageable, or that are clear close/on-hold candidates but otherwise lie outside of their expertise. Such a system will allow for custom-tailored limiting and IMO is bound to be more effective than "we won't bother you with more than 10 pings a day", for obvious reasons of the wrong questions getting a ping.


Ad 2., I took the liberty of distilling it to the proposal "Reopen votes bump", which is the only proper way of implementing the suggestion that occurred to me. It seems reasonable, and was actually suggested in this meta.SO post. In the only response, Jeff Atwood (head of the SE network back then -- he has left SE since) opposes the idea. He seems to think that questions that get closed (even when such happens for wrong reasons):

a. get enough extra attention by the necessary edits being made; and
b. should've been better questions to begin with.

There's some merit in a, but b sounds a bit off; it might stem from the perception that five close voters are less likely to be collectively wrong than the asker is likely to have asked a bad question. Perhaps this suggestion has to be given a more thorough consideration.


Finally, coming to the third point, the Reopen review queue is the shortest of all six; typical days involve less than 10 such reviews. It therefore seems, at least at this point in time, that auditing would interfere too much in the existing process. Also, the scarcity of reviews serves to me as an indicator that "rubberstamping" isn't really an issue at the moment. We might want to get back to this when other incentives have increased the number of Reopen reviews.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the modifications in the first paragraph. Points taken in the last paragraph too. But if we meet our goals and the review queue gets more lively, we should unbury the idea again. $\endgroup$ – rschwieb Sep 3 '13 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ Bumping a question due to reopen-nomination shouldn't really be necessary - the reopen review queue (only available for those who can actually vote to reopen, i.e. >3k rep) exclusively lists those questions. Additionally, most questions are nominated for reopening after an improving edit, which already bumps the question $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Sep 5 '13 at 19:02
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Note that anyone with >3k rep can check the review queues for questions with pending close votes and questions that are potentially worth reopening, either by being voted for reopen or by a simple edit (the latter may not always be a good indicator on whether a question deserves reopening, but except for controversial questions this is the minimum requirement for reopening). This does not explicitly involve the original closers, though if you closed a question through the review queue, you're likely to encounter it in the reopen queue again (subjectively; I don't suppose the system actually gives any other priority than FIFO). From my experience on other sites, e.g. http://gaming.stackexchange.com, where questions are closed very regularly for very valid reasons, many questions are then improved and reopened, and I don't think I've seen any closed question for which I though "Damn, that needs to be reopened" which did not get reopened within a day.

So in summary, I agree with closing questions more often, though for new users it might be helpful to leave a comment indicating that this does not mean the death of the question (which actually causes some to simply repost their question...) but merely that it needs a more or less severe overhaul before it is well posed...

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    $\begingroup$ I would hypothesize that people on gaming.SE usually want to know the answer to their question, whereas at least some of the problematic questions on math.SE are from people who don't care about the answer, they just want to turn in their homework on time. Of course we have lots of great questions here as well, only a small fraction are problematic. $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Sep 5 '13 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ @CarlMummert Good point - personally I'm all for closing pure "help me turn in my homework in time" questions unless they are show enough self-effort to justify hints. But if it's pretty obvious that they don't actually care, it should not only be closed but deleted and said user would quite soon encounter the automated question-ban... Or do you actually suggest helping those lazy ones by being lax with closing? $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Sep 5 '13 at 18:57
  • $\begingroup$ !Tobias Kienzler: not at all. I was just speculating on why gaming.SE users might be more likely to improve closed questions. $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Sep 5 '13 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for this input about closure and how you've seen it used. I was really hoping, though, for a bit more feedback about the ideas for reopening, or modifications thereof, that might mitigate the negative effects of some closures. Again though, I appreciate what you've written: thanks! $\endgroup$ – rschwieb Sep 6 '13 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Tobias: Exactly how do you propose to prove that someone doesn’t care or is lazy? Posting a ‘naked question’ is certainly not proof, since I’ve quite often ended up engaging such posters in active participation by posting a hint with containing an explicit question. Failure to respond to questions asking for clarification or to hints is a stronger indication, but it’s still hardly proof. I routinely do try to help the people whom you denigrate as lazy, and as I said, in a significant number of cases I get meaningful interaction. As for the rest? The world won’t end if a few people ... $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Sep 9 '13 at 4:37
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    $\begingroup$ ... get unearned help here. Some of them may actually learn something; at least they’ll have better notes from which to study for their exams. In any case it’s a problem only for those instructors who choose to base a significant part of the course grade on graded homework, and if they’re worried about students getting outside help, it’s their responsibility to set up their own safeguards (if they can). About the only one that I consider reasonably effective is grading all homework thoroughly oneself and getting to know one’s students’ capabilities, and that’s a lot of work. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Sep 9 '13 at 4:43
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott I think we're tangentially talking about the same: I agree that in case of doubt one might still give a helpful answer; one should never forget that while one specific user asked a question, the answers are supposed to help everyone (with a similar question) reading them - I think you're misjudging what I consider lazy. My point is that a question should be closed when it's in such a poor state that it cannot be well-answered, and reopened once edited into something useful. I'm not sure I follow your train of thought to the point where homework grading is involved though... $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Sep 9 '13 at 6:58
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Just so it gets with other similar ideas, it might be possible to describe questions which are closed as duplicates as "redirected" or something equivalent.

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  • $\begingroup$ Accurate, at worst harmless, and probably at least slightly beneficial; +1. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Sep 17 '13 at 3:14

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