# Unilateral closure by moderator

This question was recently migrated to MSE from MO. Within about an hour it had been unilaterally closed by a moderator, who thereby made it impossible either to leave comments or to vote to reopen the question.

It is not a contest question, spam, or patently offensive, or even a little disturbing like the cutter picture a while back, so there is no obvious reason to rush to supersede the normal course of events.

As a general principle I think it a bad idea for a moderator to preempt what are fundamentally community decisions, and a number of moderators have made similar comments during my time here. When the issue is as contentious as this one has been, it seems to me not just a bad idea, but an outright abuse of power.

Question: Irrespective of your opinion of the proper eventual fate of the question that prompted mine here, is it acceptable for a moderator unilaterally to make such a decision?

Added: The lock appears to have been peculiar to the circumstances surrounding this particular question, so the general picture isn’t quite so bad as I described in the first paragraph above; see the comments below. However, the fundamental problem of one person preempting the community remains; another instance may be seen here.

• It is often troublesome that moderators' votes are binding. It would be nice to cast a normal vote sometimes. It is easy forget some of the side-effects of some actions, such as not allowing votes to reopen. I don't think that this was necessarily an abuse of power, but a mistake. I will reopen the question. – robjohn Nov 15 '13 at 21:28
• Actually, the inability to reopen or leave a comment was due to a lock that I did not see until I reopened the question. – robjohn Nov 15 '13 at 21:31
• The lock appeared because it was a rejected migration. (The tag-wiki of MSO's (migration-rejection) tag.) – user642796 Nov 15 '13 at 21:33
• Ah, this is something I did not know. If a mod closes an unupvoted migrated question, the question automatically locks, and then closes. This prevents users from commenting, editing, or reopening the question. I had no idea – davidlowryduda Nov 15 '13 at 21:43
• Seems like a very slightly better conditional probability question than the usual ones. I looked for a reopen button, did not find one. Odd! – André Nicolas Nov 16 '13 at 1:35
• @zyx: I really can't feel that the last sentence is a thinly veiled insulted directed at me. I don't know how else to interpret it, as no one else I noticed went off topic; but at the same time I also don't know what the hell you want from me, as I only posted one comment requesting that you don't address me on meta. Apparently that derailed the discussion, and no one else could say or write any other word on the topic of Brian's post (which was unclear to me, and apparently to three-four other people who voted my comment about it being unclear). [cont.] – Asaf Karagila Nov 17 '13 at 7:47
• [...] I also don't know why you keep insisting on chatting with me, because you know very well that we both (that you and me) responsible for derailment of chats, as our comment discussions grow exponentially and after a few rounds we end up writing a five-comments-long reply. For some reason that I cannot fathom, I feel that you are trying to intentionally get me to say something harsh, or somehow get myself suspended. I'm sorry to disappoint. But I still don't approve your very thinly veiled insults against me (including "what else is new" in your comment to me below). [cont.] – Asaf Karagila Nov 17 '13 at 7:49
• [...] Finally, I don't want you to answer these comments. Not because that will certainly derail the discussion here (note that you were the one who started this derailment with your final sentences in both comments, so any continuation will be an acknowledgment on your side that you are to blame just as much as any other of the "usual suspects"). No, I don't want you to answer these comments because all the questions here are rhetorical. I just wanted to point out that I am aware to what you are trying to pull off, and I wanted to ask you to stop because that is beneath both of us. – Asaf Karagila Nov 17 '13 at 7:52
• @Asaf: (1) I think that the motives that you attribute to zyx exist only in your imagination. (2) I don’t care how many upvotes your comment got: I don’t understand how anyone could so badly have misunderstood my question. (3) You’re the one who blew up when zyx simply corrected a factual error on your part. – Brian M. Scott Nov 17 '13 at 15:39
• @Brian: I have a very long history with zyx. I'm sure that you're aware of that. I've asked him before to do his best to avoid talking to me on meta, as history indicated that it never works out. I found his comment to be very offensive, and his second comment even worse. Not to mention the one above which got me to actually write this very long, elaborate and off topic response. Finally, I don't understand how people can believe in God after everything that have happened in the world, or how people can be against the axiom of infinity or law of excluded middle. There are still such people. – Asaf Karagila Nov 17 '13 at 15:44
• @Asaf: No, I wasn’t aware of that. I know that the two of you are on opposite sides of some issues, because you and I are on opposite sides of some issues, and I typically agree with zyx. And I honestly cannot recall any comment by zyx that I would classify as intemperate or offensive. I try hard to keep mine on an even keel here, but I honestly don’t think that I do quite as good a job as zyx does. – Brian M. Scott Nov 17 '13 at 15:57
• @Brian: In my last visit to Vienna, someone showed me a paper written by two Americans where they denote a class of spaces as "SS". Any Jewish or European person would immediately twitch in their sit, but when he asked an American visitor some months earlier that person was completely fine with the name. In the other side, during the workshop a European mathematician presented some elaborate construction based on the works of Blass and Shelah (I believe) and kept referring to the "BS forcing", and one American jokingly remarked that BS is a bad name, but most of the crowd didn't get it. – Asaf Karagila Nov 17 '13 at 16:00
• I hope you see where I'm driving at with my previous comment. Different people, with different backgrounds, and different historical knowledge, will find different things offensive. – Asaf Karagila Nov 17 '13 at 16:01
• "Even keel" is very different from "not offensive". – Hurkyl Nov 17 '13 at 17:39
• @Hurkyl: It shouldn’t be. Someone who finds it so is either unduly sensitive or looking for reasons to take offense. – Brian M. Scott Nov 17 '13 at 17:42

Moderator close votes are intentionally reversible (rejected migrations are an exception, and they are only locked to avoid creating two active version of a question on separate sites), this gives the community the chance to undo moderator decisions they disagree with.

The moderators are part of the community, I don't think it is useful or beneficial to think of the moderators to be outside of the community. They do have a much stronger vote, but when closing questions they don't have the last vote (unless they decide otherwise), the community can still overturn their decision.

Moderators should be more careful with their vote, as it counts for five votes, but that doesn't mean they should leave obviously bad questions open just to avoid acting unilaterally. Moderators generally know the rules of their site, and should have a very good success rate when closing. And as a moderator you have no longer the luxury to vote on questions where you are not sure, you avoid borderline issues that the community should figure out, but that does not mean you have to avoid voting in every case.

The community gets it wrong quite regularly when closing questions, the moderators should be at least equal if not better than the community in closing questions. That doesn't mean they won't get it wrong occasionally, but I would expect their error rate to be less than the error rate of community-closed questions.

Because there was some confusion about this, by "get it wrong" I mean cases where existing rules are clearly applied in error. One example of this would be on Stack Overflow where some users don't know that questions about programming tools are on-topic, and still close them. Another rather common case are duplicates that are not actually duplicates, once the first vote is cast they often accumulate more votes from users that just quickly check the duplicate but not read it thoroughly enough. Not all close decisions are judgment calls, most are pretty straightforward applications of the rules the community decided on.

Disclaimer: I'm a moderator on two sites and regularly close questions unilaterally

• Your third paragraph is largely irrelevant, as there is significant disagreement over whether such questions are ‘obviously bad’; that is precisely why it is a bad idea for a moderator to impose his prejudices in such cases. Your last paragraph is a bit bizarre: by what external standard can the community get it wrong? The community can be (and is) inconsistent, but that’s a rather different matter. Finally, it doesn’t matter whether a moderator acting unilaterally in such a case gets it right (whatever that means) or not: it’s still an abuse of his power as far as I’m concerned. – Brian M. Scott Nov 16 '13 at 0:19
• The community can also reverse a "failure" to close. The situation is symmetrical and the argument can be used in either direction. The usual default is to allow rather than forbid actions that are not objectively harmful, but on SE things already are skewed toward closing prior to any moderator votes. That includes discarding the Leave Open votes in the Review queue; the inertial effect of closing happening first (instead of a running count of Close and Reopen votes where both start accumulating at the same time); and the ability to delete before close/reopen voting has settled. – zyx Nov 16 '13 at 1:27
• @BrianM.Scott Moderators should in most cases not close questions when there is no consensus about the issue. That there is such a huge category of questions where the community can not agree on whether they should be closed or not is very problematic and it makes the community moderation rather arbitrary. – Mad Scientist Nov 16 '13 at 8:02
• This overpowered close vote is a bug that SE should correct at some point (similar to giving Superman amazing strength, but disabling him from shaking your hand without breaking it). It seems to me that every possible argument in favor of the binding, extra-weighted close vote works better as an argument for making the extra power optional, and thus allowing "ordinary close vote" as one of the closing modes available to moderators. Do you agree? – zyx Nov 16 '13 at 8:21
• @zyx I used to agree with the proposal to allow mods a non-binding vote, but over time I've come to disagree with it. The binding vote makes me more careful as a moderator, and it has improved the way I approach closing a question. I also don't think moderators should be able to delegate responsibility to other users that way, either they're sure closing is the right call and they do it, or they are not sure and then they should not close at all. – Mad Scientist Nov 16 '13 at 8:23
• Moderators who find the current system beneficial could disregard the "ordinary user" mode. Note, however, that on MSE most (I think) of the recent moderator candidates made a point of stating that they would avoid using a close vote except as the fifth one, or (what was an even more popular platform) stated that things should be left to the users wherever possible. At least this community already seems to have expressed a preference, not only in the election, for relatively hands-off moderation, while at the same time nobody has suggested that moderators be denied ordinary user abilities. – zyx Nov 16 '13 at 8:29
• This is more of an addition (though @zyx may be interested). On SE sites with more strictly defined criteria for acceptable questions, the moderator close-hammer can be beneficial as it saves the close votes of regular users to express their opinions on those borderline cases. As math.SE appears to be going through somewhat of an existential moment and has never (to my knowledge) had such clearly defined criteria (beyond "it's about math"), moderator close-hammers are used much less frequently here than on many (most? all?) other SE sites. – user642796 Nov 16 '13 at 9:14
• I believe that questions that are just bad in the "usual way" should be closed with the usual system, and moderators should abstain from that. Moderator closures should be limited to objective abuse of the system: spam, repeated posting of the same question, use of multiple usernames to avoid scrutiny, etc. – Carl Mummert Nov 16 '13 at 13:26
• @Carl: I agree completely with the principle. – Brian M. Scott Nov 16 '13 at 14:23
• The MSO proposal Add a way for moderators to cast a normal, non binding vote received what appears to be overwhelming support (based on vote scores), but was declined (meta.stackexchange.com/questions/41062/…). As was noted by some of the participants, all the counterarguments ignored the actual issue of whether there should be an additional option of a nonbinding close vote, and talked instead about why binding votes are sometimes/always a good thing. It might be useful to raise the issue again. – zyx Nov 17 '13 at 3:13
• I exactly agree with Brian M. Scott and people who say similar things. On other SE sites such as Physics for example, moderator close- and other Thor's hammers (including lock, leave closed, etc) fall way too often, in particular in cases where the community disagrees with a past (often unilateral) moderation action and tries to reverse it, such that community moderation is not really possible. Apart from trivial cases where no moderator disagrees with what the community wants, it does not work ... Compared to this, from my observations both mathematical SE sites are like heaven ... – Dilaton Nov 17 '13 at 22:31
• BTW -1 to this answer because of the last paragraph: IMHO the community should determine what is on/off topic or appropriate on a site etc, and the elected moderators are elected to support and implement what the community wants. So there simply is IMHO no "the community gets it wrong", as moderators should not be (at least not repeatedly and persistently) acting against the will of the community. The things moderators enforce should be supported by the community. – Dilaton Nov 17 '13 at 22:59
• Aah ok now I see what "the community gets it wrong" means and it seems reasonable, so I'll retract the -1. – Dilaton Nov 18 '13 at 0:07

For the actual question you asked, yes, it does make sense to exercise unilateral closing power. If there is no doubt the eventual fate of the question is to be closed, it makes no sense to delay that from happening.

Conversely, in situations where there is reasonable doubt, then it is a better idea for moderators to wait until non-moderators have had time to cast their votes.

Close/reopen wars are an issue with a very different flavor. The real question that needs to be asked and answered, I think, is what should moderators do about close/reopen wars.

Should moderators be participating in close/reopen wars? If so, do they get a voice less than the average person, or does their elected status mean they should get a greater voice?

If moderators shouldn't be participating in close/reopen wars, then what should they do about them?

Normally, it is part of the job of a moderators to deal with warfare (either by helping resolve differences, or leveraging their bigger guns to put an end to it), not to stand back and let it blossom. A laissez-faire policy can only work if the conflict doesn't look like it become too disruptive. Is that the case here?

• Moderators handle voting wars by locking, not closing. Locking is, as far as I know, the only action that can stop votes on a post. Casting a close vote is participation in the war (which moderators can join, just like any other user), but the superpowered moderator version throws fuel on the fire. So it is not a credible option for dealing with warfare, and conversely warfare has nothing to do with the topic being discussed. – zyx Nov 16 '13 at 7:52
• Locking is a "bigger gun", and has the effect of winning the battle in the direction of closing the question (but in a way that prevents an OP from fixing the question). – Hurkyl Nov 16 '13 at 12:19
• I generally agree with this, as long as "needs more context" is always the subject of reasonable doubt. – Carl Mummert Nov 16 '13 at 13:33
• Locking is not "the topic being discussed", and it would not make sense to criticize it as unilateral, since it is not a function distributed to the users, and the only issue would be whether locking is ever beneficial. If you see people criticizing moderator locking, please do raise the issue of stopping close/open wars or whatever, but it is totally off the current subject of whether moderator powers should be used for actions that are distributed to the regular users. – zyx Nov 16 '13 at 14:26

### Migration

It sounds like the closure process for newly migrated questions needs some adjustment. The best thing would probably to have a special closure reason "should not have been migrated here from wherever and should be sent back", which would have this special effect none of the others should have.

I don't really see too many reasons for moderators to have extra votes with regard to the usual closure/reopening process. If the post absolutely must be shut down right now without delay (e.g., contest question), they can just delete it. Otherwise, just let them have a single vote to participate like everyone else. The only exception I can think of is to deal with a question that was closed for the wrong reason, in particular when it should have been closed as a duplicate, but I would argue that the best solution to that problem would be to allow normal users to vote to change the closure reason on a closed question to duplicate.

Unfortunately, I doubt either of these suggestions have any hope of becoming reality.

• On SE sites with more strictly defined criteria for acceptable questions, moderator close-hammers are useful for those questions which clearly do not meet these criteria, but which can be improved. This is because regular users have limited (albeit still quite many) close votes, and so mod close-hammers save those votes for the more borderline cases. – user642796 Nov 16 '13 at 9:26
• As for migration, the onus is on the users/moderators of the original site to ensure that they obey the golden rule of migration. Was the current question clearly crap? Perhaps not, but in my opinion there was still a fair chance of its being closed. In such cases simply closing (and downvoting and deleting) the question and requesting the user ask again of a different site might be a better (if slower) option. (In the current instance, I don't even know if MO has noticed anything has happened over here, and the user might be completely unaware.) – user642796 Nov 16 '13 at 9:32
• I would suspect they could be unaware that the question would be closed here. But they should not need to try to judge the standards of our site. The question, though not well composed, is on scope here, and that is all they should need to worry about. Unfortunately, this looks like another bug in the closing system. – Carl Mummert Nov 16 '13 at 13:39

I see that the [uncalled for, IMO] moderator closure was undone, but the question was then closed by five users.

This may show the general lack of awareness of the details of migration. Most users by now know that downvotes have a different meaning on meta. It seems that not as many know that closevotes (except closing as a duplicate) have a different meaning on migrated posts. They do not mean "this question must be improved before it can be answered", but rather "this question should not have been migrated here".

The users who voted to close wanted the OP to

improve the question by providing additional context...

but their action instead returned the post to MO (where it definitely does not belong) and locked the MSE copy, making any improvement impossible. As another example of a conflict between design and intent, the system message invites other users to

which is impossible on a locked post.

My conclusions:

1. 3K users should keep in mind that votes to close have a different meaning for migrated questions;
2. mixedmath should give some rest to the close button.
• +1 on the general post; -2 for the second conclusion. I find it unfair to mixedmath, and the moderators in general who generally avoid casting their votes (or at least not as fifth votes). Had a particular moderator been acting unilaterally so much that such comment would be acceptable, I'm sure that the meta would have been swarming with the topic by now. – Asaf Karagila Nov 16 '13 at 9:04
• @AsafKaragila, there has been at least one current moderator who has done a lot of non-fifth closings. I have not checked if it is still going on, but it is not a safe assumption that the absence of meta threads means it has not been happening. – zyx Nov 16 '13 at 9:13
• My conclusion: The consequences of closing a migrated question are stupid. They should only occur when a special close reason "this post shouldn't have been migrated here" was used. – Lord_Farin Nov 16 '13 at 9:27
• @zyx: If it bothers you, start a meta thread on the behavior of the moderators. This thread is certainly not aimed at that. Finally, my request that you refrain from conversing with me still stands, and I expect you to respect it. I shan't reply to you again. – Asaf Karagila Nov 16 '13 at 9:59
• Upon further reading: MO would do well to heed the MSO advice "Do not migrate crap! Ever." – Lord_Farin Nov 16 '13 at 10:06
• @Lord_Farin: I would be unsurprised if there was widespread opinion at MO that MSE wants crap. – Hurkyl Nov 16 '13 at 11:58
• This question is certainly on-scope for MSE, and MO was correct to migrate it here. But it fails our community standards for expositions, so it is correct for us to put it on hold here until it is improved. The only error is in the system returning it to MO when we put it on hold here. – Carl Mummert Nov 16 '13 at 13:30
• @Asaf: What thread are you talking about? My question is explicitly about (one aspect of) what is acceptable behavior for moderators. – Brian M. Scott Nov 16 '13 at 13:55
• @Brian: Then you should perhaps slightly edit the question. It feels to me that it focuses too much on that particular case. – Asaf Karagila Nov 16 '13 at 14:18
• @Brian: Wasn't clear to me, is all I'm sayin'. :-) – Asaf Karagila Nov 16 '13 at 14:24
• @CarlMummert: that any closure of migrated question other than duplicate will result in rejected migration is "by design" (to use the SE terminology), and people have tried to make it known on MO. Essentially it is explained by the link that Lord_Farin gave. Ideally before any migration the question should first be edited into a form where it will be acceptable on the target site. – Willie Wong Nov 18 '13 at 8:50
• @WillieWong That ideal is rather far from reality. If MO waits until misguided posters fix their questions (which in many cases will never happen) their front page will be a purgatory of misplaced and malformed homework questions. Especially because edits, whether or not they succeed in bringing a question to shape, will bump it. There is already a legitimate concern that the current level of inappropriate posts is putting experts off MO. On an expert-level site where the traffic is naturally slower, misplaced questions can easily spoil the atmosphere. – user103402 Nov 19 '13 at 2:01
• @user103402: if the question is so bad that a quick fix cannot make it better, than the question ought to be closed as off-topic outright without migrating it to MSE. As it stands, you are telling MO to dump their trash on us and have those problems pollute our main page. – Willie Wong Nov 19 '13 at 9:40
• @zyx: I should add that in general (MO and MSE are somewhat exceptional, but the following applies to migrations to and from other sites) one of the criteria for opening up migration paths to non-moderator users is that the sites demonstrate that they are aware what is on-topic and not on the target site. This is achieved by having many suggested migrations that the moderators act on and that which do not get rejected. – Willie Wong Nov 20 '13 at 8:09
• Lastly, one may argue that by having rejected migrations the process potentially generates more noise on MO. Imagine a user going to MO, asks a subpar question, which is migrated here, and then close, and so gets bounced back to MO. Unless someone has left a comment for said user that his question may belong better on MSE, it is likely that the user may still not know that this site exists at all, and that the next time he should ask it here instead of there. But this is just hypothetical, of course. – Willie Wong Nov 20 '13 at 8:13