I believe one problem with math.stackexchange is the lack of discipline by newer users when it comes to using MathJax. Let me elaborate.

Much too often, one can see a question posted by a user that is completely unreadable. The user simply writes his equations inline and waits for some magical fairy to come and make the question "look nice". In my view, too many resources are being spent on editing formulas in MathJax instead of actually answering the questions.

I know what the counterargument is: there are a lot of new users in math.stackexchange, users that the community wants to accept and help them grow. Many of them will eventually become useful to the site and we do not wish to scare them away by punishing them for not using MathJax. Therefore, I believe the problem would be some sort of three (or $n$) strike rule.

The rule is as follows: the first time a user publishes an "ugly" question, the question is flagged as "not using MathJax" and the user is politely but firmly directed to the MathJax help page. He is also told that in order to ask questions on this site, he is expected to know how to use MathJax. Then, if the user continues to use ugly formatting, he gets warned every time this is done, up to some number of strikes, where he is either banned or just starts to lose reputation.

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    $\begingroup$ -1 because it will more than quadruple the workload of moderators. And I am lazy. :) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7, 2014 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ Okay, the previous comment is in jest. I did vote -1 because I don't really think this is the right way to solve the problem. The type of users who would willfully ignore community norms such as the use of MathJax are probably also the type of users who care little about reputation and would not hesitate to use throwaway/unregistered accounts to evade any such "bans". So I don't really see the benefit while it will create a lot more work for community members and moderators alike. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7, 2014 at 9:48
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see it causing any more work, instead of a whole lot of work being spent to pretty up questions, we have some work with flagging... I think the users who don't use MathJax at the moment are encouraged to continue what they are doing because someone will come and clean the mess they made... $\endgroup$
    – 5xum
    Commented Feb 7, 2014 at 9:52
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    $\begingroup$ But choosing to edit the question is completely voluntary. Moderators are expected to act on flags (at least if nobody else does). $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7, 2014 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, that's a good counterpoint, I guess. I now agree my idea may not have been the best, however, I still feel there should be more formatting enforcement so as not to encourage laziness... I'm just at a loss how to achieve this. $\endgroup$
    – 5xum
    Commented Feb 7, 2014 at 10:11
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    $\begingroup$ @5xum: Remember that when you flag a post someone actually looks into it, and acts on it appropriately (in theory at least). In the case of custom flags (and these would be custom flags, as I highly doubt SE would ever implement site-specific pro forma flags) they are only looked at by the site ♦-mods. So it will be up to the 8 of us to look into each of these flags, determine if it was appropriate, check how many prior offenses that user has, and send messages/suspend where appropriate. All this as an alternative to distributing the editing of posts among hundreds of active users. $\endgroup$
    – user642796
    Commented Feb 7, 2014 at 10:12
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    $\begingroup$ We managed reasonably well in the era of ASCII-only in places like sci.math. I really don't understand the pressure to force freshmen to learn TeX just to post here. Sure, it's nice, but come on. They don't have much use for it in RL before they start writing their own math essays and such. Which happens on their second, third, $n$th year - all depending on local customs. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7, 2014 at 13:03

2 Answers 2


This is supposed to be an all-purpose math site, and obviously not everyone in the world who has a math question knows how to use latex. Although learning latex is not so very hard, it is not trivial either, and assuming that people must have this skill in order to get continued service seems like a clear violation of the intended scope of the site.

Also, there are magical fairies -- i.e., other users -- who will come along and improve the formatting of the questions if need be. For any given question, within a few minutes someone will do this and spend only a few minutes on it, whereas someone who doesn't know anything about latex would find it much harder -- especially if they have no prior programming experience and an unsophisticated mathematical background. By the latter, I mean e.g.: I teach freshman calculus and we use a certain online homework system. Students complain a lot at first that the system does not accept their correct answers. I have to be patient with them and ask them to understand that while anything is possible, it is most likely that (their answer is either incorrect, or) their answer is being incorrectly entered, e.g. with the use of parentheses, mistaken ideas about syntax of functions, and so forth. It takes undergraduates at my university a few weeks to figure out how to be able to enter their correct answers correctly most of the time. Writing latex correctly is harder than this: it would be too hard for many users of this site to learn in the amount of time necessary to get a timely answer to their question.

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    $\begingroup$ Suggesting the use of a tool like the Online LaTeX Equation Editor would allow users unfamiliar with LaTeX to enter equations and possibly even learn how to create their own LaTeX. $\endgroup$
    – robjohn Mod
    Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ @robjohn I'm not sure how helpful just linking to an external tool and requiring them to copy markup back would be at getting new users to post in latex. Embedding an editor like that as the default post option for new users would probably have much higher uptake levels. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ @DanNeely: I'm not saying that that wouldn't be a more convenient option, but since we don't have an integrated, menu-driven $\LaTeX$ editor, the external tool seemed to be something worth suggesting. $\endgroup$
    – robjohn Mod
    Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ @DanNeely Adding equations editor to the UI here was given as a feature request here. The question has a lot of downvotes. However, that question combines three separate questions. So it is not clear the downvotes are related to this particular feature request. (I do not recall whether there was a feature request asking only about some kind of embedded "clickable" equation editor.) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 6:55


It is unreasonable to ban or suspend user accounts on the basis that the person writing the question does not know much $\LaTeX$ or $\mathcal{MathJax}$.

I recommend that people be allowed to write Unicode characters inside of their mathematical formulas.

On the technical side, The Math Stack Exchange already allows Unicode characters.

However, from a human stand-point, human beings tend to vote to close all questions containing Unicode characters.

An Example of a question which Uses $\mathcal{MathJax}$

We define an outline to be $PS \subseteq \mathbb{R}^{2}$ such that $\forall p \in PS$ and $\forall d \in \mathbb{R}$ if $d > 0$ then there are exactly two points $p_{1}, p_{2} \in PS$ such that the straight-line distance between $p_{1}$ and $p_{2}$ is exactly equal to distance $d$.

How would you generalize this definition to three dimensional space?

An Example of a Question Uses Unicode Characters Instead of $\mathcal{MathJax}$

We define an outline to be PS such that ∀ pPS and ∀ d if d > 0 then there are exactly two points p₁, p₂ ∈ PS such that the straight-line distance between p₁ and p₂ is exactly equal to distance d.

How would you generalize this definition to three dimensional space?

The Example of a Question Uses Unicode Characters Instead of $\mathcal{MathJax}$ would be Closed or Deleted by Some People Because most moderators of math stackexchange beleive that nobody should be allowed to read or answer questions they would not answer themselves.

Most moderators of this site are a bit like a number theorist deleting all questions about graph theory, because that particular number theorist does not like graph theory.

Or... perhaps... we can swap the names of the job titles.

Maybe a graph theorist deletes all questions about number theory because that particular graph theorist dislikes number theory.

Years ago, a moderator left a comment saying he or she would ban me from the site unless I switched to $\LaTeX$ or $\mathcal{MathJax}$ code for writing mathematical formulas.

Of course, if you force people who have never used $\LaTeX$ or $\mathcal{MathJax}$ to use $\LaTeX$ or $\mathcal{MathJax}$, then those people will make mistakes.

I recommend that moderators be told to not close, suspend, and/or ban user accounts for typing the Unicode character ∈ instead of typing \in.

It is possible to have valid questions about mathematics, but not have any skills in writing $\mathcal{MathJax}$ and $\LaTeX$.

As such, I recommend not closing any questions written with Unicode characters such as ∈ instead of MathJax.


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