A new user posted an unclear question, Proving that $\dim(\mathrm{span}({I_n,A,A^2,...})) \leq n$ Within an hour, it got closed.

That's exactly what ought to happen --- on MathOverflow, where one expects people posting questions to be operating at a high mathematical level.

Here, we used to be (and, I think, should still be) a bit more easy on new users. I'm OK with closing an unclear question if a user --- any user --- has been unresponsive for 24 hours, but one hour? I don't think that's reasonable.

So, to make this a question: what do you think about giving new users more leeway on badly-written questions?

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    $\begingroup$ I think new users should be given more leeway. Also, I think that it was awfully harsh on the OP here. They did say "can someone help me get started?" - they were nice and polite with their question! $\endgroup$
    – user1729
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ Was it really "closed" or merely "on hold", so that it can be fixed up by the original poster? This terminology change ("on hold", formerly called "closed") should make it clear that re-wording or re-thinking is what is desired. $\endgroup$
    – GEdgar
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ Imo, these quick closings are highly detrimental to the site, and they are causing us to lose many good teachers. Those voting to close should consider more constructive remedies, and exercise a bit more patience. Further, I don't think one should vote on the closure of any questions on which one does not have some expertise, since otherwise one cannot competently judge the difficulty of getting started on the problem. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ It's not clear to me how exactly "there's a typo on your homework" questions like this one should be dealt with. From the comments it seems like "there's a typo" may have been all the OP needs, in which case closing is sensible as this question will be of no interest to anyone else in the future. On the other hand, if the OP has a substantive math question beyond the typo then it would make sense for it to be edited and reopened. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 13:52
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    $\begingroup$ One the one hand, I also feel that we need to show some consideration for new users. On the other, waiting 24 hours means that the question (if nothing has been done to it) will have disappeared from view unless you go looking for it. Thus, it might never get closed as nobody sees it, and it will be another unanswered question on the list. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ It's not closed, it's simply on hold until it gets editted to a question that makes sense. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ Real people eat, sleep, go to work, and so on. The expectation of swift response is unreasonable. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ What makes putting a question on hold hard for new users? This question is meant seriously, not rhetorically. Is it hard for all users? If things are only hard for the users who don't intend to improve their questions, then putting it on hold is having its intended effect. For those who are willing to improve their questions, is putting it on hold making things difficult to do so? Does doing so convey a different message than intended? Maybe we can seek to reduce that dissonance instead. Is the hold-edit-reopen cycle functioning as it's supposed to, or have problems that make things hard? $\endgroup$
    – user14972
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl I've lost count of the number of times that I have been composing a long answer only to have the door slammed in my face by questionable closures before I could post the answer. This adds up to a lot of my time being wasted. You will find similar complaints by many others in prior meta posts over the years. Most likely this occurred even more frequently for a more prolific poster like Brian. Probably that is one of the reasons that he left. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 0:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: The question of if a question should be put on hold is off-topic: this topic is about the timing of actually putting it on hold. $\endgroup$
    – user14972
    Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ "What if there was a time limit of 24 hours before votes for closure could be cast?" I have no objection to closing duplicates as fast as possible. I have no objection to swift closure of badly-written questions from users with enough experience to know better. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 4:53
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    $\begingroup$ As of this moment, the question at hand has been alive for 22 hours, received 3 votes of reopen and yet it is still unclear what it is asking. Even the author wasn't sure the question make sense. IMHO, I don't see any benefit of delaying the granting of "on hold" status from 1 hour to 24 hour. The question is just "on hold", not a complete "close" like before... $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Gerry Myerson: I think that the overall aspiration of the site is to have excellent questions and excellent answers. The issue is how to encourage that. My personal opinion is that it is counterproductive to answer poorly composed questions - we can and should expect the questioner to be a genuine participant in the conversation. Unfortunately, some answerers are too quick type answers. That does not encourage the asker to improve their question - quite the opposite. The best solution I see is to put the question on hold to put the onus back on the asker to improve it. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ @CarlMummert, how does closing a fully answered question (such as the one under discussion) "put the onus on back on the asker to improve it"? Here the answer sorted out the typo and gave the canonical, perhaps unique, response. In other cases there are closings of answered questions that are quite old and/or have accepted answers, which seems to make even less sense. If you want to influence an OP the obvious thing is to communicate in comments, and to influence the rating of the question, use upvotes or downvotes. Closing is not an effective way to communicate with the OP. $\endgroup$
    – zyx
    Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ @user1729: even someone who only plans to use site for a short time should be able to appreciate the argument that its value needs to be maintained. The same would be true, for example, for visitors who will only be in a park or country for a short time - they shouldn't expect to be able to leave it in a worse state than they found it, ignore the signs and local customs, etc. We want the site to be professional and attractive to subject matter experts, who are the scarce resource here - there are plenty of people with questions to ask, but a smaller number of people who can answer them. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 18:47

3 Answers 3


I don't think it's reasonable to expect readers to sit on the shell of a question for 24 hours, waiting for the question to hatch. A question is not a baby or even a chick. It's natural for users who read a question to call it as they see it (e.g., unclear) right away.

Software already provides a recourse for on-hold questions: once edited by OP, they automatically enter the Reopen queue. The on-hold process has at least three benefits:

  1. Users need not watch an unclear question for possible clarifications.
  2. Some users with 3K+ reputation will have another look at the question after edit.
  3. The system forces OP to clarify the question by means of an edit, not just in a comment. (Future readers should not have to dig through comments to understand the question)
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    $\begingroup$ By adding a large new section of text to the answer you have effectively invalidated the current votes (+15/-1), since they occurred before the major change was made. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 0:24
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah. I think it's perfectly reasonable to expect even new users to write question which actually explain the problem they need help with. You don't need to have any mathematical skills for that, you just need to spend more than one minute writing and re-reading it. Which really isn't all that much to ask for, especially from people who expect others to spend their time on writing an answer. $\endgroup$
    – fgp
    Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ "It's natural for users who read a question to call it as they see it (e.g., unclear) right away." Sure, and a user can do that by leaving a comment, pinpointing the defect in the question. A user can even make a guess as to how OP might remedy the defect. I take your point about the "reopen queue". But I worry that a new user might find having a question put on hold so off-putting that going away is more attractive than editing. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 4:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Gerry Myerson: often enough, other regular editors here - even though they might know better - go ahead and answer the question before the OP addresses comments about flaws in the question. The only mechanism available within the SE software to avoid this is to put the question on hold. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 11:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Carl Please do explain why you think that such answers should be "avoided". Some of the best answers on MSE arise in that way, because it provides the flexibility and motivation for good teachers to provide superb expositions. Compare that to forcing questioners to inject often incoherent, inapplicable "context", which may alienate teachers, waste their time (reading nonsense) and may inhibit their ability to focus on the essence of the matter. That explains (in part) why MSE has lost many of its best teachers, and continues to do so. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson I see no reason to worry about that. Internet is awash in math help boards: free, paid, and mixed. It is also awash in people seeking help with their math problems. No single site fits everyone, and people naturally self-select into what fits them. I'd like Math to retain the few, the persistent, the willing to adapt. It's not a problem for me if the rest "feel swatted a bit by close votes and deletions" -- quoting Rosinante from meta.SO. $\endgroup$
    – user127096
    Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Carl, in the case of an ambiguous question, I don't see anything wrong with writing an answer along the lines of, "if you mean ..., then the answer is ...; but if you are actually asking ..., then the answer is ...." Also, if you think someone should not have answered a flawed question, the software does make available the mechanism of leaving a comment on the answer, indicating why you think it was a bad idea to answer the question. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 22:08
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    $\begingroup$ @127, "I'd like Math to retain the few, the persistent, the willing to adapt." That's fine, but please give them 24 hours to adapt, not 24 minutes. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Gerry Myerson: I think it would be a fair compromise if we could say "you have some time to improve this question before we close or delete it, but nobody can answer it until it is improved, so make sure to improve the question soon". But I think that we already have that system, which is for users to vote to put a question on hold when they think the question needs substantial improvement. In other words, if there is a proposal to ask users to wait 24 hours before voting to close, is there also a proposal to ask users to wait 24 hours before writing an answer? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Carl, I've been on both sides of that proposal. I've left comments asking that a question be clarified, only to have someone annoy me by making an interpretaion and posting an answer; I have also occasionally made an interpretation of a flawed question and posted an answer myself. I think one plays it by ear. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 2:42
  • $\begingroup$ @cheap... "I'd like Math to retain the few, the persistent, the willing to adapt." I can help you with the "few" part. I quit. $\endgroup$
    – bubba
    Commented Mar 23, 2014 at 7:32
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    $\begingroup$ @bubba "I quit". Really? "Activity" list shows 5+ pages on main MSE since then. Welcome to "the few". $\endgroup$
    – Did
    Commented Apr 26, 2014 at 7:45

I do think that we should try to be a nice and welcoming to new users. I remember getting frustrated when I first started using Stackexchange. As a new user it can be hard to follow all the rules of a new site. In particular, I think that, it is hard to understand how Stackexchange isn't just yet another forum where "anything goes". There is not discussion, questions have to be on-topic, questions/answer should use LaTeX/MathJax, etc. And it can (I believe) be hard for a new user who just wants help with say a homework question when they run into this wall.

While I think these rules and regulations can come across as harsh, I also believe that it is what makes Stackexchange so attractive. By not allowing certain things, we end up with what I believe is a cleaner site and better answers. And even though it took me a while to get use to the rules and even though I had to suffer a bit of frustration about the way things work around here, I think it was worth it.

When we close a question as off-topic because of lack of context/detail the OP gets the message that

This question is missing context or other details: Please improve the question by providing additional context, which ideally includes your thoughts on the problem and any attempts you have made to solve it. This information helps others identify where you have difficulties and helps them write answers appropriate to your experience level.

And when the OP the edits the question to add detail, the question is added to the reopen review-list. According to the FAQ you actually get five days to do this.

Is this to harsh? I don't think so.

With the risk of getting off-topic from this meta-thread, I think a better solution to all this might be to update the FAQ. I just look "the tour" for new users and even though there is a link to the FAQ about homework questions, there isn't much said about general questions that don't show effort. In fact, one of the examples that are shown doesn't show any effort. I don't want to criticize that particular question, the point is that from "the tour" it isn't very clear that questions should show effort. And so all this seems to be very related to the controversial issues about non-effort questions. Maybe the FAQ could contain an example of "the perfect" question (is such even exist)?

But again, one wonders how many of the new users actually take "the tour".


I think the 24 hours suggested by the question here is way too long, given the pace of questions offered to MSE. However, some shorter period (say somewhere in the 10 to 30 minutes zone) does seem like a reasonable period to allow a question to be improved to standard before moving on to the "close" option. I have often noticed where questions with mathematical content have acquired a close vote or two even before the 5-minute editing grace period is up.

I should say that I would expect someone posting to remain on/monitoring the site for at least that sort of time period to watch for answers and respond to comments. Maybe that should be suggested in the FAQ also - "Thou shalt not post and run".

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for 24 hours being too long, but -1 for suggesting a grace period should be used (so net 0). $\endgroup$
    – apnorton
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ @anorton part of my point is that you may not even be looking at the final form of the question if the author is still tweaking it, and yet voting to close already. And I'm not suggesting a software change; more just a community standard. $\endgroup$
    – Joffan
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 0:01
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    $\begingroup$ I think a grace period would be reasonable if there would be no ability to answer the question during that time. Because "on hold" is the only way to prevent others from writing answers before the question is improved, it would not be an improvement to prevent questions from being put on hold while still allowing them to be answered. Unfortunately, I don't think it is practical to expect people not to write answers - which makes the grace period impractical as well. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2015 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ In practice, though, under current systems, "[on hold]" almost always closes the question to answers permanently. So the reality of the system as it works today is not doing what it was intended in the rather theoretical sense that you seem to be using in your argument. I don't think it is practical to expect people to edit a question that has apparently already been killed, whereas it is perhaps easier to tweak the "vote to close" process to remind people that the question is very recently posed - just to check that they actually already wish to pass judgement. $\endgroup$
    – Joffan
    Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 21:32

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