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When viewing the Questions list, it is common to see personal introductory material ("I just saw this problem and thought it would be interesting to post ... " ) that pushes most or all of the actual question contents out of the displayed two lines. For example, one of the question summaries reads as follows:

Permutation for the Symmetric Group S36

"I am truly lost as to what this problem is asking. I did post this on another forum and received what my have been wonderful advice. However, even after multiple hours and many "Google" searches I … "

(homework) (group-theory) (permutations)

The entire mathematical content of that summary is the symbol $S_{36}$ and the only additional Q&A information is that the question is [homework]. The rest of the space is taken by personal narrative.

It seems to me that it would improve any such question to consolidate all the personal (i.e., poster-dependent, not mathematics-dependent) material at the bottom of the question and mathematical material at the top. This would increase the efficiency of the question browsing and reading, making the summaries more informative and concentrating in one predictable location all the nonmathematical material for those who are interested in finding it after clicking on the question.

The status quo is that the content of questions is often interlaced with statements about the difficulty or urgency of the problem, disclosures and quasi-disclosures about possible homework status, number of hours spent trying to solve it, and other material extraneous to the mathematics. I am not suggesting to delete this material, but to place it "below the fold" and, ideally, to concentrate it in one location.

If this idea comes to be accepted, I think it would also be a good idea to give carte blanche to editors to move the personal material to the bottom (or out of the top few lines) of any question. Where major surgery and intrusive edits are required, pointing to an FAQ is probably the most that should be done, in the hope that this promotes a site culture of placing the mathematics on top but not enforcing it on all postings. But for many postings one can just do a very simple move-top-paragraph operation and cleanly upgrade the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Even without personal comments, don't the motivation of the question and the relevant definitions properly belong before the question itself? $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Dec 15 '10 at 3:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Carl: Not necessarily, no. It's easy to phrase a question as T.. outlines: so that the question comes first and all the rest comes afterwards. Someone who's an expert in the field would probably prefer this as the time it took them to read all the accompanying bumph could be more than the time it took to actually write out the answer. So might others: if the question looks interesting, I'll read the rest; but no amount of personal story and background is going to make me interested in a boring question. So I'd rather have the question first, details after. $\endgroup$ – Loop Space Dec 15 '10 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know... sometimes setup matters, certainly if it was a non-expert trying to seek mathematical help. I know I sometimes define things that might not be immediately recognizable to most mathematicians so that they're up to speed in helping me solve a problem or make my problem more defined than I made it out to be. For the particular example T.. gave, though, I'd say that can be moved to the latter part of the question. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Dec 15 '10 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ My point being, we probably should have guidelines instead of rules proper... as cases differ. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Dec 15 '10 at 15:47
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I think this is a good point. Instead of moving things around, however, I think it simpler to edit the question by adding to it, so that the first two lines contain the essence of the question. This is likely to preserve the OP's intent the most (it's probably bad etiquette to change seriously the structure of the question), while it will make it easier for other users when browsing the questions list.

I think inclusion of this in the FAQ is a good idea.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I hadn't thought of adding text, but: I have the suspicion that opening the door to routine foreign text additions would effectively make the top of every question a CW, and writing the question for the OP can lead to "top-matter wars" and bad feelings (as well as some good feelings when it saves them time and improves the question -- but the OP's reactions may be unpredictable). "Move to bottom" is a more objective algorithm which would reduce the potential for disputes, especially if one points the questioners to an FAQ. $\endgroup$ – T.. Dec 15 '10 at 1:09

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