I recently hit the 3k reputation bar and so got the privilege to vote to close questions.

What strikes me is that most of the closing proposal are about questions of the form "[Some problem]. Please help me.", where the OP does not tell what he/she has tried in order to solve the problem. (For example, this one.)

In my opinion, those posts are neither off-topic, or missing context, or even unclear. Most of the time, those questions come from new users, not necessarily aware of MSE's "common tongue". A comment inviting them to edit in order to show their efforts should be enough.

My question as a new closing voter is basically : should that kind of post be closed ? If so, under what flag (off-topic, unclear, etc.) ?

  • $\begingroup$ Related: Guideline for using “lack of context” and “homework” close reasons. Probably someone can find meta thread with a better explanation. $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2014 at 6:34
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    $\begingroup$ I believe that you should leave a comment whether or not you vote to close. I had a satisfying rant about this here. (The linked post is slightly out of date, because the boiler-plate close reason's are better now than they were. It would be nice, however, if the OP got some feedback before their question was closed). $\endgroup$
    – user1729
    Jun 25, 2014 at 10:42
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    $\begingroup$ @user1729 PhD: I agree that, particularly for new users, it is very important to leave a comment explaining how the question should be improved. At the same time, the tour in the help menu does say "Focus on questions about an actual problem you have faced. Include details about what you have tried and exactly what you are trying to do." $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2014 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with your opinion - as do many teachers. Please don't vote to close these questions. Instead, help to improve them. Note that "adding context" does not necessarily imply improvement. In fact forcing users to provide context often results in them injecting useless or nonsensical context, which is highly detrimental. You can also help by voting to reopen questions that were wrongly closed for such reasons. Many good teachers have left the site because of these closures (and/or complained about such). Do what you can to help alleviate these problems so MSE doesn't lose more teachers $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2014 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ This is a topic that has been discussed many times on meta, and there's no real consensus. Some people think that questions which are nothing but bare problem statements shouldn't be closed, whereas some other users (myself included) feel that we shouldn't encourage such questions. For new users, I will usually leave a welcoming comment suggesting they improve the question before voting to close. But you're not going to get a definitive answer, because there is no consensus. $\endgroup$
    – user61527
    Jun 25, 2014 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ Ok then, thanks to all of you. I am sorry if the question is regularly asked (I imagine that is the source of the downvotes). I made a quick search but didn't find what I wanted. Since there is no consensus, I will continue to vote as I did until now. $\endgroup$
    – Pece
    Jun 25, 2014 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ My policy is to leave a comment encouraging improvement of the question, and to give them an hour or two before voting to close. Extra leeway is given for users that appear to be genuinely new. Then, if I somehow find my way back to the post and nothing has improved, I vote to close. Contrary to a claim above, I've never seen a request for improvement result in the interjection of irrelevant stuff: anecdotally 8 times out of 10 absolutely no comment or revision is made by the user, and the remainder actually improve their question enough to convince me not to vote. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 25, 2014 at 17:30

1 Answer 1


On-topic on MSE includes things like (as quoted from the Tour):

  • Understanding mathematical concepts and theorems
  • Hints on mathematical problems (but please read our FAQ about homework questions)
  • History and development of mathematics
  • Solving mathematical puzzles
  • Software that mathematicians use

In particular, the activity of delegating your mathematical work to others is off-topic.

The choice of what explanation to give was effectively put to a vote, and "missing context" won.

I do think it is unfortunately misleading, as adding details is merely a proxy for what is actually missing from postings such as the one you linked: e.g. a question about what specifically someone is trying to understand.

e.g. "What methods are there for proving a polynomial irreducible over a finite field?" is one possible question that a person might be seeking to understand by posting a question like the on you linked, and it would make a fine (and surely uncontroversial) question for MSE.

Another possible question is "How do you do arithmetic and algebra in finite fields?", although admittedly, a person with that problem who is asking a question like the one linked tends not to realize that's what they actually need to learn. (a point which is one of the pros for asking people to show their work)

(and, of course, "Will you do my work for me?" is a question that some people who post questions like that want answered in the affirmative)

Aside: while I strongly believe it is detrimental to MSE (both on its own merits and for the behaviors it encourages), there are those who believe that "exercise -> solutions manual entry" is a desirable thing, a point of view which would welcome questions such as the one you linked.

  • $\begingroup$ First, of course, I'm not in favour of MSE becoming a problem solver. I was actually wondering if a new flag was not of interest for such posts. When I see "missing context", I was thinking "missing mathematical context" as : "How do I show that $x^2=1$ implies $x=\pm 1$ ?" where one would ask for a context (field, ring, group, monoid ?). The questions I was referring to do not lack of mathematical context (i.e. the question is clear). Secondly, I'm certainly not in favour of answering those question as such, just maybe leave the chance to the OP to make the question right. $\endgroup$
    – Pece
    Jun 26, 2014 at 9:26

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