When voting to close, under "off-topic" we have

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.

I'm curious as to what about missing details makes a question "off-topic"? I just don't see the logic in calling a poor quality question (doesn't have what the asker thinks, etc.) off-topic. If I was new to the site and my question got closed from being off-topic because I asked the question badly (which is probably the most common occurrence of such closings), I would certainly be confused.

  • $\begingroup$ Something similar was recently discussed also here. $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Mar 10 '15 at 5:51
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    $\begingroup$ Because we dont want to be mean and label them as low quality. $\endgroup$ – Pedro Tamaroff Mar 10 '15 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ @PedroTamaroff But they are often excellent mathematics questions. Now of these, they may not conform to certain MSE guidelines, such as "provide context, background, attempts made,..." but to label them off-topic is weird. Basically it's an abuse of terminology. Certainly MSE could do better in its labeling. $\endgroup$ – zhw. May 29 '17 at 3:26

No, it doesn't really mean "off-topic", but it seems that the only way the SE platform supports site-specific closing reasons is by putting them under the "off-topic" heading. So that's where it ends up, as a matter of software.


The 'off-topic' is to be understood as not 'on-topic' in the sense of the help center section on admissible questions.

Put differently this is just jargon for not in line with the standards of the site.

Added to clarify: The quote in OP does not quite capture the situation, as there is a link under "improve" to How to ask a good question? which gives instructions and shows what the issue is.

Moreover the final sentence is not mentioned:

If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please [edit] the question.

A user confused what happened can follow the links, providing ample information. If something should be missing, those pages can be expanded.

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    $\begingroup$ Sure, but a new user wouldn't know that. I think it would be pretty discouraging as a new user of my question was closed because it was off-topic (bold letters) $\endgroup$ – MCT Mar 10 '15 at 0:34
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    $\begingroup$ I added some remarks to address your concern (it is hoped). Further, the text you quote is quite explicit regarding what the issue is. $\endgroup$ – quid Mar 10 '15 at 0:43

In my opinion you are right and it simply should not be called "off-topic".

Also, in my view, "missing context" should be used only if the question really, severely misses context and is difficult to answer without further context or details.

Instead it is constantly (ab)used to PUNISH low-quality questions.

See this one for example, I quote it:

I've tried to figure the following word problem out, but just can't seem to get it. Can anyone please help?

On my last birthday, a friend said to me "in 15 years time, your age will be the square of your age, 15 years ago." Can you figure out how old I am?

What more context or other details do you need to answer this little question?

The only justification of this mess is "We decide what words mean!" — which reminds me of Humpty Dumpty in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and Newspeak in "Nineteen Eighty-Four". Something I would very much try to avoid.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you know if OP knows what "square of" means? Could be useful for writing a good answer. $\endgroup$ – quid May 9 '15 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ Separately, could you please clarify what you actually want. It is not quite clear if a) you agree that low quality content should be improved or removed but want it to be made more clear this is what is happening, or b) you want to encourage proliferation of content on the site that by your own judgment is of low quality. $\endgroup$ – quid May 9 '15 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ Please, take your plead to the StackExchange employees (it's a good point, which is made quite often). We are not allowed to change this for Maths.SE only. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin May 9 '15 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: I don't like that there are no rules which adequately explain what kind of questions are de facto allowed here on math.SE. There are high effort questions (proof-verification), where the OP forgot some crucial definitions or didn't explain unusual notation: Those never get close votes!! Users just ask "What does xyz mean?" There are low-effort questions written in a demanding tone, but where all necessary context and details are there and which are perfectly answerable: Those get close votes. $\endgroup$ – Qyburn May 9 '15 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ @quid: So PLEASE, if low-effort questions are not allowed here, put it in the rules. $\endgroup$ – Qyburn May 9 '15 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ A relevant part of "the rules" gets linked all the time in the message you dislike; here it is once more. $\endgroup$ – quid May 9 '15 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: Yeah "rules", but with scare quotes. Because these are not rules. This is an advice how to write a good question. Who would believe that "ungood" questions are not allowed? So another example for the Newspeak here. $\endgroup$ – Qyburn May 9 '15 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ @quid: See, if the little question I quoted in my answer misses context, this one really badly misses context. But it's not one of those lazy, demanding questions, so nobody complains. $\endgroup$ – Qyburn May 9 '15 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ Since you seem to care a lot about words let us start at the start. It is false to say that the question you link to in OP is "not allowed." It is allowed to ask this question. No action is taken against a user asking such a question. (Compare to: posting spam is not allowed, and doing so will result in immediate action against the account.) The only thing that happens is that the question is judged as being very far from what is considered a good question. Therefore, it is put "on hold" with the request to bring the question closer to what is considered as a good question. $\endgroup$ – quid May 9 '15 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ You might want to study the page about "on hold" and "closed" questions. "Questions that need additional work or that are not a good fit for this site may be put on hold by experienced community members." I provided you a link to a description of something being a good fit earlier. Thus the rule is: if it is not a good fit it may be put on hold. It seems clear enough to me. Okay, not every question that is not a good fit is put on hold. But then, not everybody that uses public transport without a valid ticket gets a fine either. $\endgroup$ – quid May 9 '15 at 19:03
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: "not allowed" = "don't ask about" in the tour. Now the tour warns you what questions may get closed. This page gives more details. Obviously both do not reflect remotely what is going on here: There is extremely low tolerance for lazy and demanding questioners, even if they ask perfectly on-topic, clear, answerable questions. But if you seem like someone who puts effort in your question, nearly all sins (which would more than justify to have your question put on hold) are forgiven. $\endgroup$ – Qyburn May 9 '15 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps you overlooked that the heading of that part of the tour says: "Get answers to practical, detailed questions." However, if you find all this not clear enough I invite you to propose a formulation that reflects better what you consider as "what is going on here." On your last sentence: yes, and if you have a problem with those post you might want to vote and flag accordingly. $\endgroup$ – quid May 9 '15 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ @quid: I regard "practical, detailed question" as some kind of slogan... a lot of questions aren't "practical" here. Now, my proposal would be "Don't ask questions about mathematical problems without showing any effort", then explaining "effort" like solution attempts or an explanation where one had difficulties. $\endgroup$ – Qyburn May 9 '15 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ What "practical" means is made precise, and I do hope most questions are "practical" in that sense. It refers to: "You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page." $\endgroup$ – quid May 9 '15 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Qyburn I completely miss why you are craving so much for a legalist approach here. Yes, voting is erratic. Yes, essentially the same question is judged differently at different moments in time. Yes, one can get annoyed about the diversity of opinions within the MSE community. Yet, there are not going to be any strict rules, simply because time and time again, it turns out that the community cannot come to agreement on them. Welcome to the real world, and sorry for shattering your dreams. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin May 9 '15 at 21:15

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