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[Historical preamble. Since this old 2011 thread was recently bumped by another user, it is worth giving some context. Way back then it was much more difficult to get closed questions reopened, since there were no review queues, meta traffic was much lower, fewer folks had high privileges, etc. In short, many things were very different back then. Please keep that in mind when perusing this thread.]

I am very sad that this forum has come to the point that valid mathematical questions (such as this one) are frequently being quickly closed (Edit: now reopened) for completely bizarre reasons. This is a very unfriendly and nonconstructive way to welcome new members. Moreover, it serves to alienate many folks who - like I - earnestly strive to teach, in addition to answer questions. I would be very interested to hear the explanations as to why this question was closed as "not a real question".

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    $\begingroup$ If someone has the homework assignment "make and prove a conjecture ..." then typing out the full answer has nothing to do with teaching. It is very clearly a case of someone who did not bother to try himself. The same author in another thread has not answered questions toward his background, so I have no idea what indications are useful to him. He was asked about whether it was homework, said no, but later talked about what "we" have already "learned". I do not mind helping with homework, but I do mind dishonesty. (Obviously, I did not vote to close the question, just giving my opinion.) $\endgroup$ – Phira Apr 23 '11 at 23:20
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    $\begingroup$ @user9325 We have plenty of questions that arise from self-study. Some of these folks don't have access to good schools and teachers (e.g. in some third-world countries). If folks have issues with how new users ask questions then why not take constructive action, e.g. teach them how to ask better questions, link to faqs, etc. Otherwise one might be alienating a user who could become a valued contributor down the road. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 23 '11 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ You mean that I should improve their honesty for them? Or guess their background knowledge for them? I can hardly look up the Vandermonde identity on the web for them if they claim to know it, but do not know that it could contain a square. And it is very hard to answer a question about a combinatorial proof if you do not know if the asker actually knows the combinatorial interpretation of a binomial coefficients and gives useless answers to questions about his background. I have seen plenty of easy questions in the past few days that are the level of homework questions that I answered. $\endgroup$ – Phira Apr 23 '11 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ Whether it is homework or not, "Make and prove a Conjecture" is not a real question, IMO. I don't see anything bizarre about closing such questions as such. Once the question was actually edited to state a conjecture and ask for it's proof it became a real question and no surprise, it was reopened. (I admit, I didn't check the timeline of the question though. It might well have been closed after it was edited...) $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Apr 24 '11 at 0:31
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    $\begingroup$ In case anyone wants to know, it was closed after it was edited (as can be seen at math.stackexchange.com/posts/34788/revisions), but 4 of the 5 close votes were from before the edit. $\endgroup$ – Jonas Meyer Apr 24 '11 at 1:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Carl: I don't have any proof for that part. I just saw that there were 4 votes to close before I edited. I was considering adding a 5th, then decided to remain neutral. $\endgroup$ – Jonas Meyer Apr 24 '11 at 1:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: I will echo your own comments: be polite and be constructive. Rather than complaining about what everyone else is doing wrong, and why everything is terrible, suggest what should be done to make things better. I am not referring to suggesting software improvements, meta.stack has taught me that is futile, rather I am referring to suggesting in a positive way how the community should deal with certain issues. The specific case here is poorly posed problems. What should be done? Your unfriendliness (which perhaps you are unaware of) makes it so people get tired of listening. $\endgroup$ – Eric Naslund Apr 24 '11 at 6:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Eric 5 people do not constitute "everyone else". In fact only a small minority of Math.SE members regularly visit the meta site. So votes here reveal little about main site views. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 7:24
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    $\begingroup$ @user9325 I don't recall anybody claiming that "typing out the full answer has something to do with teaching". Nor do I see what that has to do with the points that I raised above. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ Your sentence "Moreover, it serves to alienate many folks who - like I - earnestly strive to teach" strongly suggests that the people who disagree with you on this topic do not (earnestly) strive to teach which is quite insulting. "We" are talking about a post where the OP did not start out to make a conjecture but wanted their complete answer by someone else. Now, if I do not assume that you are rude just as a choice of discussion style, I assumed that there was a link between the "not teaching" and the "not wanting to type full answers". $\endgroup$ – Phira Apr 25 '11 at 9:08
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    $\begingroup$ @user9325 You are falsely assuming that P ↔ Q where P := "I think closing threads randomly is bad" Q := "I earnestly strive to teach". There is absolutely no reason to think that, I see no reason why (P)⋁(¬P) → Q and no more. Surely this is an example of pure & uncut bias against an opinion you don't agree with if I've ever seen one. $\endgroup$ – sponsoredwalk Apr 25 '11 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ @user9325 I'm not sure why you would make such an inference, but it's not what I intended. Almost any valid math question can be turned into a good opportunity to teach. It's not too infrequent that even poorly posed questions lead to very insightful answers. And insightful answers not only attract (and keep!) good questioners, but also good answerers. Questions provide the sparks to motivate others to share their knowledge. Any question that could possibly motivate someone to contribute a good answer should be welcomed. A closed question is one less opportunity for an insightful answer. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 25 '11 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ I fully agree with Bill and having read the faq once again, I'm still baffled at why closing such questions. Joining a community takes effort to understand what the norm is, I still agree with the main point that even if some decisions makes sense, some of them could be done in a more "polite" way than this. Sure, making the answerer happy is a priority, but if you want the community to grow, you also have to encourage new members. $\endgroup$ – David Kohler Apr 30 '11 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ Bill, you should consider perhaps requesting this thread to be put under historical lock. I think it's an important thread, and it reflects a lot about the spirit of the site six years ago. And as such it should be preserved. But I also think that any such request should come from you directly. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jul 6 '17 at 0:01
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    $\begingroup$ Doing so would allow to reinstate the missing paragraph: "If such closings continue I will probably leave this forum. It's high time that a new forum is created - one where an infinitesimal minority of members does not have power to speak for the majority - by censoring completely valid mathematical questions." $\endgroup$ – Did Jul 6 '17 at 8:50
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Bill, I would be much obliged if you would stop threaten to leave the site every time something displeases you. It loses its effectiveness after a while.

We all agree that there are shortcomings in the system as designed, and you are free to go elsewhere if you so choose. But the users are voting within the framework that the website itself is designed to encourage. It is high and fine that you disagree with the closure. In fact, I also think in this case the closure may be premature. But no need to be rude about it. Criticizing other users for doing what they believe is best for the community is not at all constructive. (Ironic how you are chiding those users for not being polite.) You would be much better off calmly making a case for reopening of the question, giving your reasons why the question is reasonable for math.stackexchange and encouraging other users to follow your example to vote to reopen.

I'm growing rather sick of you throwing a hissy fit whenever something on this site doesn't go your way. In the future please pause before you hit the submit button, and think if you can make your posts any less confrontational.

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    $\begingroup$ @Matt: One example is the comment thread at math.stackexchange.com/questions/21076/…. $\endgroup$ – Jonas Meyer Apr 24 '11 at 3:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Matt: Bill has threatened to leave the site at least twice to my knowledge. Some of this was in comments on the main site and some of this may have been in private correspondence with the moderators. I agree completely with Willie on this matter; I find threats juvenile, especially when they are not followed through. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '11 at 7:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Qia: Concerns about serious matters such as censorship are very far from "juvenile". Other valued contributors have left this site due to far less serious concerns (e.g. inability to type returns in comments), and I don't recall "moderators" criticizing their actions. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ @QY: Its not a matter of whether the threat is followed through with, the site is really hard to leave for good because it is doing a great job. No doubt it can be improved. Further on this and other SE sites, I find the closure of questions or the moving of questions really annoying. Ultimately, people asking questions are people looking for answers(maybe in the wrong place) and do not need to be treated this way. $\endgroup$ – picakhu Apr 24 '11 at 19:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: leaving is very different from threatening to leave and then not leaving even though your demands have not been met. Robin Chapman also did not start a meta thread on the subject for me to respond to; I personally found his actions juvenile as well, but for a different reason. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '11 at 19:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Qia "demands", "threats"??? I'm afraid you have seriously misinterpreted both my words and my intent. As for the "returns in comments" fiasco there were at least a couple meta threads if memory serves correct. TIP moderation is much more successful if you remain neutral and strive to mediate. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 19:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: I think the point is not that the issue is juvenile but your way of communicating is. It is quite annoying and obnoxious. It is unfortunate that your comments, here and elsewhere, have lead me to see your comments as more of a source of drama than anything else. You know that old saying about flies and vinegar... $\endgroup$ – Sean Tilson Apr 25 '11 at 4:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill By definition it would require I had actually gone through the above in order to be empathetic. I think that by far the most convincing argument is given by Amy below. To be honest, before reading her answer, I was a tidge unsure that there was an issue worth worrying about. I am extremely disappointed that you are not encouraging people to write better questions, Instead you seem to prefer at yelling at people. $\endgroup$ – Sean Tilson Apr 25 '11 at 5:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Sean I don't recall yelling at anybody - nor do I prefer such. Nor do I discourage anyone from encouraging questioners to write better questions. Rather, I discourage folks from closing valid mathematical questions in a manner that will alienate others. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 25 '11 at 5:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Willie: criticizing others is perhaps one of the best ways a site based on common rule can proceed - While I also agree that Bill's 'threat' is a bit peculiar, it does not detract from the fact that his criticism is spot on. Valid questions are being closed prematurely. What other way to fix this than to bring it up? $\endgroup$ – davidlowryduda Apr 25 '11 at 6:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: Although I am not a 3k user yet, am I wrong to think that there is also the ability to reopen a closed thread? Is this not a proper counter to premature closing? $\endgroup$ – davidlowryduda Apr 25 '11 at 6:04
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    $\begingroup$ @mixedmath: as I mentioned in the middle paragraph, a much better way is to teach by example. If you see a question that is closed but you think should not be: make a calm (meaning without all that drama) assessment of why the question is mathematically/pedagogically interesting and post it on Meta, and leave a comment linking to the Meta thread on the original post. That way people can actually judge the argument based on the merits of the question rather than the tone of the complaint. And people can also learn why certain questions should not be closed. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Apr 25 '11 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ Just saying "I am annoyed to see a lot of questions being closed when they shouldn't be" is not constructive. This is math.SE, not psychics.SE; we can't read minds to figure out what other users think. Just issuing proclamations like "this question is closed improperly" does not help the other users refine their radars to prevent it from happening in the future. It is much more useful to make a case for re-opening, so less experienced users would know why a particular closure vote is unwarranted. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Apr 25 '11 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Willie Speaking of "teaching by example", moderators should not be mischaracterizing the behavior of valued members as "hissy fits", "toxic", etc. This will only encourage other similar nonconstructive remarks (as it already has). Moderators are supposed to mediate, not fan the flames. The ability to set aside personal convictions and remain neutral is an essential quality of a successful moderator. Alas, it is also very rare, and usually only perfected with decades of experience. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 25 '11 at 18:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: I call it as I see it, and I will continue to do so. Perhaps instead of making passive aggressive remarks, you'd be better off polishing your posts so facts are not overshadowed by your tone of voice. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Apr 26 '11 at 0:22
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I am fairly new here, though I've been visiting the site regularly since I registered; and for roughly three weeks I've held off participating. I first came across the site when I was baffled with some questions emerging from self-study. But to be honest, given the tone of some of the answers I've read here, and even more so, the tone on meta, I was reluctant to ask any questions, not wanting to be humiliated. I do really think that for those who frequently answer questions, and particularly, those who are critical of the content and/or manner in which so many (what y'all seem to refer to as) OPs ask questions, the question of this site's "mission" may need to be revisited, discussed, clarified, etc. Most importantly, it would help to discuss for whom this site is most intended to help: the question-ers or the answer-ers [should be both].

Let me add that "abusing" this site can occur in at least two two directions: Yes, it can be abused those asking questions, but it can be abused by those who answer.

I understand that this really isn't a "question", so to speak; but, rather, a perspective. I hope to be both a question-er and an answer-er, but to be honest, from my perspective, this site makes it much more comfortable/inviting to "answer" questions than it does to ask them. Again, I'm sharing my perspective; I don't intend to be making any blanket judgments; after all, I've stuck around for the past few weeks, haven't I?

I sincerely hope we can all remind ourselves why we're here; for me, it has more to do with wanting to share my passion for, and involvement with, mathematics, and to make mathematics more accessible to more people. I hope to do so in a welcoming climate, and I hope to dispel the all-too-common fear that the general public has of "all things mathematics", as well as the unfortunate but oft-deserved impression that so many have people have of mathematicians as being cold and unapproachable.


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    $\begingroup$ Its always good to give another perspective. There is a lot of truth in what Bill is saying, and the community should deal with poorly posed questions in a different way. Personally I am not sure how. The problem on this thread, at least for me, is that after a while I just can't stand Bill's tone and the overall way he acts about things. Even when he has a good point, it is hard to be supportive when I interpret a lot of his comments as pretentious. $\endgroup$ – Eric Naslund Apr 24 '11 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ @eric in general I think math.se would benefit from less drama and more math $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 26 '11 at 9:22
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I looked through some of the closed questions, expecting to see spam or youtube-level drivel, but I didn't see a single case of that. What I found was perfectly serious questions related to math. They were often interesting and/or valid mathematical or math-related questions (as judged by the number of answers and high-rep level of answerers).

The FAQ says that questions get closed for being off-topic. It also gives examples of what sorts of questions are considered off-topic. Basically your question needs to be in a non-math area (physics, engineering, financial, latex, numerology, meta) to be off-topic, according to the FAQ. In practice, very few of the closed questions are off-topic by this definition.

An interesting case is what looks like a crank question about 1+1=3 which received 4 answers, all trying to be helpful, all different. It turns out that the asker was perfectly serious, and they accepted the answer of the type they were seeking. Isn't this the system working exactly as desired?

Another case asks about $(a+b)^n>a^n+b^n$, a legitimate question with 6 legitimate answers, closed as "too localized" in part because it "has been answered quite completely". Huh? I am completely missing the logic as to why that was closed.

Closed questions can be found in searches, so the only effect of closing seems to be (1) prohibiting further answers, and (2) giving negative feedback to the asker and any answerers. It is hard to see the utility of (1) (nobody is obligated to answer any question anyway — if somebody wants to answer, why should they be prohibited?), and it is also hard to see the utility of (2) (if people are asking and answering, why not let them? anyway, use downvotes for negative feedback).

There is one more effect, namely that in the long run, closing questions of certain types has an effect on the overall focus of the site. High-rep people can in this way steer the site as they like. In fact, any quorum of 5 can steer it, which is less than 10% of those eligible to vote!

If one thing is clear from both this question and the recent "deleted Pete Clark comments" fiasco, it is that different people have different visions of how this site should operate. This is not surprising. In fact it is unavoidable. What should be obvious is that the site is big enough to accommodate us all (tags exist to help each of us focus on the parts we like). And the other thing that is clear from both this question and the recent dPCcf is that when you start censoring (instead of just ignoring) things that other people don't think should be censored, people will get upset enough to consider leaving the community.

So those with the power to close have a choice: Use closing to try to steer the content, generating enough bad vibes to lose top contributors every so often, or keep the closing to what everybody can agree on, even when you yourself would close more.

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    $\begingroup$ Given that closed questions are still publicly visible, I don't think that they have been "censored". $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Apr 24 '11 at 2:26
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    $\begingroup$ Any 5 can reopen a question. The larger the number of $>3000$ rep users, the more likely you can convince 5 to help reopen something you think was closed in error. This can be done calmly, and can be effective, even for questions no one much cares for. Here's an example: meta.math.stackexchange.com/q/1210/1424 $\endgroup$ – Jonas Meyer Apr 24 '11 at 2:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Carl: Good point, although closing does prevent discourse, so it is more of a proactive form of censoring. Not sure of any word that means this except "close", so I changed "censoring" to "closing" in the final paragraph, based on your comment. $\endgroup$ – Matt Apr 24 '11 at 2:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Jonas: Yes, questions can be reopened. But the question is, what is the benefit of closing in the first place? $\endgroup$ – Matt Apr 24 '11 at 2:48
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    $\begingroup$ This may be a bit tangential, but regarding the examples you gave: I just voted to reopen the $a^n+b^n$ question, but I stand behind closing $1+1=3$. I cannot identity an actual question of the OP in that one. $\endgroup$ – Jonas Meyer Apr 24 '11 at 3:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Carl Certainly closed questions are "censored" since no further answers are allowed, and the question will receive much lower exposure by the software. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 7:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Carl That is a dangerously tricky definition of censorship. $\endgroup$ – Glen Wheeler Apr 24 '11 at 16:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Glen: I am simply saying that "censored" is a loaded word. If a question is closed because it does not conform to the norms of the site (in the opinions of the people who voted to close it), that's not really "censorship" in the same sense as, for example, the Great Firewall of China. $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Apr 24 '11 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Jonas I also agree with the closing of the 1+1=3 question. I struggle to distinguish the question, and the accepted answer, from a joke at the expense of the site. $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Apr 24 '11 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ We have all seen bogus proofs of things like 1+1=3. The OP was confused by this, and turned to this site for clarification. The question was not phrased very precisely, so people had to guess a bit at what was being asked. But it was clear enough for one answerer to hit the nail on the head, giving an example bogus proof and pointing out where the flaw lies. The OP accepted this answer and thanked the answerer. To summarize: A new user, confused by a mathematical topic, came to this site and got an enlightening mathematical answer! I think those voting to close haven't looked at it carefully. $\endgroup$ – Matt Jan 22 '14 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ Agreed. A question of mine about why (under some conditions) $(\sum_{n=-\infty}^{\infty}a_n)(\sum_{n=-\infty}^{\infty}b_n)=\sum_{n=-\infty}^{\infty}\sum_{k=-\infty}^{\infty}a_{n-k}b_k$ had been the target of closing votes and then closed as a duplicate of a question about why (under some conditions) $(\sum_{n=0}^{\infty}a_n)(\sum_{n=0}^{\infty}b_n)=\sum_{n=0}^{\infty}\sum^n_{k=0}a_{n-k}b_k$ even if I had clearly said in the question that I knew this second result but I didn't see how to apply it to prove the former $\endgroup$ – Self-teaching worker Oct 21 '14 at 14:27
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I think that a key factor in miscommunication with new users is that the "reasons" in the "vote to close" dialog box are not very helpful, and so people have to pick the closest one to their actual reasoning behind their vote. The "not a real question" reason is particularly bad, because it involves the subjective concept of a "real" question, which will vary from one person to another.

For this reason, it's nice to leave a comment when you vote to close, or at least second someone else's comment that already explains it. Then the person who asked the question will know the actual problems people saw.

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    $\begingroup$ Leaving closure comments would be helpful since it forces the voter to think a bit more deeply about the matter and, moreover, it provides important communication to the community. In particular, if some folks are closing questions for reasons that go against community norms then this will be better exposed for discussion, and possible correction. But, at the least, it could hopefully promote constructive discussion on the issues so that we can reach reasonable compromises. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ we definitely, definitely encourage people to leave constructive comments when they vote to close. It is never required, but it is extremely helpful in educating the community about norms and standards and expectations. That said, I find I sometimes vote to close without comment on particularly egregiously off-topic / low quality things; I only comment when I think a question is "close to the edge". $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 26 '11 at 9:24
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Let's be completely clear about this: just as 3k+ users have the right to vote to close, they also have the right to vote to reopen.

On MO a standard strategy which has been moderately successful in reopening closed questions is to start a meta thread about the merits of the question, especially in conjunction with the OP or someone else editing the question. This ensures that a decent number of people (the people who regularly read meta) see the thread and think about whether the question ought to be reopened.

My understanding is that Bill Dubuque thinks that this procedure is too much harder than the procedure for voting to close, and therefore he refuses to do it. I do not see the point of this attitude. If you feel that a question was closed unfairly, start a thread about it. People might agree with you.

I agree that to new users it is unclear what closure actually means, and the list of reasons to close is not completely friendly. But let me quote Jeff Atwood here:

I certainly defer to the others here who are mathematicians -- but our general philosophy is to heavily favor answerers.

We feel that the world is awash in questions, but not answers. Answers are the real unit of work in any Q&A system. Therefore, the only logical thing to do is to maximize the happiness and enjoyment of answerers.

If this means aggressively closing unworthy or uninteresting questions, so be it. Without a community of people willing to answer questions, it really doesn't matter if there are questions at all, does it?

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    $\begingroup$ Analogies to MO are not valid here because this site has both a much more diverse community and a much more diverse level of knowledge that it covers. In fact I think one of the fundamental problems here has to do with many MO users attempting to force an MO model here where it has no hope of working. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: whether it has no hope of working is debatable. I don't see what either the diversity of the community or the diversity of the level of knowledge covered has to do with starting threads on meta to reopen questions. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '11 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ Did you forget the many prior complaints here about the asymmetry of closing and reopening - which included links to analogous threads on MSO - threads with large community support. We could develop policies to fix these problems if we could agree on some more symmetric compromise - policies that are sensitive to the many diverse opinions on such matters. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: 1) do you have an example of a closed question you think should not have been closed, such that there was significant community support for the question to be reopened, and such that the question stayed closed despite the existence of a meta thread? 2) Do you have an example of a policy that would fix these problems that does not require changing the software? $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '11 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ I tried to get a few prior questions reopened and gave up after soon realizing that it was difficult if not impossible. Matt wrote in another answer here that he found many of the closed questions to be "perfectly serious questions related to math". Meta threads do not suffice because many users do not visit the meta site, and visits to meta are probably far less frequent than those to the main site. Moreover, it is very draining to organize reopen campaigns, compared to the effortless simple click needed to cast a close vote. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 20:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: the last time I remember you attempting to reopen questions was months ago. The population of people who read meta has increased since then; I honestly think that it will be much easier now than it was then. "Organizing reopen campaigns" consists of starting a thread and listing a few reasons why you think the question should be reopened. If you have enough energy for this discussion, you have enough energy to champion a few questions. (I am not disagreeing that it is harder to reopen questions than to close them; when did I ever disagree with this? I am saying I don't see why your... $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '11 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ ...reaction to this situation is not to attempt to reopen questions at all.) $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '11 at 21:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Qia I'm guessing that many of the close votes are cast by folks frustrated with various aspects of questions posed by new users. It may be wiser to attempt to address these issues that lie at the heart of the matter. Can we gain more control over what is displayed to new users before they compose their questions, ensuring that they know what we consider to be essential components of a proper question? If we could succeed in such an endeavor, I think it might go a long way towards eliminating these closing issues. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: no, we can't. At least, not here. Such questions are for meta.SO. I am also not sure if such a thing would help. It is unclear to me whether new users read most of what is displayed to them. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 24 '11 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Qia Interesting point. Perhaps there are now more meta users - increasing the chances of reopenings. Even if so it will still be much more difficult than casting a close vote. I wish that closers would keep this in mind before casting such votes. Often there are more constructive courses of action. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: Dear Bill, I suspect that Qiaochu is right, and that it would be easier to get reopen votes now than it was at the earlier stages of the site when your initial (negative) impressions of the asymmetry of closing/reopening process were formed. In particular, it might feel less like a campaign than it would have then. I do agree that it would be better to avoid unnecessary closings in the first place, but if requests for reopening became somewhat commonplace on meta, I think that reopening (perhaps after editing) could become more common, and more routine, than it is now. Regards, $\endgroup$ – Matt E Apr 25 '11 at 3:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: Dear Bill, Just to give (admittedly only) one piece of evidence, the $(a+b)^n$ question that Matt linked to in his answer here has now been reopened. That one link was enough to funnel the necessary reopen votes. Admittedly, this is probably high-traffic meta post, but it still gives some hope that reopening following a post on meta can become a standard process in cases where it is appropriate. Regards, $\endgroup$ – Matt E Apr 25 '11 at 3:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Matt Point taken. Thanks for sharing your insights (presumably gained from MO experiences). $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 25 '11 at 4:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Qiaochu: Given the uncompromising nature of MO, I am uncertain that it serves as an adequate example here. $\endgroup$ – Robert Harvey Apr 27 '11 at 4:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Matt E I mentioned a couple of your recent posts in the final comment here. Perhaps you might be interested to share your thoughts on such matters. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 28 '11 at 2:58
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Not really an answer but here is some wisdom from Polya's teaching philosophy:

" 1. Helping the student. One of the most important tasks of the teacher is to help his students. This task is not quite easy; it demands time, practice, devotion, and sound principles.

The student should acquire as much experience of independent work as possible. But if he is left alone with his problem without any help or with insufficient help, he may make no progress at all, If the teacher helps too much, nothing is left to the student. The teacher should help, but not much and not too little, so that the student shall have a reasonable share of the work.

If the student is not able to do much, the teacher should leave him at least some illusion of independent work. In order to do so, the teacher should help the student discreetly, unobtrusively.

The best is, however, to help the student naturally. The teacher should put himself in the student's place, he should see the student's case, he should try to understand what is going on in the student's mind, and ask a question or indicate a step that could have occurred to the student himself."

I think this is a good guide when helping a student, but it might be too much to ask for on the internet where physical communication is nil.

Edit: I added this comment because I really appreciate Bill's teaching style and don't want him to leave. Also, I believe some answers and comments on the site lack the kind of empathy that is actually helpful for a student. (not to offend but I get the impression that some answers are too eager to impress rather than down to earth genuinely helpful answers.)

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From my point of view (which is similar to that of Carl Mummert), the problem is not so much that questions are closed for the wrong reasons, but rather that the reason for closing is usually not very transparent. For new-comers, this is of course doubly so, since they most probably do not know about the inner workings of the site.

Would it be possible to impose the condition that at least one of those who vote in favor of closing actually leave a comment? Or would that be a 'top-level' decision on the stackexchange site as a whole? There is simply a world of difference from an auto-generated "Your question does not meet the standard of our fine site" to a "Welcome to the site! Please add this and that to your question by editing so that it becomes easier to provide an answer!" If nothing else, this gives the newcomer someone to respond to directly about how to proceed.

Of course, having to actually put down your thoughts in writing about why you want to close to question may lead you to the realization that the question should not be closed at all. I think that is a workflow I can recognize from mathematics!

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  • $\begingroup$ In case you didn't notice, this thread is over six years old - when the site and its functionality was quite different (e.g. no review queues).The thread was bumped by another user (whose edit I rolled back). $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Jul 5 '17 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ I see! Nevertheless, my thoughts are the same. It still seems to me that questions are routinely closed in a way such that it is difficult for a newcomer to understand the reasoning, whether or not that reasoning is in fact appropriate. $\endgroup$ – Jonas Dahlbæk Jul 5 '17 at 12:53
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It seems that there are different communities of mathematicians emerging on the internet through these stackexchange forums and most of the public is totally unaware of who's who (since it's quite impossible to know right away without carefully reading the faq, which isn't what new members or visitors do at first).

I'm totally fine with the idea that MO is for professional research in mathematics and that M.S is for graduate level questions, but it leaves two problems open. First, where should all the undergraduate and lower questions go? And then how do we communicate this clearly without appearing so unfriendly to the public?

One solution that I would enjoy would be to bring both forums under the same umbrella and then add another two of them (one for undergraduate questions and one for anything lower). The idea would be that if a question is not at the right place, instead of telling the user off and shut his question, the question would simply be moved to the right place, seamlessly by the moderators. This would allow the community to keep things in order without being so rude to the unknowing public. A little addition that would help this is to make sure that each forum contains on its front page a clear explanation of its intended content and that users with a low enough reputation (say 50 or so) get a reminder when they ask questions (something really big in their face that cannot be ignored just to help things get in place).

All in all, we need to help the public out if we really intend to keep things organized without turning valid and interesting questions away.

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    $\begingroup$ I am quite sure that the problem was not the difficulty level of the question. $\endgroup$ – Phira Apr 23 '11 at 23:26
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    $\begingroup$ math.SE is not for just graduate level questions. It is explicitly stated in the FAQ that we welcome questions at every level. The issue at stake here is the level of effort the OP puts into asking a good question, and also whether we should prioritize answering people's questions over teaching them how to answer their own questions. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 23 '11 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Qiaochu: Or whether or not we should even be concerned with such extra-mathematical issues. We are supposed to be here to celebrate the joys of mathematics, not to be homework police. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 23 '11 at 23:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: The semantics of up/down voting and closing are not simple, whatever the prescribed rules about them. And people use them in different ways. For most possible answerers, I'd guess that any question that sounds like a homework problem sounds like they're trying to get the answer, and is then kind of an insult (to such an answerer). And an insult is pretty closable. (I like the fibonacci question, but it is -obviously- homework whatever the OP says.) $\endgroup$ – Mitch Apr 24 '11 at 1:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill Different people seem to have different ideas about "celebrating the joy of mathematics". This is not at all the issue here, but since you are bringing it up: in my opinion solving other peoples' homework has nothing to do with celebrating the joy of mathematics and if anything, it prevents these people from doing just that. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Apr 24 '11 at 2:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Alex I don't "solve other peoples' homework". Rather, I provide hints to help them answer their posed questions. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 8:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill I didn't say you were solving other peoples' homework. But then again, I didn't understand what you were referring to when talking about homework police. As has been stated a few times in this thread, the main issue of closure is not "homework or no homework" but rather "how much effort is required on the part of the community to actually turn the post into an answerable question and how much of that effort should be the OP's job". $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Apr 24 '11 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ -1: I can't fathom why this is getting upvotes. The notion that math.SE is for graduate level questions, and furthermore that questions are being closed because of this, is utterly ridiculous, and this false premise is the basis for the entire rest of this answer. $\endgroup$ – Zev Chonoles Apr 24 '11 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Alex The question was closed as "not a real question". I have requested that those who voted to close explain this strange decision, but that has not yet happened. This question required no more effort to turn it into an answerable question. The homework issue was raised in comments in the original thread. As I said there, it has no relevance since this question is not tagged as homework. I am completely baffled why this question was closed, and why some folks are so quick to act so nonconstructively towards new members' posts. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: As I said in my answer, I think the "reasons" in the close box are at best approximations to the actual reasons that someone might vote to close a question. Due to the very limited capabilities of the "vote to close" box, I don't take the "official reason" stated for a closed question very seriously. $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Apr 24 '11 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Carl The OP joined 2 days ago, and asked these 2 two questions within 20 minutes of each other. So these are posts by a new member. I see nothing at all "odd" or "bad" about either post. Could the questions be better posed? Sure. But one could say that about most questions posed here. Since none of the folks who voted to close have explained such votes, the real reasons remain a mystery. I hope that folks will reflect a bit more on the global ramiifications of such actions before casting such votes in the future. It seems to me that too often such votes are cast without proper reflection. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 24 '11 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ @bill the proper thing to do is open a meta post with, say, 4 or 5 (or better still, 12) specific examples of where this is going wrong. It's tough to extrapolate from one data point. If you want to make a case for patterns, it's so much easier to talk about with a number of concrete citations. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 26 '11 at 9:26
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    $\begingroup$ @bill there is no asymmetry; it takes 5 reopen votes to reopen, just like it takes 5 close votes to close. I think this comes down to arguments over the philosophy of inclusionism or deletionism, and it is no more destroying this site than it is destroying Stack Overflow, or any other Stack Exchange site.. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 26 '11 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ @bill everything we've learned so far indicates that the happiness of answerers is paramount in any Q&A system, as they are the units of real work in the system. That is, the world is awash in a trillion questions of wildly varying quality; what it isn't awash in is good answers. Questions are merely the sand that produces the pearl -- who in their right mind would optimize for sand? $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 26 '11 at 22:36
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    $\begingroup$ @bill points taken, but Stack Overflow is probably a thousand times larger than this site, with 3,500+ questions asked per day. I know some things about scale. I agree that the math community is .. unique .. in many ways across our network and I have personally experienced that. But I am not convinced that the basic process of asking and answering, and the social behavior of human beings, is all that different in math. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 26 '11 at 23:15

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