I think any casual passer-by in MSE interested in intellectual freedom and openness would be appalled that questions get closed as "not about mathematics, within the scope defined by the help center" with no attempt to explain why the question was out of scope. In nearly all cases, I suspect, it is not that the question is not about mathematics, but that it doesn't pose a mathematical question in a way that those who close the question feel is appropriate to MSE.

These closures are value judgments and, in my view, should always be accompanied by a more specific explanation as a courtesy to the person whose question has been closed (even if that explanation is just "you have posted a zillion stupid questions about this boring topic and we are fed up with it, you and your arrogant ways" or "your question has received more than X close votes and so has been closed as a result of a democratic procedure that you can appeal against as follows ...").

I don't want to raise a question about a particular question, but I think an example is helpful. https://math.stackexchange.com/questions/1919791/my-attempt-at-proving-an-unsolved-problem just got closed on the authority of just two users, with no adequate attempt to explain why. The question is certainly a mathematical one and closing it merits some explanation, even if it's just "we can't be bothered to check claims by 19-year olds that they've solve the Collatz conjecture".

Can someone please explain to me how these unexplained closures helps the community? The impression given is that MSE is a dictatorship that legislates on what is and what is not mathematics with no public disclosure of its processes or of how they are applied in individual cases.

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    $\begingroup$ "with no attempt to explain why" This is false. $\endgroup$ – quid Sep 9 '16 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: OK. No adequate attempt to explain why. Your comment has no useful bearing on my criticism of the autocratic impression that MSE often gives. $\endgroup$ – Rob Arthan Sep 9 '16 at 0:31
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    $\begingroup$ As explained on main it seems perfectly adequate to me. But I just added another reason, generic requests for feedback on proofs of famous open problems are explicitly off-topic. I think that's all there is to this. It falls clearly into off-topic categories in more than one way. Maybe you could explain why this question should not be closed? I really cannot see any value in it. I also think one should not encourage OP in this direction. $\endgroup$ – quid Sep 9 '16 at 0:36
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    $\begingroup$ I am not talking about what is and is not on-topic. I am concerned with how this is presented to a user whose question is closed. The put-on-hold message just says "not about mathematics as defined in the help center". How on earth is a newcomer to understand what they got wrong? When you say "explicitly off-topic", where is that made explicit to someone asking their first question? And to reiterate my actual question, how does it benefit the community for MSE to appear to be so unhelpful and dictatorial? $\endgroup$ – Rob Arthan Sep 9 '16 at 0:45
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    $\begingroup$ Oh and what do you know? I have two down-votes already. I'd forgotten that the negative cabal on MSE meta is even worse than on MSE. How much easier and more fun it is to push the button that means "na, don't like that" than to explain what it is that you don't like! In the interest of democracy, I think I'll downvote my own question and then when it's closed quid can explain why I did that. $\endgroup$ – Rob Arthan Sep 9 '16 at 0:50
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    $\begingroup$ "The put-on-hold message just says "not about mathematics as defined in the help center". How on earth is a newcomer to understand what they got wrong?" The could click on the link in that sentence, taking them to a page explaining what the community considers on-topic. However, I note that that link does not seem to explicitly address one issue with this specific question (that feedback on proofs of famous open problems are off-topic). Perhaps your concern can be addressed by editing the on-topic help page to include this. $\endgroup$ – Joel Reyes Noche Sep 9 '16 at 1:09
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    $\begingroup$ There are some older discussions related to the issue of the wording of the close reason: Why is a question needing more details called “off-topic”? and Add an explicit 'needs to show some work' option to the closing form. This was also raised several times by Michael Hardy, some posts might have been deleted, I was still able to find this one. $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Sep 9 '16 at 3:57
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    $\begingroup$ And there were also several post on meta about accompanying close votes (or putting on hold) by a comment. For example, How to promote explanation of closure in comments? and When closing question for lack of effort, leave a comment to OP explaining what to do. Personally, I often add comment from this comment template, I think that it adds some information. $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Sep 9 '16 at 4:01
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    $\begingroup$ Your idea of a "dictatorship" is very strange. If you disagree with a closure, cast a vote to reopen. If four other users agree with you, the question will be reopened. Seems very democratic to me. $\endgroup$ – mrf Sep 9 '16 at 5:41
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    $\begingroup$ @mrf I don't think that the Rob Arthan disagrees withe the closure. The question is more about non-sufficient explanation to the OP (of the question on the main) why the question was closed. (At least if I understood this meta question correctly.) $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Sep 9 '16 at 5:49
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    $\begingroup$ My take: instead of assuming the closure was erroneous, assume it was right, Given current volume, I'm perfectly happy to expect from closees that they look up the info themselves. If they can't be bothered, I don't mind the question remaining closed. Spoon-feeding like you suggest is something we don't have capacity for, and "appeal" is not what most closed questions need. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Sep 9 '16 at 6:06
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinSleziak: exactly so. A huge help would just be better wording of the closure message: rather than "this is not mathematics ...", something like "your question doesn't meet all the criteria for an MSE question, click here for more information" would be better. This is not "spoon-feeding" it is being informative and polite. $\endgroup$ – Rob Arthan Sep 9 '16 at 9:20
  • $\begingroup$ @mrf: I wrote that the MSE closure processes can give the impression of a dictatorship. That doesn't mean that I think it is a dictatorship, but that I am concerned that it might be mistaken for one. $\endgroup$ – Rob Arthan Sep 9 '16 at 20:02

The close message chosen in this case was the most terse one of all, others are more descriptive. However, even this one, which is by the way used in less than 5% of all cases, is not as non-informative as is claimed. As Joel already pointed out it actually is this:

"This question is not about mathematics, within the scope defined in the help center."

Note the link! Following the link one finds varied information and in particular rather early on a link to:


Personally, I am increasingly tired about repeated claims this was overly unclear. Not clear what it means? Follow the link! But yes it could also say:

[Y]our question doesn't meet all the criteria for an MSE question, click here for more information.

Or a slightly different wording. Since clarity is the goal saying "MSE question" seems a non-starter. Because what is an "MSE question"? It means nothing outside the confines of this site, in the specific case one might think it is a "Manuscript Search for Errors question" or whatever. Instead, that the site is about Mathematics is written right across the screen, and the criteria for questions about Mathematics that can be asked here are those "within the scope defined in the help center" I think you see by where I am going with this.

All that said, as it is a repeated cause for aggravation, we could also reword it; I think this something the per-site moderators could do without much effort.

So what should it said exactly? Maybe like this:

This question is not within the scope of the Mathematics Stack Exchange site, as defined in the help center.

And maybe in addition:

(Follow the link for further details.)

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    $\begingroup$ Your proposal would be a great improvement. $\endgroup$ – Rob Arthan Sep 9 '16 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ If there are no objections in the near future, I'll try to get it implemented. $\endgroup$ – quid Sep 9 '16 at 20:02

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