We've all seen it. A question of a new user, copied from a problem book, 5 people answering it with one-liners within 10 minutes, the user saying maybe a "thankx" and either picking a best answer completely at random or never being seen again.

I'm surprised to see even users of 2000+ reputation (not going to blame anyone in particular, sorry) behaving like that. Why not enforce the standard from other communities a little better? That is, have posters wait 12 hours or so for everyone getting a fair chance of writing a quality answer that might help someone else than just them as well, letting the community vote, and choosing by quality rather than just picking the first or none at all?

This pace actually reinforces people in writing short incomplete answers informative only to the asker, as spending more on a single question would have them see 5 other answers and an accept before they are even done writing theirs.

Update: a possible in the comments below (the first two written by me).

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    $\begingroup$ If you are talking about accepting answer, there are a few discussions about this on this meta: Length of time to wait before accepting an answer, Minimum waiting time to accept answer, etc. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2016 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ This is an innate problem in the design of the (explictly gamified) SE platform. The community cannot fix it. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2016 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ The community can't, but maybe the system could? Issue a warning like "Are you sure you don't want to wait for possible further answers?", maybe? There are a lot of these little pop-ups, like "You haven't voted for questions in a while" etc., or full-blown questions like "Are you sure you want to add another answer?" with instructions of what might be the better thing to do, that one willingly has to dismiss before proceeding. This could just reuse the same mechanism. $\endgroup$
    – The Vee
    Nov 25, 2016 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ Also perhaps: "You asked this and this question a month ago and received 2 answers. Does none of them give what you were looking for?" in the notifications, with some suggestions on how to fix common flaws to make the Q likely to receive a better attention when clicked. $\endgroup$
    – The Vee
    Nov 25, 2016 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ The problem is, a lot of new users just post a homework problem, wait 20 minutes or so, and come back to accept an answer while copying it onto their paper, never to be seen again after that. But, I don't think they accept answers randomly (at least from my experience). $\endgroup$
    – suomynonA
    Nov 27, 2016 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ As Bill mentioned, the gamification is an essential feature, and causes some of the problems. Another problem is that, morally, the SE platform aims to be a comprehensive repository of questions and answers; the classical "what have you tried" that is almost universally accepted in Math.SE does not fit that paradigm well. $\endgroup$ Nov 29, 2016 at 4:41
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinArgerami In fact, it should be more about adding context rather than showing OPs attempts. $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2016 at 5:00
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    $\begingroup$ I think that this question is a bit unclear. You are mentioning several issues: 1) Posting questions which are simply copied assignments with no other details (a.k.a. problem statement questions.) 2) Users not accepting answers. 3) Users quickly answering questions, where both answers and question might lack quality (a.k.a. fastest-gun). And it is not clear whether you want to concentrate on one of this issues or you want to speak about something completely else (as the title would suggest). $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2016 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ Downvote the answers that in your opinion reward low quality questions. An asker may not care, but an answerer more likely will. $\endgroup$ Dec 1, 2016 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ When that happens the answerer usually complains in a comment then some other person (or persons) gives them a +1 (or more) because they feel sad for the answerer. Example. $\endgroup$
    – Ian Miller
    Dec 2, 2016 at 22:58
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    $\begingroup$ @JyrkiLahtonen Last time I checked (I mean this literally), one was supposed to vote question and answers independently and according to its own merits. This is what I've always been opposing: the non-compliance with the rules. I have my opinion regarding how to deal with PSQs and other issues, but what matters the most is the rules. How can so many experienced users just ignore them, is beyond me. $\endgroup$
    – Git Gud
    Dec 4, 2016 at 9:56
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    $\begingroup$ "The site has already lost many good teachers due to such nonsense." Evidence? $\endgroup$
    – Did
    Dec 4, 2016 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ This is a non-problem. Certainly any attempt to 'fix' it would be almost guaranteed to make things worse. $\endgroup$
    – TonyK
    Dec 4, 2016 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ This might seem crazy, but the very gamification and rapid answering that many decry is exactly what got me started here. Now I'm just a moderate and occasional user, but I've written some pretty good answers, and I seem to be better than many at discerning what a questioner is really asking. I got that way...by practicing! And I practiced on...easy stuff. I can now type LateX blindingly fast, so I have more time to think about my answers. The result of my point-whoring and answering stupid questions? We have a bunch of not-perfectly-useful information on the internet. Bummer, hunh? $\endgroup$ Dec 6, 2016 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ I've recently posted two feature questions about this, and the resounding answer I got was that SE cares about the answers, not the people who ask the question. I've also been informed that the answer doesn't really need to address the question, if it does that is a nice side-effect. I don't think this business model appears very sustainable. Just my two cents. $\endgroup$
    – user304051
    Dec 8, 2016 at 1:27

5 Answers 5


You solve this problem by having no one answer the question. Have the community vote to close it or downvote it to deletion without giving any answer.

Unfortunately there are lots of users itching for that sweet sweet 15 points of reputation that comes from posting the best 30 second answer to a dumb question that doesn't deserve an response in the first place.

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    $\begingroup$ Thankfully, there are also a lot of users itching to teach mathematics and share mathematical knowledge, who don't give a damn about the puerile SE game (including nebulous numbers such as "rep"). The site would work much better if this were the norm. $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2016 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque how do you know it's not the reverse of what you think? People who only care about teaching would answer any question, even if it it's likely to get deleted or closed and they would get no reputation. $\endgroup$
    – asmeurer
    Nov 30, 2016 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ @asmeurer That's simply my opinion based on decades of teaching online. Gamified systems cause way to many problems due to bringing (often inflated) egos into the equation, and, alas, inflating them ad infinitum. $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2016 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ @asmeurer I disagree that people who care about teaching would give the answer to any question; they would probably leave a comment to ask for a clarification, or give a subtle hint to prompt thought in the right direction. When you give the answer, the student copies your answer into their homework assignment (much in the same way they copied the problem from their book), and not much learning takes place. $\endgroup$
    – xxxxxxxxx
    Nov 30, 2016 at 19:15
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    $\begingroup$ My point is how do you know. The argument can go either way, so without some data you can't say that gamification hurts or helps the situation. $\endgroup$
    – asmeurer
    Nov 30, 2016 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ Downvoting the fastest guns might work. But only if enough people participate. As long as typing a copy/paste textbook answer to a copy/paste homework question has positive rep expectation, the practice will continue. Only if the dv/uv ratio exceeds 5:1 will this become a deterrent. $\endgroup$ Dec 1, 2016 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ @JyrkiLahtonen I agree, just one upvote from the question asker is enough to give a rep boost for the quickdraw answers unless you have a large pool of downvoters (which there does not seem to be). $\endgroup$
    – xxxxxxxxx
    Dec 1, 2016 at 18:10

I see some of these kinds of question, and I admit that I answer them from time to time.

I think, though, that I'm pretty good at recognizing when people are looking for an easy way out, and I'll usually answer in a way that points them in the right direction, but stops short of answering it. This isn't technically an answer to their question, but time and time again I've been rewarded by the community for such answers, so I keep giving them.

Then again, sometimes I'll post "What have you tried? Where are you stuck?" in the comments of the question. It all depends on my level of energy, I guess.

If I sense entitlement from the asker, I might be a little more direct: "This isn't a homework-answering engine."

Other times still I'll answer the question. ("It's your lucky day!") If someone beats me to it, oh well, it happens. If the question gets closed while I'm writing my response, that happens, too.

(Vincent mentioned the Nash Equilibrium. I'm helping the community, but I'm also helping out myself: keeping my brain active, giving myself a little happy boost when someone is helped, etc. It's a credit to the design of these sites that my helping out myself also helps out the community and the Internet.)

But over time, the good questions will be upvoted more than the "thin" ones, and exposure to those questions will take care of themselves.

Basically, we have enough good teachers here that we can all approach these kinds of questions in different, but appropriate, ways, and the site gets better as a result.


There is a fundamental difference Math SE has compared to other Stack Exchange sites:

  • Questions on other sites ask for information.

Look that over very carefully.

Fundamentally, there are three things involved in the topics of Math SE:

  1. Mathematical notation.
  2. Understandings of mathematical concepts.
  3. History.

The predominant item is the second one I've listed.

Mathematics is something that you understand, not data or information which fundamentally must come from an external source.

You can derive the entirety of mathematics yourself. Or, you could learn it on an alien planet—who knows? The ideas of mathematics are fundamental. They have to do with basic postulates (axioms) and conclusions derived from those axioms. These ideas and understandings are independent of language, race, Earth, or even physics.

(Although much mathematics is applicable to the physics of this universe, there is just as much or more mathematics that is not directly applicable within the realm of this universe.)

If you were an expert alien mathematician, the only aspects you would be missing from your mathematical repertoire that you might need to fill in from the external source of Math SE would be:

  1. The particular notations used by Earth mathematicians, and
  2. The history of discovery and development of these fundamental mathematical ideas on Earth (and the history of the notations used.)

Now contrast our SE with another SE that deals with specific invented items, such as computer operating systems. (Unix & Linux Stack Exchange, for example, just because I'm very familiar with it.)

These OSes were created a certain way (by their creators) and thus the information about how they work is not something you can make up yourself. You can make up your own OS, of course, but unless you make it "in agreement" with certain common principles of "*nix" systems, you won't have made a Unix or a Linux-based operating system at all. Thus, answers there must provide information.

Math has no such restrictions.

You can create any mathematics you like and use it in any fashion you want, to accomplish whatever you want to accomplish with it. It's an adjunct or servomechanism to your own mind.

There is a fundamental difference between information and understanding.

Given that, what is there to ask about Maths?

By observation, most of the questions on Math SE have to do with solving specific math problems.

The better ones have to do with understanding specific mathematical notations (usually in the context of solving specific math problems), and the best ones have to do purely with understanding mathematical concepts for their own sake.


Of course, since concepts shall be communicated in every case by means of symbols (by which term I include written word symbols and spoken symbols) until and unless we reach pure telepathic ability—even those askers of questions seeking purely to understand mathematical concepts are invariably hung up on symbols; either the notation symbols or the "word symbols" used to explain the ideas. (Good educators recognize the importance of the undefined term or the undefined symbol.)

So perhaps I should really say, the best questions have to do with proposing new ideas (independently originated) and asking what the consequences (ramifications, implications) would be of those ideas. But those are hardly questions with a "single, definable answer," are they?

end aside

How is this relevant to the question of user etiquette on Math SE?

The only possible purpose to writing an answer here is to improve the understanding of those who read the answer.

When an answer is written so that only those who already have a vast amount of requisite knowledge can understand the answer, it is of more limited value.

An answer written to convey the necessary understandings, without assumptions of reader expertise (particularly without assuming notational expertise), is thus highly desirable.

Now, having written this far, I'll confess: I don't have an explicit answer to the title question, "How to make users follow a better etiquette?" Instead, I believe that what I've written above constitutes an entirely different framework from which to address the problem.

Perhaps canonical answers could be written—excellent exposés on individual mathematical concepts—which could be used as "dupe close" targets. Other sites have many of these; this site, so far as I know, has none.

(Why don't we have these already? Because such answers for this site would have to simply convey understanding, rather than just contain information.)

Perhaps apparent "etiquette problems" are merely due to this failure on our part to write canonical answers.

I don't have a firm conclusion. I don't have a firm answer. But, hey, this is Meta—and the post is tagged "discussion." ;)

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    $\begingroup$ I really like this answer. I have always been feeling that Math.SE is fundamentally different from the other sites, but haven't been able to pin down exactly why that would be natural. $\endgroup$
    – The Vee
    Dec 9, 2016 at 11:08
  • $\begingroup$ @TheVee, there's an "accept" button, if you want to use it. ;) $\endgroup$
    – Wildcard
    Sep 6, 2017 at 3:02
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    $\begingroup$ Case in point!! I really think there should be a notification about this. When I want to take some time to judge answers before choosing (or allow more time for more of them to come), my only reminder to eventually accept one is to leave the tab open. And I changed computers when moving countries in January so I forgot. Good excuse to read them all once more :-) $\endgroup$
    – The Vee
    Sep 6, 2017 at 8:01

I think I see a possible solution to this, however imperfect it might be (as mentioned very well in comments, once a game system in put in place, bad behaviour occurs).

The platform can decide to allow less points for early answers once these are validated (for instance, the number of points can grow linearly with time and then be fixed).

If we look at this new situation from a game-theory point of view, then the Nash Equilibrium for the people answering very fast is to answer right away, thus earning less points. I think we are safe from any cooperation on their part (all of them waiting just after some time limit to post a one-line answer).

It works under the assumption that any answer given in less than a certain time (for instance 30s) has less value than one that takes more time to arrive. It might be true that most of them are from the users described by Morgan Rodgers.

Answers to more advanced questions usually take time to be given.

The associated question can also be accorded less value, but it may be problematic since it gives leverage to fast-answerers to take down the value of a question which may have been interesting. I wouldn't be in favor of it.

Please post any disadvantage you would see for this new point system in comment.

Of course, plenty of versions can be made (negative points for early answers then compensated if it is a good answer, $points\times =\ln(time+1)$, $points \times =1-\exp(-time)$). Personally, I like the $\ln$ version better, it also covers the problem of long-time ignored questions.

  • $\begingroup$ But you don't get points for answers, do you? Do you mean for the accept reward? For upvotes? Or changing the basis upon which the system is built? $\endgroup$
    – The Vee
    Dec 4, 2016 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ I would be concerned that this would serve as a rationalization for those one-line answers that some community members post within seconds of a new question appearing: "Sure it's just one-line, but what do you expect for a quick answer that only earns a few points?" $\endgroup$
    – hardmath
    Dec 4, 2016 at 22:35
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, @The Vee, I meant for points given to the answer afterwards, accept reward seeming the most obvious choice. hardmath, I don't see the problem in rationalizing. The goal is to make the one line practice less rewarding, hoping to reduce the number of such answers. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Dec 5, 2016 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ On other sites I frequent, the problem is less evident, because (a) these sort of low-quality answers are more often only posted in comments, and (b) the community has a greater tendency than here to downvote answers which are not very clearly explained. I do not think your assumption regarding answer value is correct. I wrote my own answer to this current discussion, though. $\endgroup$
    – Wildcard
    Dec 9, 2016 at 10:49

There's just one flaw in this entire prospect you give:

How do you know that the community will upvote the best answer?

There's plenty of times where the correct answer is downvoted because either the question was unclear in the first place or because the author preferred a certain method. In these cases, why is it fair or reasonable to force a user to accept the upvoted answer. I understand that you are saying that people should merely wait for votes, but if an answer truly answers a question accurately and correctly in a clear manner, then why should the user be forced to wait? Some questions are asked out of sincerity and are incredibly simple just as some other questions are incredibly complex and may never be answered.

"rather than just picking the first or none at all?"

Once again, an answer might not truly answer everything the op wanted to know. This sometimes causes friction between users as expected. Sometimes questions are asking things that people immediately reject as false. Someone makes a false premise (to try and analyze how the falsehood of a true statement changes things) but wants it to be followed through with regardless and people refuse to accept and reject the premise in their answers. In hindsight, this is an obviously wrong answer but maybe it gets upvoted for being intelligently well-written. Clearly the person shouldn't be punished for someone giving a bad answer by forcing it to be accepted over the answer they wanted.


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