It is not unusual that a newbie posts a question that is obviously about mathematics and it is closed with a notice that says

closed as off-topic

and then down below that:

"This question is missing context or other details"

The statement that it was closed as off topic is conspicuous. To say that to a newbie posting in good faith who is not yet accustomed to the site's conventions is the height of gratuitous disrespect.

But it is explained that among the menu of five reasons for closing a question, the "off topic" item is the only one that is customizable. The problem could be solved by addition of one item to the menu, that says "Closed as missing context or other details." Jyrki Lahtonen, currently one of the moderators, has said he supports this if it can be done.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not convinced this will help but I do not oppose it. I think the best thing we can do is comment on poor quality questions and ask for context. $\endgroup$ Jun 17, 2017 at 23:48
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    $\begingroup$ To clarify my position: I feel that closing a question in general is impersonal and given that it shows 5 names next to the closure notice, I would imagine that it would feel a bit like you are being ganged up on. Moreover, I imagine that most people will think "how can I add context? I don't even know where to start!" I am not certain that what you are proposing helps fix any of this. $\endgroup$ Jun 17, 2017 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ @T.Gunn : Asking for context isn't enough: one should explain what the conventions are. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2017 at 4:13
  • $\begingroup$ That's (sort of) what I meant by ask for context. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2017 at 4:14
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    $\begingroup$ Another feature that is needed is that people who close questions should get notifications. That way they might have a chance to find out for the first time that they are fallible. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2017 at 4:34
  • $\begingroup$ I'm still not quite understanding. They should be notified that the question has closed? How does this have anything to do with fallibility? $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2017 at 4:40
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy: You make it sound like you're looking for creative ways to punish people for doing things you don't like. $\endgroup$
    – user14972
    Jun 18, 2017 at 9:13
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    $\begingroup$ A related feature request on the main meta: Can we rename the off-topic close reason label on the primary screen? was mentioned in some older discussions, for example, here and here. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2017 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl I disagree. I think that notification for new comments on questions which you have voted to close can be very useful. But I would also suggest that such a feature should have an opt in/out option, because for some people these notifications may pile up and amount to spam. $\endgroup$
    – mrnovice
    Jun 18, 2017 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ The discussion about notification for closers, while interesting, seems quite unrelated to the feature request at hand. I'd suggest to take that discussion elsewhere. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Jun 18, 2017 at 13:46
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps it should be mentioned that those who close things as "missing context or details" are often too extreme or pull the trigger too quickly. See my comments on that: math.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/26429/… $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2017 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy: I was referring not to the OP, but to the second to last comment you had written above mine, for which the motivation sounds like wanting to throw comments at people until they see the error of their ways. (rather than something more benign, like making it easier for the users to keep tabs on a question should they be interested in doing so) $\endgroup$
    – user14972
    Jun 18, 2017 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl : Notifications are not punishment. The are informative. People can find out there are aspects of the situation that they hadn't realized were there. Those who pull the trigger too fast may lack opportunities to find out they don't understand everything. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2017 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ Sometimes I take a break from writing my thesis and I come back to math.SE and I look at meta, and then I see that the same people are still whining about the same stuff with no one having changed their opinion in the slightest (and some people still have a problem with factuality). This argument has been had over and over and over. What's the point?! $\endgroup$ Jun 19, 2017 at 8:59
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    $\begingroup$ "Perhaps it should be mentioned that those who close things as "missing context or details" are often too extreme or pull the trigger too quickly" Perhaps it should be mentioned that you spend a great amount of time and energy to try to frame your requests for modifying the math.se system, in this alleged context. The trouble is that you spend much less time and energy to provide concrete examples showing this alleged context would be prevalent. Actually, when you try to do so by posting requests to reopen questions on meta, the cases you select are not what you say they are, laughably so. $\endgroup$
    – Did
    Jun 19, 2017 at 14:12

3 Answers 3


Sorry about being late to weigh in - I was busy last weekend.

Why I support this feature-request?

The norm re context that we have developed means that new questions at varying levels of mathematical sophistication often get put on hold for falling short of that standard. That is all well. But, the fact that the message This question is missing context or other details is displayed as a subtitle of the umbrella reason "Off-topic" leads to a lot of confusion. We hopefully all know by now that the reason for this is that "Off-topic" is the only part of the close reason menu where SE software allows a customizable site-specific reason.

But the newbies don't know this, some more experienced users who don't spend enough time on meta don't know about it, and some seasoned veterans want to use this less than ideal behavior of the site SW as a reason to point fingers at other users, or to press their agenda and try to get all quality standards lifted.

IMO that last point is a separate issue, and has no relation whatsoever to this feature-request. You are, of course, welcome to disagree with me, but I would like to discuss here the best way of dealing with this confusing message.

  • the affected newbies come to meta periodically, because they see the loud and clear "off-topic" and miss the whisper "missing context or other details",
  • and it is a pain in the butt inconvenient to have to explain this every couple of weeks/months.

Therefore, it cannot IMHO hurt to ask the developers, once more, if it is at all possible to move this close reason up. So I support this feature-request in the form of asking for a site-specific customizable close reason at the top level of the hierarchy.

What should we do in case the devs turn the thumb up?

In this fortunate case we should think, very closely, about how to phrase the new close reason. Missing context has, unfortunately but also inevitably, become a bit loaded as a phrase, and while it is better than many alternatives, we could also brainstorm for better versions.

What can we do in case the devs turn the thumb down?

If the devs don't see such a feature-request as feasible, it is their call to make, and we need to cope with the situation. It is IMHO all fine to make those confused newbies to RTFM (calling that newbie-biting is IMO misguided), but we should then make sure that TFM is up to date:

  • Should we explain this in detail on the How to ask -page? If so, at what level of detail so that the explanation actually helps the newbie without drowning them into a history of site politics.
  • Should we add/design a few comment templates? This would be to help, not the newbies, but those users, who wish to mentor a newbie asker of a question the mentor wishes to rescue.
  • Do observe that similar updates will probably be beneficial regardless of the fate of this feature-request.

I am actually relatively fine with the current state of affairs. It would be more convenient not to have to repeatedly explain that Off-topic -> missing context simply means missing context, but this is not absolutely necessary because, IMHO,

  • The newbies should RTFM regardless.
  • The workflow of educating a newbie in comments is suitably arduous, for the mentor and the newbie alike. If a mentor-on-duty is interested in a question they can take charge. Otherwise the HW dumpers and rep farming HW solvers are slowed down to my satisfaction.
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    $\begingroup$ i knew In My Humble Opinion, I think the other is Read The 'ing Manual. In case it ever comes up, Asaf is wonderful at making up fanciful phrases to go with such abbreviations, if that is the correct word. $\endgroup$
    – Will Jagy
    Jun 19, 2017 at 21:38
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    $\begingroup$ That's correct @Will. Further, SW is software while then oddly HW is home work, and not hard ware. Terrible choice of notation it needs to be said. :-) (SE is left as exercise.) $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Jun 19, 2017 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry about that @Will. I caught the acronym bug when interfacing with engineers. Anyway, quid got all of them right :-) $\endgroup$ Jun 20, 2017 at 5:34
  • $\begingroup$ Historically, if I remember this factoid correctly, "thumb up" meant kill and "thumb down" meant live. Also, @Will, I'll take that as a compliment. :) $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Jun 20, 2017 at 7:09
  • $\begingroup$ That was the word, acronym. There are more now on account of texting. I mostly see them just in crossword puzzles. However, no need to avoid acronyms on my account, there are online dictionaries of them, I had forgotten about those urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=RTFM $\endgroup$
    – Will Jagy
    Jun 20, 2017 at 16:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Asaf, you probably don't remember, years ago (maybe by email) i asked about some acronym, you provided several interesting interpretations of the letters, pretty funny. I can't seem to find it now. $\endgroup$
    – Will Jagy
    Jun 20, 2017 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ @WillJagy: Repeat The Funny Mantra? More seriously, Jryki, I do not think it's necessary to change the current classification (even though less clicks would be easier), because the close banner currently makes it very clear how to improve the question with a direct link to the how-to-ask page. Anyone who bothers to read it would then know what "off-topic" includes. But if there is a top-level close reason, I think "no research effort" (one of the reasons already in the downvote button tooltip) is a good short version, since it is often the case. $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Aug 7, 2018 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ @user21820 Partly I decided to "humor" Michael Hardy here. I didn't expect it to come to pass, but why not :-) $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2018 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ Just curious, are you no longer a moderator because, as I observed, you were unfairly pushing your "missing context" will as a moderator, or was it just no time, etc.? $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2018 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ @MattSamuel I resigned because I was powerless to stop the upvotes to gimusi (and other homework machines like him). I didn't want to be an "enabler" for things like that. As a regular user I can vote to delete those posts "freely" without worries. If I had kept the diamond, I would have used the moderator powers "unilaterally" at some point, as Bill Dubuque is fond of phrasing it. $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2018 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ So, no, I didn't do anything unfair. I just couldn't stand the direction the site is heading. Many others would have wanted me to continue (and use those unilateral powers). There were also personal reasons, but I don't want to talk about those. $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2018 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Jyrki I could've been seen as a homework machine at one point, it just wasn't for calculus questions, so less noticeable. I don't believe that problem statement questions are an issue, and i would get 200 rep per day. $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2018 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ @MattSamuel For the most part you were then adding new content to the site, when it is largely ok. What I cannot stand is more precisely the combination of doing others' homework while not adding anything to the site that wasn't already there. $\endgroup$ Dec 17, 2018 at 5:03

I've downvoted this feature request because the SE system has a limited resource for changing features, and I judge this would be ineffective in "avoiding unintentional newbie-biting."

When we close a Question, for whatever reason, we are fundamentally asking users (new and old) to change a behavior. Sometimes this is accepted with grace, and other times it causes resentment. This is understandable, and something that we ideally will try to mitigate. Comments can be left, perhaps anticipating the close votes to come, suggesting improvements. However many new users will need to take time digesting the improvements requested, and there is no way for Reviewers to anticipate whether Edits and clarifications will issue.

What has been done is to change the automated messaging from "closed" to "on-hold" for a limited period of time. This is intended to convey to users that the response to shortcomings of Questions, preventing new Answers, can be temporary. Clarifications made by an OP in Comments are frequently added to the body of the Question by cooperative editors. These changes represent an intention to help rather than punish "new learners" at all levels of study.

The present feature request aims to benefit "newbies", and we are especially concerned with setting out early expectations of good practices. However we also have an ideal of judging "allowed questions" which is independent of the newness or unfamiliarity of users (or its proxy, their reputation points). So features that are aimed at new users have a built-in limitation of "value returned" on effort expended, as each user either comes to terms with our standards or loses interest.

  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps it should be mentioned that those who close things as "missing context or details" are often too extreme or pull the trigger too quickly. See my comments on that: math.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/26429/… $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2017 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ You claim "the SE system has a limited resource for changing features". Why do you believe that? $\endgroup$ Jun 19, 2017 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ Hi, @BillDubuque. I believe that from discussions on Meta.SE, where feature requests are triaged. There is a StackExchange "dev team" that implements changes partly in response to Community feedback. $\endgroup$
    – hardmath
    Jun 19, 2017 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque When studying MetaSO, in preparation of this speech, I learned more about how limited the SE resources actually are. They really don't have the (wo)man-hours to spend on working out kinks like this. Mind you, Shog9's answer is IMO the most important contribution in that thread. Underlying the need for everyone to compromise. Yours truly, the homework answering machines,..., everyone. $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2018 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ @JyrkiLahtonen Of course it is not unlimited. But this particular request seems rather trivial as far as software tweaks go. In any case the point of my prior comment was to learn about any information that hardmath might have discovered on this subject. $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2018 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill You really never know how hard a given software tweak is without knowing the internal design. $\endgroup$ Dec 17, 2018 at 11:29
  • $\begingroup$ BEGIN QUOTE "When we close a Question, for whatever reason, we are fundamentally asking users (new and old) to change a behavior." END QUOTE$${}$$That is nonsense. If you say "You should alter your behavior as follows:..." then that is asking someone to change their behavior. Closing a question should not be done in order to ask people to change their behavior; it should be done in order to get rid of questions that shouldn't be here. Anyone who does such a thing for the purpose of asking someone to alter their behavior is a boor. $\endgroup$ Nov 27, 2019 at 1:12
  • $\begingroup$ ${} \qquad \uparrow \quad\ldots$and I should add that it's not just a matter of being nice; it's a matter of being comprehensible. We should not condone the presence on this site of persons unwilling to express themselves verbally. $\endgroup$ Nov 27, 2019 at 1:14

This already exists:

unclear what you're asking: Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question.

Now, that links to this page, which is a good bit more generic than the guide linked to by the custom OT reason...

...but it doesn't have to be. Some sites (for example, Stack Overflow) have customized the How to Ask page to provide specific advice for avoiding the most common pitfalls.

If you're interested in doing that here, then open a meta discussion with a proposed wording for the page. Try to keep it reasonably short: remember, it'll most often be read by people who've just had their question closed and are looking to find out how to avoid that problem in the future.

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    $\begingroup$ This is not the suggested feature. The fact is, questions frequently get closed as "off topic" when they are clearly about mathematics, when the reason for closing is that they are phrased like homework assignments, leaving the suspicion that the poster simply copied the question from a homework assignment without understanding it. For example: "Solve this equation:...." Closing these as "unclear what you're asking" doesn't address the issue. $\endgroup$ Aug 6, 2018 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ The request was for a "Closed as missing context or other details" close reason, @Eric. That's precisely what "Unclear what you're asking" is intended to address. $\endgroup$
    – Shog9
    Aug 7, 2018 at 0:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Shog9 My reading of the feature request is that the current "Closed as missing context" close reason is a sub-reason of the over-arching top-level reason "Off-Topic," which makes newbie users feel like their perfectly on-topic questions are being closed because they are off-topic. This is confusing to newbies. The feature request is not asking for a new "missing context" close reason, but for the current "missing context" close reason to be bumped up to the top of the close reasons hierarchy. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Aug 7, 2018 at 1:13
  • $\begingroup$ Tomato / tomato, @xander. There's already a missing context close reason at the top. $\endgroup$
    – Shog9
    Aug 7, 2018 at 2:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Shog9 If I write a question that consists entirely of the sentence "What are the solutions to the equation $x^2 + 4x - 5 = 0$?", my question is perfectly clear. I have highlighted exactly what I need (a solution), and I can't imagine anyone having difficulty telling exactly what I'm asking for. The question is not unclear. On the other hand, it is definitely missing context, which is a different close reason, under the heading of "Off-Topic." While I am not necessarily in favor of the requested feature, I really don't think that your answer addresses the issue. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Aug 7, 2018 at 12:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Xander the issue is that scope and context of the question is not made clear viz. it's unclear. This came up repeatedly already (I know that there is a lot of resistance against this reading of "unclear" which is why we have the "OT, no context" to begin with, yet other sites use it just fine for this). For example, it is unclear if OP knows the quadratic formula, and this is relevant for giving an appropriate answer. Thus, the request to "highlight exactly what you need." In a way your objection is not much different from the objections of those that say there is no context missing there. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Aug 7, 2018 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ Ok. This settled :-) $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2018 at 6:17
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    $\begingroup$ @quid It may be unclear if OP knows the quadratic formula, but it is not unclear what [they]'re asking. It may be unclear how to answer appropriately, but, again, it is not unclear what is being asked. This may seem playing with words, but it is this lack of precision that can confuse the newbies. And this distinction is very evident in a mathematics website, imo. $\endgroup$
    – Aloizio Macedo Mod
    Aug 8, 2018 at 15:32
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    $\begingroup$ Starting to sound like the problem here isn't "off topic" above your custom close reason so much as the vague problem description in the close reason itself. If you want folks asking homework questions to be specific about where they're stuck, then lead with that instead of "missing context or other details"... $\endgroup$
    – Shog9
    Aug 8, 2018 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ Just to add some context (pun intended) as far as I can tell this close reason was introduced in 2013: Two announcements: new “FAQ” and new “closure rules”. Since then, there were several discussions around it. $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2018 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ @AloizioMacedo it says they should "highlight exactly what [they] need." If upon that they can only think "I exactly need the solutions" maybe they should work on their communication-skills. Of course everybody voting to close that thinks the standard text is not clear enough, could write a comment giving further details, which is good practice anyway. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Aug 8, 2018 at 22:20

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