I am unsure on the etiquette of asking questions directly related to my PhD on Stack Exchange -- to be specific, I'm doing a discrete probability maths PhD.

There are sometimes small technical questions that I'd like to ask. These aren't about the general idea of how to solve my problem. For example, to those who know the area, the following is an example.

It's well known that the supercritical Erdos-Renyi graph has a giant component with probability $1 - o(1)$. Proofs that I've seen in textbooks always just show probability $o(1)$; an inspection of the proof often increases this to, say $o(n^{-1/2})$. However, I wanted $o(n^{-2})$; no book that I found showed this. I also wanted to know similar statistics about the graph with this very high probability. As it turns out, I was able to show super-polynomial decay ($o(n^{-k})$ for all $k$), but this (along with some other similar results) took a fair amount of time and effort.

Now, my PhD isn't about the structure of the ER graph, but just needed to use this result -- and moreover this result isn't particularly 'interesting'; it's just a technical result that I'll have to include. I expect that the result was already known, but neither I nor my supervisor were able to find any references. So my question is this.

Would it have been acceptable for me to ask on SE, and then reference this? Even if so, would this look bad to be referencing and asking others about seemingly straightforward results? (I certainly don't want to get into any plagiarism territory!!)

Any advice would be appreciated! (as would any better tags...)

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    $\begingroup$ Also, there is another site in the network called mathoverflow which targets math researchers. Their help centre says "MathOverflow's primary goal is for users to ask and answer research level math questions, the sorts of questions you come across when you're writing or reading articles or graduate level books. Of course, individual questions don't have to be worthy of an article, and they don't have to be about new mathematics. A typical example is, 'Can this hypothesis in that theorem be relaxed in this way?'" $\endgroup$
    – Sera Gunn
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 12:31
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    $\begingroup$ What about asking your tutor for her opinion and advice? $\endgroup$
    – Did
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ @TrevorGunn I have used MO before, but I'd only seen the "ask and answer research level maths questions" bit. I guess my question applies equally for MO as maths.SE. I agree with your sentiment though: MO is more relevant. $\endgroup$
    – Sam OT
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Did I will ask her, but she is just one person, and I was hoping for a few people to chip in, see varying opinions :) $\endgroup$
    – Sam OT
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 13:48
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    $\begingroup$ She may be "just one person" but she is THE one person you should turn to. $\endgroup$
    – Did
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 19:34
  • $\begingroup$ Relevant? I think there are similar discussions on MO.meta . $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Did and indeed I will :) -- she's on holiday at the moment, however, and I wanted other input also, so I asked here too :) $\endgroup$
    – Sam OT
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithMcClary thanks for that :) $\endgroup$
    – Sam OT
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 8:32

2 Answers 2


Yes, asking for a reference for a particular result is often OK. Then cite that reference when you use it. My opinion: you would not also need to cite math.se for providing the reference. Similarly, if you used MathSciNet to find a paper you use, you do not need to cite MathSciNet for that, only the paper itself.

On the other hand, if you ask about a result, and you get on math.se a proof of it, and not a reference, then you should cite that answer in math.se

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    $\begingroup$ What one can do, if one asks for references quite often, is add an acknowledgement to the community, or specific users that were very helpful. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your suggestions. So do you think it wouldn't look bad to be referencing such things? $\endgroup$
    – Sam OT
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 13:48

Here's a question and answer on mathoverflow.meta about how to encourage student users on that site: https://meta.mathoverflow.net/questions/2105/encouraging-student-users

It's perfectly fine if the question ends up being an easy question outside your areas of expertise.

Asking good MO questions is a skill in itself. Probably worth trying, after reading the advice there about how to ask good questions.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks very much :) -- the thing is, it is my area of expertise, in a way really. It's just often a technical result in that area; often this result is just about doing a fairly simple thing the right way. (I realise this is often the case with problems in general, but these are particularly simple things... just the right simple thing!) The answer is also potentially already known, just not that well-known (since it's not interesting). \\ Do you think that still falls in the class you're talking about? $\endgroup$
    – Sam OT
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 7:54
  • $\begingroup$ In my experience, in the act of formulating a question, I sometimes work out the answer for myself, and sometimes I don't. Levels of expertise are relative! $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 10:22
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I've written a few questions then discarded them by that reasoning! However, these are simple to formulate questions. Anyway, thanks for your advice! :) $\endgroup$
    – Sam OT
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 16:20

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