I am puzzled by many questions being increasingly frequently closed as "off-topic", for reasons that are not immediately apparent.

Below are a couple of random examples from the past day alone. Neither is a PSQ per se, both come from posters with at least some history on MSE (i.e. not the 1-rep users who create a new account for every homework question), and both have some indication of "own thoughts".

(Disclaimer: I have an answer posted to one of those questions, but that's not the point.)

  • Integer solutions to $x^3=y^3+2y+1$?:   OP's "own thought" as posted was:

    My approach:

    I tried to factorize $x^3-y^3$ as $$(x-y)(x^2 + xy + y^2)=2y+1,$$ but I know this is completely helpless. Please help me in solving this problem.

    Quite obviously, the above doesn't lead anywhere useful, as the OP themselves "know", and that's the reason why they are asking here. By closing the question as "off-topic" MSE appears to say that "your failed attempt wasn't close enough for us to even bother". That's not nice.

  • Quartic equation and Vieta's formulas: OP's "own thought" as posted was:

    I evaluate these roots, but the formulas are too complicated and I wonder if there is a different solution. If we calculate the product, the solution is complicated too.

    Neither approach is a priori unreasonable, and both could be technically worked out (with enough calculation pains). But the question was about "a different solution", which is an entirely on-topic question for MSE. However, it got dismissed. Again, not nice.

    For context, one other user got suspicious because the question referenced $2018$, and asked about the source of the problem, which the OP did not answer timely. Then the question was flagged for review, which it passed with 3-out-of-3 "leave open" votes. Then the same user posted "Argh!!! question and answer on this post frustrate me" on CRUDE, and within 12 hours the question received the required close votes and was put on hold.

Back to the point, the MSE manifesto says that "MSE is a q&a site for people studying math at any level", and the recently discussed SO code of conduct says "offer support if you see someone struggling or otherwise in need of help". Summarily closing legitimate questions with no good reason meets neither.


[ EDIT ]   As pointed out by @JyrkiLahtonen (thank you for the answer, and sorry for my unintentional miscue)... Just like you, I missed the point that the first question was (also) marked as contest-math, which made my post sound to be about contest math, which was not my intention in the least. This should address your 1, 2, 5 and, to make this point very clear, I am all against cheating under any guises, yet closing a question just because it happens to involve the number $2018$ is a big unwarranted stretch IMHO.

There are many enough examples of other non-contest questions being closed just for being "too naive" (per my newly sanitized title) e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 etc.

The concern I meant to raise was about users who had honest questions, posted in compliance with the official MSE rules, but who found themselves dismissed with a summary "off-topic" closure for reasons that are not spelled out in the terse closure text, and virtually never justified by the closers in comments. That's essentially telling someone who came for math help to MSE that their question is "off-topic" here, without offering any good reason, explanation or actionable recourse. I don't think that's "nice", whether CoC or not, and regardless of whether you count yourself as a "librarian" or a "teacher".

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    "which the OP did not answer timely." The question was posted more than 24 hours ago, the comment requesting clarification about the source was posted more than 24 hours ago, the OP was active 12 hours ago, and yet hasn't responded to the request. Perhaps you should have said "which the OP did not answer." – Joel Reyes Noche Aug 17 at 10:37
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    In the title, you mention closing questions for being "dumb." Could you provide an example where the question was closed for being "dumb"? (In the two you linked to, I see no evidence of the questions being closed for being "dumb.") – Joel Reyes Noche Aug 17 at 10:43
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    I agree questions should usually not be summarily "closed". But they often should be summarily "put on hold". When that happens, they must be improved before being answered. – GEdgar Aug 17 at 10:47
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    Furthermore, there is no explicit evidence for the close reason of the first to be related to questions being "dumb" (as another user pointed out here), and there is a fair amount of evidence that points towards the second not being closed because it was "frustrating": it seems to me that the frustration you allude to is a result of (possibly, one of) the reason(s) for why it was closed. – Aloizio Macedo Aug 17 at 14:11
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    Seconding Aloizio's point, and thanking you to come to meta to discuss. We need more of that. After reading Shog9's reply to me venting my frustrations I did realize that our failure to communicate is what makes the chasm between (my current favorite neutral terms) the librarians and the teachers grow bigger. Personally I find it extremely frustrating that the teachers never come to meta. Bill Dubuque, to his credit, tried, but his style didn't really fertilize the ground for a compromise. – Jyrki Lahtonen Aug 17 at 15:38
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    I think that it is rather unfortunate that "context" is often interpreted as meaning "show what you tried". In your two examples, I completely agree that the asker has shown what they tried to a satisfying extent. The additional context that would improve the questions is background. Why are they interested in these questions at all? Where did they find them? – Eric Wofsey Aug 17 at 19:45
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    "Personally I find it extremely frustrating that the teachers never come to meta." @Jyrki, I think I'm in the "teachers" camp, and I come to meta all the time, but at some point I got tired of the losing battle with the "librarians", and after that mostly kept out of those arguments. – Gerry Myerson Aug 18 at 1:36
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    @GerryMyerson: I suppose I'm a "librarian". IMO, the whole chasm is precisely because the "teachers" drew a line and battled over the very premise of "library-keeping". MSE would be in a better state if teachers could cross that line and join a discussion of how library-keeping could be done better. The loudest teacher voices professing to say anything on the topic would not even agree that one question could be better for MSE to keep than another question, and so were really just "don't do library-keeping" in disguise. – Hurkyl Aug 18 at 2:41
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    Re: without offering any good reason, explanation or actionable recourse. Well, only if you do not count the big box under the question containing a link to a more detailed explanation. It was suggested that it would be better not to have this under off-topic: A feature requested for the purpose of avoiding unintentional newbie-biting. Judging by the response from a Stack Exchange employee, this is unlikely to change. – Martin Sleziak Aug 18 at 5:09
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    "I am all against cheating under any guises, yet closing a question just because it happens to involve the number 2018 is a big unwarranted stretch IMHO." Why do you condone that the poster continues to refuse to disclose any information regarding the source of the problem? This continued refusal is the source of the issue with the question. (Why not focus on this?) This is also the problem with several other problems your mentioned (I did not yet check all), The thing is not that the are "too naive" but that they lack any motivation and look a bit random. – quid Aug 18 at 13:05
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    "OP decided to troll the asker by simply not responding." So you condone that? – quid Aug 18 at 18:29
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    "No, but I also do not condone frustration escalating into retribution." That's a misunderstanding. The question lacks context, thus it is put on hold. The commenter informed OP what they can do to fix the question; as you requested. If this is ignored, the question will be removed. That's it. – quid Aug 18 at 18:40
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    My sense overall is that these questions likely have been put on hold because the posts are not written with very high quality, not because the level of the mathematics is too low. A high-quality post will include motivation and background, and explain the appearance of seemingly arbitrary constants such as 2018. A post that merely states a problem can be of quite low quality for this site, even if the mathematics is not trivial (e.g. math.stackexchange.com/questions/2886961/… ). – Carl Mummert Aug 18 at 20:30
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    In all these scenarios I am always amazed at the total lack of response from original asker once the question is put on-hold (and perhaps closed later) and someone else has to fight for their cause like a crusader. Why can't the asker at least come forward and present his case? – Paramanand Singh Aug 19 at 20:32
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    @Jyrki: I don't think I like the "librarian" vs "teacher" terminology as a proxy for a position on moderation standards. While I think I am a librarian as you mean the term, I would identify more as a teacher by the conventional meaning. My position on quality standards is primarily driven to by the need to clear away the people who would use MSE for "solutions manual on demand" so that the site better attracts people who come to learn and that I can find their questions to teach them. – Hurkyl Aug 21 at 12:56

This is a difficult issue, but I basically disagree with your conclusions in these two cases. Sporadic thoughts:

  1. I didn't vote to put either of those questions on hold even though I saw them in the queue. I was following my private policy of keeping non-trivial questions open. If I had noticed that the first had a tag, I would have voted to put it on hold. Similarly about the second, I moved too fast. More below.
  2. If someone posts a contest problem, they MUST provide a link to the source (more often than not the homepage of the contest). We have a strict policy to delete questions from on-going contests. It behooves the asker to prove that the question is from an old contest. If I had voted on your first example question I would have left a comment telling exactly that. IMO the goals of the "be nice" -policy do not enter the equation here at all. We have a firm per site policy to act against all attempts at cheating in a contest.
  3. The question about the zeros of a quartic is IMHO borderline. It is certainly lacking in context. The asker should have described the origin of the question (this is always the case when they cannot present partial effort). Otherwise the answerers are fumbling in the dark, guessing what tools can be used. With misgivings I decided not to vote to put that on hold, but 1) it could still actually be from a contest (the theme recurs in rapid fire contests), 2) it does not describe where the asker encountered the problem, so the level is unclear, 3) OTOH they did explain their attempt to use Vieta relations.
  4. The Code of Conduct also says that If you’re here to get help, make it as easy as possible for others to help you. Furthermore, it also says Be open when receiving feedback. Neither asker quite met the first goal. This is, of course, not an excuse not to leave feedback, see the next bullet.
  5. Observe that one of the voters specifically asked the asker of the latter question about the origin of the question, and raised the reasonable concern that the appearance of the number $2018$ leaves a reasonable doubt that the question might be from an on-going contest. So they left feedback, all in accordance with the "be nice" -policy. Also observe that the asker failed to respond to this. I cannot shake the feeling that the asker, having gotten their answer, merrily copy/pasted the solution, and we will not hear from them again. I sincerely hope I'm wrong. The striked sentence is a bit off the mark given that I recently learned that the asker cannot respond because they are serving a suspension. I'm not sure what that says about their motives for this particular question?
  6. So, the Code of Conduct does not grant the askers an open license to ignore all the quality constraints imposed by Math.SE. If you want to discuss/abolish/refine any given quality requirement, you should discuss the policy. Pointing fingers at users who try to uphold those standards is, frankly, a cheap shot. Looks like you are trying to use CoC as a hammer to make it more difficult to enforce the agreed upon standards rather than discussing those standards directly. I hope I'm wrong about this as well.
  7. Namely, the users keen to maintain the content standards are under a lot of pressure. The dupe/LQ asking/answering is running rampant and the site is ill. The moderators discussed this in the Spring. I supported the idea to cut them some slack because without their work anarchy would prevail. They simply don't always have the time to leave more precise comments. You can take positive action and explain an asker what they should do. I frequently point them to our guide for new askers. Why don't you join in this effort!
  8. I am somewhat unhappy with the current formulation of the CoC. For it does nothing to address the answerers. Many users in Meta.Stackexchange have expressed this concern. My query got a lot of positive attention, also answers providing some perspective. As the SE people said, this document is supposed to evolve, so I'm not overly concerned, yet. Also see this, this, this for other concerns.

The eager beaver answerers (you see, I am being nice and not using the retired term to describe them) also need to do their part in restoring harmony. The excuse I'm here just to help does not wash unless you do your part in cleaning up. Because Your Mommy doesn't work here! A compromise or a war? Which is it gonna be?


Addendum of more sporadic thoughts (in response to the list added to the question):

  • Most of those question were missing context at the time of the closure. Indeed, it seems clear to me that you have not internalized that Off-topic -> Missing context is just a shorthand for Missing context. This was thoroughly explained in one of the threads you linked to in a comment, and it is also explained in "the on hold message" (provided that you are willing to read past "off-topic").
  • Consequently those closures seem totally unrelated to the "be nice" -policy.
  • Personally I would not have voted to close some of them. Some of those contest math questions seemed borderline ok, but the voters who judge contest questions by the same standards as other questions have a point. I'm not in that group of librarians, but I understand their thinking and find it very much defensible. I would not have voted to put the question about Levy processes on hold simply because I don't understand the math, and cannot tell whether sufficient context is provided. But, I vote against keeping any calculus question on any excuse simply because we have plenty of near duplicates, and the calculus answerers, by and large, have a very poor track record in searching (this may be just me, let's not base a site policy on my peeves, please).
  • The way the war on content quality is raging has, unfortunately but also inevitably, caused several users to dig themselves into a deep trench. Some answering machines exhibit a total disregard of all quality requirements. I confess to being a bit trigger-happy when certain names appear under answers to questionable questions. It is difficult to tell how much of a role this plays. When no amount of pleading or explaining stops these people, I don't have a choice but to seek and remove those contributions from the site any which way I can. Making it necessary to vote to close the threads in all borderline cases, downvote, and later vote to delete. IF ONLY TO BRING THEM AND THEIR SUPPORTERS TO META TO TALK THIS OVER!! I didn't start this war.
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    I don't know what the term is you are retiring and not using anymore, but "ego point hunters" appears in your answer, and I would suggest to replace it as well. – Andrés E. Caicedo Aug 17 at 16:11
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    @SantanaAfton there you go – user99914 Aug 17 at 18:26
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    What your post states now needs no backing down from. I was referring in my comment to this edited version (though I have to admit, I didn't see much wrong, at all, with the first version). – amWhy Aug 17 at 18:29
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    @dxiv: It is in my opinion extremely telling that the asker kept silent after being asked repeatedly where the problem came from. Based on that, it is not presuming guilt until innocence proven, but rather closing the question temporarily until the asker provides assurance that it is not a cheating attempt. – user21820 Aug 18 at 4:49
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    @dxiv If that asker is innocent they can provide the source, and then we are left with an interesting question and no worries. If they refuse.... The agreed upon standards refers to this. – Jyrki Lahtonen Aug 18 at 5:12
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    @amWhy a question that smells like a rant "He who lives in a glass house shall not throw stones". If you found anything factually incorrect in my post, then by all means point that out. Otherwise, please refrain from pointless innuendo. – dxiv Aug 18 at 5:18
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    @dxiv: Your claims about me are your own opinion, of course. That doesn't change the fact that you answered the question, and hence it is difficult to believe you can be 100% objective about it. Also, you are making a serious mistake by bringing up culture. In some cultures, many people consider cheating to be their right. (See here and here!) – user21820 Aug 18 at 6:30
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    @dxiv: You claimed that I cast a "guilty until proved innocent" doubt on the OP. That claim is merely your opinion, not necessarily the truth (and from my point of view your claim is false). It is difficult to believe you can be 100% objective in assessing whether the question is suitable for the site and what is the best way to deal with it. – user21820 Aug 18 at 6:37
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    @dxiv This is not a criminal court, so guilty until proven innocent is not really a relevant principle. IMO it is closer to having a play reviewed by video officials in a football game (American or Association). The game is temporarily halted (the question on hold as opposed to closed), the rulebook is consulted, a call is made, the game goes on. What is wrong with that? – Jyrki Lahtonen Aug 18 at 7:07
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    @dxiv: I don't know whether you actually have problems understanding what I wrote, but there is absolutely no way you can say that what I wrote (that you quoted above) logically implies that I presumed guilt. (I didn't presume guilt. Neither did I presume innocence.) Do not put words into my mouth, period. – user21820 Aug 18 at 7:08
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    What's more. Here the spectators can overrule the ref after they made their call. That wouldn't work in football, but we do it here. Take an active role! If you see votes to put on hold a question you like, you can try and help the asker. I do that often in such a case (with varying degrees of success). – Jyrki Lahtonen Aug 18 at 7:24
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    In terms of "guilty until proven innocent" - in my experience as a mathematician, the reason that a constant such as 2018 appears in a problem is usually that the problem was given in a contest, exam, or homework that was given in 2018. In general, the appearance of arbitrary constants in mathematical theorems is not so common, and when they do appear the reason for the choice of constant can be explained. This is a collaborative site, which fundamentally entails a certain amount of discussion - an OP who declines to engage in ordinary mathematical discussion is misusing the site. – Carl Mummert Aug 18 at 20:34
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    @MartinArgerami You do realize that I only refer to the first sample as being from a contest, and suspect the same from the second. In my third point I say "It could still actually be from a contest..." amWhy never edited the first sample, so I don't see your point. Anyway, I do highly suspect the second one to also be from a contest. There are several earmarks. Also the asker has had ample opportunities to set thing straight now, but never bothered. Read the comments by quid and Carl Mummert. – Jyrki Lahtonen Aug 19 at 21:34
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    @MartinArgerami I am not using that tag to draw any conclusions. I have been semi-actively involved in organizing contests. Let me just state that it walks like a duck and talks like a duck. – Jyrki Lahtonen Aug 19 at 21:36
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    @dxiv So, to summarize, I don't like the fact that you had to fight this alone in meta. But I cannot place the blame on anyone else other than the non-participants. Even though I understand to some extent why they are feeling reluctant to join in. – Jyrki Lahtonen Aug 23 at 5:26

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