The custom off topic close reason is very rarely applied for the reason that the words actually say and is basically used as a catch-all close reason, even when something like "unclear what you're asking" would be more appropriate. The way it is used, it ceases to have meaning.

It seems to me one of the primary reasons people have for closing is lack of research effort, and I propose adding this as a custom reason so the close votes actually give some idea of the intention of the close voter. As it stands, virtually every close vote is the custom reason that isn't a duplicate, and it basically just throws the purpose of giving a reason at all out the window.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Related to "off-topic" being too broad. (Pun not intended.) $\endgroup$
    – Lord_Farin
    Feb 10, 2019 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ Does the setup allow writing a custom message? (As with rejecting an edit, where you can give specific feedback if you want.) $\endgroup$
    – timtfj
    Feb 10, 2019 at 12:42
  • $\begingroup$ @tim It does on the website (not on the app), but I don't often see it. $\endgroup$ Feb 10, 2019 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ Stackexchange doesn't attempt to avoid duplication with the rest of the internet, and I'm glad that it doesn't, because often I find the explanations on stackexchange sites to be far more clear than elsewhere. If it's a good question and it hasn't already been answered on math.stackexchange, I think we should embrace it, even if the answer could be found elsewhere. (The answer to almost any question could be found elsewhere with a sufficient research effort, but often there are people on stackexchange sites who can make the topic seem easy or obvious.) $\endgroup$
    – littleO
    Feb 13, 2019 at 17:31
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    $\begingroup$ "off topic" is one of the weirdest things on MSE. $\endgroup$
    – zhw.
    Feb 22, 2019 at 2:18
  • $\begingroup$ Just to add to my comment: Here is a question that was judged as "off topic":math.stackexchange.com/questions/3123369/… $\,\,$ What is "off topic" about this question? The tags are real analysis and contest math. A judgement of "not enough information included" would be a better description. $\endgroup$
    – zhw.
    Feb 23, 2019 at 19:24

2 Answers 2


Complementing Alexander's answer, a close reason of "lack of research effort" is, in my opinion, intrinsically bad for multiple reasons: it is impossible to ascertain how much research effort there was, "effort" is not a cop out for a poor question, it often gets dragged down to debates about how often students have "no clue on where to start" etc. If anything, "effort" is frequently a red herring or simply a compromise for allowing bad questions to stay.

It seems to me one of the primary reasons people have for closing is lack of research effort (...)

I'd contest that. I realize that a lot of people that close a lot of questions may even agree with you about it, but I don't think this is true. If a question such as:

calculate derivative of 1/x. Please help.

was attached with an eight-hour long video of OP studying Stewart's Calculus book, the question would also be closed. What matters most for people is that the question, as written, is not relevant to the community. And this is explicitly said in the close reason. Of course, it has a personal undertone, as does any kind of intellectual quality curation. But the solutions for that are rather objective and are also within the close reason itself, and it seems fair to say that the overwhelming majority of questions which follow those guidelines are welcome here and left untouched by closure.

It also seems to me that "[please, show the] background and motivation, relevant definitions, source, possible strategies, your current progress, why the question is interesting or important, etc." is much clearer and objective than "please, show research effort" or variations of that. A new user of the site, when confronted with the later, may simply respond by saying "I tried using the definition, but then got stuck" or variations of that. Indeed, this has happened multiple times. The phrasing of the close reason makes it so that what may be important about effort (namely, the background, possible strategies etc) are spelled out explicitly.


"No context" does function as a bit of a catch-all, and certainly 90% of the time, it is applied to "do my homework!" PSQs. However, there are several reasons it is stated like it is.

  1. Its "forms of context" list suggests ways that a question can be improved. For a user acting in good faith who happens to have asked a bad question, "lack of research effort" (or similar wording) is not as constructive. For users not acting in good faith, it is obvious why the question is closed anyway.

  2. At this time, MSE only has 3 custom close reasons. Certainly, one of these must go to "not about mathematics," so really there are only two. Under these limits, real estate is important, so even though "lack of research" may be more precise for some questions, the same questions can still be closed under "no context", and the broader definition allows the closure of other problematic questions that would not fit under the "lack of research" umbrella.

  3. If I got to choose one message to show passing visitors about what type of question is acceptable on MSE, this would be it. I like that many closed questions have this text below it. I hope that it shows up enough that new users can't avoid seeing it. I'd put it on billboards if I could.

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    $\begingroup$ We can do a Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri kind of thing. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Feb 10, 2019 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila "STILL NO ARRESTS?", "HOW COME CHIEFWILLOUGHBY?", followed by "This question is missing context or other details" $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2019 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Omnomnomnom: Very good. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Feb 14, 2019 at 19:51

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