As I'm sure we're all aware, answering a low quality/low effort question that, according to the community standards, ought to be closed, is frowned upon. Reasons cited tend to include

  1. It encourages further low quality participation when answers are provided for so little effort,
  2. It makes the questions harder to delete when the question has positively-scored answers,
  3. Answering such questions is unseemly; it's considered Rep-Farming.

The people doing the frowning tend to be the caretakers of the site, who see maintenance and curation of a collection of quality mathematics questions as the primary function of the site, and who contribute their time in order to keep this goal of MSE alive.

I mean no disrespect to such people, and I have no wish to interfere with their goals, but my primary joy on MSE is helping the individual users. (I am trying to do the review queues more often, but it will never be what keeps me coming back.)

Sometimes this involves helping people who have not put effort into their question, whose questions are not sufficiently objective or clear, or sometimes, people who are just not confident enough to venture any of their thoughts because they are too anxious about their own mathematical abilities.

Since I don't want to make more work for the caretakers, I'm thinking about adopting a policy of answering select low-quality questions with a community wiki answer. The questions which I answer would be up to how generous I'm feeling, and conditional on whether I really believed that they were having serious troubles that they struggle to articulate properly.

I have two examples here and here. The former has no context or effort demonstrated, but the user themselves seems to have a history of asking good questions, and I figured that not putting an attempt was probably some measure of dispair. The latter is a poorly-formed question, which I elected not to vote closed, since I think it is just clear enough, but I suspected people would want to close and delete.

As I understand, making the questions community wiki solves problems 2 and 3, but does nothing for 1. Although, bear in mind that I wouldn't do this for most low-quality questions that come my way, only the ones that meet my internal criteria. My questions are:

Do you agree that this is a good compromise? How do the caretakers feel about this?

Are there any other unfortunate side-effects to this that I haven't mentioned?

Edit: As this discussion is still getting some traffic, let me amend slightly. As Quid points out in the comments below, this does not help option 2 at all, which means the idea of answering using Community Wiki is completely without merit (except that it protects me from accusations of Rep-Farming).

With that in mind, what would be good to know is if there is a better compromise. Is there a way for willing answerers to help the people who, for whatever reason, can't write a good question, while having a minimal impact on the caretakers?

  • $\begingroup$ Actually, I have one thought regarding the second question: a poor-quality question that's been answered is less likely to be fixed in an edit and become a question worth keeping. It might be good to try answering questions that look like they cannot be salvaged, or which the asker appears unable to bring up to code. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 6:25
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for opening this thread. There are several points of contact with what I have been thinking. I will try and collect my thoughts in an answer. Unfortunately I will be extra busy for a few days, so it will have to wait. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 6:41
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you @Jyrki. I was hoping you might respond. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure what you mean when you say that it solves problem 2. It seems like a misconception to me but then maybe it is I that failed to see the point. (The only thing I could think of is that it makes downvoting 'free' but that's not really all that much of an advantage.) $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 8:57
  • $\begingroup$ @quid I thought that it was harder for the community to close questions with positive scores, unless they are community wiki answers? I don't have a source for that, but I thought I saw that somewhere on meta at some point. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 8:58
  • $\begingroup$ That's true except for the "unless they are community wiki answers", which is crucial in this context. $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 8:59
  • $\begingroup$ @quid Ah. So there's no merit in this idea, except for the dodging of the relatively trivial issue 3? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ As far as I can tell, yes. $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 9:02
  • $\begingroup$ I think the discussion could still have merit. Briefly, a way to help users is also to help them improve their questions. $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 9:04
  • $\begingroup$ @quid That seems to be the popular opinion, but I'm not convinced that this approach will help everyone (or possibly even most people). I think many students need help first, then confidence, then they can start participating properly in a community like this. Our guidelines try to make student's questions into questions we prefer to answer: well-researched, unambiguous questions from bright, engaged students. I would like to use this site to help the others as well, from time to time (even though there's a limit to what we can do over the internet). $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 9:11
  • $\begingroup$ @quid Can anyone delete a community wiki answer? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ Rules for deletion of CW post are the same as for all posts. Maybe I forget some corner case, but at least by and large it's certainly like this. (Only editing of CW posts is easier.) $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 9:23
  • $\begingroup$ Actually there is one easy way to answer LQ questions while ensuring the OP spend effort: provide a well-written hint! $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 2:05
  • $\begingroup$ @YuiToCheng And I will. But, even giving hint answers doesn't at all address points 2 and 3, and doesn't address point 1 in many cases (if the hints are helpful, they are still getting the help without putting the effort into writing a good question). I primarily see benefit in withholding an answer to a poor question and giving a hint instead if it is important to you that only people you deem deserving receive your help. This is not of site-wide importance, and is instead a personal preference (and it's not my personal preference). $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 5:10
  • $\begingroup$ @YuiToCheng Also, hint answers are not always appropriate. In the two examples cited, hints would not work. The first example was of someone who really needed help from beginning to end. They didn't just need ideas, they needed to see how to come up with ideas, how to put them together, and how to present the final product. I know the confusion when studying limits, from myself, and my students over the years! The second example was a poorly-formed question that was about as well-formed as the asker could make it (without knowing the answer). A hint would just not have worked. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 5:13

2 Answers 2


I think your CW approach is especially attractive in the second linked Question, "What is the determinant of infinity?", where you must explain to the OP that the problem is not sensible.

The first Question, closed (on-hold) for lack of context, is sensible and can be answered well despite the OP's failure to show work or other evidence of thinking about the problem for themselves. It would be alright to mark an Answer as Community Wiki, although I think any good solution is potentially worth the effort of writing it up. In the event the OP never improves the Question, then I'm okay with the outcome being an upvoted Answer on a downvoted Question. (There is a gold badge for extreme cases of this.)

The second Question doesn't really admit a solution, because it is nonsense from a rigorous viewpoint. But we are trying to help rather than punish those who wander in confusion. The effort to put the OP on a good track is in this spirit. It takes up more space than a Comment allows, so for this reason posting it as a CW Answer is (IMHO) justified.


You say your "primary joy on MSE is helping the individual users."

But I would challenge you to ask yourself who you are really helping by giving fully worked answers to low quality questions, where the poster has not put any work into understanding or solving the problem.

Also, what is the gain to posting the answer to these questions with a Community Wiki answer? The only problem this solves, as far as I can tell, is that it protects you against accusations of rep-farming. But it still

  1. Encourages low quality participation in the site
  2. Makes low-quality questions that would ideally be deleted harder to delete
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    $\begingroup$ I feel like you haven't properly read the question. I want to help only certain people with their problems. People who don't have enough of a grasp of the topic to ask a question that meets the standards of this site, and people who have struggled with the problem at hand, but don't have the knowledge/confidence/progress to ask a question that meets the standards of this site. I challenge you in response to prove that users who cannot or do not write questions that are up to code necessarily have put no work into understanding or solving their problems, which appears to be your assumption. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ Obviously, the latter group don't put a whole lot of evidence of effort into their questions, so there has to be some kind of intuition on my part that the lack of evidence is a product of despair instead of a lack of effort. I might accidentally help some people who are not "deserving", but I'm totally cool with this, if it means I do help people who are deserving and actually need the help. Maths anxiety is a real, debilitating thing, and if we start turning people away over snap judgements about their worthiness, we just reinforce the notion that they are inevitable failures at maths. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ @TheoBendit In other words, you are using your own judgement to decide that some of these questions without much context are not low-quality; I consider that fine, and don't see the need to make your answers CW. We obviously all have our own opinion on what makes a question low-quality, I don't think you should feel guilty that some people want to try to close questions that you think are deserving of an answer. (of the two examples you linked, I would not have voted to close them) $\endgroup$
    – xxxxxxxxx
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 0:31
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your comment. I always saw low-quality questions as a function of the questions, not the people asking them. Questions that are unclear, that do not lend themselves to definitive answers, that are prone to generate debate or controversy, that can be answered in a variety of ways depending on the (unknown) level of knowledge of the asker, that ramble and ask too many questions at once, etc. There are well-defined standards for this site, which are sensible for curating a good collection of Q&As, but slightly incompatible with my philosophy of helping people who are very stuck. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 1:22
  • $\begingroup$ For the sake of completeness, here's another meta discussion of mine on this topic. Unfortunately, you won't be able to read the question or answer that the meta post links to, until you get a little more rep. :-) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 1:30
  • $\begingroup$ @xxxxxxxxx Well, I have a testimony, here math.stackexchange.com/questions/4251596/… I do not know Theo Bendit, but I am a fan of him. I have a big low-quality question that the community decided to delete and if you could see that his answer for me was amazing, you would agree. It happened when I was very sick, I couldn't try harder at that time, but I achieved my aim, thanks (in particular, to Theo, who was one of many people who helped me). My eternal Thanks to him, and whoever else helped me. $\endgroup$
    – Silvinha
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 20:38

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