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Math SE has a long-standing policy regarding what constitutes a Good Question. The policy is intended to ensure that the collection of questions and answers here is of high quality, is searchable, and is generally of use as a long-lasting reference.

Historically, we have tried to deal with low-quality questions by closing them and encouraging the asker to add appropriate details and context. Unfortunately, it often takes longer to close a question than it does for one or more users to rapidly post an answer. In addition to making it more difficult to clean up low-quality questions, these kinds of answers reward users for their low-quality contributions, and encourage further low-quality contributions in the future. While these answers might help the individual asker, they are not good for the site as a whole.

Strictly speaking, such answers are already in violation of Math SE's policies regarding quality, but enforcement of this policy by the moderators has been relatively lax—we typically prefer to remain more hands off, and let the community moderate itself. However, this problem has grown, and it seems that the laissez-faire approach is not working.

In order to address this dynamic, we will be taking a more active role in moderating the actions of users who post a large number of moderate- to low-quality answers in response to low-quality and/or duplicate questions. Our goal is to do this in a fair and transparent manner. If we find that a user has a tendency to make low-quality contributions, i.e. if we discover that a user answers a lot of "problem statement questions" with hastily written answers, we will warn that user via private message before we take any further action.

We recognize that this looks like a shift in policy, and that some folk may be a little worried. Let me again emphasize that it has always been against Math SE policy to answer low-quality questions, and that our increased enforcement is not a change in policy, only a change in procedure. Let me also reassure all of you that we are not looking to punish anybody, and that we have no intention of sanctioning anyone without first trying to discuss the issue with them.

We would like to ask that the community help us to spread the word regarding our stepped-up enforcement of this long-standing policy. We would also like to ask that the community help us to maintain quality standards. You can help by taking the following concrete actions:

Encourage New Users to Improve Their Posts

If you encounter a low-quality question, don't answer it immediately. Instead, direct the user to the meta post How to Ask a Good Question. Help them to understand what the standards are on this site, and consider offering advice on how they might improve their question. Make it clear that there are expectations for participation in this community, but always remain polite.

Search for Duplicates

Many of the low-quality questions which appear on this site have been answered before, or are a minor variation of some question which has been answered before. Take a few minutes to search for potential duplicate questions and, if you find a good candidate, flag the question as a duplicate. If your search fails but it seems likely that the question is a duplicate then please delay answering until others have had the chance to search. This will help to organize the database, and should help the asker find the answer they need. If you find the answers to the duplicate target to be lacking, please feel free to add a new answer to the older question, rather than answering the newer duplicate.

In addition to the built-in searchbar (which has some more powerful options), you may also want to consider using the advice given in the question How to search on this site?. The math-aware search engine approach0 may also be useful.

Spread the Word

If you encounter users answering low-quality questions, please don't argue or fight with them. Politely direct them to this post, and move on. Only a small fraction of the user-base actively engages with meta, and so it is quite likely that many of these users don't even know that they are violating site policy, or that there has been an on-going debate regarding those policies.

Keep interactions Civil

Please keep all interactions on Math SE civil.

When engaging with users (old or new) who have posted (or answered) a low-quality question, remember to remain polite and courteous. Please do not issue unpleasant orders or leave judgemental comments: we will not tolerate rudeness, even when in the context of a honest attempt to improve the quality of the site. Please do not engage in long back-and-forths with other users. If a gentle, polite comment does not change someone's mind, please leave a flag and walk away.

Raise Flags

If you encounter a user who consistently answers low-quality (or duplicate) questions over a significant period of time, and polite references to this post do not seem to be helping, please raise a flag on one of their answers. Use the "in need of moderator intervention" option and let us know what is happening. Again, please do not argue with them about the quality of their contributions, nor downvote their answers in a targeted manner. Raise a flag, and move on.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander Gruber Mod
    Apr 29 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ The fourth paragraph implies the policy concerns "low quality and/or duplicate questions" but the final paragraph only mentions "low quality", not duplicate. It would be a good idea to update the final paragraph to make it crystal clear that the policy applies to duplicates too. $\endgroup$ May 14 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque This procedure really is aimed at low-quality questions. If a question is of high quality but happens to be a duplicate, there is less of a problem if someone answers the question. Duplication is not necessarily bad, and a high-quality duplicate with an answer can later be closed as a duplicate. What is more concerning is users who repeatedly answer low-quality questions (which are likely to be duplicates, anyway). $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    May 15 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Xander That is the worst news I've heard in many years. The problem is that almost always the answers too are duplicates, and often (much) lower quality than the canonical answers. It is very puzzling that you seem to wish to place more emphasis on the quality of the question rather than that of the answers - since it is the latter that comprise the true value of the site. If this is true then I will probably eventually give up the fight against rampant duplication since it is a losing battle without mod support. $\endgroup$ May 15 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque we are all against rampant duplication. The point is, good duplicate questions are somewhat rare anyway. Let's keep it simple and focus on the clear-cut cases. If you signal somebody that answers many, many duplicates I'll also do something about it. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    May 15 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ @quid I'll let you know about this, thanks. I understand that the focus of the post is probably on the low-quality answerers, but in the elementary tags, duplication is an issue as well. I cannot touch questions in elementary tags with a rod (nowadays) unless I've gone through the whole "Google, Approach0, SearchOnMath, Bill's duplicates pages" list, and most of the time the questions turn out to be duplicates. I can't communicate openly, of course, so I'll flag and alert you to this more specifically from now, especially if I see any markers of this behaviour. $\endgroup$ May 16 at 5:18
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    $\begingroup$ I am siding with Bill Dubuque here in the sense that in my opinion rampant answering of duplicates is as bad as answering a lot of PSQs. $\endgroup$ May 19 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill Dubuque I do see and agree with much of this, but I really do believe there is a point in going too far in being concerned about this here. At this point after all these years really almost everything is a duplicate. For example, $x^{49} \equiv_{17} 4$ is solved exactly the same way as $x^{141}\equiv_{11} 3$, but the person asking the question may not see that yet, and it often is much easier and less cumbersome for everyone involved to just answer the question. $\endgroup$
    – Mike
    May 23 at 5:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Mike It's often impossible for questioners (or dupe searchers) to locate hiqh-quality answers because search results contain many (tens if not hundreds) of mostly low-quality FGITW answers (most users don't realize this since they rarely try to search), Due to this the site is becoming a stream of low-quality FGITW answers, vs. the design goal: to be a library of high-quality answers (easily located by search). If you have neither the time nor motivation to search and organize then please let others do so before exacerbating the problem by contributing further dupe / FGITW answers $\endgroup$ May 23 at 5:43
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    $\begingroup$ @amWhy I do not think there is much difference in our views in theory. However, I prefer a pragmatic approach. In any case, as I told Bill, if somebody brings up cases where a user answers many 'obvious' duplicates then I will do something about it. In practical terms I think it'll be rare that a user answers many 'obvious' duplicates while not also answering many low quality questions. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    May 31 at 23:37
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    $\begingroup$ @JyrkiLahtonen I imagine that we will continue to evaluate the effect this has, and any changes which might need to take place as the situation evolves. Please also note that this post is meant to address users who answer a large number of low-quality questions (this is "low hanging fruit"). Answering duplicate questions is discouraged, and is still contrary to site policy. That duplication it is not the emphasis of this announcement only indicates that it is a lower priority than answering low-quality posts. The fact that it is a lower priority does not indicate that it isn't a priority. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Jun 1 at 4:30
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque Maybe y'all should start downvoting low-quality FGITW answers. This would be an excellent way to ensure that people stop posting them, and that they do not show up in searches. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Henry: It is now 121:36 ≈ 10:3. If that is not a good enough consensus to you, what is your threshold, and can you justify your threshold? Even in the US, a bill is passed by simple majority. That's not ideal of course, but we have a significant majority here. In particular, if these 157 votes were actually drawn randomly from the population, we have very high confidence that the ratio is really more than 3:1 in favour of EOQS. $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Jul 23 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ @user21820 My view is that this policy does not have consensus given the substantial number of negative votes, and the behaviour of its promoters (including ganging up with comments on answers which I take as worse than merely passive aggressive) means that I no longer trust their motives and behaviour when trying to make this a useful and helpful site. $\endgroup$
    – Henry
    Jul 23 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ I don't really know how much consensus there is or there isn't, but what I do know is that it's always the same small set of people deleting stuff and goldhammering . $\endgroup$
    – Asinomas
    Jul 24 at 1:16
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A week has passed since this post, and I'd like to leave some useful pointers for everyone, which I think will help everyone continue to have a positive experience in the site, and keep the community healthy.

  1. If you already commented a post regarding the EoQS and the behavior did not change, do not rinse and repeat. Please leave further interaction to the moderators. We know that seeing a user going against site policy may be frustrating, but we insist you do not escalate the situation, and refer to the post above regarding a better alternative action. If you feel like the pointers above may not be clear enough, feel free to ask for clarification, but when in doubt, err on the side of caution.

  2. It goes without saying that one should not systematically go through a users posts to comment on their answers to low quality questions. One flag and one comment is enough: give users time to respond to those comments, and give us time to reach out to them.

  3. Seeing changes to the site will take a while (perhaps some months). There are many flags and a few mods. The new enforcement only started a while ago, so please be patient. We are definitely looking at all the flags, and we appreciate all of you pointing to the posts. I hope that in the future there will be a visible improvement to the experience of everyone in the site.

  4. Regarding the above, you may always consult your own user flags on the link: https://math.stackexchange.com/users/flag-summary/current. This may help you keep track of your activity regarding this new EoQS and give you a more concrete picture of how you are contributing to the site. For example, you can check whether your flag has been accepted or not, or whether it yet pending. You may also find this in your profile in the "Impact" box, as the image below shows:

enter image description here

Wishing everyone a pleasant experience in math.SE,

Pedro

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  • $\begingroup$ There's a link to the flag summary on the user profile page. It's under Activity - you click on the number of helpful flags. $\endgroup$
    – E.P.
    May 5 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ Dear users: please do not edit this post to change the instructions it is giving. If you'd like to discuss the instructions, it can always be done. $\endgroup$
    – Pedro Tamaroff Mod
    Jun 1 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ @PedroTamaroff How is the situation now w.r.t EoQS from your (or other moderators') point of view? I think the community has helped you out and you have also done a lot in enforcing QS, but is this a point of time where we can evaluate how much this enforcement has worked out (more concretely, do the statistics suggest that the number of closed questions answered by established/high-rep users has come down? Has the number of closed questions per day gone down/up?)? It's been five-and-a-half months, hence the request. $\endgroup$ Oct 12 at 6:16
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Since this policy was announced, we have witnessed a shift in attitude from the moderators. No longer are users trusted to make their own decisions on what can be posted and what cannot, given their experience on this site. And no longer does SE respect and value its members, but rather uses intimidation and retalitatory measures such as timed suspensions to keep its users in check.

The effects of this policy have been unprecedented. Take for instance the day I received an email from the moderators, in my personal email, which has never happened in my 5-plus years on this site. Here is what I was sent:

"We have noticed that a significant number of your posts are answers in reply to "Problem Statement Questions." Which ones? Only the ones after the policy was announced, or including those before? Furthermore, the part about duplicate questions was not relevant to me, as I have used Approach0 to search for duplicate questions before answering, and reminded other users that the site exists for the past year (or more). The email was vague and sounded like it was copy-and-pasted (yes, I know that how to ask a good question exists), with a refusal to engage in how I could improve my posts or why their judgement of my posts should supersede mine. In short, it demonstrated a lack of care and sincerity, a top-down approach which stands at odds with Stack Exchange's founding philosophy of community moderation and decision-making through meta sites.

I cannot help but be reminded of the events of 2019, which led to moderators site-wide resigning over SE's failure to communicate. Despite their apologies, Stack Exchange still has not learned their lesson.

The effects of this policy have reverberated throughout the site. For example, during this time, the accounts of several high-ranking users have since been placed in timed suspension. But by arbitarily suspending people for their personal standards of when or when not to answer, our site will ultimately stagnate without anyone to do the meta tasks. This site is nothing without its users. Let me repeat: this site is nothing without the users who have voluntarily contributed their time and effort into helping this site grow, and have created a repository of high-quality mathematics and a place for users to expand and share their mathematical knowledge.

Contrary to what is believed, there is no single site policy with unified consensus. There have been influential policies such as the aforementioned how to ask a good question, but this was never intended to be black-and-white. These 'policies' are in fact suggestions which have helped users navigate the site and its unwritten rules, which have benefited many users, including myself. Even the seemingly obvious Is it appropriate to close every question that doesn't show efforts and/or lacks of context? is more nuanced than you think, not least because each question needs to be interpreted: is one sentence of context enough? There are still questions that have definitions and references attached being closed, not because those users who closed the question are idiots and did not read how to ask a good question, but because the question could have still been lacking in some way according to their subjective judgement. Once you open your eyes to the ethical conundrums in closing/reopening/suspending users, you start to see that these powers cannot be taken for granted, but rather should be vigorously debated and held to account. And once we fall into the mindset of "this question is bad, so it must be closed" without stopping to think about why, we risk a decline into a less fair and less open society.

My issue is not directly with the policy itself. Of course, Stack Exchange should have some kind of quality standard so that we don't become like the (now-defunct) Yahoo Answers. Yet we have indirectly created a culture of fear and self-censorship by not allowing users to judge if their own posts meet the standards, and by presuming users guilty before being innocent. In a time where democracy and freedom of speech is in decline around the world, this does not deserve to happen.

This policy is an indication that this site does not fully trust its users. And without its users, there will be no one to contribute. There will be no one to moderate, like we saw in 2019, without any real incentives for contributing, save for the gamification that includes badges, privileges and the like(s). This site is turning back on its original ideals and morphing into something that no one could have ever predicted.

I do not expect that this policy will be reversed, nor that you will suddenly change tack. This policy has created an imagined reality where the approach that has persisted for many years is now 'laissez-faire', which implies that the new normal is one where users are treated with suspicion and hostility. And dissent will always lurk under the surface, but once you start provoking users with this policy, and then double down with even more timed suspensions, there will be no way out of this mess. This is how this site will die.

This site hasn't been fine for a long time and we shouldn't deny it. Welcome to the beginning of the end.

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    $\begingroup$ I am curious only: you've written "...the accounts of several high-ranking users have since been placed in timed suspension. But by barring our most valued users from contributing..." and I've seen similar statements from other people. What criteria are you using to decide that they're "most valued"? I assume it's not reputation, since it's clear that anyone can gain a lot of reputation, deservedly or not, by answering PSQs and duplicate questions. $\endgroup$
    – postmortes
    Jul 20 at 8:06
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with your criticism of the email. I think taking the time to write to fewer users in more detail (including five, say, specific posts) is better than messaging more users with no detail. (Or even something which is obviously generic, like "lots of your answers have been brought to our attention regarding the EoQS, which may be because of...") $\endgroup$
    – user1729
    Jul 20 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ While the problem can probably communicated by clearer message I totally disagree with the sentiment of your first paragraph. The site is a mess exactly because the relevant users always posted what they wanted. Ignoring the compromise reached in meta after a discussion spanning several years. Also, the stricter enforcement was well advertised in advance. And not in a bulletin board in Proxima Centauri but in a featured meta post. If you have other ways of making these users comply with the compromise rule, you have had many years to suggest one. You still can! $\endgroup$ Jul 20 at 11:17
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    $\begingroup$ This was a local decision and has nothing to do with SE per se. The "nothing learned" is besides the point. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Jul 20 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ Good point. I quit after receiving a timed suspension and seeing a quality answer of mine be deleted because the question turned out to be a duplicate. The ease at which my valuable content was destroyed (instead of moved to the other question) triggered me. Occasionally I check to see if anything changed. Recently I saw actively moderating users cheer when a 200k user (Yves Daoust) deleted their account. Such disrespect for user's time and efforts as well as holding on to this QS policy will not win me back. $\endgroup$
    – bobby.608
    Jul 20 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ @bobby.608 For your information: Community moderators cannot move your answer to the duplicate thread. No one can, that functionality does not exist. Only you yourself can delete the mistakenly posted answer and repost it as an answer in the duplicate target. That delete/copy/paste takes only a few seconds, so what's the problem? The diamond moderators can merge two threads, but that requires the two versions to use identical notation (among other things), and is a bit delicate to manage, so it's rarely done. $\endgroup$ Jul 20 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ @JyrkiLahtonen I can give you a ton of problems, but here's one to get started: many users don't even realize that their answer dissapeared. $\endgroup$
    – Asinomas
    Jul 20 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Yorch That has also been explained in meta many times. Expand the list of answers on your profile page. At the bottom there is a link titled recently deleted answers (I think that only the user in question can see it, but I may be wrong about that). Also, if the deleted answer was recent, the rep points it earned are deducted, so users can tell that something unusual has happened as that can be noticed in many ways. Of course, it is possible that such users don't keep an eye on their rep score at all. $\endgroup$ Jul 20 at 20:46
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    $\begingroup$ I want to (one more time seems to be required) comment on the use of presumed guilty... THIS IS NOT A CRIMINAL COURT. The policy is more about keeping a contract. If you prefer a sport analogy, the disagreement is more about some group of soccer players choosing to ignore the rule on off-side, and then acting bewildered when others complain that most of the goals you scored should not count. Or, if you prefer baseball, some thinking that it is totally ok for the pitcher to balk and/or ignore infield fly rules. $\endgroup$ Jul 24 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ Also, I disagree with the new normal - rant in your last paragraph. The problem has existed nearly from the beginning. A kind of compromise was reached after much heated debate many years ago. But it was not enforced. When pleas and information campaigns about the compromise, ignored by more and more high volume answerers, failed to make any kind of an impression, this is what you get. In other words, you made your own bed... $\endgroup$ Jul 24 at 11:38
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    $\begingroup$ If you think the site has been going downhill for two months. I think the site has been going downhill for 8 years. With the homeworker solvers club collecting rep and turning the site away from its original purpose. $\endgroup$ Jul 24 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ And, Toby, you received the message based on ample evidence provided to mods via flags occurring through community moderation, just as downvotes and delete votes are delivered. Mods do not act arbitrarily; they act only when sufficient evidence (from community members/moderators_, indicates quite convincingly, that action must be taken. Please stop finding scapegoats to blame and attack, instead, listen to the feedback sent to you, and think of ways to improve your behavior on this site. $\endgroup$
    – amWhy
    Jul 25 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ However, there are times where deciding whether a post is a PSQ isn't that clear-cut, and so we should move away from black-and-white thinking. From my experience, there are around 50% of questions where the users have tried something (in one or two sentences) but it isn't enough to fully provide context. If we close these questions as well, does that not incentivise users to be lazy and to post straight PSQs, as those will also be closed? Many users have spent effort into understanding how our site works and it would not be fair to negate that. $\endgroup$
    – Toby Mak
    Jul 26 at 3:04
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    $\begingroup$ As John Stuart Mill said, societies stagnate when the tyranny of the majority prevails and when they create inflexible rules that can neither be discussed nor questioned (dead dogma). This requires that we investigate why users are still posting answers to PSQs rather than assuming they all have evil intentions. In short, please be civil and make an effort to understand the other side like I have done, no matter how hard it is. $\endgroup$
    – Toby Mak
    Jul 26 at 3:07
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    $\begingroup$ @amWhy Because I've changed my stance on this issue since I wrote it. How else can I respond to comments saying I've ignored the compromise on meta? $\endgroup$
    – Toby Mak
    Jul 27 at 1:20

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