I realize that one of the major goals of this site is to help others learn and understand mathematics, and in fact it is one of my favorite parts of math.SE. As such, I don't mind a bit when I see a user who hardly ever answers but asks lots of questions as long as they are insightful or show a lot of effort on their part. But there are some users who have given almost no answers and ask lots of questions that seem like homework, are asked in the imperative, and show little or no work on their part. Also, this trend in their behavior spans long periods of time and nothing deep about any of the answers they get seems to stick when they ask their next question. My main question is what to do about such users. I realize that given the way math.SE is set up they are bound to pop up, but should we do something to try to discourage this, or simply ignore them?

A more specific question is about what counts as a duplicate. I have noticed one user who I think fits the pattern I described above who also has a habit of creating entirely new questions when they don't understand a small part of an answer to the last question they asked, or when they want to know about a slightly different case/approach. What is the proper course of action here? Do these kinds of questions qualify as "exact duplicates" and warrant closure? I have tried urging this user not to ask these as separate questions but rather edit their old post/comment on answers they don't understand, but without success.

I have avoided giving specific examples here because I don't want this to degenerate into a name-calling fest. If this question seems inappropriate or rude, please inform me and I will delete it if several people object to it.


This is the viewpoint that I have developed after having been at this for over a couple decades in analogous forums (sci.math, Ask an Algebraist, AoPS, etc). One can always find faults in almost any question posed. However, no matter what the flaws, the benefits to the global community provided by good answers almost always outweigh any local issues related to the OP. For example, we have plenty of poorly-posed questions that have answers that undoubtedly proved very helpful to many readers.

Thus, in such circumstances, instead of focusing on negative local aspects, I strive to shift to a more positive global view, thinking about all the other readers that my answer may help. In fact much of the feedback that my posts receive is from readers other than the OP. So such a viewpoint seems to be a good model of the dynamics of such virtual mathematical worlds - at least in my experience.

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    $\begingroup$ What you say makes lots of sense. I suppose sometimes I just need to swallow my frustration, which is something I was prepared to do when I asked this. $\endgroup$ – Alex Becker Dec 30 '11 at 23:43

In any case where you find lots of variations of the same question being asked, regardless of the askers, one option is to ask a "platonic question" of this type, write up a good response to it, and then close all the other questions as duplicates of the platonic question.

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    $\begingroup$ "...ask a 'platonic question' of this type, write up a good response to it, and then close all the other questions as duplicates of the platonic question." - and if it really gets asked often enough, include it in this list. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Dec 30 '11 at 8:05
  • $\begingroup$ @J.M. I've seen the page before but had forgotten about it. Favorited. $\endgroup$ – Alex Becker Dec 30 '11 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ I am somewhat uneasy with the "abstract duplicate" or "platonic question" concept. Solved variants have been provided in the chapter that the homework question comes from. For many students, it is not easy to adapt the solution of such variants to situations that we think of as abstractly the same. So a thorough reasoned solution of their problem may be very useful to them. $\endgroup$ – André Nicolas Dec 31 '11 at 5:33

If you think a user is misbehaving, flag the question for moderator attention.


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