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What is the goal of MSE? Is it to get a repository of interesting questions and well-written answers. Or are we instead an online math tutoring site where we help anyone as long as they seem to be trying. These two goals are often in contradiction with each other!

I am afraid that we are headed in the direction of being an online tutoring site, at least for a couple months in the spring and fall when school is in session. What I have noticed this past spring was that MSE was inundated with "newbie" users coming on here and asking on average a high volume of problem-set questions each--oftentimes 10 questions/week per person. Now, in all fairness, the users were demonstrating some effort in their questions. But it was clear that they were struggling with the basics, so their questions were hardly what you would consider to be "good" questions. And yet, these users still received a lot of help on their questions from the more established posters on MSE nonetheless. And so it continued on through March and April. It is like MSE was filling the role of Teaching Assistant or whatever for these students.

[It seems to have quieted down now that the most recent semester is about to end, but it will pick up again. Just wait until the fall! Or maybe even later this summer. If not even sooner than that.]

If the desire is to move back away from being a homework-tutoring site, it is probably going to be hard for the site to stop this without making changes on the admin level. [A possibility would be lowering the number of votes to close from 5 to 3. Another possibility would be to make a tag or section of MSE dedicated for someone learning the basics.] Meanwhile, I'm not seeing how the EoQS currently implemented, is changing this. This site is nonetheless being clogged with many boring or poorly-written questions, which are still getting rewarded with a long string of comments doing their best to tutor the student, and at least one of those comments [are comments under the purview of EoQS$^1$] has the answer to the student's questions. These questions may get a couple votes to close and maybe a downvote too, but then they also get a pity upvote. And so we get many more such questions, because users are being rewarded for asking them--whether there is an "Answer" or not. There does seem to be a critical mass of users on MSE who do feel that this should be a site where struggling students can come for help with their basic homework even if their questions don't meet the MSE Guidelines, as long as they are demonstrating some effort.

If you cannot already tell, my vote would be MSE moving towards a repository of high-quality questions and answers, and away from being a homework-tutoring site.

ETA: In any event though, I do think EoQS would work better if the way it were administered were shifted. What if the following changes were implemented:

(a) Reduce the number of votes needed to close [NOT delete!] a question from 5 down to 4 or 3. I think a reason why EoQS came to be in the first place was the proliferation of too many really bad questions that get too much oxygen.

(b) Enforce comments as much as answers. In particular, no more rewarding bad questions by answering in the comments. If we don't want a bad question answered in the answer box, then we don't want a bad question answered in the comments either. Likewise, if a question is worth keeping around, then it is worth being answered, in the answer box, as answering in the comments really helps no one.

I'm not necessarily for more enforcement, I am for smarter enforcement. The net result of what we are doing now w EoQS are question after question of debatable quality, with a long string of comments--in place of a well-written answer written where it is supposed to be--the answer box. The worst of both worlds--still no quality control but now messy flow. Should those questions be allowed to stay? Maybe. I get from the comments and whatnot that it is a debate. But if so, then at the very least, the formatting should be right.

Please advise.

ETA 5/20/2022 18:30 EDT: Reading the other posts and comments here, I think the biggest problem with EoQS as I see it, is in unclear and contradictory objectives of here, and so what gets enforced as bad content is often absurd. I understand that really confused students are going to end up asking questions that are really duplicates [even with context]. For example, every semester we see a bunch of question such as:

Is $\{(x_1,x_2) \in \mathbb{R}^2; 2x_1+x_2=5\}$ a vector space?

We will also get a bunch of questions about the probability of drawing $2$ red cards or a certain hand from a deck of $52$ cards, and so on. Just as we did last semester and the semester before that. The consensus on here, going by what I'm reading in the comments anyway, is that those questions should get respect on here if the student is showing effort. Alright, fine and great. If this is what the board decides then let's give those questions respect. But then if these questions are fine and allowed, then what is the point of EoQS again? What is the point of shutting down more interesting questions again then? Sometimes an answer to a duplicate gives a different take that may be useful to the next person. And just as much, why are the ones who answer a lot of hard questions getting put into the corner then. They are the ones contributing to the knowledge base here! And they were never really contributing to the problem EoQS was supposedly about fixing.

It often just all seems to arbitrary and capricious....

$^1$ EoQS = Enforcement of Quality Standards

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    $\begingroup$ @amWhy I do my best to vote to close questions. I suppose moving forward I will flag more. But I do wager that it would also be necessary to (a) require only 3 votes to close questions (b) extend EoQS to comments that answer bad questions. $\endgroup$
    – Mike
    May 11 at 23:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Mike IMHO that's a false dichotomy between "repository of high-quality questions and answers" vs. "a homework-tutoring site". I see it closer to "repository of (random) knowledge" vs. "museum of (curated) pieces of math arts" as I wrote here. There are questions asked on MSE with appealing, non-trivial math contents, but which get summarily dismissed because they don't raise to the level of "high-quality questions" in EoQS' eyes. $\endgroup$
    – dxiv
    May 12 at 7:41
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    $\begingroup$ (...) Which btw is why I think lowering the close vote-count may not be such a good idea. Many (most?) "low quality" questions get closed and deleted before the OP has a chance to even see the votes and ammend their question. $\endgroup$
    – dxiv
    May 12 at 7:42
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    $\begingroup$ But is it indeed "primarily a site for experts to bounce ideas off other experts", or do we want it to be that? The banner you see when you first enter the site without an account says "Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields." I thought the "for experts by experts" site was MathOverflow, not MSE. $\endgroup$
    – Anakhand
    May 12 at 8:15
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    $\begingroup$ (I myself am a student, and I'm sure most of my questions asked here can be seen by an expert as "struggling with the basics", but nevertheless they were of great value to me and I'd say also to other students who stumble upon the same questions.) $\endgroup$
    – Anakhand
    May 12 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ "I'm pretty sure there have been some pretty conspicuous suspensions and retirements of poor content producers...." @rschwieb, I'm pretty sure there have been retirements of excellent content producers. EoQS has its downside, and I'm not convinced that it has been a net positive. $\endgroup$ May 13 at 2:08
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson that is neither here nor there. We will never be able to stop good content producers who want to leave because the site isn’t run just so. And if you’re trying to say they were forced out because of EoQS directly then it is questionable that their content was good so…? My point was to show that there are definitely effects in the intended direction (because it was doubted is that there have been effects at all.). I never claimed that there weren’t side effects or that there is a net gain (although it seems to me there is.) $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    May 13 at 3:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Mike See my answer linked in the previous comment. Then (quoted parts are yours)... 1) Don't think the "barrage of homework questions we saw this spring" was different, or worse, this time around vs. previous years - both before and after EoQS. 2) "don't think this site is for tutoring students" A good math question does not become a bad one just because a lazy or clueless student asked it while doing their homework. Answering such a question does not only benefit the OP, but also contributes to the "repository of interesting questions and well-written answers" for future readers. $\endgroup$
    – dxiv
    May 13 at 4:43
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see how lowering the number of votes required to close a question, or extending quality standards to comments, will work toward keeping the good content (and keeping the users who provide the good content), Mike. $\endgroup$ May 13 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Mike You started your question about MSE as "a repository of interesting questions and well-written answers" (and FWIW the official tour describes its goal as "a library of detailed answers to every question about math"). One of the previous comments changed that to "well-asked questions with well answered answers". That's, in a nutshell, the EoQS philosophy, and their excuse for punishing the question and the answerers for the sins of the asker. $\endgroup$
    – dxiv
    May 14 at 6:04
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    $\begingroup$ (Concerning a point raised in the most recent edit of the question) If you think you have a good answer to Question X, but you know that question is a duplicate of Question Y, then the thing to do is to vote to close X as a duplicate while posting your good answer at Question Y (assuming your good answer doesn't duplicate answers already posted to Y). $\endgroup$ May 20 at 22:48
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    $\begingroup$ @VeronicaR.M. And with EoQS such a difference in opinion is enough to get you banned these days. $\endgroup$ May 22 at 9:23
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    $\begingroup$ @rschwieb I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I follow most of your comment. I seem to be missing some context. From my own experience, there is no room for discussion, and no second chance. I was banned for quite a while without any warning or any explanation. I believe I'm far from the only one, but it is very difficult to get any information on how the mass banning happened exactly. If other bans were similar to mine, I understand that most of the prolific users refuse to return. $\endgroup$ May 22 at 11:54
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    $\begingroup$ @rschwieb Of course I have no way of proving this to you; can't prove a negative. The only explanation I got was a canned 'violating site policy'. There was no warning, no discussion, no explanation, nothing pointing me to a specific answer or post. There was room for appeal; I got a textbox in which I could write something to the mods. At this point I decided to step away from MSE though. A quick browse of the website now suggests that quite a few other prolific users had a similar experience. $\endgroup$ May 22 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ @rschwieb There was no communication by email either, by the way. I do get generic MSE mails there on occasion. I did get banned once before when I just joined MSE some 10 years ago. Back then I did get an explanation and a quick chat with a moderator to explain why, that was all good and fine. Not sure why I got the treatment I got; perhaps the mods were/are overworked. Anyway, my point is that the moderation is/was very far from ideal, as some users believe it to be. $\endgroup$ May 22 at 12:26

2 Answers 2

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(writing this from new user, but I have some experience on this in other SE's and MSE in the recent years)

  • I believe that any change that is imposed from "above" will ultimately be difficult to manage and cannot be successful without drastic change in site that would (I bet on that) make this site much less popular and with less visits. And I don't say it is a bad or good thing. I just say it.
  • we may like it or not, but what happened to MSE happened organically. and I don't think it is different from other SE sites nor even other open communities where at the beginning we see deep discussions then it disappears.
  • The only way that it can be mitigated is an automatic engine to mark question as duplicates. (and then maybe if user posts the same question twice after being duplicated to be banned from site). As we don't have this automatic tool I don't see a practical way to change things.
  • It seems one of the functions of MSE is neither "get a repository of interesting questions" nor "online math tutoring site". I got the impression that many people here enjoy answering questions more than they enjoy finding the duplicate.
  • The constant steam of low-level questions gives the opportunity (sometimes very rare) for some users to finally post an answer. The community does (as I recall) want the users "to pay back". without this new "duplicate" and low level questions it would be virtually impossible. It might help keep the user here on site to review more questions and to learn.
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    $\begingroup$ The last bullet is the most important in my eyes. I'm not sure how common it is for MSE users to 'graduate' to MO, but presumably a continual maturation of users is what is necessary to sustain the site. $\endgroup$
    – Adam
    May 24 at 3:52
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    $\begingroup$ Either there are enough questions to effectively classify most new questions as duplicates, or there aren't enough and its simply boring to flesh out every slight difference between technically distinct questions. In the latter case, perhaps assigning extra value for more advanced questioning/answering is necessary. $\endgroup$
    – Adam
    May 24 at 3:53
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    $\begingroup$ Is it still organic when a group of users come along and impose additional rules which were not part of the original stackexchange model? In that case, whatever could possibly happen ever would be organic unless literally forced down by SE itself $\endgroup$ May 25 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Aplateofmomos, well, I see what you are saying and in a sense you are right. in another sense those who set the laws are not the only players. rather, most of the players do not set the laws. my point it would be extremely difficult to "educate" the players by few managers/rule setters. if we want the players to search for duplicate before asking, it won't IMO be helpful to do it manually by downvoting and closing questions. it need to be enforced by the structure of the site which implies a drastic change. But hey, maybe I'm just wrong. $\endgroup$
    – discipulus
    May 25 at 17:02
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There are three main categories of questions which I feel are worth talking about:

  1. Conceptually deep questions which can't be answered from standard books

  2. Conceptually deep questions which can be answered from standard books

  3. Standard problems which come as exercises

In my personal experience, I find it that 90% of mse users can only handle 2. and 3. . There are only handful I met on this site who I really felt" gets it" beyond the book and can answer the type in 1. .

And depending on the subtopic of math, the number of people that maybe capable to answer in this category here is non existent.

Now, for the direction of mse , everything I said in the above paragraph is mostly irrelevant because firstly these questions are in minority, and, I think the people who are capable of writing deep answers won't be attracted more to the site more than they are right now by policy shifts. Infact, I have actually found that the people who answer in 1. often do not engage much in meta.

For 2. and 3., I'll just say let them be to be honest. Students need help and it is certainly valuable to provide a free reliable resource like mse to them. I think we should aim for inclusivty rather than exclusivity at this point.

To begin with mse is already very exclusive because it is not at all simple to use it. Firstly you need an Internet connection, then some command of English, and finally a willingness to learn some mathjax.

Most people don't speak English, and also may not have an Internet connection.

To achieve inclusivity, the website should be made more accessible in some way. I see no future for it if the philosophy is to keep it like some elitist mathematics circle for the English speaking privileged.


Now where is it actually going towards? That I believe is unanswerable. Only the future can say.

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    $\begingroup$ Your point about the lack of receptivity of the StackExchange network (I don't know about in general, but at least MO and MSE where I spend most of my time) to non-English questions and answers is well taken, but surely there's not much one can do to remove the requirement of Internet access to be able to use a web site? (I would think that the requirement to learn Mathjax is not much more onerous than the requirement to learn some math, itself also a prerequisite for useful participation, but maybe I'm biased.) $\endgroup$
    – LSpice
    May 12 at 5:56
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    $\begingroup$ Here are some ideas of how things could improve: there would be preformatted question drafts one could use, and, the subject body would auto translate the text written. Some sort of DeepL or Google transfer integration. I'd say mathjax maybe harder than math because mathjax is unlike what most people encounter in school or smthn. The Internet access point, I agree one can't do anything, but my idea was that this site is already tending on the very exclusive side. $\endgroup$ May 12 at 9:37
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    $\begingroup$ Your last suggestion belongs at meta.se or a separate math.meta question. But your last comment is not directly related to the question you purport to answer. $\endgroup$
    – amWhy
    May 14 at 0:25
  • $\begingroup$ This website is effectively an elitist mathematics circle. Newbie questions get downvoted to oblivion. The learning curve is steep. $\endgroup$
    – Fr0zen
    Jun 16 at 3:03

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