Feels like we have a problem with content: to many questions are either 1) homework or 2) soft-questions/intuition/terminology — whatever but not a "well-defined math question that actually have a specific answer". Just reading the list of 15 active questions: homework, homework, soft-question, homework, soft-question, soft-question, asking for a definition — almost one half.

I wish we can change the situation.

Update. The main point is not that we have to close more question (although we probably should) but that now we don't have enough questions that should be, I believe, main content of the site: mathematical non-homework well-defined questions having a specific answer.

Update2. There's nothing wrong with soft-question (I certainly don't want to ban them from the site — in fact, I upvoted at least some of them) in general (and I apologize if I somehow offended posters of these questions). But it's well-known that stackexchange engine is better suited to question having particular answer than to informal-discussion-type questions (although latter type is probably more important in [learning] mathematics). And the site can be healthy only if most of the questions are of former type — as we can see e.g. on MathOverflow.

  • $\begingroup$ And instead of closing homework questions on the main site someone is voting to close this meta topic -- how ironic. $\endgroup$
    – Grigory M
    Aug 2, 2010 at 9:39
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    $\begingroup$ "because it's homework" is not a valid reason to close a question. $\endgroup$
    – Isaac
    Aug 2, 2010 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ I see that someone's voted to close as "not a real question"... it looks justified at the moment: What is your real question? :-) $\endgroup$ Aug 2, 2010 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Isaac There is a homework and a homework -- I believe that linked questions should be closed (one of them already is, in fact). But that's not my point -- point is, site can't live with only homework and soft questions and we have to much of them -- or better to say to few well-defined non-homework questions $\endgroup$
    – Grigory M
    Aug 2, 2010 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ @ShreevatsaR (Old joke: Professor: "Does anyone have questions?" Student: "I don't understand that step in the proof." Professor: "It's a statement, not a question. Does anyone have questions?") So are support/feature requests, proposals to rename or delete tags and so on, so forth. $\endgroup$
    – Grigory M
    Aug 2, 2010 at 9:57
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    $\begingroup$ The question on EGA is actually not very soft at all! It is a rather specific request for references where a specific and, on first sight, arcane looking result in one of the main treatises on a subject is used. $\endgroup$ Aug 2, 2010 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Mariano, @Casebash OK, substitute "reference-request" here. Anyway, it's not a mathematical problem but kind of "meta"-mathematical question. (Not that I want to close it! It's fine to have such questions. What is not fine, is not to have enough questions of the other type.) $\endgroup$
    – Grigory M
    Aug 2, 2010 at 11:51
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    $\begingroup$ Dear Grigory, I answered the EGA question, and I don't think that it is either soft or best described as a reference request. Of course it is not difficult for someone who knows the field to answer, but it seems to be a good example of one particular archetypal question one might expect on the site, namely: "Can someone who understands please explain this concept/result/point-of-view to me". I don't see what's wrong with this kind of question, and I would expect that many questions here will be of this type: after all, I'm not sure what other kinds of questions one might expect ... $\endgroup$
    – Matt E
    Aug 2, 2010 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ ... undergraduate math majors to ask. These are exactly the kinds of questions that can be hard to get answers to from classmates or a text-book, which this site can provide. $\endgroup$
    – Matt E
    Aug 2, 2010 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ Grigory M, I am disappointed you added my question to your list. Can you explain what's wrong with it? $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Aug 2, 2010 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ @muad Why, there is nothing wrong with your question (I upvoted it, actually). I just say that it's a soft-question that doesn't have one specific answer. $\endgroup$
    – Grigory M
    Aug 2, 2010 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Grigory M: Exactly as in your joke about the professor, you'd get more useful replies if (the student said what he didn't understand in the proof or) you asked a more specific question, like " how can we change the situation" or "is this ok?", or whatever it is that you have in mind. $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2010 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ @ShreevatsaR it's not a question, it's a warning and a suggestion [for everyone to ask more "well-defined math question that actually have a specific answer" and less soft-question (and I started from myself, naturally)] $\endgroup$
    – Grigory M
    Aug 3, 2010 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ Dear Matt, there is nothing wrong with questions requiring discussion, in general (and indeed, most useful mathematical question are of this type). The problem is just that stackexchange engine is not well-suited for such discussions. And to see what other kind of question one might expect one should just look at mathoverflow, I think. $\endgroup$
    – Grigory M
    Aug 3, 2010 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Grigory, regarding muad's question, can you give me a reason why it shouldn't exist on this website? It is mathematically related, and it is interesting. Yes, this is a q and a website but leaving that there for discussion does more good then harm. $\endgroup$ Aug 4, 2010 at 19:04

3 Answers 3


I'd agree that the website needs more specific math questions. However, I myself don't have a problem with questions such as the one on EGA. But admittedly that was mine, so let me list a few more which I think are definitely appropriate:

Why should I care about fields of positive characteristic?

Is there an atlas of algebraic groups?

Why are superalgebras so important?

Why? These are reasonable questions which can be answered objectively (i.e., aren't about one's Fields Medal predictions) and involve some mathematical sophistication, and would be quite reasonable for a student to ask. The fact that they don't have a mathematically precise answer does not mean that they do not have an answer. I would imagine that these would be tolerated (if with some grumbling) on MO, so I think we should accept them here.

What I'm less happy with are the questions that are obviously homework-y. I myself am in favor of closing them and answering in the comments. Until we have more high rep users, that may not happen though.

The point is that it's hard to ask questions of the SE ideal: namely, as in the MO FAQ, of the form "Is every regular doodad a widget?" It's especially hard for students who aren't necessarily engaged in research and still are learning the fundamentals of their fields (which may not be mathematics, but presumably will be closely related). The questions of this form will likely be homework-y or not particularly interesting ("Is every group of prime order abelian?"). Though admittedly I may be incorrectly projecting my own limitations on others. This is why I support greater lenience on this website than is generally practiced on MO.

Since this website is intended to cater to undergraduate students, I support questions that have an answer even if that answer is a brief explanation. Note that a "brief explanation" might be standard mathematical lore but not necessarily easily findable (or existent) on standard sources like Wikipedia. These are the kinds of things that one can absorb well with the help of conversations. As an example, I'm going to mention the fact that a lot of properties in basic algebraic geometry are constructible---I was fully aware of Chevalley's theorem, but someone had to explain me some examples before I actually appreciated it and could make any connections.

In a sense, this answer is an expansion of what Matt E said in the comments above.

  • $\begingroup$ Right not only that, it does no harm to leave topics like that on there for discussion (be it community wiki). If saving a few bytes on a hard drive is the concern, well I think we have bigger things to worry about. $\endgroup$ Aug 4, 2010 at 19:00

Lets consider some of the questions you have listed.

This question is asking for what the question means, not for an answer, so it is valid in my book.

Whether this question question is a soft question is debatable. Regardless, it is a world away from: "Who is your favourite mathematican"/"What is your favourite maths joke", ect.

I don't think that it is an issue if we end up with a large number of definitional type questions. I can understand why you might object to them - after all can't these simply be looked up in a maths book or Wikipedia? For a start, maths books tend to assume that you have read the previous chapters, which means trying to understand a definition often requires recursively chasing down definitions and notations. In many cases, there is an intuitive explanation that makes the definition clearer. Additionally, while Wikipedia is usually quite reliable for definitions, but sometimes not, it is much more often difficult to understand. In summary, not all definitions are equal.

That being said, dealing with homework questions is an issue that will only increase in importance.


This should be a comment in response to the earlier comment (Old joke: Professor: "Does anyone have questions?" Student: "I don't understand that step in the proof." Professor: "It's a statement, not a question. Does anyone have questions?"), but I don't have enough rep points, so I'll answer instead.

It isn't even a joke. It's an actual decription of the sort of thing that goes on. It happened to me. The prof was walking around the class. I put my hand up. He came over. I wanted to ask him about a certain problem and I began by saying "I'm stuck" and at that he immediately interjected "just think about it" and walked off to speak to the next person without saying another word or waiting for me to ask the question, leaving me with extreme irritation at his attitude. I mean I'm paying for this education, and this prof behaves like this.

Like I said it's not a joke. It's true life.

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    $\begingroup$ Having been on the other side, I can tell you that I firmly believe that the answer you got is, in lots of occasions, the very best answer you can get. It is very, very easy for someone who knows the subject to answer; it takes a lot of self-control (and good will, for everyone teaching knows it requires considerably more work!) to let you "think about it." $\endgroup$ Aug 6, 2010 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ One of my favourite professors actually recommended that a student "look within his soul" for the answers to the even numbered questions when asked - since they weren't in the back of the book. In regards to value for tuition: truly priceless! $\endgroup$ Aug 6, 2010 at 21:57

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