I have noticed in recent weeks a plethora of answers/comments recommending that people ask their questions on MathOverflow.net when it is clearly NOT appropriate to do so. MathOverflow is for questions of interest to professional/academic mathematicians. Their FAQ clearly states this, and they close down questions very quickly that are below that level.

Nearly all of the math-related questions on this site are inappropriate for asking on MathOverflow. We do both our community and theirs a disservice by sending math questions there. Until there is a site that is more suited to "amateur" mathematics questions (and I include myself in this group) that often occur on this site, we really don't have a place to refer non-programming questions.

Here are some recent questions that have recommended mathoverflow but probably shouldn't, and are perpetuating the myth that it's the destination for mathematics questions:

Are there any other ways we can correct this problem?

edit: just a note -- I am not in any way involved the management of the MathOverflow site.

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    Change the name of the site. professionalmathoverflow.net sounds good. If you silo yourself for only 'professional' mathematicians, then you hurt anyone interested in the field of math. In this case, the problem is that the name of the website tells the user that all math questions are welcome. It's a big sign that says, "come in". – George Stocker Jan 5 '10 at 16:08
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    @George: consider make that an answer. I hadn't thought about that, and it's up to the MO folks to do it, but I think you've got a point. Other than the name, MO is a great site for high-quality mathematics discussions. Opening it up to the masses, so to speak, would hurt that niche, and I think its current scope has a lot of value. – Jason S Jan 5 '10 at 16:12
  • Done. While Craig roughly says the same thing as me, he takes a different tack on the subject, thus my answer is not a duplicate. Plus, my answer was 'first'. :-D – George Stocker Jan 5 '10 at 16:31
  • Looking at the questions on mathoverflow.com makes my head hurt. I've never even seen most of those... symbols before! But then I failed maths every year from Year 10 onwards... – Mark Henderson Jan 5 '10 at 22:01
  • Farseeker, it's not so much the symbols as the color scheme which causes that. – Craig Stuntz Jan 5 '10 at 22:37
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    The name is a latex pun, which is clear from the logo. – David Brown Jan 5 '10 at 23:06
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    make them read an entire Q&A thread from the site – Steven A. Lowe Jan 6 '10 at 1:09
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    My bad for recommending mathoverflow on one of those questions. I didn't realize how specific it was. I have edited/retracted my orginal statement and linked to this discussion. Cannot delete answer though until OP un-accepts it. – Troggy Jan 10 '10 at 0:38

11 Answers 11


They should change the site to make their intentions clear. When I visit MathOverflow, first thing I see is:

A place for mathematicians to ask and answer questions.

That's OK, but your question above says it better:

For questions of interest to professional/academic mathematicians

"A place for mathematicians to ask and answer questions" suggests that a mathematician might answer a question asked by a lesser mortal. The latter makes it clear that the site is for questions said mathematician might actually find interesting.

  • s/You/They ---- – Jason S Jan 5 '10 at 16:23
  • OK........ done. – Craig Stuntz Jan 5 '10 at 16:55

On MathOverflow, we often redirect questioners to the Art of Problem Solving forums if their question is an interesting but elementary puzzle, and send people to Ask Dr. Math if they have problems with standard high school or undergraduate material.

  • link away, you should be able to now, I think. – Jason S Jan 5 '10 at 18:34
  • Links added now, thanks. – David E Speyer Jan 5 '10 at 18:55

Educate the users

When you see a "Should be on Math Overflow" comment, add another comment that explains that it is inappropriate. It will become a signpost to educate future users.

I had no idea that Math Overflow was for professional-level mathematicians. I see posts that math questions can be answers on Math Overflow, so I follow suit. And the problem perpetuates.

Server Fault had the same problem (general computer questions asked in a professional-level forum). The solution was the make the site's intentions more clear while simultaneously educating StackOverflow users about the purpose of Server Fault.

You will always have this problem, whether users come from Stack Overflow or Google or Blog links. The solution is exactly what you are doing: ongoing, vigilant moderation.


Change the name of the site.

professionalmathoverflow.net sounds good.

If you silo yourself for only 'professional' mathematicians, then you hurt anyone interested in the field of math. In this case, the problem is that the name of the website tells the user that all math questions are welcome. It's a big sign that says, "Come in".

The people that named their Stack Exchange sites wanted to sound familiar to Stack Overflow users, so they used the following convention [Noun Describing Site Function]Overflow.[tld]

The major problem with that is that Stack Overflow welcomes all programming questions, so a site that has MathOverflow in its title implies being like Stack Overflow. I didn't say it was rational, just that that's the first impression a new visitor gets.

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    I'd vote for "mathexchange.net" or something (the "overflow" aspect of stackoverflow has a sense of humor that I think is more inviting to beginners... besides, pure math doesn't overflow, just the arithmetic stuff in computers and calculators), but I agree that it would help. Unfortunately there's enough history that I think they won't... but you never know. – Jason S Jan 5 '10 at 16:35
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    How 'bout InfiniteSeries.com? – devuxer Jan 5 '10 at 18:05
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    I'm thinking IgnoramusEtIgnorabimus.com. That should keep the plebes away. :) – Craig Stuntz Jan 5 '10 at 18:35
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    See meta.mathoverflow.net/discussion/40 for more discussion on the name. Executive summary of my posts: (a) the name is great, (b) changing it wouldn't help, but (c) it doesn't matter because it's not really a big problem. – Anton Geraschenko Jan 6 '10 at 3:34
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    Regarding a) it doesn't really describe the intent of the site, unless the intent of the site is to pay tribute to Stack Overflow (re: your comment). If the intent of the site is to be the center for questions that interest mathematicians, then choose a name that means that. I'm no expert, but Math Overflow isn't it. Regarding b) It would stop people from saying, "Oh, this is Stack Overflow for Math." c) If it's not a problem, why was the post made here then? – George Stocker Jan 6 '10 at 4:16
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    @George: (a) The name is meant to pay tribute to SO and it is the canonical name for a mathematics SE site, but it's also catchy and distinctive by itself, and it does describe what the site is for (see the meta.MO thread). On top of that, I think the analogy SO:programmers::MO:mathematicians is a good one. (b) No it wouldn't. I think any SE site will be called "SO for X" independent of its name. (c) I didn't post this question, and there haven't been any complaints on meta.MO along the lines of "what's up with all these S[OFU] users?" Not many MO visits come from S[OFU] (see my answer). – Anton Geraschenko Jan 6 '10 at 4:55
  • @Anton: I agree with most of your points, but the analogy isn't a good one; this is a site for programmers, not computer scientists. (although you can ask computer science questions here) – Jason S Jan 6 '10 at 13:13
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    -1. Why does the name of the site have to be a strict representation of its contents. StackOverflow and ServerFault are hardly as descriptive as your asking MO to be. – Dhaust Apr 20 '10 at 0:49
  • @David HAust On the internet, the Name of your site is the first thing people see. In fact, on Google, it's about the only thing they see besides two sentences. It's really important. – George Stocker Apr 20 '10 at 2:06
  • @George I understand where you are coming from but I think that you are all splitting hairs in regards to MO. It already says it's about math and I think it's crazy to suggest that if it's not a totally all-encompasing detailed description that it is somehow problematic. And it should be noted that there are plenty of sites that get by just fine with domains that merely allude to their content/purpose (alexa.com/topsites). – Dhaust Apr 20 '10 at 22:30

So.. I shouldn't ask why 0.9999999999999 is equal to 1 there?

I second the motion for a better, less "ask general math questions here" domain name. That's job #1.

(And that is why "server" is in the title of "serverfault.com")

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    0.9999999999999 isn't equal to 1. – GManNickG Apr 19 '10 at 7:18

Have someone start an amateur level Math StackExchange site.


This isn't really a problem on the MO side, and probably not a very big problem on the S[OFU] side either. Math Overflow only gets about 30 visits/day from S[OFU] and MSO combined. When a normal person looks at the Math Overflow home page, she gets a pretty good idea of whether her question is appropriate there, even without looking at the FAQ, so we don't actually end up with too many inappropriate questions. The typical response to an inappropriate recommendation is probably Will's Thanks, jerk. I just visited that site and my head exploded. In other words, I don't think that S[OFU] users waste much time at MO. I think they just keep recommending it because they like the name. I like it too. Rather than repeatedly repeating the same repetitive thing over and over again, I'll just direct people to the meta.MO discussion about the name.

I think David Speyer's solution of finding the right place to direct people is best. In addition to the two he mentioned, we also send people to NRICH.

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    well if Anton, who runs the site, says this isn't a problem.. then it isn't a problem! – Jeff Atwood Jan 9 '10 at 9:34

I don't see a problem with wanting to keep basic questions separated from academic. We've already seen on SO that if allowed, beginner-level questions drown out the advanced ones. However, maybe a sister site should be created that can handle those questions, rather than preventing them entirely? It's kind of like doing TA work as a grad student -- most people don't really like having to teach the first-year courses or mark the exams, but everyone has to do it because advanced research is supported on the backs of the hordes of students coming through each year.

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    "We've already seen on SO that if allowed, beginner-level questions drown out the advanced ones." But beginner-level questions are allowed on SO, and they're not drowning out the advanced ones. – ceejayoz Jan 5 '10 at 18:35
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    I meant in the sense of statistics, not in obscurity -- probably 19/20 questions I see are "basic", and if I was interested in only the advanced questions, they would be harder to find. It's not a problem on SO, but apparently it's a problem on mathoverflow. – Ether Jan 5 '10 at 18:43

If the string mathoverflow is detected in the answer or comment box, show a warning/suggestion about the real purpose of mathoverflow in glaring orange somewhere on screen.

  • Yes, but on every remotely-math-related question, I see someone suggest asking mathoverflow, then someone replies saying that is not for mathoverflow. – Victor Liu May 3 '10 at 6:29

The short answer is - find a better place where amateur level questions can be answered.


As a professional computer programmer of many years standing, you would expect me to always be asking advanced questions. However in computer programming we are all having to learn new languages and frameworks all the time, therefore I sometimes ask “basic” questions, hence the mix of basic and advanced questions on SO is good.

What is so different about maths, or has it stagnated as a field?

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    I think there is a legitimate niche for high-caliber mathematics questions. There is a network effect: if you create a site that has high standards for content, more people at that level will use it. The opposite is true: if you create a site aimed at beginners, more people at that level will use it. Chiphacker and electronicsexchange are aimed far more at amateurs and they are less attractive for professional-level electrical engineers. – Jason S Jan 6 '10 at 15:00
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    ...so I don't think there's anything different about mathematics. If there were a version of SO aimed at high-caliber computer science, with basic questions excluded, it would get used, and would be more attractive to academics / less attractive to amateurs & commercial programmers. – Jason S Jan 6 '10 at 15:26
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    As a Mathematician come Computer Scientist, with some research experience in Economics as well, I've found that Computer Scientists tend to be much more friendly when it comes to sharing knowledge and trying to teach others. Not to say that MO should be less selective about questions, since I know a lot of students who would flood the place with their homework if they were allowed. – Ritwik Bose Apr 19 '10 at 8:04
  • That's cum, not come @Mechko. – TRiG is Timothy Richard Green Mar 12 '13 at 21:13
  • Because, in your remote world of programming, the new language would still be basic, but any sort of a "new field" (whatever that would mean) in Mathematics or Physiacs, or something else, would be research-level. – Abhimanyu Pallavi Sudhir Nov 8 '13 at 5:32
  • @DIMension10, but what if the person is leaning a field that is new to them, but has been about for say 10 years allready? – Ian Ringrose Nov 8 '13 at 15:46
  • @IanRingrose: 10 years is very recent in Mathematics or Physics : ) You see, the universe is much older than the computer : ) But say, if it was a 100 years, then that would likely be already ingrained into rather basic physics, so that would by no means be research-level. – Abhimanyu Pallavi Sudhir Nov 9 '13 at 3:34

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