Now that the site has graduated, it is attracting a lot more attention from newcomers to Mathematica, as well as frequently receiving migrations from StackOverflow. I suppose I don't have to point out to anyone that some of these questions provide limited evidence of sincere effort on the part of the asker. Fortunately, we seem to be closing a lot of these questions promptly. However, a lot of the time one must choose between NaRQ and TL as a reason for closure, even though, objectively, neither of these options is particularly suitable.


A few of the questions we might like to close are not far from RTFM territory, but many more simply demonstrate a lack of research and (dare I say it) independent thought, in that the answer sought may be little more than a trivial generalization of what is directly stated in the documentation, or the composition of a few simple concepts that are discussed separately in adequate detail. Alternatively, the asker may be an absolute beginner who simply does not know where to begin or hasn't yet arrived at a coherent conceptual model of how Mathematica works.

To be clear, the questions I am talking about are of the type not quite bad enough to warrant a downvote, but where one still has the feeling that not much of any lasting value can be added over what has already been said elsewhere--in the documentation, on this site, on MathGroup, wherever: the point is that a thorough treatment has already been given. Moreover, they are the kind of questions to which anyone with any familiarity with Mathematica already knows the answer without even having to think about it, but where a new user may need a push in the right direction.

A related question was asked by Szabolcs some time ago, but this focused on blatant RTFM cases which most people agreed are not really legitimate questions in the first place. In contrast, I want to concentrate here on those that, while they at least deserve answers, don't really contribute anything to the long-term value of this site. To address Mr. Wizard's suggestions in the other thread:

If the only answer to a simple question is a quote form the documentation[,] ... I think this shows a lack of imagination.

I agree, but some questions by their nature do not call for imaginitive answers. Personally, I usually either answer in the comments or ignore such questions, confident in the knowledge that many others are willing to give an (unimaginitive) answer, perhaps including a simple example at most. The asker will definitely get their answer, but unless someone comes up with something spectacular, or a lot of competing approaches come to light, nobody except the OP particularly cares. If enough people think that a question has no real value, I think it makes sense for it to be closed with a view to eventual deletion.

If the question is really so drab and clear-cut that no other answer is appropriate edit the question into something better, and answer that.

I don't agree with this. Firstly it usually isn't helpful to the poster, who is normally starting out with Mathematica and doesn't expect or want an answer complicated or subtle enough to appeal to experienced users. Secondly, it's difficult to be imaginitive, especially given an uninspiring idea, and in doing so one runs the risk of producing a question/answer that nobody cares about--not even the OP. Rather, I think the question that was asked should be answered honestly and then closed.


I know that at least one other site has an additional reason for closing: "covered in standard sources". (I forget which site this is; perhaps someone else can recall.) This is ideal for both RTFM questions and marginal cases that perhaps aren't addressed verbatim in the documentation but relate to such fundamental concepts that what is needed is not so much an answer but a tutorial (or simply more experience on the asker's part in order to be able to formulate a useful question).

I'd also like another option, for questions so uninteresting that nobody would be sad to see them disappear. I'm not sure what this could be called: perhaps something like "no archival value". But perhaps I'm jumping the gun--maybe most people don't agree that this option should exist at all. If you have any thoughts on this, please add your answer below.

  • I like "covered in standard sources". Closing with an appropriate link just like done with "Exact duplicate" would be ideal. Commented Sep 12, 2012 at 20:25
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    English has general reference as a closing reason, whose explanatory text is: “This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.” I strongly support the addition of that closing reason to MMA.
    – F'x
    Commented Sep 12, 2012 at 20:28
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    You might be thinking of English Language & Usage, which has a "General reference" close reason (an example). I agree that this would be useful, and we should be able to close with a link to ref/Foo (and the site automatically completes the link structure to match WRI's online ref page)
    – rm -rf Mod
    Commented Sep 12, 2012 at 20:29
  • @F'x I feel the reference to "standard sources" without explicitly pointing them out is subpar. We could perhaps refer to the mma resources question. Commented Sep 12, 2012 at 20:33
  • @SjoerdC.deVries seconded… though usually, a few links are given out in comments, which also does the deed
    – F'x
    Commented Sep 12, 2012 at 20:34
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    @SjoerdC.deVries That mma resources question is too big to be useful as a simple pointer and I certainly wouldn't recommend closing anything as a dupe of that. In fact, Faysal's second list is turning out to just be a list of questions on this site that he personally finds useful (which is what the "favorite" feature is for). I suggest requesting SE to add the ability to close with a link to the doc page (in cases of good questions which are RTFM).
    – rm -rf Mod
    Commented Sep 12, 2012 at 20:35
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    This should work E[Comment] = I Like This ... but I can't plot it Commented Sep 12, 2012 at 20:37
  • @F'x I think you're right, it is English.SE that I was thinking of. The phrasing of that option actually covers both of the possibilities I was thinking of to some extent. I agree that we do need to have a way to give a link to the applicable reference, though. Is a comment good enough? Commented Sep 12, 2012 at 21:03

3 Answers 3


There are a couple of problems with this idea:

  1. There's a real slippery-slope created by any policy that disallows questions which "aren't addressed verbatim in the documentation but relate to such fundamental concepts that what is needed is not so much an answer but a tutorial". Taken to the extreme, this disallows any question where the answer is obvious to someone reading it - which means you're only allowing questions that no one knows the answer to.

    For questions that are simply too broad, you'll find support in the FAQ for simply closing these as Not a Real Question:

    Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.

  2. The more fundamental issue with disallowing questions that are already answered elsewhere is that you're throwing away one of the primary values offered by Stack Exchange: the chance to improve on an existing answer by editing or by posting your own.

I know that at least one other site has an additional reason for closing: "covered in standard sources"

As noted in the comments, you're probably thinking of English Language & Usage. This is sort of a special-case: they were struggling with questions whose answers are not only available elsewhere, but for which specialized tools - dictionaries, thesauruses - already exist specifically to answer. This isn't quite the same as someone not reading and understanding the documentation, and so that close reason was created to encourage the use of these fine tools.

Unless you have the equivalent of a dictionary for Mathematica - and a corresponding deluge of questions asking for definitions of things - you probably don't want this. EL&U still accepts questions on interpreting words that are found in a dictionary, and there's no reason why you shouldn't be at least somewhat willing to accept questions looking to interpret something found in the documentation for Mathematica.

I'd also like another option, for questions so uninteresting that nobody would be sad to see them disappear.

Sounds like a job for... Down-voting! Seriously, this is what it's meant for: if a question is on-topic, constructive, but so completely useless that you can't imagine anyone benefiting from it, just down-vote. If the majority of voters agree with you, it'll drop out of sight; if they don't, it won't. Closing is for questions that cannot or should not be answered - but for questions that can and should but which strike you as lousy anyway, down-votes are the way to rank them.

If it's clearly not possible for anyone else to ever benefit from the question and its answers in the future, then Too Localized is a good close reason.

And finally, if there's a specific topic that you all agree has no place here, add it to the FAQ and close questions on it as Off Topic.

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    Thanks for your response. While I appreciate your points, I have to disagree. Firstly, I find the slippery slope argument very unconvincing, as an answer being either immediately obvious or inaccessible to anybody is a false dichotomy. Personally, I consider the best questions to be those that have hidden depths: one can see that an answer is possible, but to solve the problem well requires attention to subtle issues that may not be immediately apparent. Perhaps you're right in that no-one may know the answer immediately, but it should be possible to reason it out. I'm ... Commented Sep 13, 2012 at 18:26
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    ... not advocating going to extremes: this is not the kind of question I'd vote to close, even if I personally knew the answer right away. Similarly, if improvements are possible over what's been said elsewhere then the question absolutely is a valid one, but I don't think we need to re-post every topic that's been dealt with over 23 years of MathGroup postings if there isn't anything to add, just in case someone might contribute a new answer in 5 years' time. Regarding the documentation: you can see for ... Commented Sep 13, 2012 at 18:27
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    ... yourself that it's much more than a dictionary. It's closer to an interactive encyclopedia of tutorials, function usage information, descriptions of algorithms and methods, application examples, and possible issues that users may face, and its purpose is indeed to answer most questions that a user may have. Duplicating any of that here without adding anything new is IMO a complete waste of time and effort if a link will suffice. As to downvoting, in principle I agree, but in practice the community has reached a consensus to downvote only ... Commented Sep 13, 2012 at 18:28
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    ... unintelligible or ill-conceived nonsense, very obvious RTFM cases (and even then not always), or questions for which it isn't reasonable to expect that an answer can be given--and I can't really see that changing now. However, closing (with an accurately stated reason) the questions that sufficiently many community members consider to add nothing to the site will help our moderators and 10k+ users when it comes to deciding what can and should be deleted. Commented Sep 13, 2012 at 18:31

How about NaGQ: "Not a good question: This question shows little or no prior research effort, or is incomplete or poorly written, and is unlikely to be of use to other users in its present form."

This is just a rehash of the ideas behind the up voting arrows. It slightly overlaps with NaRQ.


I received my first networked unix account as a computer science student in the mid 80s and found usenet shortly thereafter. As a graduate student in mathematics, I started contributing to sci.math and comp.soft-sys.math.mathematica (a.k.a. mathgroup).

In those days, the discussion was wide ranging. Using google.groups, I just looked back at sci.math in 1994 (I maxed out on internet discussion then, as I was avoiding my dissertation). I found discussions on teaching, publishing, graduate school, 0.9 repeating, measure theory, functional analysis, politics (usually, with a mathematical or quantitative slant), Fermat's last theorem (proved around then), and on and on. It was wide open and wonderful.

Of course, there were problems, the biggest one being cranks. Some individuals would incessantly type the most insane drivel to the point of drowning out the value of the forum. Another problem, of course, is that some folks could get rude or belligerent. I mean, math is passionate, right?

Because of this background perhaps, my feeling is that there should be just one reason for closing a question - namely, this question is rude, mean, profane, or just plain nuts. That is the purpose of moderation - to control abuse. Beyond that, I think that moderators should do as little as possible. The stackexchange search facilities are outstanding and community is supportive. People will be able to find the good content regardless of how many people ask why a Do loop produces no output. If someone asks a question whose answer is easily found in the documentation, just politely point them to the relevant portion of the documentation. If they do so again, then point them to the documentation again. They'll probably get it eventually; otherwise, ignore.

@Oleksander, Incidently, I noticed a message from you a few days ago in my Inbox, which I never really read closely. I can't do so now, as the question has been deleted, even though I recall the question generating some interesting discussion. Ironic, eh?

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    I don't agree. "As little as possible" is an appropriate moderation style for a discussion group, but SE is quite explicity a Q&A site, and that calls for a bit more quality control. Commented Sep 15, 2012 at 13:51
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    IMO the reason good content is so easy to find here, is that there is a high concentration of good content. That's because there are excellent people contributing of course, and crucially a disciplined approach from the moderators and the community in general at weeding out the rubbish. Stop weeding and the good content will become harder to find, regardless of how good the search facility is. Searching on "Plot" should turn up useful Q&A's on Plot, not hundreds of cases Do loops returning no output. Commented Sep 15, 2012 at 13:52

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