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I have recently found instances of moderators closing questions (which of course occurs with their single vote) instead of leaving them to be judged by the community in the review queues. For example :

In my opinion these questions are not blatantly off-topic - they might be off-topic but they are not blatantly so - nor are they likely to disrupt the community, as required by the guidance for moderators in the help center. I do not see any necessity for moderator intervention here, depriving the OP of the benefit of his/her question being judged by a cross-section of his/her peers, rather than a single user, however eminent.

Moderators are human exception handlers, there to deal with those exceptional conditions that could otherwise disrupt the community.

...A lot of the moderation work is mundane: deleting obvious spam, closing blatantly off-topic questions, and culling some of the worst-rated posts on the site. The ideal moderator does as little as possible, but those little actions may be powerful, visible, and highly concentrated.

This description reflects the StackOverflow blog post A Theory of Moderation which states that:

Moderators are ... there to deal with those (hopefully rare) exceptional conditions that should not normally happen, but when they do, they can bring your entire community to a screaming halt -- if you don't have human exception handling in place.

The help center also says that

Closing is a democratic voting process where the community identifies questions that duplicate existing content, are unreasonable to answer in their current state, or do not belong on the site.

(emphasis added) David Z has pointed out to me that the help center does not say that Moderators cannot use their unilateral vote to close questions routinely, but I think it does give a clear impression that that privilege is intended for the exceptional rather than the routine.

David's question Community, help us close questions! acknowledges that closure should be a community decision. It indicates that the practice of routine closure by moderators developed when there was a shortage of reviewers, but this surely is not the case today.

See also


I appreciate that the review queue for close votes might grow alarmingly large at times, but I do not think moderator intervention is the correct way to deal with such a problem. If moderators think the review queue is too slow, or the system is not working, the situation ought to be discussed on Meta (eg David's 2012 call for reviewers to use their votes).

I also appreciate that questions closed unilaterally by a moderator can be reopened by voting. However, that is also a slow process, and it is much less likely to happen than it being closed by reviewers, because there is an inherent bias towards leaving a question closed, especially if it has not been improved since being closed.


My view is that the moderator's unilateral close vote should be reserved for exceptional cases, not those which are routine.

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  • $\begingroup$ The answer I could post to this would be fairly similar to my answer to your second linked question. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jan 3 '17 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ : Well why not cut-and-paste that comment as an answer, so that others can comment and vote on it? $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jan 3 '17 at 21:05
  • $\begingroup$ Because it's not an answer. In any case, you know my position on this. I prefer to hold off on answering for a while to encourage other community members to contribute answers, so we get a greater variety of input. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jan 3 '17 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ Hi @DavidZ. Your answer in the other post is from 2011. Do you still think that "The problem with that is that the community closing process takes a long time to work"? After all, I would think that today there are many more high rep users than in the '11, right? [I'm not saying that I agree with s.g., nor with you. It's just that I think that it might be useful to have an updated answer]. $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Jan 3 '17 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ @AccidentalFourierTransform I think that is true less often today than it was in 2011, but I do think it's still true in many cases - specifically, it's true enough that it's still sometimes beneficial for moderators to close posts unilaterally. I could post an updated answer but it would wind up saying something basically similar to my other answer, just perhaps a bit more measured - that's what I meant by my first comment here. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jan 3 '17 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ I edited out the section of your post where you speculate about why moderators are closing questions, because that's not the case. Unfounded speculation, such as that, is not okay. While I'm at it I fixed some grammatical/formatting issues in the rest of your post. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jan 4 '17 at 3:22
  • $\begingroup$ If it's possible to use the Stack Exchange Data Explorer to group closed questions by the number of close votes, then we could identify mod-hammered questions as those closed with fewer than four votes. That would give a richer data set than these four questions which happened to bother you recently. $\endgroup$ – rob Jan 4 '17 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ Frankly, I find most of your linked examples to be blatantly off-topic or close to that. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jan 6 '17 at 11:47
  • $\begingroup$ @AccidentalFourierTransform The transition from mod-driven to community-driven closures (i.e. when the close queue was fast enough to close most questions) was around mid-2013, documented on this thread. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jan 6 '17 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty : The fact that we can reasonably disagree on whether or not the questions are off topic indicates that they are not blatantly off topic. See my comments below to John Rennie on the space needle question. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jan 6 '17 at 14:06
  • $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil I don't really think that you can reasonably disagree that those questions are off-topic. Or, put another way: I find your linked examples to be blatantly off-topic. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jan 6 '17 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty : You are simply restating your opinion. The fact that you judge them all to be off topic does not make them blatantly off topic. I would be interested to see your reasoning as to why you think they are blatantly off topic. What (in your opinion) is the difference between blatant and not blatant? $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jan 6 '17 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty : The tag says "discussion". I am asking for discussion of this issue about the operation of the site, not opinions/preferences. I expect those who engage in discussion to be willing to give their objective reasons, as they would be expected to do if discussing a physics problem. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jan 6 '17 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil As I said - you're taking this too seriously. My main point is that the consensus is probably much closer to closing those questions than your personal opinion. Frankly, I don't even see the need for a detailed explanation - they really are beyond the pale, particularly nos. 2 and 3. It baffles me that you're fighting to keep open such terrible questions. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jan 6 '17 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ @ACuriousMind : As I have pointed out (and AFT acknowledges) questions are far more easily closed than reopened. The issue is : What does blatantly off topic mean? How does it differ from not blatantly off topic? Your logic seems to be that anything which gets closed and doesn't get reopened is blatantly off topic. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jan 6 '17 at 16:28
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I would say that moderators get it right most of the times. But sometimes they err, in which case I can think of four routes you can take:

  1. Vote to reopen. If the question is very clearly on-topic, it should get reopened rather fast. I agree with your point that

it is much less likely to happen than it being closed by Reviewers, because there is an inherent bias towards leaving a question closed, especially if it has not been improved since being closed.

so this route is not always ideal.

  1. Leave a comment in the closed post asking for clarification. Sometimes you might get the moderator to reconsider their decision; if it was indeed a rushed and unjustified closure, I'm sure the moderator will agree and reopen the question. But sometimes the moderator will disagree. In this case, reviewers might read your comment and, if convincing, this will make up for the inherent bias from before.

  2. Bring the issue to Meta. If the question was improperly closed, most users will agree with you and quickly vote to reopen. If they disagree with you, there is not much you can do but accept that you were wrong this time and move on.

  3. You can always come to the chat, and ask other users (and even moderators) what they think about the closed question. You will usually find several high rep users which can vote to reopen if they agree with you. You can even interact in real time with the moderator that closed the question and they might clear up their reasons (see e.g., this recent transcript where a very similar issue was discussed).

This of course only answers what to do when there are unilateral closures by moderators; I leave it to them (or other users) to discuss whether such a closure is improper or not.

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The fundamental rule of moderation is:

Moderators can never win¹

If they don't close egregious homework questions the moment they are posted we moan and if they're over zealous about closing homework questions we moan. The best moderators can do is try not to lose too often, and I'd say they do that pretty well and deserve a hearty round of applause for their efforts.

Moderation is different, and harder, here than in Stack Overflow or indeed any other SE site I can think of with the possible exception of the Maths SE. The difference is our homework policy. Yes, there are endless arguments about whether our approach to homework is justified or not, but while the policy exists you can't blame the moderators for doing their best to enforce it.

The homework policy only works if homework questions are closed off before someone unaware of the policy answers the question. If the OP gets an answer then it doesn't matter if the question is subsequently closed and/or the answer deleted. If the OP is getting answers that encourages them to ask more homework questions and the flood of homework gets ever deeper.

So there is a lot of pressure on the mods to close off homework questions ASAP. The moderator uncertainty principle means some homework questions won't be closed while some questions will be closed unnecessarily. That's life. The main thing is that the moderators get it mostly right most of the time. You've highlighted some cases where you think the mods were wrong (I disagree on some of your examples) and ignored the many cases where they got it right.

It's always worth keeping an eye on the closure of questions because I feel as though the moderatorial consensus drifts between (slightly) too severe and (slightly) too lax. Maybe it's edging towards the too severe end of the spectrum at the moment, and if so this discussion will probably be sufficient to nudge it back in the other direction. However I strongly disagree with your implication that there is a serious problem and that moderators should intervene only in exceptional cases.


¹ and people ask me why I didn't stand as a moderator at the last election :-)

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    $\begingroup$ I am not asking whether you think the cited questions are off topic but whether they are blatantly so. ... If it is the responsibility of moderators to ensure that questions they think are off topic are closed promptly, then why should the rest of us bother voting at all? We are doing their job but 5x less efficiently. It would make more sense for them to do all the closing of questions and the rest of us vote to reopen any which we think should not have been closed. Pro-tempore moderators could be appointed until the problem is under control, as Robert Cardaino suggested. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jan 4 '17 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil: the line between off-topic and blatantly off-topic is a fine one. I think that at least one of the questions you cited is blatantly off-topic. I think at least one is not blatantly off-topic. Moderators have to use their judgement and sometimes you will disagree with their judgement. That's normal. What matters is you agree with their judgement most of the time. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Jan 5 '17 at 6:55
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    $\begingroup$ Not so. Blatant has synonyms glaring, obvious, patent, manifest, unmistakable. In other words, nobody would dispute the issue : no judgement is required. If there is a fine line then you are describing something equivocal, which could be argued either way, requiring a discretionary judgement between them. The idea of blatant is that no discretionary judgement is necessary : everyone would agree on it. eg Spam, rant, no physics content at all. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jan 5 '17 at 11:59
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    $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil: I think the space needle question is blatant homework. You presumably disagree. So we have differing views of what blatant means. You're saying that I am wrong and you are right. Well. OK, it's a free world. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Jan 5 '17 at 12:06
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    $\begingroup$ Then what is your definition of blatant? ... The space needle question points out a possible error in the OP's "student book" and asks a conceptual question ("How can the CG be underground?"). How is that homework? It is not a question which the book is asking, and no calculation is called for. As I recall, you and others addressed the conceptual issue in comments - which DavidZ deleted. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jan 5 '17 at 12:29
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Regarding your final statement,

My view is that the moderator's unilateral close vote should be reserved for exceptional cases, not those which are routine,

I disagree. Moderators' question-closure duties should include routine closures, where questions are blatantly off-topic.

This applies in particular to blatant cases of off-topic non-mainstream and homework-like questions. Non-mainstream questions can prove quite harmful, through a variety of ways. Similarly, answers to do-my-work-for-me homework-like questions do a lot to weaken the policy, and there is a strong broken windows argument that they should be closed before they get even a single answer. As such, if a question is clearly off-topic homework, then the site benefits from prompt closure even if it is via a unilateral moderator vote.

This is particularly the case for your questions two and three, and quite a bit for number four. Regarding the space needle question, with its complete lack on the "show some effort" front, I'm confused why you think it is anything but blatantly off-topic in its present form: it can be edited into an on-topic form, which is precisely why it is currently closed.

In any case, a moderator closure does not pre-empt a democratic look at whether the question is on-topic or not: that is what the reopen review queue is for.

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Moderators should never close a question for being off-topic in my opinion. Just get it on topic and you are done?

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    $\begingroup$ Not all questions can be made on-topic; and for others the edit required to make it on-topic would be so substantial that the asker should really do it themselves, since edits that fundamentally change the meaning of a post are frowned upon. I'm not sure what you're trying to say here. $\endgroup$ – ACuriousMind Jan 4 '17 at 13:52
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    $\begingroup$ Cause not everyone is a professional at physics, and knows what each category is for. It's not like I am doing it on purpose.. You're basically saying if you don't know how to make it on topic, don't ask a question. $\endgroup$ – Okama Ksakas Jan 4 '17 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ The purpose of closing the question (or rather, putting it On Hold), is to encourage the poster to edit to make it on topic. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jan 4 '17 at 19:00

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