Is it realistic to expect a new user to use mathjax & mhchem?

This was discussed at least once before.

Do we really need to badger everyone to use MathJax for chemical formulas?

I'd pm the moderator if I could, but I know of no other way to raise the issue and keep it out of the Chemistry site itself other than posting here.

The comment by moderator andselisk on the following question really irked me.

Equilibrium concentration of nitrogen monoxide

It was nice of andselisk to edit out the image and post the markup for it. However to chastise a new user for posting a picture instead of using mathjax and mhchem just seems inhospitable. To make the matter worse, two other users upvoted the inhospitable remark. I just think we need to be very diplomatic with new users. For example:

I edited your question and replaced the screenshot of the text with the markup the site uses so that the text would be searchable. If you'd like to learn more about the markup languages that the site uses for formatting, please visit this page, this page and this one on how to format your future posts better with MathJax and Markdown.

I was berated for writing $$\ce{K_\mathrm{eq}}$$ instead of $$K_\mathrm{eq}$$. "The upright K is for potassium not the equilibrium constant..."

Do we really need formatting police on the site? This whole issue of needing perfect formatting just seems like it is going too far.

• For future reference: You can go to Chemistry Chat and find (some) moderators there. If this is a matter of privacy, we can create chat rooms with restricted privileges. If it is a matter of urgency, raise a custom flag with the problem. We'll get back to you asap. You can also contact the support via e-mail, and they might get back to us. – Martin - マーチン May 13 at 10:46
• That said, I can understand that it might feel a bit futile pinging moderators about moderator action... I don't think any of us have gone rogue, and I'd like to believe we do handle things impartially, but I think that meta is indeed the "cleanest" way to hold us fully accountable. – orthocresol May 13 at 18:38
• I think we should expect a new user to make an attempt to learn the markdown, not to expect them to know this from before. – William R. Ebenezer May 14 at 16:55
• There's a line somewhere between discouraging posts and answers because we want pristine use of MathJax/Markdown, and users being aware that properly editing a post before submission is a small prize to pay to the site for its services. – Buck Thorn May 14 at 18:36
• Both MaxW and andselisk have their own views on making the site cleaner and more hospitable, both of which are correct in their own way. Here I'd like to quote what @orthocresol once told me- "Tone and body language can't be transmitted over the internet, so it's important to always assume the other party has good intentions" – Sir Arthur7 May 18 at 12:06
• Here is a place to quickly grab the proper formatting of pKa and $K_{eq}$: chemistry.meta.stackexchange.com/a/4718 – Karsten Theis May 22 at 12:53
• TBH I'm a bit lost. How else would you have that comment written and include the guidance and the links while not being "chastising"? I'm saying because it doesn't look chastising, nor even direct to me. – M.A.R. May 24 at 16:57

Short answer: no, it's not realistic to expect every new user to be familiar with MathJax and Markdown.

We do, however, naturally expect a user to improve their knowledge and skill set since they are seeking for the answer. This also includes literal writing and formulation of the ideas and concepts. There are users from all over the world, and without a uniform and standardized base for scientific publishing (which is currently primarily consists of recommendations found in IUPAC color books, SI Brochure, ISO Standards and ACS Guide to Scholarly Communication) there will be no consistency yet a lot of misunderstanding.

Actually, I believe we had this discussion with MaxW before somewhere in the comments some time ago, and I used the Tower of Babel as an example. I think using "$$\ce{K_\mathrm{eq}}$$" in place of "$$K_\mathrm{eq}$$" hinders communication and makes parsing harder not only for people, but also for the search engines and scripts used to process information because it not only contradicts accepted formatting, but also is semantically wrong.

Another example. Look, there are English letters "p" and "H". There are also Russian letters "р" and "Н", which look extremely similar. I have a Russian colleague who believes it's totally fine to denote pH in publications using Russian letters since it's easier (they don't have to switch the keyboard layout). They also use Russian "ф" in place of Greek "φ" and do on — the standard response is "who cares, they both look kinda the same". Editing these texts is a nightmare, and finding anything in there is a mighty quest. Do we really want that level of quality and literacy in here, too?

You see, it's not something extraordinary. It's not a "perfect formatting … going too far", it's the proper formatting, that should be the expected norm, just like English grammar and spelling. Note that despite higher quality expectations on Chemistry.SE (and other SE sites, too), users are not punished or are made fun of if they are not aware of some of these rules. They are, however, guided and assisted in making their posts more readable by the wider audience whenever possible. I honestly don't see how the comment

Avoid posting screenshots of the text blocks: this way your post lacks literate formatting and cannot be searchable. Please visit this page, this page and this one on how to format your future posts better with MathJax and Markdown.

is inhospitable, but it's probably just me. It would be nice if others could reflect on this issue too.

P.S. By the way, speaking of consistency, it's "MathJax", not "mathjax":)

• I agree with all your points. I think the tone of your comment is the main "complaint" here. I don't think it's rude, but it is pretty direct / matter-of-fact, and cultural differences mean that some people read it as aggressive. The issue isn't exclusive to Chemistry.SE, of course, although it sometimes doesn't help that we can't infer tone from plaintext. Happens in real life a lot too. I see it with Brits & other Europeans. I'm not entirely sure whether it is a problem per se that we need to solve. Am open to other comments / viewpoints. – orthocresol May 13 at 18:32
• For those who haven't seen it before, I suggest google image searching "what brits say vs what they mean". – orthocresol May 13 at 18:44
• Inferring the tone conveyed by internet comments is always something of a crapshoot, but this seemed fairly innocuous to me (I was one of the upvoters). If anything, it seemed more like a canned comment to point out why you made edits rather than an attempt to chastize the user. – Tyberius May 13 at 18:46
• To those of us who have seen such comments a hundred times I'm sure the comment doesn't seem unusual. However to a new user? To me it reads -- You're not welcome to post here unless you do it with our formatting style. // I'll agree that classifying the intent of the statement as blunt would be better than saying it is a chastisement. – MaxW May 13 at 18:56
• I was hoping that someone else would comment, but suggesting that the formatting on this site should be comparable to an ACS journal article is over the top. – MaxW May 14 at 17:55
• If I post, it's from my phone which has limitations vs a PC/laptop. If I need literally one subscript, superscript, potential symbol etc, I'm not going to trawl the links to proper formatting and then have the post time out and have to start all over again. – Beerhunter May 22 at 17:55
• @Beerhunter Phones are not designed with content creation in mind, they are only good at content consumption, so you are using the wrong tool for the job. – andselisk May 22 at 18:01

Another issue is that the questions and answers are not just there for the new member's benefit, but for future users who want to find something useful to their own needs. If we have poorly written and formatted questions this will deter other future users from using the site.

It may be a burden for some new members to learn Mathjax, but if you expect to make use of the site and benefit from it, a "minimal fee" is reasonable in the form of posting questions in a clear way that's standard and easy for all members to follow.

I agree new users should be given some help and encouragement, but that's not the same as suggesting we should relax the standards we expect them to try and use. And that goes for using standard scientific notations (which Mathjax et all can also help with). It all helps with long term usefulness of the question and answers.

I think it's thoroughly unrealistic (to extent that I would say "obviously") to expect new users to post for the first time with a knowledge of MathJax and Markdown. Go ahead, start a post yourself. Is there anything there to suggest that you should be using MathJax and Markdown? I for one didn't see anything, and I am reasonably experienced with the site.

However, it is definitely not unrealistic to expect them to learn it following a comment on proper usage. In addition, andselisk's comment struck me as completely appropriate.

• I'll agree that andselisk's intent wasn't to chastise the user and that rather his comment was just blunt. However given the difficulty in interpreting intent from a short message, could the message have been more pleasantly tactful? – MaxW May 14 at 18:54
• @MaxW Well, andselisk could have written "please", there's no harm in typing the extra 7 characters. And I agree that one should remember the usual principles guiding online conduct. Then again, I would cut andselisk some slack, editing others' posts (even when they are bound to be closed) is really a labour of love, that effort on his part should set an example to the OP and indicate his goodwill. – Buck Thorn May 14 at 19:29

There are two or three issues you are raising. I’ll rephrase them in my own words above the answers I want to give.

Is it realistic to expect a new user to use MathJax/mhchem?

No.
There is no problem with a new user coming in and using simple text to get their point across. Both MathJax and mhchem are a lot to learn and everyone can learn new things about them every day.

Do we need a formatting police editing all posts for proper formatting?

Yes.
Not only is it a core idea of the Stack Exchange model that everybody should submit any edit necessary to improve posts or make them more readable. It is also necessary for future discussions to have the correct (intended) formatting displayed. Even one person looking at an equilibrium constant and thinking equilibrised potassium is one person too many. Formatting standards exist to reduce possible ambiguity and posts on Stack Exchange should live up to that expectation.

Furthermore, a well-formatted answer simply looks better and is more likely to attract upvotes which is in the new user’s interest too (I hope).

Should we point to resources to help new users learn?

Yes, but.
Obviously new users need to be told that better formatting can be done and where to find guidance. It can be put together with a welcoming message greeting them as new users on this site. Not all users will react fully approvingly to such a welcoming message – but by and large we might well be happy that those who don’t won’t stick around.

That said, such a message needs to be written in a very polite and courteous way which is an art that I myself do not always excel at. As scientists, a lot of us tend to tone down our speech and writing to a clear minimum which is unfortunately lacking most of the additional tones that would indicate its polite and helpful intent. Furthermore, it is up to the other side to interpret the tone of a written message and it is easy to misread a succinct and clear message as passive agressive or condescending. Thus, I always try to remind myself to include filler words or extraneous phrases in an attempt to highlight how I only want to help and that I am not criticising the new user.

Together, we can all do our best.

In addition to the points already made, I'd like to suggest we have a pinned page on the meta containing pre-crafted phrases you can copy to respond via comment to common undesirable formatting/question quality issues. I find it tiring to write a new paragraph welcoming someone and suggesting they visit the docs each time someone writes a poor-quality question or ^12C_5^13CH_12.

This would serve the purpose of ensuring kindly-phrased comments from mods (not that I personally take issue with andselisks' comment), as well as facilitating the maintenance of this site by providing ease of access to helpful responses.

• This should be a separate "question" on meta. So delete it and add this to meta as new question. Also I'm sure that this has been discussed before. – MaxW May 19 at 22:07
• It's a good suggestion: so good we've already done it, in fact. ;) The posts are written in a format that is suitable for this browser add-on. chemistry.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/3204/… It's just not pinned, or "featured", though; they're still somewhat unofficial... – orthocresol May 20 at 3:48
• @orthocresol Comment Templates is pinned all right… as a tab in my browser:) – andselisk May 20 at 6:06
• @jezzo I actually used two canned comments from Comment Templates merged together. The problem apparently was that only the second sentence included "please". – andselisk May 20 at 6:08
• @andselisk I like using "You can...". It's actually pretty friendly, but it also means that after waiting 2 days with OP not editing their question, I can grumble to myself "well, I said you can, but obviously you won't". :) – orthocresol May 20 at 6:32
• @orthocresol Noted. Would you kindly might also work, I guess:D – andselisk May 20 at 6:38
• Thanks all for the directions to the comment templates! @orthocresol I was only 4 years too late ;) While I would have found it had I thought to look for it, it might help the site to make newcomers aware of it. – jezzo May 20 at 16:46