I see that many questions are poorly received when the formatting is awful (pKa, OH-, etc.). I agree this is terrible, so I came up with the following idea that I would like to share.

More often that not, the user will not be aware of MathJax. The trick would be that after he/she hits "Review Your Question", the system recognizes that the user is employing math/chemical notation. A window is popped and it should be as simple to say:

  • We really appreciate when users format mathematical and chemical symbols!!!.
  • You have MnO4-? Just write $\ce{MnO4-}$ giving you $\ce{MnO4-}$.
  • You wrote the number 3? Just write $3$.
  • With double dollar signs $$ [...] $$ the equations are centered!
  • You wrote an expression such as pKa = 3? Just write $\mathrm{p}K_\mathrm{a} = 3$ giving you $\mathrm{p}K_\mathrm{a} = 3$.

Of course this doesn't cover the universe of Mathjax, but the idea would be to contain the most used ones (e.g., \ce{} would be mandatory).

Personally, my main idea is to avoid the user to exit the site forever, by getting a closed question in matter of minutes. I think that this approach could eliminate unreadable questions which will be automatically sent to oblivion.

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    $\begingroup$ 'pKa' and 'OH-' is not an awful formatting, it's more like lack of one and is rarely a cause of closing. I wouldn't even consider to downvote. It gets awful with arrogance and inconsistency when a certain formatting (including punctuation and capitalization) is used. I would also disagree with "Just write $3$." — invoking math mode just because there is a number is unnecessary, serves no purpose and uglifies the text flow with different font family for no good reason. Of course, $pKa = 3$ is no better than pKa = 3, I'd even say it's worse. Also, $ is a dollar sign. $\endgroup$
    – andselisk Mod
    Jan 10 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ Some folks try to use plain text that relies on line breaks. It is readable in the text box they enter it, but becomes unreadable when submitted. To get at the meaning, you have to edit the question, giving you the line breaks as originally entered again. You have to decide if it is worth the effort. Most users post never, some post once, and it is rare that someone posts more than once. $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Jan 10 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Karsten the lazy fix is to codeblock with ```. Honestly, if the person doesn't bother checking the rendered markdown below their own post, I'd probably wouldn't even do that. More often it's not even some pseudographics, ASCII art or attempt to outline the text, rather blatant copypasted wall of text from a PDF which (surprise!) looks like crap in MD. $\endgroup$
    – andselisk Mod
    Jan 10 at 21:33
  • $\begingroup$ OK, I fixed the $\mathrm{p}K_\mathrm{a} = 3$ because that seems to be my legacy. $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Jan 10 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ @andselisk Hello! Thanks for pointing out the dollar sign (funnily, when I was thinking this post, I was searching how to write € because I have an upcoming British exam). I agree that the given examples were not that great (especially pKa), but they were just to illustrate. The problem comes up when you mix all of them together, in quantity, and with no breaks between paragraphs. That will lead to awful formatting, in my opinion. $\endgroup$ Jan 10 at 22:25

2 Answers 2


These are just a few random things, why I would prefer not having this or why I think it is not necessary.

  1. I don't think that questions without good formatting automatically get the down- and/or close-vote. There is usually a lot more "wrong" with the question than just the application of MathJax.
  2. A "bad" question with "good" formatting is still a bad question. In the end I think there is much more to it then just making nice formula. I personally think that 'HO- + H3O+ -> 2 H2O' is understandable (and not terrible). And there are a few active users that apply such markup regularly. For the new user there is more learned from this experience.
  3. Users, who care, care. Users, who don't care, don't care. There are ways to direct users to help and then they still need to accept this. You can see that many of the users who ask ill-received questions never even bothered to take the tour. All the information is there and it is quite compressed, too.
  4. MathJax is hard. There are quite a few veterans on this site that use it not in the way it should be used or that it is optimal. And I personally think that is absolutely fine. I am of the opinion, that the entry bar to asking a question should be as low as possible. I know that with this territory come question we'd rather not have. It's fine to try to engage, but most times nothing much will happen. If the entry bar is high enough to shy away a good question just because of some markup, then the site looses. I'm totally fine with sorting out ten bad questions when I get a good one eventually.
  5. It seems even more elitist than our site usually comes across.

Let's get to the technical aspects.

  1. Implementation will be hard. Currently the autodetection systems can't even filter much of the standard stuff like hello and thanks and so on. The chance of false positives is enormous.
  2. I would need to be implemented on the client side, otherwise these checks will produce a lot of stress on the site. MathJax by itself is heavy enough already. I have nothing against a static message directing users to the help pages though.
  3. It would need to be implemented with the base code of Stack Exchange, but the minority of pages use MathJax to start with.
  4. There are plenty of unforeseeable side effects. I think the standard implementation still hasn't fixed how you can enter MathJax mode.

In the end, I'd rather have no MathJax use, than wrong MathJax use. I'm a lot more triggered by $CH_3OH + OH^- \rightarrow CH_3O^- + H_2O$ than by CH3OH + OH- -> CH3O- + H2O.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for answering. I thought that the implementation would be easy, something like searching for strings in a text in Python (= and CH would be a good candidates, provided they are not formatted), but I am wrong. I agree that the most important thing is the content, but the site can't help for the user to pose good questions. But in this case it may help with the forms. $\endgroup$ Jan 10 at 22:35
  • $\begingroup$ (...) The idea is very similar as when the system recognizes previous questions, and when you read the titles, you ensure that the question is new. The user doesn't need to go to another link. In this case, the user doesn't need to go to other links on how to write in math mode. Just knowing the dollar signs for two equations or \ce{} , is a lot and the makes sure that the user stays on the same page. $\endgroup$ Jan 10 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Martin "I'm a lot more triggered by..." $\ce{H_20}$ is worse ;) $\endgroup$ Jan 11 at 4:48
  • $\begingroup$ @MetalStorm " system recognizes previous questions" Does it really? Why are there some many dupes then? ;> $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Jan 11 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Mithoron You have a point. But my intuition tells me this. Say $A$ is the event of the user searching for a similar question before asking, and $B$ of the user checking for similar questions when the options pop up when he is about to submit the question, then $P(B) >> P(A)$. The same idea I think it would apply to formatting in order to have a more beautiful layout in the question. $\endgroup$ Jan 11 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ @MetalStorm Searching isn't easy - in fact that's the main thing people asking want us to do for them. This site pretty much boils down to people finding info for others. $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Jan 11 at 17:26

There are a couple of things in place already. When asking their first question, users are shown a document, saying:

Welcome to Chemistry Stack Exchange! To get you the best answer, we provide this guidance for first-time askers.

Before you post, search the site to make sure your question hasn’t been answered.

Follow our policies when asking homework-like questions (questions about problem sets, exam items, etc.). Carefully write your question, using clear language, technical terms and formatting as best as you can. Give sufficient context (what you understand and where you need help). It helps us and helps you. [...]

The help center starts with

For help with formatting chemistry or math, see this post on the chemistry meta site.

enter image description here

Many first-time posters don't pay attention to these messages, not realizing that a well-formatted question makes it more understandable, and will have a better chance of being answered.

If you see a new post that has promising content but awful formatting, consider fixing it and leaving a comment linking to this post on the chemistry meta site, i.e. FAQ: How can I format math/chemistry expressions on Chemistry Stack Exchange?. For me, the formatting by example is the easiest to use (I wrote it ...), and you can find it here: https://chemistry.meta.stackexchange.com/a/4718

The rationale I wrote for the "first-time asker modal" also applies to improving questions after they are posted by new users, so I am pasting it here:

About 40% of questions asks are first-time questions. In the last 90 days (as of 9/17/2022), 609 questions were closed, about half of all questions asked during that time. Better guidance could result in higher quality questions posted, and low-quality questions not posted (because the potential OP realizes that the question would be a duplicate or is off-topic or blatant homework). This might have a slight positive impact on the site (less work closing questions, more time for answering good questions or editing questions to turn them into good questions).

The bigger potential impact is on what happens to users after they ask their first question. If the OP's question gets closed, voted down or receives unflattering comments, this might be the last question the OP asks here. This is fine for OPs that have little or nothing to offer to the community, and are not interested in learning about how the site works. However, there might be one or two first-timers who would mature into valuable high-impact members of the community if their first question is of higher quality and gets received better (good answers, helpful comments, up-votes).

We do have control over some of the help pages (including the one linked to above), so suggestions for making those more relevant would be appreciated. In the end, not every first-time poster will pay attention, so everyone is invited to help out after the fact if it seems worthwhile to you. The change you are suggesting would require StackExchange to approve it and implement it, which is more difficult than working with the tools already in place.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. I think that all those links are the best and I want to emphasize that. I also would like that the user that enters the website could care more. But possibly the issue is that same thing. By your answer, before posting a question, you are sent to four diferent links. How to write chem equations has a ToC itself. Other links have other links themselves. Imagine yourself in real life, going to your professor in the chemical department, and being greeted with four PDF's on how to ask clear questions. What would you do? $\endgroup$ Jan 10 at 22:20

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