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I have never understood why some answers-in-the-comments (or partial answers, or empirical data) are apparently allowed, while others get deleted. As I practice swinging this hammer, I find myself confronted with this more and more.

StackExchange's guidance is that comments should "ask for clarification on, suggest corrections to, and provide meta-information about posts" and warns that comments are subject to deletion.

In this discussion, the upvoted posts explain why answers-in-the-comments can be good, while the downvoted posts suggest that they should be deleted.

In this discussion, it is suggested that our mods currently delete comments-in-the-answers if, and only if, they are flagged by other users (rather than proactively finding-and-destroying all instances).

In a comment to this answer, it is suggested that mods should do "what the community wants." So my question is: how does the community want its mods to handle answers-in-the-comments?

Update: Thanks for the discussion. We've decided to move forward with Wrzlprmft's suggestion to structure this discussion a bit more so we can produce a well-defined policy. Please participate in this discussion here

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Stack Exchange has a fairly clear policy on this I think - flag answers-in-comments, ask the poster to write an answer instead, destroy it after some time (days?).

If anything this community has historically been too lenient on answers-in-comments, not too harsh.


I actually feel pretty strongly about this. Answers-in-comments are sometimes witty and to-the-point, but rarely high-quality (they can't be, there isn't enough space in a comment). Yet, if you post a snippy (hence highly-upvoted) "answer" as a comment to the question, it's the first thing a user sees, even before the accepted / highly upvoted actual answers. This breaks the Stack Exchange model where highly upvoted answers should float to the top.

And this isn't even to speak of the other problem with comments, namely that they can't be downvoted, so a controversial comment is never kept in check by downvotes the way an answer would be. I truly think this trains people to write controversial and/or offensive stuff in comments rather than actual answers, which, again, breaks the way Stack Exchange is supposed to work. Kill them with fire, and kill them hard.


All that said, I am myself (very much) guilty of writing too many comments and too few answers. It's just so much easier to write a quick comment than a full answer, and the fact that one does not have to "fear" any downvotes for a terrible take only exacerbate this. The only way to combat this, in my opinion, is to more strongly implement the "comments are ephemeral" idea of Stack Exchange. In an ideal world, comments would be auto-deleted after a few days, but since we appear to not be getting this feature, the mods at least have my full support to aggressively delete comments (including my own, which, again I know I am writing way, way too much).

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    Having just spent some time going through unanswered questions---many of which were effectively abandoned after receiving a comment-answer---I am coming around to this point of view. – jakebeal Oct 6 at 11:40
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I don't think the question here is as clear as you present it. This is because the site itself is more than just "ask a question - get some answers". Many of the "questions" are actually pleas for help in very difficult situations. Some of them are career ending situations. People "asking" these "questions" need advice and the advice they need isn't really question-answer amenable.

I think that as long as we accept that characterization of the site then some comments that "might be" answers need to be retained, though suggestions to the writer than they convert them to answers is usually good. I often do this, actually.

Another issue is that a lot of people, myself included, don't like to write single sentence "answers", even when a single sentence is all that is needed. But, often enough, that is all the writer of the comment has to say, given time and other constraints. Such answers are likely to be deleted in any case.

One other issue is that I sometimes vote to close a question as off topic for some reason, but the writer still desperately needs advice. I don't think voting to close is consistent with answering and seldom do it. But a bit of advice to the writer is still a proper (humane) thing to do. So, I'll write a comment - even a fairly extensive one.

People here need advice, not just answers.

I think the mods should use judgement, not a fixed rule. Some comment-answers are fine. Others should be converted to answers. Some should be deleted. But that is why the mods are people with experience in academia, not machines, and not mere administrators.

  • Thanks for your answer. Yes, I completely agree that answers-in-the-comments are an appropriate way to help someone when their post is closed or likely to be closed. Also agree about applying judgment. Perhaps a good example of what I'm asking about is this: say there is a highly-upvoted comment (concise but reasonable) that overlaps with one or more well-written answers. Should users flag - and mods delete - this comment as it is no longer needed? Or should we keep it, as it's not harming anyone? Having a "general guideline" for this case could make deletion decisions much more transparent. – cag51 Oct 7 at 15:38
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While I welcome your initiative, I do not think we should answer the question how diamond moderators should act on this in isolation. If we want to act stronger on answers in comments, this must be encoded in a clear policy on when answers in comments should be deleted and how both, users and moderators, should act upon them.

I therefore propose to postpone this question and first decide whether we want less (or no) answers in comments in general. More specifically, I propose to ask first:

What kind of answers in comments do we want to keep on the long run?

… and then see how we go about realising the result.

  • Completely agree -- particularly given the different views expressed here already, I think a clear policy (whether stronger or weaker) would be worthwhile. This page won't lead to a clear policy, but it could provide some useful background. Raising the question you posed also seems like a great idea. – cag51 Oct 6 at 18:04
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Insofar as I can see, the only real cost to "answers in the comments" is questions that go effectively unanswered---in any question receiving significant attention, equivalent material from the comments typically quickly makes it into at least some answer.

Answers in the comments are also often good for people who want to be helpful anyway to a person whose question is off-topic and should be closed.

For on-topic questions that have their answers in the comments, I have often encouraged people to transform "answer in the comments" into an official answer, often saying that I would like them to do it so that I can vote for them. Many people respond well to this. When this fails, sometimes I add my own answer expanding on the comments.

My suggestion to moderators, then, would be:

  1. For recent questions, don't worry about it. The situation will often resolve itself without moderator intervention with the aid of other users.
  2. For older questions, add a comment suggesting that the comment transform to an answer---and maybe see if other long-time users will help with this as well.

But I don't see any particular reason to bother deleting them.

  • Thanks for your answer. To your first paragraph: other possible costs I have seen discussed are that answers-in-comments (1) may be more visible to casual users than actual answers, and (2) cannot be down-voted, leading to an apples-to-oranges comparison with real answers. – cag51 Oct 6 at 6:38
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    This is my point of view too. I sometimes wrote answers in comments when I didn't have the time to write a complete answer. The point is that of giving at least a hint of solution that can be helpful. @cag51 The quality system based on votes is so skewed anyway that the fact that an answer in comment cannot be downvoted is seldom a problem, especially on our site. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 6 at 7:03
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Moderators should leave answers-in-the-comments alone unless there is some additional reason why they should be deleted.

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Moderators should destroy answers-in-the-comments that users flag, but should not proactively seek them out.

This seems to be the status quo, though it does lead to some confusion when some are deleted and others are not deleted.

-1

Moderators should destroy all answers-in-the-comments they come across, perhaps after posting a reminder and inviting users to convert their comment to an answer. Perhaps there can be a grace period when there is no overlap between answers-in-the-comments and true answers.

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    This is by far my prefered solution. – xLeitix Oct 6 at 9:21
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I think rpg.SE has a good policy here. Quoting an answer by mxyzplk: https://rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/a/6534/3263

You should not answer in comments. Not partial answers, not full answers. Not "leads on" an answer. Not "I would answer but I'm tired/just woke up/am drunk so I'll just say this..." Not answers that you think aren’t good enough to post as answers. Not little helpful tips, not helpful suggestions, not useful anecdotes. These will be deleted. Answer in answers.

And if your answer isn’t even good enough for you to want to put it in an answer post, just don’t post it at all then.

Answering in comments does the following things.

  1. It bypasses question closes. They're closed for a reason.
  2. It provides an answer that can't be marked as an answer for future people's knowledge.
  3. It contributes to long comment debates as you can comment on an answer, but it's unclear what you're commenting on in a comment thread.
  4. It is "cheating" by locking your answer to the top. Answers with higher votes/accepted answers should go to the top to indicate their quality. Bypassing that by sticking your answer in a comment on the question is unacceptable.
  5. It bypasses all our quality control mechanisms: we can't downvote your "answer", edit it, or comment on it to request clarification or improvements. Answers also bump a question to the top so that people will scrutinize the answer; comments don't do this.
  6. It gets in the way of people who are busy using comments correctly to improve the question.

The long and short of it is, every part of how how the site functions, all of which have lengthy justification as being part of the process of SE - rep, answers, accepts, edits, votes, etc. - is obviated by using comments for answers. So every good goal of all that functionality is nullified by this practice.

Now, "but the hapless questioner could use that info!" In nearly all cases someone posts the same information in a (much more comprehensive) answer. Or take the time yourself to write a real answer. We don't like crappy questions or crappy answers, and we'd rather not have the Q or A than to have one that doesn't meet site quality (hence closes/deletes, part of the standard SE functionality). If you don't care enough to write a real answer don't, the likelihood that you're the only person in the world/on the site that knows that bit of info is very small.

While users are welcome to steal the info in the comments to generate answers of their own, that will not slow the pace of dealing with the answers-in-comments via flagging and deletion.

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    I completely disagree with that post about partial answers and leads. If I have partial information (or some speculation) about the (sometimes multiple) question(s) asked, that I don't think is worthy of a full answer, should I just stay quiet? Unlike RPG, this site has some very specialized questions that it's impractical to "take the time to write a real answer" for. Sometimes the best case scenario for these cases is that another user arrives 2-3 years later and can write an actually good/authoritative answer, at which point such comments can be removed... – Anyon Oct 7 at 14:27
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    @Anyon If you only have a partial answer and leads, you can write them as an answer. They will be upvoted if they are useful. If a better answer appears, then it will be eventually voted above yours, maybe bountied etc. – Tommi Oct 7 at 14:31
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    For some partial answers I do indeed do that (especially when I think I can address one aspect of the question well), but in other cases I don't think what I know or have qualifies as an answer. Certainly not a good one. I guess I just strongly dislike the idea of setting out to intentionally write a low(er)-quality answer. – Anyon Oct 7 at 14:49
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    @Anyon: There is nothing wrong with posting a partial answer as an answer. For some questions, it may be the best we can do. – Wrzlprmft Oct 7 at 19:06

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