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We get many questions on Academia SE which are closed because they depend too much on the individual who is asking and thus cannot be sufficiently generalised to be helpful to a wider audience. However, these questions often can still be answered, usually with a small amount of (perhaps) generic advice, especially if it's clear that the asker doesn't know much about how academia works and needs a quick helping hand.

A recent example of what I'm describing is here: Is My Mentality Good for Academia / Grad School?

In this case, the question is about the OP's personal mentality and therefore seems an obvious candidate for voting to close due to dependence on individual factors. The answer given basically boils down to "your mentality is similar to most academics", which is to some extent opinion-based and could be a comment rather than an answer. However, the answer may still have been helpful to the OP.

My question is: is it better to try and maintain the Stack Exchange ethos of hard questions and answers (more difficult on a "soft" site like Academia anyway where there is often no right answer) and therefore refrain from answering questions which are obvious candidates for closure? Or is it better to try and help as many of these individuals as possible by trying to answer before the question is closed?

I often wonder about doing the latter, especially if the user is new to SE or clearly inexperienced in the academic world and obviously not receiving guidance from peers and mentors in their own circle. But will this erode the purpose of SE over time?


This is my first question on Meta so any feedback, tag edits etc welcome!

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  • Interesting, thanks @Anyon. – astronat Apr 21 at 15:26
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    General piece of advice: in any case, I suggest everyone to not answer and vote to close at the same time, because this could be confusing to the questioner, especially to newcomers. Better act coherently. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 21 at 20:55
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    On meta previously I said we should preserve "comment answers" that address some of these circumstances: cases where a question doesn't belong here but you can still help OP by, for example, suggesting where they should take their problem (some examples would be "ask your advisor" or the advice of a mental health professional). Reaction to that suggestion was decidedly mixed, though I stand by it. I don't think the answer box should be used in that case. – Bryan Krause Apr 21 at 23:36
  • (in part, I see these sorts of "comment answers" as part of explaining why one is voting to close, which makes them different from other sorts of answers in comments) – Bryan Krause Apr 21 at 23:37
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Usually, no.

The "ethos" of SE, as you mention, is that questions are either not a good fit here (and should be closed precisely because we can't provide good answers, and we want to prevent people from adding bad answers), or they are good questions that we should leave open and answer properly. In the abstract, at least, it is not logically consistent to say that a question should be closed because we cannot provide good answers, and then to also provide an answer. In fact, I recently was surprised to learn that other stacks have resorted to suspending users who refuse to stop answering questions that should manifestly be closed.

More concretely, the challenge with answering closed/closable questions is that our quality control measures do not work as well. If I add a bad answer and then close it, then my bad advice is the only advice that OP will see. Leaving open or closing-without-answering avoids these issues.

Finally, note that closed questions with no answers are automatically deleted after a period of time. Questions with upvoted answers cannot be automatically deleted, and will usually remain on the site forever. So particularly for very low quality questions, adding answers is a bad practice because it prevents deletion.

But there may be exceptional cases.

As I wrote here, we should first remember that there may be a real opportunity to help someone here. We should not become so obsessed by our rules that we lose the human element or close interesting questions. Still, the rules are there for a reason and we make exceptions at our peril.

Ideally, questions should be edited and left open. But for questions that cannot be salvaged, we must weigh the cost of making exceptions and having reduced quality control against the cost of remaining silent and giving a bad experience to an (often) new user. My experience moderating Academia.SE is that we give users wide latitude; we do not typically remove answers (or even answers-in-comments) on closed questions with few views.

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  • To emphasize the last point: If you feel really bad about a question being closed, there's IMO nothing wrong with heavy editing after the closure (and then voting to reopen). The question at hand might be salvaged by generalization. Rather than "is my mentality a good fit" one might ask "Are thriving academics driven mostly by external validation or by intrinsic motivation?" – henning May 5 at 6:59
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Please do not post answers that are the same as a close reason. For example, please do not "answer" with a statement that the answer strongly depends on individual factors.

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