In this highly active question about how to respond to misrepresentation of one's research, one of the answers dwells on the scientific substance of the matter rather than on the question of how to respond.

While "frame challenges" to a question are often appropriate, in this case there is (deliberately) not enough information to know what scientific content is actually involved, other than the broad area. Because passions are high around this subject area and due to the specific position taken by the answer author, it is unsurprising that this answer has become highly controversial.

I believe that @cag51 made a reasonable proposal for improving the answer by focusing it on the response to the OP's question, rather than the argument about research content. The author of the answer has clearly rejected that proposal by reverting the edit, however.

The leaves a question of what to do about the controversial answer, and per @cag51's comment, I think it will be useful to bring this to meta for discussion. I see three general paths:

  1. Edit against the answer authors' wishes
  2. Delete as being unsalvageable
  3. Leave it alone

Personally, I think there is valuable content in the answer where it addresses the actual question of the OP, and that the discussion of the scientific specifics is what detracts from the value. This is not the venue for resolving a question about EUA processes: that would be better taken to Medical Sciences, per the standard policy of this site to avoid discussion of the content of research.

I'd like to see it salvaged, and there is recent community precedent for such an invasive edit. In that case, however, the answer writer did effectively assent to the edit.

I would thus propose that the path to take is to ask the answer writer to respond here and that the direction either be:

  • Edit to remove research content discussion, by the answer writer or with their consent, or
  • If the answer writer does not consent to editing, delete as violating the site's policy on discussion of research content.
  • 3
    It's sitting at -11, and greyed out. At that point, what's the major gain in forcibly editing/deleting it?
    – Ben Barden
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 13:37
  • @BenBarden Same as for any other off-topic material posted on the site.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 13:47
  • @BenBarden The current vote as of now is +18/-28. The net is -10.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 13:47
  • @scaaahu yes? Vote totals do change over time.
    – Ben Barden
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 13:49
  • @BenBarden My point is there are both upvotes and downvotes.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 14:02
  • 9
    I think the positive votes should be taken with a bit of a grain of salt given the HNQ status of the question, which exposes the answers to far more people having upvote privileges than downvote privileges, and the voting may end up not depending much on the "academia" parts of the question.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 18:50
  • 3
    "While "frame challenges" to a question are often appropriate" I think that should read "rarely appropriate." They are often used as an excuse to assume the asker is wrong without evidence. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 13:14

5 Answers 5


In occasions like this it can be really easy to get distracted from the question and end up discussing the setup and that's often problematic for a variety of reasons - in fact, it happened in some of the answers to this question, too.

Many questions on sites like Academia are in the format of

  1. Explain specific example that happened as a way of illustrating the problem.
  2. Ask general question about what to do in this sort of situation (for future reference).

When people ask questions like this, it's important to focus on the second item and less on the first. So, when determining if an answer is actually answering the question, focus on whether the general case is addressed rather than the specific case. Answering the latter is important as the former doesn't help a broad audience - it only helps the specific asker.

So, to use the example provided, if the question is

What, if anything, should I do? I have not had any interactions with these people so far, but I'm concerned about my work being associated with them.

At the heart of this question is a simple problem - "my work is being misquoted and misused and it may impact my future in this field as people may associate my work with them." In reality, what that work is, is less relevant for the purpose of answering this question. As such, the bulk of the answer should focus on the question itself.

That doesn't mean that the specific example can't factor in to the answer. For example, if there is a specific solution that only applies in the case of COVID research, that can and should be included in the solution set but that shouldn't open the doors for someone to question the asker's description of the problem.

Could the question be edited to remove some of the shorthand phrasing that seems to have caused an answer to focus on that rather than the question at hand - absolutely. Does that mean that the answer's author should have free licence to argue about the terminology chosen in the question before actually answering it - absolutely not.

So, my recommendation here is two-fold:

  1. (Optional, depends on the question) Edit the question to remove any judgement-centric terms that are causing the answer/s to focus too much on the specific example - this applies in cases where it may be an issue.
    • in this case, that means editing out "anti-vaxxers" and "conspiracy theory".
  2. Edit the answer to remove the commentary that doesn't address the core question itself. If there's nothing remaining, delete the answer.
    • in this case, that means removing most of the first huge paragraph and the last section.

If the person answering doesn't like the edits, they have the option of removing the answer entirely should they wish. But I'd strongly recommend that y'all avoid allowing this platform to be used to argue about these sorts of issues that are tangential to the actual questions - y'all aren't (as general academia experts) experts in COVID or racism or religion -as a group. You may be as individuals but that's not what y'all are here to judge. You're here to be a resource for people asking about Academia, not these other subjects.

  • 2
    The distinction between the general aspects and their specific instance in a question is extremely helpful, and I agree that answers should focus on the first. But two issues come to mind. 1) Does this rule out any frame-challenges, even helpful ones? 2) We sometimes get questions that ask how to deal with harassment or discrimination; often those questions contain a specific example. Most of the time, these specifics contain information that is crucial for a helpful answer, so in removing parts of this information, surgical precision is required. (cont.) Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 7:48
  • 2
    (cont.) These specific examples of (alleged) harassment, discrimination etc. are always contested in comments and frequently in answers, so removing them would indeed reduce noise. However, I am pretty sure that once we remove them, commenters and perhaps answerers will still ask for "evidence" that discrimination etc. really happened, to which some will feel compelled to reply, and we will get the same noisy and unnerving discussion, and the thread will be derailed from an on-topic question to an opinion-based principled discussion on the defintion of sexism/racism/you name it. Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 7:52
  • 1
    @henning: One thing I intend to do on the long run is to have some rules or guidelines for frame challenges.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 8:39
  • @Wrzlprmft that's a great idea. Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 8:46
  • I don't think that this prevents frame challenges entirely, @henning - If the question is "how do I do X" a frame challenge is generally going to be "you don't need to do X". So, if the question is saying "I'm being harassed by other students because we have different methodologies. How do I talk with my advisor about this issue to get them to stop?" The frame challenge wouldn't be "your methodologies are wrong, change them." it would be "You should talk to the students, not your advisor" or something like that.
    – Catija
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 13:40
  • As to the need to be cautious when editing, absolutely. I can probably do a better job of explaining in my answer - the issue isn't to remove anything that's necessary for the description, it's to edit to adjust any terms that people are getting hung up on that may be overly ... "triggering" ... to use that word. There are a lot of words out there that tend to cause people to take sides and they're often shorthand that causes more issues than it saves. You'll always have people trying to argue that something isn't harassment or racism or whatever, and that's where the optional comes in.
    – Catija
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 13:48
  • 5
    What it's important to do as users and mods of the site is to step back and be aware of what is causing the discussion - is it the question or is it disputing the facts of the situation. It's important to generally accept the premise of the questions in most cases. We're not the "Am I the asshole" reddit - we're not here to judge the situations, we're here to help people address the situation as they see it. Are there going to be cases where people pose questions where they're totally wrong? Likely. I don't have a good bead on how common that is, so I'd look to the mods for guidance here.
    – Catija
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 13:54
  • 1
    @Catija: By the same token, you will have people trying to argue that something is racism, sexism, etc., when it isn't (or isn't necessarily). The default position should not favour one side (e.g., OP is free to assert racism, sexism, etc., and no-one may challange that). Reasonable answers to questions on discrimination, etc., are often going to require analysis of the situation and evidence, so "frame challanges" need to be broad enough to do that.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 23:00
  • 2
    @Ben the default position should not favor a "side", it should favor OP. I.e. frame challenges should remain exceptions, reserved for cases where it is absolutely clear that there is a misconception. Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 14:06
  • @henning: Favouring OP is already favouring a side. Part of our responsibility as academics is that no-one has a privileged position in argument. I don't agree that it must be "absolutely clear" that there is a misconception; sometimes the very uncertainty of the situation warrants academics pointing out possible counter-arguments to OP.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 15:05
  • 2
    @Ben well, it's not a substantive side. If we had a question "How to deal with false accusations of racist hiring practices", I'd suggest the same. Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 16:00
  • @henning: Fair enough; I appreciate your consistency (and I'd also suggest the same --- i.e., you should be able to challenge both). I doubt that users on this site would restrict themselves to accepting OP premises in that case (and I doubt moderators would intervene when it is challenged). While both are possible, as a matter of empirical fact, many questions from young users make assertions of wrongdoing that are possibly correct, but possibly exaggerated/misunderstood, so I think allowing challenges is important. Again, a duty of academics is to challenge assumptions.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 16:05
  • 3
    @Ben (veering off-topic here, but I'm not sure our main role and responsibility on this site is that of research academics. I see it more as a mentoring role, helping other folks in Academia to navigate it's culture, norms, and challenges. People come here with very concrete and practical problems they need advice on; they're not looking for disinterested ivory tower analysis.) Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 16:12
  • @henning: That is certainly a defensible view, and I always appreciate your viewpoint; I guess I take the view that we should always be "modelling" the academic mindset, even when mentoring/providing practical advice. I certainly agree that a focus on practical problems is appropriate, but an important part of that (in my view) is to engage premises; if there is a false premise in a situation, it is going to affect practical advice in a genuine way. I see questions on here (particularly from young users) that make assumptions that need pushback.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 16:16

This is a tricky case; thanks for bringing it to meta. The existing answers seem to support option 3, so I'll make a case for options 1/2.

While questioning the premise of the question is often the right thing to do, there are two differentiating factors in this case:

  1. The question is deliberately vague on technical details, so it is difficult to see how the indicated paragraphs respond to the question. It is as if someone asked "my physics teacher took points off for no reason" and the answer was "Is it really no reason? Physics is a complicated subject, let me explain why Newton's Laws are incorrect." Such a broad view of "on-topic" is inconsistent with our Q&A model.

  2. This premise is entirely technical. If the premise is related to academia, then it makes sense for us to have a big debate about it (in the chat, preferably). But if the premise is off-topic, then we should avoid having an answer devoted to discussing this premise. Among other reasons, only a few of us have informed opinions on any given field, and so the risk of propagating misinformation is quite high.

I think this is the case for either forced editing or deleting. Among these, my concern with "forced editing" is that we may force someone to have an answer that they do not endorse associated with the account. So, I think the preferred resolution would be to provisionally delete and allow the post author to edit and request un-deletion if they so choose.


I believe the answer is on-topic. Questioning the premise of a question, with additional context information, is an accepted on-topic answer in many academia.SE questions. It's true that OP did not provide super-exact information - but maybe OP doesn't want to identify themselves; and it's not necessary to make the linked answer pertinent, or at least conditionally pertinent.

So, I don't think that it needs salvaging and can be left as-is - especially since it servers to temper advice in other answers which accept some implicit assumptions of the OP (the OP of academia, not the OP here on meta).

  • 4
    "Questioning the premise of a question, with additional context information, is an accepted on-topic answer in many academia.SE questions." I do not agree. Answers that do this in a way that assumes the asker is wrong without evidence are rude and should not be posted. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 13:18
  • 4
    @AnonymousPhysicist: 1. They're usually not rude (and the answer in this case, in particular, isn't rude). 2. I believe they should be posted, and moreover, they often get positive vote scores, meaning that readers find them useful; and while that's not a guarantee of worthiness, it says something.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 14:47
  • 1
    Since this meta answer was posted, I'd say that OP has substantially clarified the issue and made the side point raised in the answer that prompted this discussion moot, as far as I'm concerned.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 18:06
  • 1
    @BryanKrause: That may be possible... but my answer was written before that happened.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 19:53

The best way to address this answer, and similar ones, is to vote.

If you think an answer is not helpful, downvote. If you think it is helpful, upvote.

Remember that "helpful" needs to be defined by the question, not your personal desires. Content which does not address the question is not helpful.

  • 5
    I agree with this, except that I fear voting is often based on opinions rather than helpfulness, especially on "politically charged" questions that make it on the HNQ list. Nevertheless, voting did work at least in the case at hand, and it's the least bad option. Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 13:00
  • 3
    I've got some pretty biased concerns (as a former mod on Interpersonal Skills) about voting as the sole response to these sorts of answers. What can often happen is that an answer becomes more of a soapbox than an answer. This is particularly the case when questions end up on the HNQ list. If people like the soapbox, they're not going to vote in alignment of what's considered a good answer on this specific site. So, in the case of this example, people agreed that it should be downvoted. As @henning mentioned, though... this won't always be the case.
    – Catija
    Commented Jun 23, 2021 at 19:58
  • Agreed, @Catija, the thing is though, we have rules for what's an off-topic question, but not for what's an off-topic answer, and I don't know whether we should impose such rules. Better to opt out of HNQ (for all questions, IMO), thus making sure that the votes reflect more of an expert view than a soapbox view. Commented Jun 23, 2021 at 20:05
  • 3
    The problem I see here is that voting on SE ideally aligns helpful and correct: For most answers (those who address the question), those are strongly correlated. However, we also have the extreme of non-answers, which may be correct, but are completely orthogonal to the question and thus not helpful, but noise. For these answers, we have the NAA flag, because voting doesn’t work well, because voters have to decide between voting for helpfulness and correctness. Here we are somewhere in the middle, having one part non-answer and and one part answer.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Jun 23, 2021 at 20:07
  • @Wrzlprmft "voters have to decide between voting for helpfulness and correctness" Voting based on helpfulness is the helpful way to vote. Your "problem" is that some voters are not helpful. There is no changing that on a site that's based on voting. Commented Jun 23, 2021 at 23:13
  • 3
    "There is no changing that on a site that's based on voting" - and that's why I think this answer, while correct in the ideal (to paraphrase: "this should be handled by voting") may not be correct in the "real world". Especially when particulars like HNQ skew the voting further (the ratio of helpful to not helpful voters).
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 2:37
  • @BryanKrause This is not the real world, it's Stack Exchange. Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 4:09
  • 3
    @AnonymousPhysicist Alas, despite our preferences to the contrary, StackExchange remains closer to the "real world" than the ideal one.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 4:33
  • @Wrzlprmft et al. If we take decisions on answers, and those decisions are not based on voting, what should they be based on instead? I see only three options: The first is moderator discretion. Mods are voted into office, so they have some legitimate discretion, but the bounds of their discretion are not so clear. The second option is to introduce voting on answers that were flagged as "not an answer". I don't know if that's technically possible, and it would probably reintroduce all the ambiguities related to voting on the question itself (cont.) Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 7:34
  • (cont.) The third option are rules adopted in meta on what constitutes an on-topic/off-topic answer. At present, we don't have those rules. But I'm not even sure that we should have them, because what's on-topic and off-topic in an answer is inherently subjective or at least easily contested; what for some is a "helpful and correct" frame-challenge, is a distracting and irrelevant opinion for others. In my view, this leaves voting as the least bad mechanism, and we should improve the quality of votes by getting rid of the HNQ list. Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 7:36
  • @henning: If we take decisions on answers, and those decisions are not based on voting, what should they be based on instead? – This is not necessarily only about executive decisions, but also about what the community and the moderators can do to guide users. If we have a meta post that says we don’t like long off-topic asides, this is something a (community) moderator can point to when nudging an author to shorten their answer. And we moderators have some basis for acting against users who post such problematic answers as a pattern.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 8:35
  • So, just to make my criticism clear: By saying it’s the best way and not discussing alternatives, your answer implies that voting suffices to address the problem in question for “this answer, and similar ones”.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 8:10
  • 1
    For the record, I am going to remove the argument about the word "universal" and accusations of trolling, and will simplify this discussion to the one comment above, which both sides seem to be okay with.
    – cag51 Mod
    Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 15:24

It is not off-topic --- it should be left alone

I am the author of the answer, so I will explain why the material is not off-topic. The original question refers to COVID vaccine sceptics as "anti-vaxxers" and so my answer spends its first paragraph putting forward an argument for why the OP should avoid using that term in the context of misgivings about the COVID vaccines. That is a legitimate "frame challenge" to an aspect of the original question. It is also an important (and on-topic) aspect of “how to respond” because it advises the OP that he is wrong to use a particular term to refer to his opponents in this matter. It is long-standing policy on Academia.SE that answers may challenge and critique premises of a question, and this is on-topic.

My argument for why the "anti-vaxxer" term should not apply necessarily delves into the differences between the process for the COVID vaccines, relative to the standard approval process for long-standing vaccines. The thrust of the argument is that there are substantial differences between the regulatory process and evidence level for the COVID vaccines compared to long-standing vaccines that have been the targets of people who could reasonably be called "anti-vaxxers", and so the term ought not be applied to people who show misgivings about the COVID vaccines but no broader misgivings about vaccination per se. The reasoning for this argument cannot be made clearly without referring to the differences between the two cases, and this necessarily entails giving at least some broad exposition on evidentiary/regulatory differences.

Now, the “controversy” of this answer is clearly rooted in substantive disagreements about the evidence and regulatory process pertaining to effectiveness/safety of the COVID vaccines, and not in any issue relating to SE site rules. The present complaint is a post hoc complaint that does not accord with the real reason for the controversy in the answer (and is flawed in any case). Indeed, one of the main reasons this answer generated “controversy” is that another user came on to the comment thread and asserted (in big bold lettering) that the relevant paragraph of the answer was "categorically false" and was "misinformation". I then patiently engaged with this user showing evidence of the fact that COVID vaccines have been distributed under "emergency use authorisation" (EUA) instead of the normal FDA vaccine approval process, and expert peer-reviewed medical literature saying that the EUA process is less stringent than the regular vaccine approval process. Readers can review the comment thread for the post and see the argument on this matter if they wish; it confirms that the assertions made in my original post are factually correct and backed by expert evidence, including FDA guidelines and releases, medical literature, and regulatory commentary.

Whilst vote tallies of the answer are not a valid basis for assessment of whether an answer complies with site rules (e.g., whether it is on-topic), at the time of this answer the vote tally is at +20 - 28 = -8 --- i.e., about 42% of voters on the answer have upvoted and about 58% have downvoted; hardly a sign of an inherently low-quality answer. The heavy downvoting is clearly motivated by substantive disagreement with the position (or in my view, with the “feel” of the position) rather than an assessment that the opinion is off-topic or breaches site rules.

Mere controversy of the answer is not grounds for removal, and I believe that I have shown that the answer is on-topic (responding specifically to an aspect of the framing of the original question) and is a legitimate "frame challenge". The alleged precedent for altering or deleting the answer here is not a precedent at all, since it involved assent by the author, which is lacking here. Removal would effectively establish the precedent that an on-topic answer (with +20 upvotes) can be deleted by moderators merely due to substantive disagreement by noisy users. The answer should not be removed.

Re the attempted edit (and any other suggested edits): As I noted when I reverted the edit by @cag51, I think he had good intent in that edit, and his substitute paragraph did not misrepresent my views, but it did strip out the reasoning for why I oppose the use of the term "anti-vaxxers" in this case. I sincerely appreciate his genuine attempt to deal with the matter without misrepresenting my views, and I have nothing but positive things to say about his actions here. While I am open to looking at other proposed edits, the "ship has sailed" on the downvotes/controversy, so I would not be inclined to support edits that remove the reasoning for the position against use of the term "anti-vaxxers". Obviously my position here is likely to lead to a stalemate, since any proposed edit is probably going to want to get rid of this part, and I think it is important that it stay, to show the reasoning for my critique of the premise of the OP. As I have noted above, the reasoning here is directly relevant to a premise challenge to the question that forms part of the advice of “how to respond”.

  • 8
    "his substitute paragraph did not misrepresent my views, but it did strip out the reasoning for why I oppose the use of the term "anti-vaxxers" in this case" - I don't see why your reasoning for opposing the use of the term anti-vaxxers should be part of an answer about how OP should respond. Maybe it could be a comment to OP, suggesting use of different language, but it seems like your description of the edit: one that has removed reasoning not necessary for the answer while preserving the answerer's (your) views, is exactly the sort of thing an edit should aim for.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 19:09
  • 6
    I'll also quote from OP's comment in a conversation now moved from chat: "The discussion about the COVID vaccine here is moot: my paper is being used to support a very specific conspiracy theory, and at least some of these people self-identify as anti-vaxxers" I think this makes clear that OP is not conflating hesitancy towards vaccines approved under EUAs with "anti-vaxxer" positions, but is specifically referring to people who are anti-vaccine in general and who promote conspiracy theories about the COVID vaccines rather than reasoned hesitancy.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 19:13
  • 6
    "The heavy downvoting is clearly motivated by substantive disagreement with the position" - and probably the heavy upvoting is clearly motivated by agreement with this position, rather than the part of the answer that responds to the question asked. Another reason it shouldn't be part of the answer.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 19:14
  • Even in his follow-up commentary in comments, OP says that "at least some" of the people are self-identified anti-vaxxers, which by implication means that most are not. Consequently, whether he uses this reference to them remains a legitimate question.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 1:26
  • 3
    One that is still irrelevant to the question as asked. OP has now made it clear this is about a specific 5G-related conspiracy. Do you think it's reasonable to include 5G-related vaccine conspiracy proponents in the group you feel is unfair to label "anti-vax"?
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 13:14
  • OP has said it is a specific concern, but he has not been specific to us about what that concern is. The very fact that it (apparently)relates to some mad belief about phone signals suggests that it is not a generic aversion to vaccines. As I said before, OP has referred to a broader group than this, saying that "at least some" are identified anti-vaxxers, which again, implies that most are not. Consequently, whether he uses this reference remains a legitimate question.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 23:21
  • It is clearly not the case, it is false, that to state at least some people are X is to imply, outside of certain contexts, that most people are not X. Wholly unacademic.
    – user96809
    Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 3:18

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