5

If you are wondering, why this question exists: Four of us had a long and inconclusive discussion about this in chat and taking this to Meta seems the next best thing to do for me.

The central question is:
When is an answer not an answer (NAA) to the extent that it should be deleted or converted to a comment?

Here are some examples to feed the discussion. I flagged all of these answers as not an answer at some time, and in some cases, this flag was even considered helpful. Note that none of the answerers had the 50 reputation required to post comments when answering:

A secondary question would be how we should handle such answers, in particular if we should not consider them NAA.

  • Weird that 1-4 are still up and alive. People seem to like No. 5, though. – user6191 Oct 31 '14 at 13:32
4

I opt that we should consider an answer to be NAA if it does not even partially try to answer one of the questions asked in the question (in German: Thema verfehlt). In particular this contains answers, which would be valid answers to another (probably non-existant) question. If an answer addresses the problem that has been stated to motivate the question without going into a fully different direction, it may be acceptable (i.e., not NAA). When in doubt, answers should rather be left as answers.

A, NAA, A, NAA, VLQ

Taken from here.

My reasons for this are:

  • Remarks that do not directly answer the question, however useful they may be, do not belong to answers. This is a main principle and feature of Stack Exchange in general: The focus is on questions and answers – nothing else. Softening this principle would bring us too close to a forum or mailing list. Deviating from this general principle of Stack Exchange as a minor site would also cause confusion to visitors coming from other Stack Exchange sites.
  • If such answers are useful, they can usually be converted to a comment or edited into the question and be useful to future visitors as such. If they cannot (e.g., because they are too long), a new, fitting question can be asked to accommodate them.
  • Keeping such answers may leave a wrong impression on new visitors as to how our site works. As this is about the key features of our site, this can be very harmful. Moreover, it may make us look disorganised.
  • If we should keep such answers, they break the voting system. On one hand, if they are helpful (in the wider sense), they would deserve upvotes, in particular, they would deserve upvotes if they were comments. On the other hand, we certainly do not want them to be the first thing a visitor finds, so we cannot upvote them or should even downvote them, even if they are helpful (in the wider sense). Such answers are also not helpful in the narrower sense of actually solving the askers problem and one might thus consider to downvote them. In general, I consider the upvote–downvote axis to be mostly perpendicular to the NAA-answer axis (and the close-vote–keep axis).
  • Partially due to the above, such answers may actually cause some direct harm. One of the strengths of this site is, that we have not yet left a question in the unanswered tab. However, if an answer that does not really answer the question is left as such and manages to get a positive score for some reason, it may suffice to make the system consider the question answered and thus deprive it from the special attention of unanswered questions.

If an answer is NAA, as described above, I thus suggest that we do the following:

  • If the answers contain aspects that can be easily turned into an answer, edit it. If the minimal edit that solves the NAA status adds more than the existing answer contains or can be considered as totally changing the answer, write a new answer.
  • Flag it (as what seems to be not such an easy question) and leave a comment as to whether the answer should be a comment or deleted altogether. Since (at least from my observation) most NAAs come from users who lack the 50 reputation required to comment or have misunderstood the system, explain where the problem is and be friendly.
  • Do not downvote it for being NAA (downvote it for other reasons deserving a downvote though).
  • Do not upvote it.

Here is my opinion on the example answers:

  • Example 1 (Konjunktiv I in mathematics) – This might look like a duplicate of Tom Au’s answer at first glance. However, it does not contain the aspect of explaining that the Konjunktiv “has the sense of ‘suppose’ or ‘let’” (which made Tom Au’s answer not an NAA). It does not refer to the Konjunktiv at all but informs about a parallel in the English language. It thus does not attempt to answer the question and is NAA. The information about the English parallel might be considered helpful tangential information which would be fit for a comment, which was probably what it was intended to be anyway.
  • Example 2 (Aufgrund des Wetters …) (answer) – This correctly states that the punctuation the asker would use for an example sentence is correct. But the question is clearly not about this sentence, so this answer answers another question and is NAA here. The information added is not useful, so this answer should be deleted.
  • Example 3 (Ursprung) ([answer][2]) – The answer offers a different meaning for Ursprung, while the question asked for the etymology. Again, this answers the wrong question and thus is NAA. This may be supplementary to the question, if it is not contained in the Portuguese translation given by the asker, but this seems unlikely to me, as it does not refer to it. Either the answerer did not read the question at all or intended this to be a comment.
  • Example 4 (wuppen) – The tagging and the edit to the question (which preceded the answer by half a year) leave only little doubt that the question is about the origin of the word and not about the reason for its revival. But the latter is what this answer is about. It is thus once more a correct answer to a different question. This is interesting tangential information that is well placed in a comment.
  • Example 5 (man denke) – The question asks about the reason for the subjunctive in a given sentence and offers a translation for this sentence. The answer corrects this translation and clearly states, but does not say anything regarding the subjunctive. This is a textbook example for a comment and probably was intended as such.
  • One important point is missing here. What are the measures the community expects a moderator should take when receiving such a flag? We only have the options to decline the flag as either helpful or not helpful, or we can accept it which leads to an immediate deletion of the post, making all possible edits from the OP or the community impossible. Please only flag unsalvageable cases which need deletion. Deleting a post should be the last option in the line. See meta.german.stackexchange.com/questions/661/… – Takkat Oct 31 '14 at 7:43
  • @Takkat: Salvaging does not turn oranges into apples, unless it’s effectively writing a fully new answer. I do not see a problem here. Also, do not forget the possibility of converting those answers into comments. – Wrzlprmft Oct 31 '14 at 13:05
  • 1
    Whether or not answers that misunderstand the question are "not answers" has been a long-standing dispute - they clearly attempt to answer something after all, even if it isn't the question asked. I tend to think it's unwise to ask moderators to handle these in most cases - if the author doesn't accept correction, then trusted users may downvote and delete. – Shog9 Oct 31 '14 at 23:57
3

While I second Wrzlprmft's position and reasoning, I also acknowledge that it is more difficult than one might think to come to an agreement what a question is all about and whether an answer adresses it at least partially or not. Furthermore, even when we see a 100% clear NAA post we cannot be sure that the poster didn't try to answer the question and just failed without noticing it. Therefore I suggest that we talk about such a post:

Whenever we see an answer that we consider NAA and which cannot be improved easily by an edit, we leave a comment. This comment

  • should be an open question (It is more likely to trigger an action by the poster than a statement.)
  • should summarize how we perceive the question (The poster and other users might have seen it from a different point of view.)
  • should summarize how we perceive the answer given (This might not be the same what the poster had in mind when writing it, or what other users read from it.)
  • should make clear that we believe the question hasn't been addressed
  • should optionally include a hint that editing and commenting an own answer is possible for all users and is the proper way to react to this comment (If the answer is by a new user who might not yet know this.)

This way, we do our best to make the poster improve his/her answer, we can discuss different understandings of both the question and the answer, and we invite other community members to state their point of view either by upvoting our comment or comment themselves.

Only if after taking this action and waiting for a while (a pity we have no technical support for follow-up in SE) the answer still seems to be an undisputed NAA we should flag it.

So for example one could have commented on example 5 (man denke):

I think the question asks about the reason for the subjunctive in the given sentence. Your answer corrects the OP's translation of this sentence and states that the German phrase has an imperative meaning, but does not say anything regarding the subjunctive. So could you please add reasoning on why the German phrase uses the subjunctive? (In case you didn't know: you can edit and comment on your answer.)

  • Great summary on what comments are all about. Still, it is not yet clear which answers to flag and more so why to flag. I believe that there are answers which better should be deleted but we should not go ahead and generously delete all poor stuff after people didn't react on our commments - this would go much too far. Though desirable, there absolutely is no obligation to only have good content on the site. – Takkat Nov 2 '14 at 7:40
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I'd like to emphasize something here, because it seems to be overlooked a lot:

Comments are not for lackluster answers.

If you see an answer that clearly attempts to address the asker's problem but doesn't do so rigorously (or arrives at the wrong result), this is not something that should be converted to a comment. It should be downvoted.

A good comment is one that offers useful but tangential information, assists the author in clarifying his post, or otherwise corrects a problem with the post it is posted to. A bad answer does not make a good comment, and should not be converted into one.

By the same token, don't flag partial answers as NAA - they should generally not be converted or deleted. When in doubt, downvote - it's fast, takes effect immediately, and requires no one else's assistance.

Regarding your examples: I would likely have declined flags on #1, #4 and #5, and deleted #2 and #3. I would not have converted any of them. I'm not qualified to judge the accuracy of the information presented, so I wouldn't have voted either - but that is something all of you can and should be doing.

  • 1
    While I would only dispute your assessment of the examples (I added a more verbose opinion to my answer), I have not heard anybody suggest that lackluster answers should be comments in this discussion. The main dispute is about answers which are not showing any attempt to address the asker’s problem and instead attempt to address a different, related problem. – Wrzlprmft Oct 31 '14 at 23:38
1

Whenever we see an answer we feel it does not answer a post we can take to following actions:

  • Comment on the post to suggest an improvement. On gaining the privilege to comment we also take some responsibility to help new user to get around with our model.
  • Edit the post to improve it. Those edits do not necessarily have to be minor. In case they keep the overall intention of a post we can freely add missing details in order to salvage it. This is not a bad thing, it helps to make the site's content better.
  • Downvote it if you really feel it was unhelpful. It would then be desirable you came back to the post later to remove you downvote or even upvote it in case an edit had improved it.
  • Do not vote on it if it is a post that just doesn't merit further thinking about it.

Flags to indicate a post which is not an answer should be reserved for clear-cut cases where a deletion of the post should follow (also see What posts should be flagged for deletion?). Keep in mind that a moderator who receives such a flag only has two options: Decline it or accept it. In the latter case the post will immediately be deleted (or converted to a comment if applicable). No more improvements or edits will be possible.

Whenever we see such a flag we expect a post to be something like this (adapted from Meta Stackexchange):

  1. I have a question...
  2. @someUser: I think that...
  3. I can't comment therefore I answer...
  4. I like turtles.
  5. aj098243u5in (cat on keyboard)

For a quite nice list of answers that should or should not be flagged see also:

Spam (as defined here: What are the “spam” and “rude or abusive” (offensive) flags, and how do they work?) should be flagged as such.


When looking at the examples given here are my reasons why the flag were declined:

Example 1: This post is not wrong per se but it adds nothing to the answer posted a year before. But it had an upvote, and no downvote - so at least somebody deemed it helpful. In this case a comment telling that we don't like exact contents to be posted twice may have been an appropriate first action. The post is not a good candidate for a comment. I will always be reluctant to delete posts of newly registered users unless they are clearly bad.

Example 2:: The answer is correct but it looks like a copy of the questions's first paragraph with a comment. It was a valid answer but is does not further answer the question. Only poor answers are not what the NAA-flag is meant for. Nevertheless it appears the post was from an unregistered user who never came back - so deleting was not a problem.

Example 3:: This would have been a nice answer if the question was read. It could have easily been saved by adding something on why and since when German mathematicians say "Ursprung" but this sadly had not happened. Since the answer was abandoned with the user not coming back deletion was o.k. (but leaving it would have caused not much harm either).

Example 4:: This is a valid answer. We can not proof it is correct but at least the popular commercial mentioned here may have contributed to the revival of "wuppen" in colloquial German. The OP of the question did mention he is also interested in the revival of this word, etymology was only mentioned in the tags, so the answer is fine here.

Example 5: This is a valid first answer too. It is not brilliantly elaborated but there is no indication why this post should better be a comment.

  • 3
    Neither your list nor the linked meta post really addresses the case where someone gives useful information about oranges in a thread about apples. It could be seen as a case of bullet point 3, but the examples in the question (and many more I've seen recently) make me believe that there is no agreement on when a wanna-be-answer is in fact a comment. – Matthias Oct 31 '14 at 9:49
  • "Those edits do not necessarily have to be minor" - well, SE isn't only a Q&A site. It also has an aspect of a competition. So I would not make an edit when I felt that it makes the post much more likely to get upvoted than in its pre-edit state. – Matthias Oct 31 '14 at 9:53
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    Posts that answer about oranges rather than apples are extremely rare, and mostly caused by a misundertanding of the question. This should lead us to think about whether the question needed an edit. – Takkat Oct 31 '14 at 11:04

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