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"Answer in comments": A comment which is a very short attempt to answer the question or solve the problem.

Answers in comments are a very common phenomenon on this site. Some questions have one while others have three and still others have 7 answers in comments (and 4 more deleted). This is not what comments are really designed for.

According to the help center:

Comments are temporary "Post-It" notes left on a question or answer. They can be up-voted (but not down-voted) and flagged, but do not generate reputation. There's no revision history, and when they are deleted they're gone for good.

It also states:

Comments are not recommended for ... Answering a question or providing an alternate solution to an existing answer; instead, post an actual answer (or edit to expand an existing one);

The largest issue with answers in the comments is that they are not subject to the usual quality controls which are applied to answers. They can only be upvoted and flagged, not edited, commented on, downvoted, and everything else.

On the other hand, often users will not migrate their comments to propper answers even when asked, so by deleting the comment some value is lost.

TL;DR

What should we do with answers in the comments on this site?

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    $\begingroup$ I was tempted to share my thoughts on this here in a comment. Then I rethought... ;) $\endgroup$ – TuringTux Mar 22 '18 at 11:20
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Ultimately, this is a problem of signage, and 'add a comment' misleads a lot of new (and existing) users. The UI text isn't something that we can change here, of course, and development efforts are currently focused away from the Community Team's requests like Robert's suggestion of changing the text to 'ask for clarification'.

That said, it's worth noting that people answering in comments have ignored:

  • The tour – "Use comments to ask for more information or clarify a question or answer."

  • The placeholder text when adding a comment – "Use comments to ask for clarification or add information. Avoid answering questions in comments."

  • The help center – "Comments are not recommended for any of the following: [...] Answering a question or providing an alternate solution to an existing answer; instead, post an actual answer (or edit to expand an existing one);"

Obviously, we don't expect new users to read all of the documentation before participating, but the system does make it pretty clear that you shouldn't be answering in comments.


As to what can be done? Honestly, I'd suggest just deleting them. Optionally, leave a comment to suggest posting an answer (or give a 'grace period', if you feel generous... there might even be a userscript that could help with co-ordinating that!)

It's unlikely that you can really fit a well-developed answer to a question in 600 characters, and if in some cases the information does seem too good to lose, consider posting the answer yourself (with attribution, if you feel that it would be appropriate). You could use Community Wiki if you genuinely want other users to collaborate with you on the answer... but using it as 'reputation denial' isn't what it's meant for.

Sometimes it's helpful for moderation to be publicly visible, which is where leaving a comment reminding users to post answers can be a good idea. It can be a little frustrating if you're on the receiving end... but we're doing users a disservice if we don't help them to use the system as designed, because answering in the comments does undermine what Stack Exchange is about – curated, wiki-editable answers, vetted by the community.

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I think that it is enough for regular users to have some diligence to aid the mods to clean up things. By the time we have 2000 questions it will be an issue, so the cleanup can be gradual, with some education along the way about the issues.

Flagging chats in comments is one place to start, as well as flagging answers. But when answers start to appear, unfortunately, the only recourse, other than deleting them, is another comment to point out that it is really an answer. That comment, itself, will have to go eventually.

The hardest case, if you want to preserve the ideas in such comments, is where a drive-by (unregistered) user answers in a comment and then never returns. Of course, those users are problematic in any case, even when they ask questions and then never return. It isn't a problem if the question is a good one, of course, but it is too often otherwise.

I'm still in favor of some restrictions on who can ask questions - formal registration at least. But some people also "contribute" here having exactly zero experience with SE and/or CSE.

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    $\begingroup$ For the "drive-by" cases the simple solution is to add a comment to the chain (even though knowing an unregistered user will not be pinged) that it needs to be an answer, not a comment. Given enough time (max of 24 hours) it can then be used by someone else to create an answer and then flagged as no longer needed. Incidentally, that's the same procedure to follow for any answer in comment scenario, registered user or not. $\endgroup$ – Gypsy Spellweaver Mar 22 '18 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ Again, I disagree that it is appropriate for anyone to create an answer from someone else's comments. It is plagiarism. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Mar 22 '18 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not quite sure what you're actual suggestion is here. What should we do when someone posts an answer in a comment and then they don't come back and write an answer? $\endgroup$ – thesecretmaster Mar 24 '18 at 1:06
  • $\begingroup$ See my latest answer: cseducators.meta.stackexchange.com/a/391/1293 $\endgroup$ – Buffy Mar 24 '18 at 10:01
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Do moderators have the ability to create an answer from a comment? If so, I think this could be used to transform comments into an answer (keeping the original owner) even if the user doesn't migrate the question.

If moderators don't have the ability to do this, maybe the community can do it on their own, provided that they indicate they are not the owners of the post (in a way the license permits).

What about moving those comments to chat? This would clean things up and be an incentive for users to post their helpful ideas once again as an answer. Still, the comments would be available in a chat room if someone wants to look at it.


Edit to address the plagiarism issue:

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, so I cannot give legal advice. The following is my interpretation of the linked material. I cannot guarantee this interpretation is correct.

The Section "3. Subscriber Content" of the Stack Exchange Terms of Service reads as follows:

You agree that all Subscriber Content that You contribute to the Network is perpetually and irrevocably licensed to Stack Exchange under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license.

The footer of every pages indicates this as well, it reads:

user contributions licensed under cc by-sa 3.0 with attribution required.

The description site of the CC BY-SA 3.0 license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) states that everybody is free to share and adapt the material, as long as the following terms are met:

  • The material is distributed under the same license
  • Appropriate credit is given
  • The license is linked
  • It is indicated if changes were made

As long as those criteria are met when copying content from a comment to an answer, I believe copying is completely legal and the original poster can do nothing to prevent this.

The respect and courtesy issue:

I understand that it is disrespectful to copy content from someone without proper attribution, however I think the attribution requirements of the content license are enough to fix that issue.

What might be seen as immoral is that the converter will gain (or lose) reputation for an answer he didn't made.

To fix this issue, I think the best idea is to make such answers a Community Wiki. When an answer is a community wiki, the author is featured slightly less prominent and voting doesn't affect the poster's reputation.

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  • $\begingroup$ Moderators cannot create answers from comments, although it has been requested on meta.SE. And moving comments to chat is supposed to be a place for discussion, not oreserving answers in comments. Would you mind suggesting some protocols or policies that you think we should adopt for creating answers from comments? $\endgroup$ – thesecretmaster Mar 22 '18 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ I think that any of that (creating answers from other's comments) is a mistake. It is plagiarism, for one thing. The poster of the comment may have explicitly not wanted to make a formal answer. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Mar 22 '18 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Buffy To avoid plagiarism all that needs to be done is state that " User2734 left a comment suggesting this answer." Then give a complete answer, up to SE/CSE standards, that uses the comment. $\endgroup$ – Gypsy Spellweaver Mar 22 '18 at 13:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Buffy As to cases where the poster "may have explicitly not wanted to make a formal answer," that's no excuse. If I don't want to wait in a queue, it does not justify jumping to the front of the line. The rules exist and personal preferences do not justify the choice to ignore them. Once posted in comments, chat, or otherwise, the "content" belongs to SE anyway. The idea, and maybe credit, belongs to the writer. $\endgroup$ – Gypsy Spellweaver Mar 22 '18 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ No "moderators" cannot create answers from comments, but any user can, using a keyboard and mouse. I doubt the feature request for such a tool will ever be filled. If the poster wanted the "credit" for an answer they should have posted an answer not a comment. There is no reason to create a tool that will award them the credit from an answer when they don't want to take the time to follow the rules and create an answer. $\endgroup$ – Gypsy Spellweaver Mar 22 '18 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ Aside from being a form of plagiarism, it is disrespectful to appropriate another's words. I would avoid it, and object to it. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Mar 22 '18 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Buffy Once it looks like the author won't convert to a real answer, there is nothing wrong, or disrespectful, in creating an answer, using their comment as a "launch pad" for the ideas in the answer. Even original research builds other work from other people. Giving the comment author a chance to make a full-fledged answer out of the comment is respectful. If they decline, even by inaction, to do so then the "idea" in the comment is available. If it wasn't then any answer that was similar to their idea would be out, and there's usually many ways to express the same idea. $\endgroup$ – Gypsy Spellweaver Mar 22 '18 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ I strongly disagree. Strongly. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Mar 22 '18 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ @GypsySpellweaver I would also object strongly if someone other than the OP took something from the Sandbox and made it a question. I would treat them the same and would object in comments, flags, and votes. This is a serious issue. Personal respect is much more important than any content, here. We are teachers. Any form of appropriation is inappropriate. I hope we teach that. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Mar 22 '18 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ I see some good thoughts here, but would you mind editing in a summary of your thoughts that we could use as a policy? $\endgroup$ – thesecretmaster Mar 24 '18 at 12:00
  • $\begingroup$ @thesecretmaster (In response to your first comment): I'm sorry it took me so long to respond. I'm not sure if I'm able to add any policies - my thoughts haven't been at this stage yet. I think I would head for Aurora0001's proposal which seems to cover most (if not all) use cases. $\endgroup$ – TuringTux Mar 27 '18 at 18:37
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On March 23, 2017 an unregistered user made the following comment:

I'm not quite sure what you're actual suggestion is here. What should we do when someone posts an answer in a comment and then they don't come back and write an answer? – thesecretmaster♦

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe the above is the answer to this dilemma. Especially if the "answer" capturing the comment is Community owned. Yes, I realize that @thesecretmaster isn't unregistered. I just grabbed his comment for illustration, preserving attribution. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Mar 24 '18 at 10:01
  • $\begingroup$ In many cases, answers in comments are not complete answers and require more work to turn them into high quality answers. $\endgroup$ – thesecretmaster Mar 24 '18 at 11:05
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    $\begingroup$ In such cases we may just have to trust the readers to catch the germ of an idea. I don't think that this "capturing" should happen for every such comment, but only for those of value. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Mar 24 '18 at 11:18
  • $\begingroup$ @thesecretmaster we have the same problem for unregistered users asking questions and giving answers. Often enough it is impossible to discern the intent of the OP to make proper edits. The "What If" question is like that now. Was the example an error, or the intent? I have no idea. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Mar 24 '18 at 11:54
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    $\begingroup$ If a comment is at a point where it's impossible to discern the intent, then we might as well delete it. In the same way, if we see questions where we can't discern what's going on, we should close them as unclear. $\endgroup$ – thesecretmaster Mar 24 '18 at 11:56
  • $\begingroup$ @thesecretmaster, we also have a separate problem of a new answer saying nothing new. Just rephrasing an existing answer. The writer probably hasn't read the answers, I think. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Mar 24 '18 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ @thesecretmaster I agree about unclear comments, etc. Deletion/closing is fine. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Mar 24 '18 at 11:58
  • $\begingroup$ In which case the answerer should be warned, then the answer should be deleted. Duplication like that isn't helpful either. But this discussion is about answers in the comments. If you want to talk about answer duplication and unclear questions, we should hop over to the classroom. $\endgroup$ – thesecretmaster Mar 24 '18 at 11:59

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