This website serves an excellent purpose of supplying answers to those who couldn't find them elsewhere, and I think it's very effective at that... BUT sometimes I find that users miss the point of the website (helping people as best they can) by over complicating some of their responses.

For example:

What is $a$ in $F(x)=\int_a^xf(t)\,dt$?

This user has asked a very simplistic question, and while all of the answers to the question are technically "correct." At the current level of the asker, some of the answers are far from helpful, and only serve as an avenue for reputation building.

I guess, I'm just irritated with obfuscation, and I feel there should be a way to manage that tendency. It would be nice to have some way of judging the "appropriateness" of the answer aside from the answer selection of the asker.

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    $\begingroup$ "Some of the answers"? There are only two. $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2013 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ @AndresCaicedo , Great comment... You are correct, there are only two... I guess I was trying to give an example without calling out the one person who did it. But I didn't have another example readily available, and I felt that this would serve well. I think your comment serves my point perfectly however.... people on this website are too concerned with being the most correct. It's not about that, it's about helping those move along when they need it. Not bringing attention to pointless details or showing that you are clearly more knowledgeable on the subject. $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2013 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ Anyway, the answers do not need to be for the OP. Otherwise, there would be no point in storing them and keeping them available forever, at least in principle. It may be a question can be answered at several levels of sophistication, or there are technical subtleties attached to it, and even if the OP did not care for those, or does not have the background to appreciate them, they may still be useful to other users. $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2013 at 16:34
  • $\begingroup$ There is no reason why an answer can't answer the OP's question (at the level of the OP) and then continue to give more information or resources. But when the answer completely overshadows the scope of the OP's knowledge, it's far from helpful. $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2013 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ "not useful" is already a part of vote down definition. While Andres Caicedo made a good point, there are situations when an answer, while technically correct, is not useful to anyone who would actually ask that question. That makes it a candidate for downvoting. However, I do not think that either of the answers in the linked thread are guilty of that. $\endgroup$
    – 40 votes
    Jul 17, 2013 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @40votes Yes, of course, and I've seen examples of those (unfortunate) answers a few times. In my comment, I meant answers that actually convey information that others may find useful. $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2013 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ You could at least have chosen a thread not involving an answer of yours, no? $\endgroup$
    – Julien
    Jul 18, 2013 at 5:40

1 Answer 1


I disagree with the OP on two points.

First, although of course the point of the site is "helping people as best they can", I think he is wrong to characterize certain types of answers as going against that. The answers left on this site help people in two different ways: first, they help the person who has posted the question (the OP). Second, for ever after they stay freely available and searchable so can help arbitrarily many other people as the years roll by. The first reason is the more proximate, definite one, but the potential value in the second reason is almost limitless. So I think both need to be respected and evaluated when one looks at the worth of answers.

There are important site mechanics protecting the OP. Namely, the OP herself chooses an answer to the question, and that answer gets displayed first, no matter what its vote total. Further the site keeps track of unanswered questions. Everything is set up so that people will continue to give answers until an answer is given which is satisfactory to the OP.

However, often there is more to say about a question than the OP needs or wants to hear. In fact I would say that this is a decent definition of a "good question" on this site, and in its complete absence there is the danger of a question being "too localized". A lot of OP's here have fairly narrow goals -- in fact, it seems that a fair percentage of the questions asked here are simply homework problems -- so that a more ambitious or intellectually curious student of mathematics would want or need to read more than the minimal answer that satisfies the OP.

Thus I think that it should be unquestionably okay to leave answers which are more pitched at other readers of the site than the OP. Of course there are issues of balance and judgment involved here: e.g. if someone asks a calculus-level integration question then an answerer should think twice about leaving an answer involving the Lebesgue integral and would do well to explain the point of an answer which is so far above the level of the question posted. If you think that you are leaving an answer which is going to be over the head of the OP -- especially if there is not already an answer to the question at the OP's level -- then I think you should indicate this clearly.

Second, I looked at the question linked to in jameslmore's post...and I didn't find anything like the "over the OP's head" answers I was expecting to find. There were five answers, and they all looked pretty reasonable to me. One of them I found a little sub-par expositorily -- e.g. it used the word "primitive" without explanation; that word is no longer used in most American calculus courses so most students wouldn't know what is meant -- and I left a comment about what I thought was an unfortunate word choice. But it was certainly a good faith answer addressed to the OP. If this is the answer to which jameslemore refers to when he mentions "obfuscation", then I think that is a rather unwarranted and uncharitable accusation. The person who left that answer has left more than 600 other answers. You really think he's not trying to help people out as best he can?

Finally, where's the victim in this particular crime? The OP has accepted an answer -- which was, by some remarkable coincidence, left by jameslmore -- so presumably was satisfied by at least one of the answers given.


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