# What to do when other users answer low-quality questions?

This question is related to many I've seen on here about "low-quality posts," so I apologize in advance if it's an exact duplicate of one I haven't found, or simply too close to others. My question is not about the posts themselves, but about how (if at all) to deal with situations where low-quality posts have been answered.

Here's the set-up that I have in mind: I find a poorly posed question -- one written in the imperative, with no Tex on the math, and no attempt at a solution or indication of the source of confusion. I want to leave a comment politely suggesting that the OP explain their confusion, supply an attempt, and clean up the presentation of their post. However, while I'm in the process of writing my comment, another user posts a complete solution. Their solution is correct and well-written.

On one hand, answers like these may still be valuable contributions to the M.SE database. On the other, this sort of answering seems to be encouraging future site misuse by the OP and like-minded individuals.

I've thought about following options (in no particular order):

(1) Using the edit option to clean up the latex/spelling/grammar of the original post, in the hopes that it will at least be helpful for future users.

(2) Posting my comment suggesting edits, even though the question has been answered in full.

(3) Down-voting the question and/or answer.

(4) Flagging the question and/or answer.

(5) Commenting on the answer to suggest that the user stop answering no-effort questions, perhaps citing a thread on here.

Which of the above approaches would you recommend? Or would you recommend something entirely different?

• If you can edit the question to improve it and feel motivated to do so, then you should. I'd also encourage downvoting the question (and leaving a comment explaining why) if it's particularly bad (or comment anyways even if it's not terrible). I wouldn't downvote good answers even if they are from bad questions; I have left comments in the past suggesting that people not give full solutions to bad questions, and it's frequently well-received. – user61527 Jul 20 '14 at 3:48
• The question is meaningless without any precise definition of "low quality question" (which, of course, will be highly subjective). – Number Jul 20 '14 at 16:06
• @BillDubuque trying to explicitly define "low-quality" seemed beyond the scope of my question. There are plenty of threads on here about "what constitutes a good question," "what constitutes a low-quality question." My thought was that I could sidestep this can of worms by giving a scenario involving a question with features nearly universally considered undesirable -- a post "written in the imperative, with no Tex on the math, and no attempt at a solution or indication of the source of confusion." – vociferous_rutabaga Jul 20 '14 at 16:26
• @BillDubuque I think that (at least for this question), a "know it when I see it" approach is far better than trying to make a precise, but necessarily arbitrary, definition. – user61527 Jul 20 '14 at 17:46
• I think this is the kind of thing best left to the moderators to worry about. Believe me, it leaves a sting when mathematical questions get closed for being "off-topic" (gee, maybe I should have sent my question on field automorphisms to Ann Landers instead). For your part, downvote questions that you think are "low quality." Also downvote answers that are wrong on some trivial technicality. But for God's sake, please don't downvote an answer if you think it's thoroughly technically correct. – Robert Soupe Jul 22 '14 at 4:13
• If the question is low-quality it behooves the answerer to make it worth our while to keep that question undeleted. So an answer should (IMVHO) then have extraordinary merit. A merely correct answer is still downvotable. This is particularly true if the answerer already has 1000+ rep and no longer needs the rep direly to participate. – Jyrki Lahtonen Jul 22 '14 at 7:02
• @RobertSoupe Luckily I happen to be an atheist. :) I do downvote answers that I consider not to be useful for the site, be they technically correct or not. – user147263 Jul 22 '14 at 20:11
• @Jyrki Why, pray tell, is a "merely correct answer still downvotable", and, even more strangely, why do you think the decision to downvote should depend on the rep of the answerer? – Number Jul 25 '14 at 20:46
• @Bill: I find it unappetizing that an expert hunter lowers themselves by indulging in turkey shooting. Extraordinary pedagogical points do form an exception, but that's how I feel about it generally. – Jyrki Lahtonen Aug 1 '14 at 13:52
• @Jyrki I don't see any analogy at all between teaching mathematics and hunting. It is unfortunate that the gamification in the SE model encourages people to think in such ways. Some of the best opportunities to teach are provided by elementary questions, which provide the opportunity to give simple concrete illustrations of deep ideas, planting seeds of ideas that will germinate in later studies. This is not "lowering themselves". Rather, it is the mark of a dedicated, talented teacher. Alas, recent policies have extremely alienated many such teachers. If continued, soon there will be none. – Number Aug 2 '14 at 19:17
• @Bill: I did say that extraordinary pedagogical points form an exception. My resentment is mostly directed at the "answering machines" who (re)produce minor variations of the same technique day in day out - not at teachers. Also, I used to very much enjoy your answers. Alas, the answering machines and the do-my-homework-for-me questions have largely alienated me from perusing e.g. the elementary-number-theory questions, where you produce beautiful answers. So I have scant opportunities to enjoy your answers nowadays. If the "anything goes"-policy on questions wins I may also be driven away. – Jyrki Lahtonen Aug 2 '14 at 20:12
• So may be I should have said "experienced hunters" instead of "expert hunters". – Jyrki Lahtonen Aug 3 '14 at 9:47

I believe this is a self-correcting problem. Consider the type of core answerers we have on SE:

1. The newbie: This person answers anything they can in hopes of gaining rep.
2. The experienced: This person tries to encourage good question-asking. If they answer bad questions, they do so with a hint (or after sufficient time has passed, so their answer helps future visitors, not the OP).
3. The fed up: This person only answers questions when they feel like it (which is typically rarely), mainly because they're emotionally drained or frustrated. They may even rage-quit.

As users grow more accustomed to the site, they move from category $1$ to $2$ naturally. This is partly due to being tired of ungrateful questioners who ask bad questions and partly due to a sense of responsibility for the site.

If we add more pressure or restrictions (for example, downvoting answers to bad questions, even if the answer is good), we encourage users to move from $2$ to $3$ (or possibly jump from $1$ to $3$).

It seems to me that the best course of action is to ignore good answers (no vote at all) to bad questions, or to edit the bad question into a good one:

1. If we ignore the answer, it discourages the newbie (who's only looking for rep), but doesn't discourage the experienced (who may have answered the question for legitimate reasons). Downvoting encourages people to enter the fed up* category.
2. If we edit the question, it improves the site overall. After all, SE is not about helping the questioner, but rather about building a searchable repository of useful questions and answers.
• Indeed, I think that this is a good analysis. I would point out that there's another (but much smaller) group of answerers that will answer questions more-or-less regardless of quality and strongly oppose closing or downvoting anything. There have been a few such users who are very prolific and vocal on meta about this. – user61527 Jul 20 '14 at 3:43
• Of course, the proliferation (and encouragement!) of low-quality postings is also a cause for people to progress from (2) to (3).... – Hurkyl Jul 21 '14 at 10:54
• (and as a devil's advocate, we do want to encourage some people to move to (3) as soon as possible: not everybody is or will evolve into a valued contributor!) – Hurkyl Jul 21 '14 at 11:01
• Hurkyl I hope you do not carry the illusion that you speak for the community? (Who is the we you are referring to? Folks who think like you?) – amWhy Jul 21 '14 at 14:42
• anorton: I think you've written a fine answer. My only quibble is with trying to categorize all answering users into one of three categories. But it is clear from your analysis that having done so was more a matter of "loosely" grouping folks in order to summarize some of the dynamics here at MSE. – amWhy Jul 21 '14 at 14:43
• @amWhy: You are correct - the dynamics and types of contributors on MSE are much more complicated than what I've outlined. And I did intend this to be "loose." :) – apnorton Jul 21 '14 at 18:23
• I find it much easier to gain rep by asking questions than answering others'. – ahorn Jul 22 '14 at 16:26

Item-by-item evaluation of your options:

1) Using the edit option to clean up the latex/spelling/grammar of the original post, in the hopes that it will at least be helpful for future users.

Sure, if you feel like it and if the content of the question merits keeping it. (I recall several months ago some well-meaning users went around LaTeXifying even totally worthless posts, like a cellphone picture of an exercise from a statistics textbook. Don't waste your time polishing a turd.)

(2) Posting my comment suggesting edits, even though the question has been answered in full.

Unlikely to work for the already-answered post. But you can make the point that future questions are more likely to be better received (e.g., not be downvoted) if they take some advice on asking good questions. This also brings us to the next point,

(3) Down-voting the question and/or answer.

By all means, downvote the question. Do not spoil your comment from #2 by adding that it was you who downvoted; this adds nothing besides unnecessary personal confrontation, and decreases the chances that your advice from #2 will be heard.

You don't have to downvote the answer. Leave that part to me.

(4) Flagging the question and/or answer.

Only if there is a flagging reason that fits. Certainly you can flag the question with closing suggestion "no context"; this is more effective than "low quality", because it sends the question directly into Close Review.

Don't flag the answer unless it is of very low quality indeed. For more, see What is "very low quality"?

(5) Commenting on the answer to suggest that the user stop answering no-effort questions, perhaps citing a thread on here.

If the answerer is new (see their reputation), this might have effect. If they have 1000+ rep already, it probably won't; they know exactly what they are doing.

• Although I agree with the gist of this answer, I have to disagree with the last sentence. I have way more than 1000 rep, and I rarely know exactly what I'm doing. – Daniel Fischer Jul 20 '14 at 12:02