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I often find myself waiting on the homepage of math.stackexchange.com, searching if there's a question I can answer. However, if I find a question (not posted by me), which is interesting for me, then I go and read the answers.

Many times it happens with me that the question has become inactive or OP has accepted some answer, not necessarily the one I am interested in. However, I need clarification on some part of the answer.
For example, I don't understand how the answerer went from second step to third step or which theorem is implicitly used in the answer or so on.

Is it okay for me to comment on answers of questions which are not related to me (I am neither OP nor answerer), just because I am interested in math? I know I can post a separate question, but many times the answer is only one word and is related to that particular answer; and a separate question would be an overkill.

TL;DR: Should I post on others' answers asking for clarification? Is it rude? Is the answerer supposed to clarify or they can just ignore my request?

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It's perfectly fine in my opinion (and judging by what I see on MSE, by the majority of people's opinion). In fact, I'm pretty sure this is the intended use of the comments feature:

Use comments to ask for clarification or add more information.

If asking for clarification on other people's questions wasn't okay, you wouldn't be presented with the option.


Still, this needs to be nuanced. Asking for clarification is okay, for example if there's a small step that you didn't fully understand. On the other hand, if you can envision the reply not fitting in a comment box (because it would be very long, only tangentially related to the question, etc), or if you have a follow-up question (eg. "all of this is perfectly fine, but what about the noncompact case?" or "how would this work if this were a Poisson distribution instead of a normal distribution?"), it's IMO better to ask an entirely new question.

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  • $\begingroup$ Oh. I was just being careful because I wasn't related to the question or the answer. $\endgroup$ – taninamdar Sep 28 '14 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ As far as I'm aware, the philosophy of SE is that it doesn't really matter who asks and who answers. This is why anybody with enough rep can edit anybody's posts, for example. Once you've posted a question, you don't really "own" it (well, on MSE it's a little bit different, but not too different). The only control the asker has is to choose what answer to accept and put at the top; and even then, if another answer gets much more votes than the accepted answer, I think it goes on top (something like twice the votes). $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Sep 28 '14 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi the only time an accepted answer is ever not shown on top (in the "votes" tab at least) is if the asker accepts their own answer to the question. Otherwise, you can get a badge for outscoring the accepted answer by a factor of 2, but still the accepted answer is always shown first. $\endgroup$ – David Z Oct 2 '14 at 23:11

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