I have been involved in this site for some time, I think it is incredibly useful, and have found help and guidance to problems in maths not available elsewhere on the web...

I do have one specific "gripe" though, in that I think the focus of the site is often misunderstood. The way I see it this site is more like a forum where math problems are discussed, by no means can it be academically referenced, and as answers are given on an ad hoc basis in a very short time period, the correctness of an answer can often not be verified - in many cases no references to sources are given. Now all of this is fine when the context is understood - so now, specifically referring to answers - the tooltip when you +1 an answer is the perfect description to me: "This answer is useful/not useful". Unfortunately I get the idea that individuals treat this more as "This answer is correct/not correct".

So often in the past I would answer a question, there are some mistakes in it and someone points that out to me in the comments - many times unfortunately this is done in a very negative manner, and worse they -1 me even though the answer might still be useful - this is the first problem, as it inhibits people from wanting to post an answer that might be useful but not entirely correct.

So ok, now what I have seen is that many people, when this happens they modify their answer so that there is no trace of their original error and they do not reply in the comments, but the commentators remark is still sitting there in the comments making no sense whatsoever. Or even worse, and this could be because of the negativity of the commentator, the answer is deleted, even though it might still be useful.

Why be so afraid to make mistakes? Does it give you a bad reputation when you make a mistake in an ad hoc answer? I think it's fine to make an error, and I believe it is better to then edit your answer by rather adding to it and showing how you have come to a better insight. Or at least reply to a commentator saying you have made an edit. In that way it becomes a dialogue and discussion where everyone learns. The answers we are writing are not being reviewed for publishing in a peer reviewed journal, so please allow me to make mistakes, and on the other side of the coin, don't try to hide your mistakes at all costs for the sake of your reputation. I would much prefer a wrong answer that is useful, to a correct answer that is unclear, or just a quote from a textbook, etc. and I think we should reward answers that are wrong but useful (please note, I am NOT saying we shouldn't correct or indicate the mistakes - but why not +1 it when it is useful?)

I try to follow this approach and to engage in dialogue in this manner when I answer questions, but I must say that the response I get is often quite disheartening...does anybody else feel this way? Maybe my interpretation of how the site should be used is incorrect?

  • $\begingroup$ If you feel disheartened, just take the point of view that the commenters/voters want the content to be as good as possible. It's not personal. Plus, votes are also signs to other users that there is some problem with the post, not just a means to punish the poster. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin May 17 '15 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ You should always be sure your answer is correct before you post it, and if it is not correct you should be penalized. An incorrect answer is never useful except possibly if it is indicated somewhere in the answer that the answer is incorrect. Otherwise it is misleading to anyone reading it as it is presented as being correct even though it is not. (Somewhat of a drastic analogy: Is it okay for a surgeon to make a mistake and later fix it? No, of course not, the damage is done and it would have been better to do it correctly the first time. This isn't surgery but it still does damage.) $\endgroup$ – Matt Samuel May 17 '15 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ Isn't it true that we can see edits at enough rep? In that case, then why is this an issue at all? $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon May 18 '15 at 1:28
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    $\begingroup$ @RonGordon Everybody can see revision history by clicking the word "edited", no rep (or even an account) needed. $\endgroup$ – user147263 May 18 '15 at 4:15
  • $\begingroup$ Some advice: I don't know the academic climate in your country, but in the US there has been a trend in mathematics education to emphasize more that the student should understand what is going on and deemphasize getting the right answer. In real life it's actually more important to get the right answer than it is to understand what is going on. You are judged based on your work. If you publicly make a mistake in virtually any profession it is a problem. Cashiers could ring up the wrong price. Financial advisors give bad advice. Academics publish incorrect results, etc. $\endgroup$ – Matt Samuel May 18 '15 at 16:29
  • $\begingroup$ @MattSamuel it is a question of context though: isn't the purpose of this site exactly to be a place where the emphasis is to gain understanding? Do you see this site as a formally recognized academic environment? Please also note that I am not promoting grossly incorrect answers which are presented without ever being exposed. If you make an error and someone corrects you that is great, but now since you made some mistake it doesn't necessarily mean your attempt was useless... $\endgroup$ – Christiaan Hattingh May 19 '15 at 6:18
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that making a mistake does not necessarily completely invalidate an answer, and certainly everyone makes mistakes. I just believe that the final version should be correct. If you want to leave in history that proceeds from incorrect to correct, that's fine. Downvoting for minor mistakes is also generally uncalled for, but unless they're absolutely minuscule they should also be corrected. $\endgroup$ – Matt Samuel May 19 '15 at 6:29

I would much prefer a wrong answer that is useful, to a correct answer that is unclear

And I would much prefer answers that are clear and correct. So:

  • If my answer happens to be incorrect, I will either correct it or delete it (if it's beyond repair or became redundant).
  • If my answer happens to be unclear, I will clarify (within some limit; I am not responsible for another user's lack of background necessary to even approach the question).
  • If I see an answer that is either incorrect or unclear, I will downvote and/or comment.

Users editing their answers in response to comments and/or downvotes is the system working as intended.

the commentators remark is still sitting there in the comments

That is a problem. One could flag such comments for deletion as obsolete, but it may not be obvious to a moderator whether the issue has indeed been corrected, i.e., whether the comment is indeed obsolete. I prefer to leave a comment with something like "Fixed, thanks"; many times the other user will delete their comment, and I will delete mine. Even if they don't, other users will see the comment as obsolete.

I do wish there was a more efficient way to dispose of obsolete comments...

  • $\begingroup$ Make the correction, including in your edit a thank-you to the commenter, then flag the comment as obsolete. The moderator can then see you have made the correction (or, at least, that you claim to have made the correction...). $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson May 18 '15 at 0:11

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