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On this answer, which provides a bibliographic reference to one of the standard sources of information on the subject of question to which it is attached, was flagged for review for «low quality» and, in response to that, two users added comments complaining about it being a «link-only» answer and so on.

Even if that answer were the only answer to the question —and in fact there are several answers, each providing different pieces of the story— I find the review and the comments simply absurd, specially when «rules» are used to support them.

While it is true that an answer which is only a link is not usually a very good answer, can we please use a generous amount of common sense before turning that into a rule?

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    $\begingroup$ The first comment is perfectly sensible. The second one is, as you know, fixed and close enough. Worth noting, the question was not originally tagged reference request. Would this happen now your answer would be removed or converted to a comment with high likelihood. The fact that you mention a standard reference rather speaks against your answer not in favor of it. (On the good side, you mentioned at least the volume.) $\endgroup$ – quid Mar 6 '18 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ That it is the standard reference does not at all mean that people know about it. I would say that most people do not even know that the book exists, quid. $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Mar 6 '18 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ I honestly cannot believe one has to explain that providing a bibliographic reference to a scholarly work that exactly answers what is a scholarly question on a website dedicated to a scholarly subject is a perfectly good and sensible answer. $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Mar 6 '18 at 23:13
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    $\begingroup$ And that the question is not marked as a reference request is entirely irrelevant — I'd say that it only reflects on the fact that the original asker did not even think to ask for a standard reference on the history of notations (most probably because he did not even imagine there is such a thing) $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Mar 6 '18 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ You do know how the review queues work, right? $\endgroup$ – quid Mar 6 '18 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ I recommend you calm down a bit and reconsider the situation in a day or two. Try to answer what was unreasonable about the request to expand your answer (explaining in what specific way the reference will answer the question that OP asked). $\endgroup$ – quid Mar 6 '18 at 23:26
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    $\begingroup$ So, you believe to recommend to read half a book to get an answer to this question is a useful answer? Are you kidding me?:-) $\endgroup$ – quid Mar 6 '18 at 23:33
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    $\begingroup$ I think that a lot of stuff from eight years ago can be treated with much less scrutiny. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mar 6 '18 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila, the point of this meta post, though, is that I am suggesting that along with the extra scrutiny (?) that more recent posts are treated with, extra common sense should be applied. $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Mar 6 '18 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Asaf I actually agree with this. The problem though is that Mariano seems to think that his answer is to good to be improved, and makes a fuss about it. I mean he also could just have ignored it. Or, said something along the lines what you said. But, he insists today this is a good answer. $\endgroup$ – quid Mar 6 '18 at 23:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Mariano that's all good and well. Still common sense would seem to dictate to accompany this recommendation with some more guidance, especially, as the question seemed rather to the naive end and you answer was the first one (that's now moot, though). It also asked about specific examples. It was not even a pure history question. I will not continue this debate any further, but this "culture" that your answer there embodies is in my opinion a root-cause for many of the problems we have.on this site $\endgroup$ – quid Mar 6 '18 at 23:55
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    $\begingroup$ So I guess we should start providing more answers along the lines of "See the Student Solutions Manual to [textbook]." $\endgroup$ – sie es er Mar 7 '18 at 5:37
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    $\begingroup$ @MarianoSuárez-Álvarez I quote one of your multiple comments to Aloizio Macedo's answer below: "Referring a person to a book is a sensible answer in any context — this site and elsewhere." I see no limitations in that statement. In fact, it quite explicitly states that references to books are always sensible as answers on Mathematics. $\endgroup$ – sie es er Mar 7 '18 at 6:44
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    $\begingroup$ @MarianoSuárez-Álvarez So, if you don't want to have that debate (that you started), perhaps you should make your position on this matter more clear. $\endgroup$ – sie es er Mar 7 '18 at 6:46
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    $\begingroup$ If you understood that I am advocating that all questions can be sensibly answered with references, I honestly do not know what to tell you. $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Mar 7 '18 at 6:49
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I think you yourself see the problem with the answer, as you prelude it with:

If you have access to it, (...)

As I understand, content in MSE should be as self-contained as possible. This "policy" is one of the reasons why images are deprecated, for example. The fact that it is "one of the major works on the history of notation" is irrelevant, in my opinion. In a few years, it may be less widespread, copies may be lacking. Also, acessibility depends on where you are etc. For instance, I've just made a search on the author in the database of UFRJ (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro) for books on every library in all campi, and made hits for

  • An introduction to the modern theory of equations.
  • Sir Isaac Newton’s mathematical principles of natural philosophy and his system of the world
  • A history of elementairy [sic] mathematics with hints on methods of teaching
  • Storia della fisica elementare con l’evoluzione dei laboratori fisici
  • A history of mathematics

The book you mention is not on the list. This illustrates the problem nicely, I believe.

That said, your answer may be good (none of the above says otherwise. It only argues that it may be inacessible now for some, or that its acessibility may change with time, which are not good things for one of the goals of MSE of a self-contained body of knowledge I believe). But if you interpreted that "the question asks for a history lesson on the history of the notation for derivatives, Cajori wrote half a tome on precisely that", then the problem is with the question being too broad. The description of the "too broad" close vote changed, but previously it had a fragment which said:

(...) good answers would be too long for this format. (...)

It seems that it was changed partly because "too long" is not very precise and may seem to frown upon long but objective answers (more information here). But certainly, if you think that referring a book for a person to read about is the best answer in this platform, I think that you consider the question to be too broad (and I agree with this. Were it not for the fact that the question is 8 years old, I would vote to close it).

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    $\begingroup$ And even if some users do not have access to the book, and have no access to the internet, and to email to ask me for the files, other users do. It is often the case that I and others write answers not directly for the benefit of the original poster but of others: this may be because the answer depends on access to a book, like in this case, or because it depends on knowing math which the OP probably doees not know, or something. That something is «inaccessible for some» does not mean that it is inaccessible for all: some answers may be not very useful for some, and yet useful for others. $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Mar 7 '18 at 4:14
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    $\begingroup$ I think that your arguments seem to prove that this is an inappropriate question for this site, as I argue in the last paragraphs of this answer. If the question entails having an answer for which one of the ways to "make it work" could involve sending scans to the interested parts, I think it is not a good question (for MSE). Note that I am not saying that the question is bad, or that the book is bad. I've never read the book, and if you claim that it is an excellent reference, I honestly believe it. I just don't believe that this is proper to the environment that is MSE (continuing.) $\endgroup$ – Aloizio Macedo Mar 7 '18 at 4:26
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    $\begingroup$ Referring a person to a book is a sensible answer in any context — this site and elsewhere. I honestly cringe at the idea that in a site filled with people learning math, that a question have as a sensible answer a reference to a book magically turns the question into one which is not appropriate for the site. I don't know what math this site might be about if that were the case. $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Mar 7 '18 at 4:29
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    $\begingroup$ To be perfectly clear, if you met a student in the corridor, or someone sent you an e-mail, or a colleague asked for a reference to the history of the notation of derivatives, your recommendation is probably (and by that, I honestly mean most certainly) the best answer among the answers that were given in that post by far. The problem is specifically about how we understand MSE, and what we expect from answers (not as quality, but other aspects). I may be wrong in how I see these issues. I think this depends on the community point of view as a whole, so let's wait for some feedback. $\endgroup$ – Aloizio Macedo Mar 7 '18 at 4:30
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    $\begingroup$ @XanderHenderson, again: I find it incomprehensible that a question that invites a reference to a well-established, 'better' source of information would make a question a bad fit for this site. For one thing, it is quite possible that someone asking a question does not even imagine that (for example, in this concrete case) there are historians of notation who write entire books about them. As a criterion it would be extremely weird. Would you say that a question about a diophantine equation would be a bad fit for this site if someone could actually prove that any proof of nonexistence (…) $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Mar 7 '18 at 6:44
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    $\begingroup$ (…) of solutions must necessarily be very, very long? In other words, are we to judge a question —usually asked by people who do not know the answer— by the fact that the answers to it are long and people write entire books about it? $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Mar 7 '18 at 6:44
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    $\begingroup$ @AloizioMacedo unfortunately OP is written in a misleading way. As a matter of fact the post was never flagged as "very low quality". It was flagged as "not an answer," which is the recommended flag for "link only" answers. (The review queues then are the same though.) Maybe it should not have been flagged as NAA either, but since the issue of which flag is appropriate came up I thought I mention it. Finally, the first comment on main does not come from the queue so the meta post is also misleading in that regard. $\endgroup$ – quid Mar 7 '18 at 11:42
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    $\begingroup$ @MarianoSuárez-Álvarez once you calmed down, I might continue to discuss with you. As said, I have at the moment no interest to discuss this matter with you. (I did not mean to imply that you intended to mislead. If I would, I'd write that 'OP is written in a way to mislead.') $\endgroup$ – quid Mar 7 '18 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ @quid, Repeatedly saying "when you calm down" is also something that could certainly be found insulting, you know, if it were not a rather infantile attempt at that. To be honest, I would have imagined you were above such rhetoric devices (it is an close relative to calling women 'emotional' in debates, for example). Oh well. $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Mar 8 '18 at 0:44
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    $\begingroup$ Comparing to a time with different technology is missing the point of what I mean with diminishing acessibility of physical (or even electronic, but bought) books with time. And again, you dismiss the locality factor. To give yet another example, "Principles of Mathematical Analysis" from Rudin, one of the most prestigious and well-known books on introductory real analysis (arguably the most) is at the time of this writing R$701 (USD ~216), with only one on stock in amazon.br. The ability (or better, willingness) to use google is not really related to the discussion here. $\endgroup$ – Aloizio Macedo Mar 9 '18 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ Being self-contained, one can check the properness of the answer immediately, and also with other peers of the platform at large in a seamless manner. Being a site of people learning math, this collective aspect is important. Reference-only answers can be argued to disencourage that. $\endgroup$ – Aloizio Macedo Mar 9 '18 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ I felt the need to bolden since you prefaced your comments with "A note independent of MSE (...)", and then you implicitly mix your observations in the end with the issue at hand. You repeatedly say that you find all this "extraordinary, absurd, baffling, amazing", but you haven't adressed satisfactorily (in my opinion) the issues (at least 4 - namely, local dependence of usefulness of answer, convoluted means of effectiveness, reference-chain problematica, individual utility of the answer, but there are more) that I raised, except from the availability issue, which I think was misconstrued. $\endgroup$ – Aloizio Macedo Mar 9 '18 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ And I didn't make this clear, but I don't think this is a binary situation. What I claim is that -in general-, reference-only answers should be discouraged for the reasons stated in the answer and comments. And, when done, they should probably be accompanied with some sort of discourse of what happens in said reference to attenuate the effects that I mentioned as much as possible. $\endgroup$ – Aloizio Macedo Mar 9 '18 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ That last comment is just a straw man. Regarding the previous one, your discourse essentially says "This book answers your question thoroughly". This is not what I intend to mean with "discourse of what happens in said reference". For instance, as an example, suppose that someone asked "What is a proof for the Weierstrass theorem on approximation of continuous function for polynomials?" (regardless if this is ontopic or not, just first example I had in mind). There is a difference between: "Principles of Mathematical Analysis, by Walter Rudin, has a pretty detailed proof of this." (...) $\endgroup$ – Aloizio Macedo Mar 10 '18 at 2:24
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    $\begingroup$ (...) and "You can find a full proof on Principles of Mathematical Analysis, by Walter Rudin. There, it is made a convolution with a particular polynomial which is highly concentrated around the origin so as to minimize the distance between the original continuous function and the resulting polynomial of said convolution. Some care must be made on the estimates to guarantee that everything goes well." This is the kind of discourse that attempts to escape a bit from complete outside reference. $\endgroup$ – Aloizio Macedo Mar 10 '18 at 2:25

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