In the wake of the recent election, I've been thinking about the hot-button issue about PSQs and Rep-farmers.

Firstly, what is a Rep-farmer? I understand that it's someone who, in some way, uses the site in some way that is contrary to the ideal usage of the site, but I'd like to know, how does one recognise a Rep-farmer? I hear that they are known to answer low quality questions. Is that their only characteristic?

Secondly, what do we do about Rep-farmers? Is there anything in the rules of the site that forbids them, or allows moderators to enforce against them?

I ask because it concerns me that Rep-farming may well be inextricable from MSE. The reputation/badge system is designed to make you produce dopamine for engaging in the site. There are always going to be people who become addicted to this. Persecuting them for this feels a bit like handing out shots to people every time a job is done well, but resenting them when they become alcoholics.

But crude analogy aside, what is a Rep-farmer, and what can we do about them?

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    You can look at the answer on Meta Stack Overflow to Why is Stack Overflow so negative of late? which mentions four categories of users and how they interact. (For a long time, a less polite term than rep farmer have been used.) – Martin Sleziak Aug 20 at 6:13
  • When I think rep-farmer, I get some mental image about a group of people or one person would suffice, even, that answer low quality questions or worse, replicate a lot of questions and answer them on the to-be-repped account - then a bunch of bot created users upvote the answer and all the nine yards. I don't want anyone getting any ideas, though.. – Alvin Lepik Aug 31 at 7:49

The term "rep-farmer" is the latest euphemistic terminology (until this one is deemed "mean" at which point a new term will arise) to describe someone who asks questions and posts answers with the sole goal of earning reputation.

This goal of earning reputation instead of contributing and praising quality questions and answers results in a variety of behaviors that go against the ideal of Stackexchange. For example:

  • Rep-farmers stereotypically don't care whether a question, or even their own question, is of bad quality and would rather post their own answer (or post their own question) in hopes of gaining reputation.

  • Rep-farmers don't feel incentivized to search whether a new question is a duplicate (because they want to post their own answer). In a worse case scenario, the rep-farmer may be aware that a question is a duplicate; however, this duplicate is hard to find, and they know that they can gain some quick reputation by posting a very similar answer to the one they've seen before.

That's all I can think about for now, but moderators may be more aware of other behaviors from rep-farmers that aren't desirable.

I think rep-farming is sort of inevitable to some extent whenever somebody begins on a Stackexchange site until the user becomes content with the reputation level (I've grown content with my logarithmic reputation growth).

I think a small reputation incentive to be the first to flag a question as a duplicate (which is eventually agreed as being a duplicate) would do something against this latter behavior and clean up the site a little bit.

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    I think a small reputation incentive to be the first to flag a question as a duplicate — that is a very good idea. After all, it requires expertise in the question topic and familiarity with the existing body of answered questions. – Matthew Leingang Aug 20 at 14:04
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    There seems to be a meta discussion about such a feature that hasn't been acted on meta.stackexchange.com/questions/37466/… – Robert Wolfe Aug 20 at 21:59
  • @RobertWolfe: Wow, that discussion is from 2010! It is incredible (and disappointing) how slow the SE team is. At the same, they claim that all their (often stupid) ideas are the result of listening to us. – Alex M. Aug 27 at 19:04
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    I feel like if you define a rep-farmer by their intention, it will be impossible to determine who is or isn't a rep-farmer. Externally, there is no difference between someone who is answering a question for rep and someone who is answering a question because they found it interesting/challenging and would like to post their results. Often times, even "bad" questions can be interesting (since we consider questions without any kind of attempt at a solution as "bad"), so how can you tell the two apart? Or are they both "in the wrong" in some sense? – AlexanderJ93 Aug 29 at 2:15
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    @Alexander93 answering a question after it has been flagged as an exact (answered) duplicate may be a good indicator. – Clement C. Aug 30 at 14:08

The method for dealing "within the system" with undesirable behavior from rep farmers is to use the system to deincentivize those behaviors — the most obvious would be to cast downvotes.

Historically, the idea "never downvote factually correct, on topic answers" has been even more tightly held than "never downvote or close questions on the topic of mathematics", so previous drives to increase moderation on MSE focused on overturning the latter idea.

Maybe we're collectively at the point where we can reevaluate the former ideal to decide if it's actually desirable for the site, or if we should instead be collectively deciding on circumstances where we should be downvoting factually correct, on topic answers.

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    P.S. This post should not be construed as advocating either for or against the idea of downvoting answers; I personally have no idea how to balance the reasons for and against the idea. But I do think the idea does need to be reevaluated. – Hurkyl Aug 20 at 10:44
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    Nowadays I have very few qualms about using the downvote in this way (=not useful). I do apply it only to users who indulge in such antics repeatedly. And leave "warnings/explanations" in comments, though not always. – Jyrki Lahtonen Aug 21 at 3:52

Here on MathSE, we're all playing a game. Like in many games, the goal is to earn as many points (and badges) as possible. The broad idea behind all the StackExchange sites is that the two sets

  1. things a user does to earn points and badges, and
  2. things a user does to improve the quality of content on a site

are really the same set, and furthermore the amount of reputation one earns is proportional to how much one improves the quality of content on the site. Now, the whole issue arises because, as the MathSE community currently defines set (2), these two really aren't the same.

Rep-farmers are users who are playing the game as it is now, doing things to earn points and badges, focusing on set (1). The users who actively oppose rep-farmers are playing the game that we ought to be playing, thinking only of set (2). I don't think it's productive to directly encourage users not to be rep-farmers: how can you welcome someone to the MathSE game but then ask them not to play to win? Instead, the only solution here is to bring the sets (1) and (2) closer together, to make it the goal of rep-farmers to be to improve the site.

So to answer the question, I don't think there's anything specific moderators can do about rep-farmers. The rep-farmers are driven by points, and moderators are (should be?) much more focused on the quality of the site rather than on the points and badges game. The MathSE community as a whole can do something though. Our votes decide who gets reputation, and as Hurkyl suggests, we can all change our voting habits to give reputation to only and all things that improve the quality of the site, and downvote things that don't improve the quality of the site. Increasing the ratio of votes cast on a page (up or down) to page views would go quite a ways in steering the actions of rep-farmers towards site improvement. But this can only go so far (see the discussion in the comments).

Frankly though, I'm pessimistic about the voting habits of the MathSE community changing at all, let alone changing dramatically. I think the only effective way to improve things would be a overhaul of the way reputation is awarded, i.e. redefining set (1) to be closer to set (2). But I can't imagine StackExchange ever doing such a thing; it would cause quite the uproar. But here are a few ideas (some good, certainly some bad, none of which I've put serious thought into) of what I mean:

  1. As pointed out in another answer, reputation should be awarded for putting in the work of marking questions as duplicates. This action obviously improves the quality of the site, and should be rewarded.

  2. Make the number of points awarded for an answer proportional to the quality of the question. If someone answers a question with a score of -1, they certainly aren't adding as much quality to the site as answering a good (hard) question with a higher score would. The Reversal Badge never made much sense to me.

  3. Consider awarding points for other housekeeping activities, like closing/deleting/merging questions. The cap on how much reputation a user can earn by editing questions doesn't make much sense to me. Responding to some of Xander's comments below, instead of giving editors a flat +2, we could give editors a cut of any of the future reputation a question/answer earns. If their edit is unsubstantial, then (ideally) a question will get no more upvotes than it already had, and the editor gets no points.

  4. Award reputation for voting. Something small like getting +1 reputation per vote. The fact that it costs 1 reputation to downvote an answer doesn't make sense. (This idea could be easily abused though ...)

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    Part of the problem, though, is that an upvote on an answer earns 10 XP, and getting that little green check earns 15 XP. Someone who asks a low quality question can award 25 XP to an XP farmer who answers that question. It would take 13 downvotes to wipe out that increase and thereby disincentivize the answerer. I am intrigued by the idea of somehow scaling XP earned per vote on an answer by the quality of the question, but that can be pretty tricky too: how do you deal with a question that bounces back and forth? or a low quality question that makes it to the HNQ? – Xander Henderson Aug 29 at 17:43
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    I am also a bit concerned about the idea of awarding XP for housekeeping. In principle, I like the idea, but if you have spent much time in the "Suggested Edits" review queue, you might notice that people often propose really silly edits for no good reason (other than to get that sweet, sweet XP). With questions and answers, any XP that can be earned for good behaviour can, in principle, be stripped if enough people downvote. Awarding XP for housekeeping tasks seems really easy to game. – Xander Henderson Aug 29 at 17:48
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    With regard to (4), I think I might take the opposite approach: in the real world, when you say "Foo is good!", you are telling people who trust you that you think that Foo is good, and that they, too, might like Foo. You are staking your reputation on the quality of Foo. Similarly, I think that a case can be made for votes acting like recommendations. When you upvote or downvote something, you are declaring that a thing is good or bad. Perhaps all votes should cost 1 XP? I think that this might be antithetical to the model of SE, and is never gonna happen, but it is an interesting thought... – Xander Henderson Aug 29 at 17:50
  • It's hard to deinctivize through downvotes, but easier to incentivize with upvotes. It would be nice if a rep-farmer would shy away from answering poor questions because they'd only get +25, whereas they could get much more by answering good questions, because more people upvote answers to good questions. There should be so many upvotes on the site that getting only one upvote and the accepted answer is no long worth a user's time. ....... but like, that won't happen, and that feels wrong anyways. :P – Mike Pierce Aug 29 at 17:57
  • The problem with that idea is that there is a reputation cap. If your entire goal is to earn XPs, then all you have to do is answer 20 questions every day well enough to get the upvote of the asker. You could probably do that in an hour if you really wanted. – Xander Henderson Aug 29 at 17:59
  • And if we're shooting for the ideal that "earning points"="improving the site", you've gotta somehow award rep for housekeeping. But yeah, it'd have to be done carefully to not be taken advantage of, and then things become a headache. Like, for editing questions, you'd have to scale the amount of rep earned per the size of the edit (minor edit +1, adding details/backstory +10, ...) but then if an edit sucks, there needs to be a way to catch that, and the offending editor loses rep for unimproving the site, and the catcher gains rep for catching the offender, ... and it'll get complicated. – Mike Pierce Aug 29 at 18:02
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    Most of your comments are echoing my sentiment that the current game isn't the game that we ought to be playing, and the only way to fix the issues is to change the game. – Mike Pierce Aug 29 at 18:04
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    Yes. That. The current game is the wrong game. I would rather play Tetris. – Xander Henderson Aug 29 at 18:08
  • Responding to your first comment, yeah, it would be tricky to deal with scaling XP on an answer by the quality of the question, but I think that's a fundamental change that'd have to be made. If the score of a question bounces back and forth, then (ideally) that means it's worth on this site bounces back and forth, and so the points awarded to the answer should bounce back and forth correspondingly. Also, by the current SE game, "popular"="good", so if a question makes it to the HNQ then it has to be a good question. :) – Mike Pierce Aug 29 at 18:11
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    This question is currently on the HNQ.. The HNQ needs work, methinks. – Xander Henderson Aug 29 at 18:15
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    @XanderHenderson I'm really curious why the HNQ picker algorithm is so terrible. – Mike Pierce Aug 29 at 20:26

After nearly 6 years on this site, I have come to the conclusion that the term "rep-farming" has been coined by one set of folks who do not have the time or dedication needed to post as many interesting answers to questions as another set of folks. Look, it's one thing when there's someone posting a lot of complete garbage. Of course, that garbage will get downvoted and whatever rep that user is farming...well, it's a lousy harvest. But, as I have said on this site repeatedly, people with high rep scores have such scores because they have a track record of posting lots of high-quality content. If they post more often than you would like, or they answer more quickly than you, well that's bad for you but not the site.

I really do not see the problem with people posting good answers quickly and often. If the site encourages addiction and time suck and all bad stuff, well IMO that is a personal discipline problem for the user, not the site**. The site and the community benefit from high-quality content, period. The frequency of high-quality postings from individuals should not really be our concern as a whole.

This should not really be an issue worth discussing.

**If you know someone personally whose job, relationships, etc. are suffering due to addictive behavior, which can include posting to this site and others like it, then by all means help that person out. I am not saying that I do not care, I am just making a statement from the POV of the site.

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    There are users with very high reputation who I respect very much... on the other hand, to abuse a meme, some users are "so preoccupied with whether or not they could [gain a lot of reputation by helping students cheat on blatant homework question], they didn't stop to think if they should." – user7530 Aug 24 at 16:19
  • @user7530: I doubt any of the high-rep users got that way by helping students cheat. "High-quality" is the opposite of that. – Ron Gordon Aug 24 at 16:39
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    If somebody is posting high-quality answers only in response to high-quality questions, my comment does not apply to them. Unfortunately this is far from universal behavior among the site's most active users. – user7530 Aug 24 at 16:41
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    "Rep per answer" is a slightly more accurate measure of "high quality", if you ask me. Rep-farmers are so called precisely because they answer low quality questions with mediocre answers (but still generate high rep since they are so hard working). – user99914 Aug 24 at 16:49
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    @JohnMa: yeah, we had a discussion about that some time ago: math.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/20212/… – Ron Gordon Aug 24 at 18:44
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    I think that you are conflating the idea of a person with a lot of reputation points with a "rep farmer". It is certainly possible to get a high point total by providing a lot of high quality answers to high quality questions. There are a lot of folk on this site with high reputation totals who have done this. – Xander Henderson Aug 24 at 18:49
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    On the other hand, it is also possible to get a large number of reputation points by posting low-to-medium quality answers to low-to-medium quality questions. It takes 15 downvotes to cancel out a single upvote + accept, so if you provide an answer that is useful only to the asker, you are still likely to come out ahead, since downvotes on answers are pretty rare. If your goal is to gain reputation as fast as possible, it can be easily done by spamming the site with a lot of answers of questionable quality. – Xander Henderson Aug 24 at 18:50
  • @XanderHenderson: Go through the list of the highest-rep users on the site. Not just the first page (top 36), but the next few pages. How many of those folks have a rep-score-to-answer-ratio of 10 or less? (Or whatever you think the threshold should be.) I have found nobody like that. What I am arguing is that the system, in the large, works just fine. I am not aware of anyone who puts up a lot of garbage and has a rep score that implies this is a person to trust. – Ron Gordon Aug 24 at 18:53
  • @XanderHenderson: As for your assertion that it is possible to build up a lot of rep by spamming the system, maybe that will work for a short time. But I said the system works "in the large." This means that people here are generally aware of such behavior and nobody I know can build up anything meaningful over a long period of time this way. – Ron Gordon Aug 24 at 18:55
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    @RonGordon I don't think that I am arguing that there are a huge number of users who are reputation famers (perhaps as a ratio of all users over a certain threshold). The problem is that, by answering a large number of low-quality questions for incremental per-question gains in reputation, a small number of such users can have a profound impact on the site at large. There are maybe four or five users that I can think of off the top of my head who have 50k+ reputation, and who consistently provide mediocre answers to terrible questions. – Xander Henderson Aug 24 at 19:17
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    rep-score-to-answer-ratio of 10 or less is VERY low, especially when you choose to answer questions in calculus, algebra-precalculus.... take a look here and most of the top answer-ers has ratio $\ge 30$. – user99914 Aug 24 at 19:21
  • OK, I see one guy here who may qualify as a "rep-farmer" as I understand the term. So maybe I am wrong, but I think this is an exception. But here's the thing...*everyone* knows this guy. (And his username gives him away. Sorry, but, like "Dr. Seb Gorka, Ph.D.," if you want the respect of your peers, you don't automatically parade a "Dr." in your username (or name on a paper, or whatever)). If the moderators found a problem with him, though, they would have suspended or banned him. – Ron Gordon Aug 24 at 19:28
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    @RonGordon If the moderators found a problem with him, though, they would have suspended or banned him. For what? What rule are they violating? They are certainly violating the standards of a large and vocal group of users, but they are not violating the letter of any of the rules of MSE (so far as I can tell). Which is what motivates the question: how can we deal with this kind of destructive behaviour which doesn't technically break the rules? – Xander Henderson Aug 24 at 19:33
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    I voted to un-delete this because I think it's important for folks to see that there are moderators who think that "posting good answers quickly and often" is OK. I'd upvote too but I already did. :) I did notice that the deletion was by the owner and was surprised that undeletion worked. I'd certainly respect your choice if you re-delete. – Mark McClure Aug 29 at 1:17
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    I was referring to reputations per answer, so Andre has 46, amWhy 42 etc... And yes, most of my best answers don't get >10. But in general a user with rep/answer 4 is very different from one with ~1. @Henry – user99914 Aug 29 at 17:10

If this site wanted to combat "rep-farmers" it would be very easy to do so. Just institute severe penalties. For example, to avoid "rep-farmers" answering a question which is later voted closed because of the typical "Off topic - missing context" reason, something like the following could be built into the system:

  1. Before anyone posts an answer, a warning giving the following penalties for answering a question, which is later voted closed for the above reason, is given:
  2. First offense: -100 points and suspension of IP for a month
  3. Second offense: -10,000 points and suspension of IP for 3 months
  4. Third offense: Points set to 0 and suspension of IP for life

To combat "missing context" or "low quality" questions, a similar warning (and penalty) could be given whenever someone wishes to ask a question.

Does the above give incredible power to the "close-voters"? Yes it does. But if the site was serious about combating these things, that shouldn't matter.

What we are actually seeing, of course, is the site bending over backwards to welcome new posters. And for those who don't like obvious homework questions, there is no hint in the Help Center that homework questions are discouraged, unlike at Math Overflow.

In short, since the site doesn't institute any measures (let alone the draconian ones I suggested above) against "rep-farmers", I conclude it doesn't care about them.

Something I agree with.

This site isn't ill (as some others have said), it is a place to ask math questions and sometimes getting answers, if someone (somewhere) thinks the question is interesting enough for them to work out an answer. And that, aside from generating income for the site owners, is fine with me.

NB: (Just re-read my post and see I veered slightly from the question. My basic answer to the OP is that "rep-farmers" don't matter to the site and hence no particular action is necessary).

  • You realize that the site is community moderated, right? and that this discussion is part of that community moderation? The fact that we are having this conversation indicates that "the site" (or, at least, some part of the membership of the site) believes that there is a problem, and we are trying to come up with ways of mitigating that problem which are not draconian. I honestly don't think that you have posted your answer in good faith... – Xander Henderson Sep 1 at 1:07

If multiple accounts are found that aid solely in some accounts reputation increasing and nothing else, those accounts will be suspended.

However, a situation where an active user with multiple active accounts (say twelve dozen because it makes him gross) could ask, answer and upvote all mutual content and live like 144 seperate accounts and no one would be the wiser.

If the content generated is of value, how could we ban this repfarmer?

We ban 143 of his accounts and add a warning to his last one remaining. He should have atleast one point of access, otherwise we'd just be cruel. That should be standard practice. And no, we musn't even transfer even a single rep point from an alt account that's deleted. We don't want to encourage even a shred of incentive in this matter. If you want to be a healthy and respected member of this community, you should stick to one account and refrain from making any more without great deal of cause. If by chance you find yourself with multiple accounts (perhaps your OpenID didn't sync properly), then please do refrain from upvoting your own content on the same SE site.

It is unfair to those who play by the rules and work on answers everyday to steadily rise their reputation and standing within their community.

SE should be able to track how many accounts are coming from a single IP. Surely there is atleast one script running in the data centre logging that detail 24x7. We don't have to worry to much about repfarming because of this. However, it is an issue we need clear policy for. We try to be a community that is googd to users who are good to us.

According to the faq page, the primary way to gain reputation is by posting good questions and useful answers. Votes on these posts cause you to gain (or sometimes lose) reputation. “Community wikis” do not generate any reputation.

You gain reputation when:

  • question is voted up: +5

  • answer is voted up: +10

  • answer is marked “accepted”: +15 (+2 to acceptor)

  • suggested edit is accepted: +2 (up to +1000 total per user)

  • bounty awarded to your answer: + full bounty amount

  • one of your answers is awarded a bounty automatically: + half of the bounty amount

  • site association bonus: +100 on each site (awarded a maximum of one time per site)

  • (!) You can earn a maximum of 200 reputation per day from the combination of upvotes, downvotes and suggested edits. But Bounty awards, accepted answers, and association bonuses are not subject to this daily reputation limit.

If you are an experienced Stack Exchange network user with 200 or more reputation on at least one site, you will receive a starting +100 reputation bonus to get you past basic new user restrictions. This will happen automatically on all current Stack Exchange sites where you have an account, and on any other Stack Exchange sites at the time you log in.

You lose reputation when:

  • your question is voted down: −2
  • your answer is voted down: −2
  • you vote down an answer: −1
  • you place a bounty on a question: − full bounty amount
  • one of your posts receives 6 spam or offensive flags: −100
  • All users start with one reputation point, and reputation can never drop below 1. Accepting your own answer does not increase your reputation. Deleted posts do not affect reputation, for voters, authors or anyone else involved, in most cases. If a user reverses a vote, the corresponding reputation loss or gain will be reversed as well. Vote reversal as a result of voting fraud will also return lost or gained reputation.

This system can be used by multiple accounts to unfairly gain point, offer paid services that we frown upon such as increasing and decreasing any user's rep. They can sock puppet eachother. Lots of problematicswe don't want here.

The mods have serious work when it comes to repfarmers. The first step is identification. The second, verification. The third, action. And finally, conformation that the threat does not persist.

Thank you.

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    How is this in any way related to rep farming? – Tobias Kildetoft Aug 25 at 4:55
  • @TobiasKildetoft i just read it myself and honestly, I have no clue. I written about multiple accounts but I mean to imply such a person could offer a service wherin they can boost any user's reputation for a given price and that such service should not be tolerated on SE. The resulting action should be adequate, is all I wanted to add. Should I deltete my answer @Tobias? – Nick Aug 25 at 6:50
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    @Nick I thought it went a bit overboard, but I personally do think this answer did add something useful here: a reminder about a particular method of farming ill-gotten reputation that is detectable and somewhat enforceable by the site's internal mechanisms. I'm sure this detail has been said before though, and a link to an answer on the subject in the form of a comment would probably have sufficed. – Theo Bendit Aug 27 at 16:20

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