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We have a generally accepted and established norm on editing the content of questions, as addressed in this answer to the question http://meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/4255/ and in this answer to the question http://meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/3163/

But I recently saw something, and I wonder what community feels. So I think of this like a case-study.


Case I
In the question - How did it happen that base 10 went on to be the most popular? (which happens to be closed now) - one user happened to write two short answers to the question. Another user edited the two answers: he erased one and edited it so that it read "Answer blanked in preparation for deletion", and added that content to the end of the other answer. He then flagged that answer for deletion. This had the interesting side-effect of causing other people to flag it for deletion as well (as it no longer had any content).

What happened?
I brought this up in chat, and another user rolled back the two answers. I then posted a comment. As the question is closed as a duplicate, it won't be attracting much more attention, so this is all a bit under the rug.


Case II
In the question - Is trying to prove a theorem without Axiom of Choice useless? - one user happened to write two short answers to the question (Both answers happen to be deleted, so only 10k users will be able to see them, but this is the only example I remember exactly). In this case, first another user left a comment, and then I left a comment suggesting that the user combine the two answers, as I thought them very similar.

What happened?
The answerer decided that he did not want to combine his two answers. Both answers got down-voted. As it happened, both answers were later deleted by a moderator. (There are some circumstances surrounding this case that some may know, but that I do not think are relevant to this discussion; what I'm trying to get at is that there was a request that the two answers be combined, and then they weren't, prompting the follow-up question "Now what?")


While it is conceivable that a slightly more experienced user might simply rollback their two answers if they thought that someone treated their answers unfairly (as might happen in Case I), this wouldn't be possible if a moderator deleted the answer. And this is more likely because the edited answer would attract flags about its deletion.

On the other hand, if comments were made suggesting that a user combine or delete answers, and then ignored, it's unclear what would then happen. I do not think that a single shoe will fit, and should be handled case-by-case.

I feel that for a user to combine two answers of another user is over-editing with respect to the line separating editing for readability and editing content. Put another way, I don't think that we should alter posts in this way without the OP's consent.

Is this what the community thinks?

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    $\begingroup$ I actually think that the circumstances regarding the deletion in the second case are very relevant. They were not deleted because they were the same answer; nor because they were quite downvoted; they were deleted for other reasons altogether. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Aug 14 '12 at 0:48
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    $\begingroup$ In the first case the two answers were both so short and unsophisticated that I don't think it would have been very unreasonable to assume that their author had intended to amend his original answer rather than post a new one. It is not really likely this was the case (since you needs to click through a screen explicitly telling you that you can edit your first answer in order to get to write a second one), but I think we can at least assume good faith on the part of the user who tried to combine them. $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm Aug 14 '12 at 1:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Asaf: You're right. But I think it's possible to consider whether people can combine two answers, or should just leave a comment, without going back into that. I tried to find another example where someone was asked to combine their answers, but I couldn't. $\endgroup$ – davidlowryduda Aug 14 '12 at 2:17
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with the concluding statement. To wipe out another user's answer with an edit is overstepping the line, even if the content is then put elsewhere. If the answers are clearly detrimental to the thread, they should be downvoted out of sight; in rare cases deleted via flagging. $\endgroup$ – user31373 Aug 14 '12 at 5:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Leonid, or casting delete votes, for people with that capability. \ With respect to the topic of this thread, I agree that combining the two answers of a user without said user's permission is a tad disrespectful, and not the kind of editing we should be doing. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Aug 14 '12 at 9:48
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    $\begingroup$ I have undeleted the two posts mentioned in the second half. Such subjective decisions should be made only by the community, not by a single member (here a binding moderator vote to delete, which cannot be reversed by the community). In this case, while I can understand why some members might downvote the answers (esp. given the complex context at the time), I don't see any reason for the extreme action of (unilateral) deletion. Generally it is best to strive for constructive actions. Indeed, we did eventually manage to resolve the entire matter constructively. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Aug 14 '12 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: Don't you think that soapboxing should be discouraged? Should everyone who gets downvoted post a question "asking for possible motivation to ask such questions", and then immediately answer to attempt and convince why the actions are "valid" to begin with? That would make the website incredibly dense and impossible to navigate. It seemed, at the time, that MK's posts were aimed for exactly this purpose: to give explanations why he is asking AC related questions. Qiaochu's actions were valid, and I have voted to re-delete the questions because I strongly agree with him. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Aug 14 '12 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ I explained my reasoning above. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Aug 14 '12 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ I think the moderators should decide on a concrete limit of their actions, internally, and then publish this on the meta for the approval of the community. We can also agree that once in a while (six month? year?) we revisit the policy and see if anything needs to be changed. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Aug 14 '12 at 15:21
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I agree that we shouldn't be combining posts where there is any reasonable chance that the author meant them as independent alternative answers.

I can imagine cases where this isn't true (say, if someone posts one answer containing some lemmas, concluding with "oops, I gotta go now, be back later", and then later posts another answer that references those lemmas, combining them into something that answers the question). But that would be extremely rare.

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While I don't completely disagree with Henning, I'd like to offer an alternative viewpoint, if only for the sake of contrast:

While there can be valid reasons for one person to post multiple answers to the same question, this is not something we should generally encourage.

Multiple answers that look likely to have been posted by mistake, or in simple ignorance of usual practice on this site, should be merged into one and the user politely pointed to an appropriate FAQ section or post. If there's any doubt, it may be best to just ask the user if they really meant to post multiple answer, and to suggest that, if not, they merge their answers themselves.

One reason I have for taking this position is that I don't want to encourage people to split their answers into least publishable units in order to maximize rep gain. While there are legitimate reasons for posting multiple answers to the same question (and I may well have done so myself, though I'm not sure about that), I contend that they're probably about as extremely rare as the obviously accidental scenario described by Henning.

(It is possible to game rep this way, as I've personally observed on other SE sites (e.g. codegolf.SE) where multiple answers are explicitly encouraged. That said, it's also true that I haven't seen any signs of codegolf.SE, or any other SE site, melting down due to excessive duplicate answers, so I suppose it's not really much of a practical concern either way.)

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    $\begingroup$ Neither of the two examples linked in the question seem to have gamed reputation. I doubt deliberate gaming works, and even if it does, who cares very much? Looking for my own rare examples, it took me some time, and the first I came across was here where I received upvotes on both. There one of my answers started off as hints, with an arithmetic expression given after somebody else had also given an arithmetic answer; the second (accepted) was a rather more general formula. $\endgroup$ – Henry Dec 30 '13 at 22:32

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