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    I'd like to voice my frustration with two common types of comments on questions that I think often make MathOverflow less useful. First, someone often writes the answer to a question into the comments. This makes the question difficult to answer without looking like you're stealing credit. Second, people can be very quick to say that a question is too basic and say that it belongs in Both of these habits tend to come across as supercilious or guarded, even though the intention can be more reasonable than that.

    I think that it would be useful to have a statement in the FAQ that people shouldn't scribble answers into the comments. Even if one does it for the noble reason that it's only speculation or could only be the easy part of the question, it often still complicates things and comes across as false modesty.

    As for the referrals to math.SE, I think that the bold part in the FAQ that MathOverflow is for "research-level math questions" is slightly overstated. A graduate-level question, unless it is truly standard or homework like, is typically close enough to research-level to be fine. Moreover, people sometimes refer a question to math.SE just because they underestimated it, and yet it comes across as raising the bar ever higher. Roughly speaking the division between MO and math.SE is going to be graduate and above vs undergraduate and below, and I think that the FAQ should explain that more carefully. Otherwise, the day may come when MO's standards are so high that no questions still qualify.
    I don't see many questions that were closed that should have been kept open. There have been some that could be turned into questions appropriate for MO and were closed, but several were edited, reposted, and then remained open. Right now there is one closed question on the first page and 2-3 others that should be closed IMO.
    I didn't mean that the questions get closed. The problem is more insidious than that. What usually happens, if the question is answered in the comments, is that it stays in the unanswered list forever. Meanwhile if people have a supercilious reaction to a decent question, then usually that question survives, but people see the reaction and get scared away from asking questions in the future.
    I would be grateful for a clarification regarding this (either way).

    Until reading this, I was convinced it was considered good form to rather use a comment than an answer in cases were one believes one wants to contribute relevant information but possibly not a full answer.

    A specific situation were this problem arises for me is when the question is (in my opinion) not entirely clear;
    then it can happen that I have an answer to one interpretation but not the other.
    So, I give a comment along the lines "Not sure you mean this. If so, then... Else, please clarify."

    For purely practical reason (eg, character limit) I would often prefer to use an answer for the same purpose.
    But thought it was considered rather bad form.
    an_mo_user - You're not wrong: A remark which is only a small part of an answer really does make more sense as a comment. The problem is that some users go overboard with this principle, and switch to comments for very small or very rigid reasons.

    In regard to the specific situation that you describe: There is nothing wrong with stating an interpretation of the question and answering it, if it is a decent interpretation and a decent answer. After all, it could be the interpretation that the OP wanted. And even if not, readers generally approve.

    Greg: there is only a really fine line between what an_mo_user describes and what you describes. In particular, you use the words "very small or very rigid reasons"; or, in other words, a judgement call.

    So I don't think it is realistic to try to set a policy on when one should use the comments and when one shouldn't. Some of the previous discussions have indicated that it is acceptable to post a comment requesting that the poster of the significant comment to convert his comment to an answer. And that it is also acceptable, if the question is essentially answered in the comments, to post a hash of that answer based on the comments in Community Wiki mode.

    As to your second question: I agree in principle. But there is a rather large variation between what is considered advanced undergraduate level material and beginning graduate level material among various institutions. So I would prefer if the FAQ not phrase the distinction that way.

    Greg, when you come across a question that someone has answered in a comment, you could copy the comment to an answer, note that you're doing so, and make your answer community wiki.

    (In other words, what Willie posted while I was composing)

    I agree with you that sometimes someone is too quick to refer a problem to math.SE, I can hardly disagree since I know I've done it myself. I will try to be more careful, as I hope others will be. I note that often when someone is too hasty in dissing a question someone else will stand up for the question and point out that it's not so bad after all, and in those cases we all live happily ever after.
    It is my impression that there are a lot of questions in the "Unanswered" list that are actually answered in the comments. For people who like to answer questions, it is frustrating. Surely the most efficient version of MO would keep clearing questions and have as large a fraction as possible with an accepted answer (and not just upvoted answers). Now I admit that even my proposal is just lip service. Maybe the right first question is just how many questions there are in the unanswered list that are moribund because they are answered in the comments. If we had that data, then we would know how big the problem is and we could consider what if anything should be done about it.

    That is, the advice that one can just post a CW answer would only count for so much if there are already hundreds of questions in this condition.

    Let me also say, practicalities aside, that both of these issues can contribute to an air of machismo on MathOverflow. Many people already see MathOverflow this way for various reasons. So we should consider, as a matter of etiquette, things that might be making it worse, even if it's not intentional.
    An example:

    This is one of the "Unanswered" questions in MathOverflow. It's true that I don't know how to answer this question, but I sometimes use questions in MO as exercises, to learn new material. This question seems to have been answered by BCnrd in the comments. But I don't know for sure how things stand, because his comments are cryptic, highly technical, and not completely my business. It wouldn't be much fun to repeat Brian's comments in my answer, even if it's CW. And it wouldn't be much fun to think of my own answer, when I don't know that anyone is still interested. I could ask BCnrd to repost the comments as an answer, and I actually have done that before, but absent any supporting words in the FAQ, that also comes across as sterile.
    While I see where this is going, and don't necessarily disagree with the aim, I'm not sure I actually agree either. In terms of the FAQ: trying to do one thing well (answer research-level questions) is typically a better aim than doing several things. That's how the Internet works: fill a niche, create the better mousetrap, the community comes. Also if some contributors respect the guideline that answers as such should be full and considered, then they will use the comments to, well, "comment". The appropriateness of doing that is to some extent in the beholder's eye: I have just done it in a question where the "original poster" is plain wrong about something, and I feel a better person for not beating them over the head with that, just noting it in passing. There is an option that fits part of the issue that Greg raises, which is to use a fresh question to ask for amplification of the cryptic.

    If the question was completely answered in the comments, one resolution is to copy the answer into a CW answer with proper attribution.

    • CommentAuthorRyan Budney
    • CommentTimeFeb 9th 2011 edited
    I think Qiaochu has the solution to this problem (see his post preceding this one).

    Quite often questions that have answers that are not formally "accepted" are simply that way because the original poster was an anonymous poster that never came back, or if they did they didn't bother to follow through and officially accept.

    If I vote to close a question sometimes I give a hint as to an answer in the comments but I wouldn't supply an answer to a question I had voted to close.
    • CommentAuthorRyan Budney
    • CommentTimeFeb 9th 2011 edited
    On a related topic, a similar "not-quite-a-problem" would be people posting questions they know don't have good answers in an attempt to generate discussion. It's not exactly in the spirit of the website but many of our high-rep users are very good at this.

    Taking a lesson from this discussion I just applied the Qiaochu solution to one of my old questions.

    Incidentally, I believe that BCnrd has specifically chosen only to ever respond in comments. (Do a search here to find more on that, I think there's a thread somewhere.) Make of that what you will, but it does mean that whatever consensus is reached there will always be some people who contribute positively to the site but in such a way that it goes against the desired practice.

    Right, basically Brian uses comments as a way to limit the time he spends on MO by stopping him from being able to write anything that's too long.

    "If the question was completely answered in the comments, one resolution is to copy the answer into a CW answer with proper attribution."

    I would like to also endorse this course of action. In my opinion the post doesn't have be community wiki, but I suspect some other people's oddly moral view of reputation would be offended by this.


    There's a practical benefit to making such an answer CW: it lowers the threshold for the original commenter to edit it in case they want to add anything else.


    As for the aim of having as many questions with an accepted answer as possible, there is another obstacle that I find annoying: users who just refuse to accept answers, even though they come here regularly. There is this user for example, who has asked ten questions, most of them received satisfactory answers, as far as I can tell, and none are accepted. I wonder whether a moderator could email the user and ask him to accept the answers that satisfactorily answer his questions. I left a comment to that effect here, but to no avail.

    Greg, I agree that copying BCnrd's comment(s) into a CW answer is not the way for you to go on 50289. If you're interested in more of an answer to 50289, here are a couple of options. First, you could just tack on another comment expressing the hope that someone will expand on BCnrd's comments. If I understand the way things work here, commenting directly on a question brings the question back to the front page, where people will not only see it but see that it is unanswered. Second, you could copy the original question and submit it as your own, pointing out the cryptic comments on the original and asking for something more than that. No doubt some hothead would vote to close "as an exact duplicate," but under the circumstances I don't think that campaign would get very far.

    I take the point that if there are dozens/hundreds/thousands of such questions, then handling 50289 is just a drop in the bucket. But the longest dissertation begins with a single question.

    On another note, suppose BCnrd had written his crypticisms as an answer instead of a comment. Would that have been any better? The questioner, and you, and I, would be no better off with a cryptic answer than with a cryptic comment. So perhaps your argument is with cryptuosity, rather than with comments-versus-answers.
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeFeb 9th 2011

    I vote «cryptuosity» to be for 2011 what «discussion-y» was for 2010!

    Yes, it's also annoying when people receive perfectly good answers and don't accept them. Toward that end it would help if MO had something that math.SE already has: A prominent batting average for the accept rate of each user. It's too bad that the SE people have kept us waiting to enjoy features that they have already implemented. My other suggestion in this direction is that I have always thought that the ratio of score for accepting an answer to getting an upvote, which is only 3/2, is ungenerous. I think that the ratio should be at least 2; and if it had been 3, I would never have objected to that either. (I know that the OP can also upvote, but still.) Anton once made fun of me for wanting higher scores in general, but really that's not it. Rather, this ratio encourages people to play to the crowd more than to help people with questions.

    Since we're living without all of that, the main tool that I use is the Unanswered questions list, which by the software's definition is just those questions that have no *upvoted* answers. (Not just those with no accepted answer.) I think that it's fun, and helpful to others, to prowl this list, but not when there are BCnrd-style comments.

    It would also be cool to search for questions with few upvoted answers, as you can do on the original StackOverflow.
    • CommentAuthorEmerton
    • CommentTimeFeb 9th 2011

    Dear Gerry,

    As something of an aside, I don't think that it's fair to characterize Brian Conrad's comments on 50289 as cryptic. That question was a very technical one, about how certain deformation functors behave when one allows Artinian rings with varying residue field. Brian answered this question quite succinctly in his comments, and his explanations/references are easy enough for an expert to follow. Presumably anyone interested in a technical question of this kind on deformation theory (in particular, the OP) also has the technical wherewithal to follow the answer.

    As evience, note that after Brian points out to the OP that he has answered the question, the OP doesn't follow up with more comments, so presumably the OP in fact understood that their question was answered. I don't think there is any reason to believe they were ill-served by Brian's comments, despite the suggestion to the contrary in the last paragraph of your post.

    In any event, I would be happy to put Brian's comments into an answer, if people think there's a pressing need.



    Matt - It's not that that I think that this one question is a pressing need. Rather I think that it would be cool to spend time on the "Unanswered Questions" list in general. But yes, this question is an item in the list. Or, at intermediate generality, if Brian answered a series of questions in the comments for his own reasons, then I suppose that his answers are very good, and it would be useful for future readers to make them actual answers.
    Matthew, it was Greg who (first) characterized Brian's comments on 50289 as cryptic. If Greg found the comments cryptic, I'm sure more than a few of us would also find them cryptic. But I defer to your judgement that an expert would find them easy to follow.

    It's too bad that the SE people have kept us waiting to enjoy features that they have already implemented.

    I don't think there's anything like a community consensus that we should upgrade to SE 2.0. There seem to be some issues about our independence. There was a former discussion somewhere...

    I hadn't thought much about the comment issue before, but now that Greg's brought it up, I think he's basically right. I think that answering questions in comments often does come across in a supercilious way, which adds a small amount of pollution to the atmosphere of the site, although in retrospect I'm sure I've done it myself. (I know of only one graphomaniac who puts his answers in the comments to control himself.) It seems that a reasonable rule of thumb would be that if it's worth your time to type up an answer to a question, then it's worth posting it as an answer. If you want to make it clear to everyone that you think your answer is not a big deal, then it's easy enough to add a few modest words to that effect. (Though in my opinion, what makes you look best is to just answer the question as clearly and simply as possible.) You can also silently skip a question if you feel it's too far beneath you. That's ok -- no one will ever know and it won't pollute.

    I'm less certain about Greg's second point about math.SE, because I do think it's possible that too many low-level questions could dilute the site and drive people away. The participation of many good mathematicians is the most valuable thing on the site! But I agree that sending people to math.SE can come across as small. One possible solution would be, rather than trying to make a general policy that covers all cases of that, to add something to the FAQ about how to send someone to math.SE respectfully. (Hmmm... Would that look like we're treating people like children? Well, it's an idea.)

    Qiaochu- I know we're going off-topic here, but I don't think there's any question we would like some of the SE 2.0 features. We just haven't had the discussion (as a community) about whether to accept the baggage that comes with them, as we haven't been offered the opportunity to do so.

    As far as redirecting people to math.SE, I can think of a few questions that were not necessarily of an inappropriate level for MO, but for which it appeared the *user* was not at an appropriate level. After all, many questions, especially the vaguer ones, can be answered at a variety of levels. What I've seen happen sometimes is that the question will be taken as a springboard to go into much more high-level considerations, which makes MO look like a bunch of elitist jerks (though I'm not judging intent here, I am quite ready to believe that this happens mostly unintentionally).

    This means that I've sometimes encouraged newbies to ask on math.SE instead even when the question was level-appropriate for MO, if my gut feeling was that the MO answers might not be particularly helpful for the user in question. I readily admit that this may be jumping the gun when the question has not been answered yet, but I'd rather do that than having new users get a sour first experience of MO.
    thierryzell, I think it's often best to deal with vague questions by leaving a comment to the effect that the question is vague and the questioner is encouraged to clarify (with perhaps a vote to close, pending clarification). The "springboard to go into much more high-level considerations" is (I think) a result of trying to read the questioner's mind; but reading the questioner's mind is not our job. It's up to the questioner to make the question clear.
    @Gerry: Good point. I've posted these kinds of comments, too. I guess I'll have to hunt down a specific question to explain exactly what type of question I meant in my previous remark.
    • CommentAuthoran_mo_user
    • CommentTimeFeb 12th 2011
    @thierryzell: I would be interested to see a question showing the phenomenon you have in mind. While I can think of various cases where some of the information that was given in response to a question was quite likely 'too high-level' for the original asker, I cannot really think of one were *all* the information was of that form. And, in such a case I feel not much (or even any) harm is done; the orginal asker gets some directly useful information and the rest (if nothing else) could be ignored. But might well also be, in a more general sense, interesting to the original asker or at least to somebody else. Thus, I would be curious whether I missed them, or our perception of the same questions/answers differs.

    @Gerry Myerson: In principle, I agree that it would be best if unclear questions received a comment and then were basically ignored or even closed until they are clear. And, sometimes this indeed works well. But, sometimes it seems to me that precisely this well-intentioned action, in particular when a couple of people are involved, can lead precisely to the problematic situation, which is the subject of the thread as then (too) much discussion happens in the comments.
    @an_mo_user, I would be interested to see a question showing the phenomenon you have described.
    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeFeb 12th 2011
    One's perspective can determine quite a bit. I submit the following example, where I think comments from me improved the question and answer(s). (Note that, at this writing, the responder was kind enough to edit his answer to include a response to a comment of mine,) There are interpretations where it can be argued that it was spoiled, but I do not favor those interpretations for this example. The example might serve to clarify this thread's discussion; use it as you see fit.

    Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2011.02.12
    • CommentAuthoran_mo_user
    • CommentTimeFeb 13th 2011 edited
    @Gerry Myerson: the following is in some sense a non-example (but still illustrates the pattern I mean), as one of the commenters followed up and provided an official answer, but note that the first version of the ansewer was written after the last but two comments, in particular after the asker already said he understood the answer in the comments.
    (Then there was also an edit of the question, and an edit of the answer; but this is unrelated.)

    ADDED later: While browsing the site, I came accross the following, which is perhaps a better example:

    (It is a coincidence that you are involved, I did not specifically search for it; also, as said,
    I did not mean to criticize the practise.)
    @an_mo_user, I accept 33757 as an example of comments that could have been posted as answers. But I can well understand why the commenters chose to do as they did. Anyway, the real problem with 33757 is that the questioner never did clarify the question, and I see no reason to think that that problem would have been addressed if the comments had been presented as answers.
    • CommentAuthoran_mo_user
    • CommentTimeFeb 13th 2011
    @Gerry Myerson, I essentially share your point of view on the situation.
    • CommentAuthornielkj
    • CommentTimeFeb 14th 2011
    @Greg Kuperberg: sometimes there's a fine line between a partial answer and comment. On several occasions, I posted a partial answer to a question as a comment rather than as an answer because I didn't feel I should get points the contribution (for example: giving an answer in a special case to the question being asked). I've only been posting on MO for about 2 months now, so I don't know what the appropriate etiquette is in such circumstances. Have you any advice?
    • CommentAuthorKConrad
    • CommentTimeFeb 21st 2011
    You won't have to worry about BCnrd leaving answers in comments anymore.
    • CommentAuthorKConrad
    • CommentTimeFeb 21st 2011
    What I meant by the previous remark is that B's not on MO as an active user.
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeFeb 21st 2011


    I hope it wasn't something I said....

    @Gerry: He hasn't been active for a few weeks/possibly months.

    • CommentAuthorvoloch
    • CommentTimeFeb 22nd 2011
    At least we still have Keith and I can't tell them apart.
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeFeb 22nd 2011

    One of them uses vowels :)