This is something that has been hovering my mind for a few weeks now and because I keep seeing questions going out unanswered (because the valid answers were posted as comments), I decided to ask about this.

In relation to comments, the tour states:

Use comments to ask for more information or clarify a question or answer.

Now, I won't link to any specific posts to prevent singling out users, but I have noticed a definite trend in people using comments to post what would actually be perfectly valid answers; and those comments get voted accordingly... while at the same time the question itself remains officially unanswered.

If you go back in Crypto.SE history, it shows the problem isn't new. Even some older questions show how good questions and related comments that answered it, resulted in questions that are officially unanswered and unaccepted up to today. So it happened before, it's happening now, and it is bound to happen over and over again.

On the other hand, people are also frequently complaining about answers being used for comments and flag those "comment-answers" accordingly. So there's obviously no issue which keeps people from understanding what a comment is.

To me, this feels a bit contradictionary and non-constructive for the community (Crypto.SE) as a whole.

Therefore, I would like to know…

When comments do not ask for more information or clarify a question - as defined by in the Tour/FAQ - but practically answer a question, are they still to be regarded to be comments (instead of answers)?

  • If the answer is "yes, they're still comments" – Why? After all, I'm not talking about link-only comments etc., but about such comments that completely answer the question. Flagging them might motivate the commentors to post such comments as answers.
  • If the answer is "no, they are not comments but answers" – Should such comments be flagged accordingly? After all, we also flag answers that are actually comments.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a question asking if it's OK to dive into a flagging-frenzy. I'm asking to personally understand how we should generally handle such things around here. So, it's rather a call for clarification, hoping that - on the long run - we might be able to gain more answered (and accepted) questions instead of allowing perfectly valid answers to hide in the related comment areas.

  • [ A new Example] - in this case there really isn't anything to add by writing it up in full, other than saying "Just read the article" – figlesquidge May 2 '14 at 15:01
  • @figlesquidge Yep, that was exactly the kind of problem I was pointing at. OP is now satisfied by getting a pointer in the comments and chances that the question will receive any real answer (or even an accepted answer) are near to zero. This means that our stats will show yet another unanswered question – while OP surely got his “answer” and is happy with it. I think that’s a shame, and I sure hope such “unanswered” questions don’t break our neck one day, since SE might simply look at the stats and think that we’re not as “useful” as other networks. We should prevent such “loss of quality”. – e-sushi May 2 '14 at 15:15
  • @figlesquidge Indeed. Now that that “security analysis” tag-issue has been taken care of, I guess we could go through all the non-answered questions and see if there are more of such cases… and whenever we find the time, we could indeed (try to) write up something accordingly. Yet, in the new example you’ve pointed to, I would like to leave that up to you (or someone else) as I’m not really a pro when it comes to SSS. I’m sure others will do a better job at creating good answer… – e-sushi May 2 '14 at 15:28
up vote 8 down vote accepted

It seems to me that many such comment-answers are there because the authors wanted to help the questioner, but did not want to spend time writing them up into "good" answers. I say "good" because there are many cases when (in my opinion) they already form perfectly decent answers, and that to elaborate would actually mean going off-topic yourself.

Personally I would like to see all such comments converted into answers, where they will at least provide an answer. Perhaps they should be converted with a comment then added saying something like "If anyone wants to write this sketch answer up into a fuller article then feel free" when appropriate, but there are many cases when a one-line answer would be correct and wholly suitable.

  • 5
    The reason I do this is that I don't always find the time to write up answers, because when I write answers I don't want them to be vague and handwavy but want them to be comprehensive. And that takes time. IOW, I am a perfectionist (for better or for worse). I'll try to post answers for me (or others) to improve upon over time from now on, but I really don't like them to be too sketchy in the event that I never get back to them... – Thomas Jan 30 '14 at 3:05
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    Ironically, this comment could have been posted as an answer... – Thomas Jan 30 '14 at 3:08
  • 2
    @Thomas Indeed, and you are waiting for who to convert it? I cannot even vote it down. I'll flag it instead :P – Maarten Bodewes May 4 '14 at 20:32
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    The only problem here is that the only person who can "convert" a comment to an answer is the commenter. Mods can convert answers to comments, but not the other way around. So if the commenter doesn't make the conversion... – mikeazo May 12 '14 at 17:33

I was about to post a new question here exactly for the same reason, but found this instead. I will give then my opinion on the subject.

IMHO, I'd rather prefer a question with a "sketchy answer" than a question with no formal answer that is solved in the comments. In most cases, the commenter/answerer is maybe waiting for someone to put a complete answer, but, as a relatively new user, I also sense that there is some kind of "unspoken code" for opting for answers via comments when the question is easy or the solution is contained in a paper or book. I have also faced the situation several times of trying to answer a question and realize that it is already answered in the comments, so I end up refraining from writing an actual answer since it could be seen as I'm "cannibalizing" the "comment/answer" (never happened to me, but I think I've seen a discussion about that in the site).

I think there is no real benefit from answers via comments (in case there is no formal answer). The immediate consequence is that we end up decreasing the ratio of answered questions of the site and the average number of answers per question (both metrics are aspects to improve, according to Area51.SE). More importantly, new users and visitors may get confused about this (i.e., questions with no formal answer but that is solved in the comments) because it is not the normal behaviour for a SE site, or more worryingly, will not notice the answer at all because they don't read the comments. Another minor problem is that you can't downvote a comment.

If you also feel that this is an issue, maybe we could start some kind of clean-up activity, following, for instance, the approach proposed by mikeazo:

  1. Write a new comment encouraging the answerer to write an official answer.
  2. If there is no response, post an answer, either normally or as community wiki.

Thoughts?

BTW, this topic has already been discussed in Meta.SO.

  • In case the question and comment are old, I don't think encouraging an answer makes much sense, just jump to #2. If you do write it out as an answer that is in your opinion complete (even if short), don't use CW. Only use it if you think the answer needs more work and you'd like to invite others to help, since that's what it's for. – otus Jun 28 '15 at 7:17
  • CW = community wiki in above comment. – Maarten Bodewes Feb 27 '17 at 17:49

I would say give the commenter time (and possibly encouragement via a comment or bounty) to write up an answer. If they still don't bite, write it up yourself and keep all the rep points (alternatively, if you feel bad taking rep points for an answer that someone else came up with but didn't entirely write up into an answer, you can mark your answer as community wiki).

As an additional point of view, I'd like to add the following:

I've noticed myself that I sometimes write answers in comments. I tend to justify this to myself with a couple of reasons:

  1. I don't have time because of other projects with higher priority or real-life issues (like sleep). In this case I usually mark this Q as "needs an answer" mentally and try to come back at a later point. This also mainly applies to question which promise some nice education for me aswell when writing the answer. The obvious solution is: When you see such a sketch, go ahead and use it to answer yourself, it usually earns you an upvote and saves me some work ;)
  2. I'm not at my PC / at the wrong physical location. Sometimes I travel around and for an answer I might need one of my textbooks, of course I don't have them with me so I put a sketch / a core idea as a comment and try to remember to answer when I have the book, but then point (1) usually strikes again. Additionally being on the move and only having internet access with my phone usually means a comment-only because there's no way I'm gonna write a full answer on my phone.
  3. I only have a partial answer. Sometimes a question uses the anti-pattern of asking several strongly-related questions in one post. This demands for a full answer to all questions, which may not be possible for me because, I may not know the answer to one specific sub-question. The obvious solution is: Don't be as lazy as I may be, research the answer and combine it with the sketch of the rest I may have posted. The result will be the same as in (1).
  4. "It's simply not worth my time." This may sound harsh, but sometimes happens. Sometimes I stumble across a question that would take a tremendous amount of work / research / reading to answer and as such I may point to google-found potential ressources but not answer because I don't consider the learning effort for myself worth the time required to gain it. The obvious solution is: Take the ressources, invest the time, write an answer, earn an upvote and educate me :)

Answers should not be allowed in the comments because this site will then descend into a chaotic twitterspace, a form that does not fit cryptography at all. Check out English Language & Usage and witness their mismanaged protocol. Allowing people to take shortcuts will diminish the gravitas, elegance of thought, and occasional brilliance that one can behold here.

That said, the comments could rightly be used, as SEJPM has said, for inserting a partial answer, which might stimulate engagement, and for dismissing certain rubbish questions--some people can give beauty to their malice-- before someone else wastes their valuable time.

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