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The intent on StackExchange sites is certainly that answers are posted as answers, and comments are used for less permanent things. As the placeholder text for comments on questions says:

Use comments to ask for more information or suggest improvements. Avoid answering questions in comments.

However, enforcement of this policy tends to vary from site to site, since ultimately it's up to the moderators. There's not actually a "not a comment" flag (though you can use custom flags). On some sites, mods are quite proactive about deleting answers in comments, and on some sites the community lets it slide. So in the interests of more consistent enforcement, I'd like some community input.

What should we mods do here on cooking? And should users flag answers in comments?

(Note: I'm going ahead and answering with my general thoughts to provide a starting point, but I'm quite open to other views!)

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    All answers posted as comments must be deleted immediately. – Cerberus Jan 21 '16 at 4:27
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Note: Since the response is mostly (but not entirely) positive to this proposal, I'm accepting the answer: I'll be using this policy, erring on the side of not deleting anything of significant value. (See the full answer for discussion of which kinds of situations likely merit deletion.)


What do we do?

This is a real issue (see the second section), so mods should eventually delete answers in comments, after:

  • sufficient time has passed or the comment has little value (note that there is room for discretion here, see the third section); and
  • they or another user have asked the comment author to consider writing an answer. (Linking to this post may be helpful.)

Users should thus feel free to ask comment authors to write answers, or to custom-flag answers in comments. If mods forget to follow up with a deletion, it's probably appropriate to flag as obsolete.

Another option is for users to post answers containing what was mentioned in comments, and flag the comments as obsolete. (It's probably best to write it in your own words and/or credit the user, though.) I know might feel a bit like cheating, but you're doing the site a service by writing up a good answer, and the user who posted the comment made a decision not to write an answer. If you wish you can always mark the answer community wiki in order to not get the reputation, encourage others to edit, and make it even clearer that it's not totally yours. But it's totally fine to earn reputation off it; the commenter missed their chance when they decided to post as a comment. They may even have intended for users to take the ideas, as Joe points out.


Why is it a problem?

Answers in comments really are problematic:

  • they can't be edited
  • they can't be downvoted
  • they can't be properly responded to (comment replies are mixed with other question comments)
  • they aren't as easily seen
  • they aren't ranked against answers
  • they are ranked against comments (if enough are present they may be hidden)
  • they can't be truly upvoted (users deserve reputation for good answers!)

Bottom line, comments aren't answers, answers are answers, and unsurprisingly answers have better support for the kinds of things answers need than comments do.

So it really is worth discouraging them, and any response that doesn't involve eventually deleting them doesn't actually do much to discourage them. I'm not in favor of immediate deletion (with exceptions for patterns of low-quality answers in comments) since it prevents @-notifying that user that they should post a real answer, and it prevents the user from copy-pasting their comment as a start for their answer.

The end goal here is to get more actual answers. Yes, it sometimes takes a bit more effort to flesh out an answer. But it's okay to post brief answers; not every answer needs to be your best answer ever. Most of the decent answers in comments are already long enough to be an answer, so they really could just be posted as answers. Another option might be to suggest your partial answer as an addition to another existing answer, letting the author know that they can edit it in.


When exactly do we delete?

With all that in mind, some rough ideas I have in mind when considering whether it's time to delete:

  • If ideas in the comment have been incorporated into an answer, it's safe to delete.
  • If well-received answers have been posted which don't use those ideas, and it's been a bit (say a day or two), it's likely safe to delete. (That suggests that people aren't interested in adopting what's in the comment, so it's up to the comment author to post a real answer.)
  • If the comment is attracting discussion (especially disagreement) on the question, it probably should be deleted. This is a case where it's directly causing issues as described above due to being in the wrong place, so it potentially means deleting things relatively quickly.
  • If it hasn't been long (~hours), and it has merit and isn't causing a ton of discussion, it's probably not safe to delete.
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    I wonder if we should have a graduated policy based on the frequency that a user is doing this... Some users do it very occasionally... while others seem to do it constantly. I think that the latter group should be treated more quickly to show them that their behavior isn't acceptable, while users who do it more infrequently should be given a bit more time to answer before comments are deleted. – Catija Jan 21 '16 at 16:37
  • @Catija basically an excellent idea, but of course it means mods must know their "usual suspects"... – Stephie Jan 29 '16 at 8:10
  • @Catija Read Joe's answer and tell me what you think about fast deletion? – Cascabel Jan 29 '16 at 15:18
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    The scary thing about fast deletion is the loss of potentially good content... But I don't think that we should necessarily leave them there, either... because someone may see the comment and go "oh, there's already an answer, guess I don't need to write one"... even if that's not how it should work. It's easier for mods because you can still see the comments later on, to know whether the content has ever made it into an answer or not. – Catija Jan 29 '16 at 15:30
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What seems to work well on EL&U site is that usually another member suggests that a commenter make their remark an answer. There is a good amount of community-based coaching on that site and I rarely see a rush to clean up the comments, though it gets done eventually. The opportunity for the community to see the comment trail in its entirety for a day has been helpful for continuity. I've noticed on this site that a rush to remove comments leaves a feeling of disconnection - but maybe that's just me. :-)

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    Part of the reason for cleaning up quickly is that if we don't, it never gets done. Questions fall off the front page and we can't keep track of everything, and people are really not aggressive at all about flagging obsolete comments. – Cascabel Jan 26 '16 at 20:19
  • I'm sure that job can be a handful, Jefromi. I don't necessarily have a suggestion for how to manage that task since as a non-moderator I don't know what tools are at your disposal but I would still suggest, as a user, if at all possible, leave the comments for a day or a better part of a day since as I mentioned, it's confusing to follow a train of thought if a chunk of the comments are removed. – Kristina Lopez Jan 26 '16 at 20:51
  • I'm definitely not trying to suggest immediate deletion - my answer does say "eventually" and after letting them know they should post, pretty similar to yours. The main case for immediate deletion is when someone continues posting answers in comments after they've been asked to post answers, especially on the same question. – Cascabel Jan 26 '16 at 21:01
  • I've edited my answer to make it more clear I'm not encouraging quick deletion. – Cascabel Jan 26 '16 at 21:14
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I admit that I'm one of the offenders of this behavior.

And typically I do it in one of two cases:

  1. I don't have time to post a longer, more complete answer. (in the hopes that someone else will build on it, and flesh it out with explanation, and then they'll get the reputation)

  2. I don't have proven experience, and the answer is conjecture. I know that a lot of other people would be perfectly willing to post that sort of information as an answer, but I've seen way too many times when I answer quickly and then it gets marked accepted... and I wasn't even 100% sure it was the correct answer.

So well ... delete the answers in comments if you want, but in those two situations, I'm not going to post them as answers.

I also really hate it when people post weak answers, and then go back and edit it and people claim that someone else shouldn't have posted a duplicate of the 'first' answer, when the fastest-to-answer didn't have that information in there when they first posted it. (and even worse was a user back when I was a moderator, who would post things phrased something like 'placeholder for an answer'.)

Our current top-reputation user seemed to be gaming the system through case #2 -- he'd post plausible stuff quickly that people would vote up, but in a few dozen cases I knew it was blatantly wrong. There were a few where he then went and deleted his wrong answers, but more likely than not if it was good enough, no one would bother to post an alternate answer that might've been based on more experience.

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    So, do as you like, but I'd rather see your well-informed conjecture, partial answers posted as answers. Feel free to make it clear that you haven't tested it, that you think there are other possibilities, others are free to post the same idea fleshed out, and so on. I think they'll be reasonably well-received, but it's also totally fine if a better answer is eventually posted and you don't come out on top. That's how the system is supposed to work. I don't think posting as comments is a good way of working around OPs accepting too quickly. – Cascabel Jan 26 '16 at 2:13
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    Also, of course, if you think you see rep-gaming, call it out. Downvote and comment on obviously-wrong answers. (Though I think it's probably fine to post a partial answer then fix it with incremental updates.) But junk like "placeholder"? Seems safe to say we'll take any possible appropriate action against that. – Cascabel Jan 26 '16 at 2:14
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    For what it's worth, I do reasonably often have moments where I think, oh, I know the answer but don't have time, I'm tempted to post a comment, but it's not worth it, I know other people will eventually post a real answer (or I can do it if they don't). That is, I run into the same things as you, but for the reasons I mentioned in my answer here, I think it's often best to just not say anything, or if I think it's really important, post a partial answer. – Cascabel Jan 26 '16 at 2:20
  • @Jefromi : In many of the cases, I'm specifically trying to not get reputation, so that others can instead. – Joe Jan 26 '16 at 3:14
  • Community wiki is a decent option in that case, perhaps? Though maybe there's room for waiting til there are good answers (whether or not they include the idea). – Cascabel Jan 26 '16 at 3:20
  • @Jefromi : that only helps me not get it. My reason for not wanting it is to make other people more likely to get it ... which community wiki doesn't do. – Joe Jan 26 '16 at 3:23
  • So that favors the waiting to delete ("delete eventually" as my answer says). My worry though is that if they're never deleted, and sit there collecting comment-upvotes, it actually discourages people from saying the same thing in a full answer. A lot of people don't want to steal ideas, or just repeat what others have said. – Cascabel Jan 26 '16 at 3:25
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As another one who sometimes (more by instinct than by bad intent) does that: Sometimes you have a tentative answer, eg something that could save the day but which also could be a technique that is unreliable or has room for improvement (because you might not know yourself), that you want others reading the question thread to consider and chime in on without stating something that might be faulty as fact. Yes, this goes in the "discussion" direction but can lead to a collaborative good answer.

  • So again, I understand the reasons. If it's not actually an answer (some tentative things aren't really), I wouldn't try to get it moved. If it is... first off, it's okay to post tentative answers, and posting an answer doesn't mean posting as fact. Just make it clear that it's tentative! "I'm not sure if this would work, but..." That leaves plenty of room for people to consider and chime in,whether by posting answers that improve on yours, or commenting on it. (If it turns out to be a horrible idea, you can always self-delete, and go back and leave a note on the question saying "don't do X!). – Cascabel Jan 30 '16 at 16:10
  • Essentially, I think it's often better for us if, when possible, we aim for collaborative good answers by starting out with answers then editing or adding new answers. It's not the end of the world if sometimes some of that discussion is on the question, but in that case I'm in favor of eventual deletion once it's served its purpose, so that ultimately those ideas are fairly voted on and ranked. – Cascabel Jan 30 '16 at 16:12
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    What I don't want to happen with tentative/partial answers like this is for there to be a comment on the question that says "what if you tried X", and the comment ends up with as many upvotes as the top answer, and no answer actually suggests X. In that case, I want someone (comment author or otherwise) to post it as an answer sooner, and if no one does, then I want ask for it as an answer then delete it, under the assumption that if no one cared to post it as an answer it can't have been that important, but if it was, the deletion will encourage following through with an answer next time. – Cascabel Jan 30 '16 at 16:19
  • SE would be even more useful with a few sub-types of answer tentative/suggestion for experiment, and also... humorous answer. Could be limited by a ratio per user. – rackandboneman Jan 30 '16 at 16:26
  • Well, feel free to propose feature requests, but I think that right now we've just been given comments and answers as tools, with the expectation that we'll figure out the right time to switch from comments to answers (and I'm trying to push a little in the answer direction). – Cascabel Jan 30 '16 at 16:39
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    I don't see much value in "I'm not sure if this would work, but..." types of answers. Some other SE sites are full of those, and it leads to questions with over a dozen answers, none of them particularly good. I'd much rather see a dozen answers-as-comments and one or two actual, good answers, because it's easy to ignore comments. – Marti Feb 2 '16 at 2:14
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    @Marti It's also easy to ignore answers that aren't upvoted and are ranked below the real answers. If anything, it's easier - comments on the question are pinned up above all the actual answers, so you have to actually choose to ignore them on your way to the answers. (And then there's all the issues I mentioned in my answer: they can't get downvoted, they can't get responded to, etc, so even if they're bad they stay up there.) – Cascabel Feb 23 '16 at 21:59

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