Proposal: "help" and "curation" phases

Someone on MSE has suggested a few times that questions go through two phases, with the UI clearly indicating which phase the question is in. The first phase is asker-centered, focusing on helping the asker. The second phase starts when the asker either accepts an answer or hasn’t interacted with the question for some period of time. It focuses on making the question useful for more people. Similar answers are merged, and the question may be merged with other curation phase questions. Details that turned out to be irrelevant are removed. Questions with little “replay value” are deleted or never transition to the curated phase.

(Even though it seems somewhat similar, this is a different proposal from my “clarification stage” proposal.)

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It would be great if something like this could work. A month ago I was thinking of building a site that would be just about doing that second phase by taking the (valuable but often difficult and badly organized) questions from SE and turn them in an easier browsable format.

Something that is more like an encyclopedia or manual in format but practical questions and answers in content. Make use of the wild variation and down to earth approach of Q&A, and make use of the clearness and simplicity of manuals and encyclopedia.

Then a person who is searching for a question but does not find a quite right question by using the search function will still be able to possibly find it via browsing.

The [c] tag info that I recently learned about from lundin, is already close to that. A system like that which is more integrated, more uniform and with a wider scope would help a lot to clean up the questions on SE/SO increase the level and visibility of canonical questions or group questions with similar topic.

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You need to be careful here to preserve proper authorship. I’d personally be pissed if I wrote what I thought was a nice explanation, then it got mixed with other people’s words so the presentation is no longer what I intended. Then it’s also not clear who is responsible for what content.

Maybe you don’t care, but the experts will care a lot. Don’t ignore this.


Merging answers is definitely tricky, because of authorship and also conflicts - i.e., few answers are truly duplicates.

In general, I think a better way is to foster an attitude of “don’t write a separate answer if you just have something useful and not conflicting to add to another answer”. I do that occasionally, though probably not as often as I should. I hardly ever see other people do it, even though my understanding is that the way SE/SO was originally designed was to encourage that process.

The advantage of adding to an answer is that the original author remains the author of record, though of course everything is visible in the edit history. That is also the disadvantage - an add-on author gets no credit from the system (in whatever way that relates to “rep”/“privileges”) or from users (because few people will bother with looking at the edit history). So it is good for the original author, great for a functional answer because it combines useful information instead of making a “different & separate” answer but makes the add-on author almost anonymous.


Editing to fix obvious spelling and punctuation errors, and sometimes to add a link is OK. Otherwise, it’s never right to put words in someone else’s mouth, no matter how uncontroversial you think they are. It’s simply not your call.

There is a lot more to any one answer than just the information content. There is formatting, delivery, flow, and how it walks you “down the garden path” to understanding. You have no right to interfere with another author’s intent and style on these matters.

Take a look at my answer This is exactly the kind of edit you describe. If I were still on the site, I’d roll back the additional content recently added.

The problem is, while the new information isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s certainly not how I would have said it. It also feels more distracting than useful, at least in that point in the narrative and in the way it was said. The whole paragraph reads rather “klunky” now. Maybe you don’t care, and mabe most others don’t either, but it’s my writing with my name on it. My reputation is on the line. Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed by this, since most people will just see me as the author and not realize the klunky parts were written by someone else.

The other user also clearly doesn’t have a good mental distinction between certain things. The issue of VLSI really isn’t the point at all. I would never have made some of those distinctions, nor said it in that way.

Such editing is just plain wrong.

There is a good and a bad way to make these kinds of edits, and sometimes the edits do not belong. But there are other edits where, IMHO, it is fine. For example, I added a short piece to:

This also gets to the fundamental question of whether Codidact should have (like I understand SO was supposed to have) collaborative answers vs. “a bunch of separate answers where you pick what you like”. No "right’ or “wrong” here in principle, though specific edits can be “wrong” even without having malicious intent.

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It also depends on the expectation. When it is clear from the start that the mixing is going to happen then one would be much less pissed of.

Other websites are more running on collaboration (like wikipedia) and there it is less of an issue.

I believe that the SE/SO gamified format is stimulating individualism.

And, even though everything is posted under a very open license there is quite some ego around and people are given de-facto ownership on their posts. Especially on questions (which are more scrutinized and debated e.g. when off-topic) this may sometimes end up in fierce discussion and an OP might use the phrase/argument “but this is my question”.

It is for these reasons that I am very reluctant to edit other people’s posts.

This is of course not a problem when a new answer gives a different perspective. Sometimes I use this even to my same advantage and post two different answers myself (like here).

However, very often it is not like that and the different answers are a lot the same. People like to put their 2 cents in a bucket. Even so much that they can fit more than fifty of them in a hundred.

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I would not like it if you did that to one of my answers. I would roll back the edit.

What you said was correct and adds some information, but the original author may have thought that extra tidbit to be somewhat beside the point or distracting, at least in that location. To me it is very wrong to put words in someone else’s mouth.

Perhaps less pissed, but then rather unhappy with the site as a whole, and less likely to participate.

If you want experts providing content for free, you must at least give them proper credit and some reasonable expectation of academic integrity. The kind of edits you suggest are a flat-out show stopper.

The author list of a research paper may not be important to you if you just want to get the information, but it is very important to the authors and their peers. You must let them have that.

Questions are rather different. Questions aren’t providing content, but soliciting it. I would have much less problem with people editing my questions, and I have edited others’ questions many times.

Interesting. I guess a lot depends on the individuals involved, as well as the actual changes, and I think also varies a bit depending on the particular community/topic.

In general you guys seem to be thinking about the consumers of the information, but not enough about the needs and motivations of the content providers, particularly the experts.


Don’t turn this into a straw man.

What exactly are the edits that you think I suggest? (I do not even know myself)

Where do you suddenly come up with the idea that author lists do not matter to me?

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@Olin I know we strongly disagree on the general concept of non-trivial edits by other-than-the-author. But I just read through the link you listed and, I have to agree with you - the Nov. 22 edit was awful. I presume that you did not undo it yourself because you are taking an extended break from the site. But OMG…

So, I think we all have a “limit” and it varies, but in this case I’m with you.

This is not a strawman at all. The research paper analogy is not all that far off.

Ones that are like the edit you did on SE that you linked to above.

From the way you propose to treat the authorships of answers. Perhaps the real issue is that you don’t see that as being similar. From my point of view, as an expert writing answers, its the same kind of thing. Obviously Q&A answers aren’t nearly as formal as research papers, but a toned down version of that is how I and a lot of other experts look at things we post publicly.

I don’t understand the reluctance to accept this. Allowing the experts you need to retain proper credit and academic integrity is a cheap and easy thing for you to do.

The notion that it’s everyone’s content and anyone can change it at any time simply isn’t going to work because no serious expert is going to put up with that.

Again, think about this from the content provider’s point of view for a change.

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I suppose I haven’t made it clear what I am actually advocating. The SE model isn’t that bad, editing-wise. The software should allow others to edit your posts. The real issue is the culture behind what is encouraged and allowed versus unacceptable.

It should be made clear that edits to fix obvious typos, spelling errors, grammar (particularly in obvious ESL cases), punctuation, are always fine. However, all edits must preserve the author’s intent, and must never “put words in their mouth”, no matter how uncontroversial and benign you think those words are. That includes style, and the like.

It is OK to edit questions more heavily. A good example is adding information supplied by the OP elsewhere, like in comments.

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Yes, and that’s why there need to be clear guidelines. I really believe that the guy that edited my answer thought he was doing a good thing. Since at least one edit was approved in the edit queue, others thought so too.

But, that just illustrates why we can’t have others make that judgement. We don’t want people in the position of thinking it’s their call to make. Authors of answers (I agree questions are different) need to “own” their content short of obvious typos, misspellings, etc.

One possibility is the “minor edit” checkbox I suggested like Wikipedia has. One possibility, either community or even question or author setting, is up make any non-minor-edit require author approval, with the exception of moderators/very high rep users. If a user abuses this by making substantive content changes under the guide of “minor edits” then moderators could bump them down to “even minor edits require approval” like a new user.

Culture is a matter for the sites, not the platform. Sites can and will have different approaches; I would not expect a site for advanced scientific research and a site for hobbyist knitters to have the same norms.


You keep assuming way too much about others.

Which ‘edit’ did I link to?

I accept attribution. You are misrepresenting my points.

I just do not accept that the “experts” own the platform. When there are several answers then it should be possible to combine them or otherwise edit them if this is easier for future readers (or otherwise some answers should be deleted). The same is true for recombining questions. Compare it with an edited book rather than an article. Of course attribution should be done well.

anyway most questions do not need more than a couple answers while some of the top questions have more than a page of answers. That’s the problem I wish to address.

a related issue that occurs on stats.SE is where people are often answering questions partially or indirectly in the comments. Those questions end up dead or asleep because the OP has their problem solved based on comments and nobody is gonna write a full answer or provide in some way a summary.

The problem is that some (or a lot) people that passby and might want to turn those comments into answers are reluctant to use those comments from others (even with attribution, there is no reluctance on that point)… because of the scoring/reputation. This really blocks the clean up of questions and transfer of one or more comments into answers, while in principle there should be no objection to it.

Practical example of both cases:

Expansions of iterated, or nested, derivatives, or vectors–conjectured matrix computation

This questions on mathoverflow has somebody turning comments into an answer. Then later a 2nd answer is given. Eventually a 3rd answer is given.

For the reader it would have been better when these answers would be combined. Or the least thing that would be nice is when they are presented in chronological order. (more nice is when they have some additional layout explaining the relation better).

This is not an exceptional example. also, Mathoverflow is full of academics but it is more blocked by the kudo system and the egocentered posting system than that worry about their name attribution. (related: who do you think write the hardcore science-oriented wikipedia articles? Non-experts?)

So one way to facilitate this (I am just brainstorming now) would be if one could write a sort of community wiki that encapsulates other answers. E.g. on the top is a box that expresses that the present answer is a combination of previous answers and presents a list of authors and links to those previous answers.