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Scrolling through the unanswered questions, I've noticed that there are a fair few with comments that provide answers, or at least potentially substantial partial answers. These comments make it difficult for someone else to answer the question without it looking like they've 'stolen' the main point and thus the reputation, which would be at least partly unmerited (or so it seems to me).

Unless the person making the comment indicates that he/she intends to develop an answer from this comment within a few days, might it not be acceptable for someone else to post a community wiki answer using any pertinent information left in these comments? Of course, this would mean sourcing them and expanding on them a little rather than just copy-pasting the comment(s).

This might lead to some answers being only partial but - as long as it has some substance - this seems better than no answer at all. Also, others might be inspired to edit in more info.

Anyone have any thoughts on this?

To be clear, I'm not talking about comments which add something to an answer which has already been given; these can be edited in if clearly acknowledged, and expanded upon and backed up by sources found by the person who posted the original (main) answer, or at least that appears to be the correct etiquette.

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    We shall please not answer in comments. In my opinion: everything in comments below a Q that 'answers' a question is up for grabs. Attribution or even wiki-style are not needed, but add a certain decency or professionalism about that. This comment is intended as such an 'offer'. Commented May 13, 2018 at 9:37
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    Personally I don't see a need to shy away from this as long as one develops the answer more fully. Or, if one want to be polite, there's nothing wrong with beginning an answer with "as <user> commented...".@LangLangC Ironically that is also a comment answering a question.
    – Semaphore
    Commented May 13, 2018 at 11:31

2 Answers 2

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TL;DR: Flag the comments for deletion and write an answer.


More in depth explanation:

People have a tendency to treat comments like they matter, or are permanent, or as places to put information that they for whatever reason don't want to put in an actual answer. Guess what? They're not.

Comments are, first and foremost, ephemeral. They're inherently impermanent. If you post a comment, don't expect it to stick around for long.

You're told this when you first gain the privilege to leave comments, at 50 reputation. You get a nice notification "congrats, you've earned this privilege. Learn about it in the help center."
Alright, so let's go look at the help center.

And the very first line (well, second, but the first is just a "what are comments?" so that doesn't count) says:

Comments are temporary "Post-It" notes left on a question or answer.

Right there. Temporary Post-It notes. Not permanent notes on an answer. Just an ephemeral note... that has a very specific purpose.

This is where the Post-It note analogy ends. While Post-It notes can be used for a whole multitude of things, comments are really intended for three very specific purposes, again enumerated in the help center.

When should I comment?

You should submit a comment if you want to:

  • Request clarification from the author;
  • Leave constructive criticism that guides the author in improving the post;
  • Add relevant but minor or transient information to a post (e.g. a link to a related question, or an alert to the author that the question has been updated).

Three very specific purposes... which happen to not include answering the question. In fact, in the next section, "When shouldn't I comment?", we see mention of answering the question:

When shouldn't I comment?

[...]

Answering a question or providing an alternate solution to an existing answer; instead, post an actual answer (or edit to expand an existing one);

If we wanted people to write answers in comments like that, answers wouldn't exist. Not to mention that writing answers in comments has some serious drawbacks:

Comments cannot be downvoted, only upvoted, and so you can't have the quality checks that answers have. You cannot edit comments to improve them after 5 minutes. You cannot accept a comment. If you answer in a comment, and the OP says that solved their problem, they may leave the site never to return and leave an answer unaccepted, if the commenter answered with what they had originally posted as a comment.
(Interpersonal Skills meta)

Not to mention that you can't get rep from comments.

And you're reminded of this every time you go to write a comment:

Avoid answering questions in comments.


So now we've determined that writing answers in the comments is a bad idea, not worth it, and directly against site guidelines. So now, despite this, someone didn't feel like writing a full answer and dumped their half-written answer into a convenient textbox that was never intended for anything like that to be put in it.

So now someone comes along, sees the comments, and thinks "Hey, that could be a good answer if I take that information, flesh it out, and source it!"

Go for it. By any means.

If someone didn't write out the answer themselves... their loss. They had their opportunity. They chose to write it in the wrong place instead.

You are perfectly allowed to take that comment, flesh it out, and turn it into a proper answer. Since it had no business being posted in the comments in the first place, you're helping the site by moving the information into an answer.

This is a question and answer site, not a question and answer and half-answer site. All information should be collected into a question and an answer.

There's no requirement to make an answer that you took from a comment community wiki, but you're free to do that if it'll help your conscience... but hey, if the person who's writing answers as comments sees that you're earning rep from their failure to write a proper answer, perhaps they'll be incentivized to actually write a real answer next time ;).

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    From tl;dr: shouldn't the order of events be: "write an answer, then flag comment for deletion" (as indeed: "no longer needed")? Despite rules and guidelines, I'm no fan of aggressive comment removal. Only when their usefulness is exhausted. Commented May 13, 2018 at 11:34
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    Can you please re-read this answer, then make a quick survey of the site('s last few months at least) regarding this? Feels to me, this may reflect general SE policy, but doesn't reflect H:SE community? At least, whenever I act like suggested in the above, or highlight towards this policy, the only result seems to be backlash. Many H:SE users love comments and especially their usually wrong half-answers so much, I expect to see the suggestion that we abolish proper answers for good any time soon. Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 11:25
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Mostly I'm answering to refresh the question and boost the signal. Having decided to do that, I'm going to advance a strawman counter-argument. I'm not sure how committed I am to the counterargument, but I think the exercise of exploration is worth it. So not only is this not a mod's opinion, but it may not even be my personal opinion for very long....

The rest of SE has ceased to hold my interest; 99% of my participation is on H:SE these days because it is the only site that seems to do anything other than ping pong between trivial questions and incredibly abstruse questions. So when I say that H:SE is "unique" I'm aware that I'm coming from a very shallow place.

History is a science; it progresses through hypothesis and evidence. It is based on a formalism. In this it is like other scientific sites - like programming language where it is impolite to post a question like

"how do I write hello world" Like those sites, courtesy and respect for the time and effort of others require that you show an effort to solve a problem.

But History is not a technical/engineering site. Unlike a coding site the rhythm isn't to provide draft code and request diagnosis.

At first glance, the challenge in history is twofold:

  • Knowing the right way to ask the question/right question to ask. Frequently the key to unlocking an answer is to figure out the right terms to search (I'm pretty sure the current question about "Contested US elections" is an example - had the question been asked about "challenged US elections" it might have passed. I've been dying to ask a question about the role of the horse in trade on the silk road. What was the total value of horses traded through the silk road? Who were the trading partners? How were markets formed and closed? That cluster of questions needs to be refined. I'm not even ready to post it in the hopes that someone will provide a clarifying comment.

  • Knowing the right source. Sometimes you understand the question, and you've exhausted all the resources, and you don't know where to go next. I'd love to know how frequently thumb rings were used by archers in the hundred years war (and by what route they migrated to that war). In only one source have I read about English archers in the hundred years war using thumb rings (rather than a three finger draw). Before I ask it, I want to go back and check to see if the error is in my memory or in the sources (and consult the two new sources on my bookshelf). When I have done that I'll be thrilled if someone can suggest a new source.

IMHO, both of those are examples where a well formed comment is fantastically helpful, but is not an "answer". Would the site be improved if all those hints/suggestions were moved from ephemeral comments to permanent partial/unsatisfactory/unacceptable "answers"??

Thoughts?

I

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