I encountered two related issues within the last 24 hours. I'm only using these instances to highlight what some contributers who do not have a high reputation get met with.
Earlier today there was a comment to a question stating that it is fine to answer questions via comments, insinuating there was a Meta policy supporting this. Yesterday, I had a now-deleted altercation with a different high reputation user that my answer was not substantial and it belonged in a comment. As a user of this site as a whole for nearly 8 years and this stack for nearly 6 (despite this account's 6 months), I find it odd that high reputation users would insist on using any Stack in a way that is inconsistent with site-wide policy or in an undocumented manner.
I do not see a definitive answer or agreement to what the policy is. Previously asked questions on the topic do not give a clearly stated answer and community resources conflict with this assumed policy.
So I ask two questions:
- What is ELU's policy on answer quality and location?
- Where is this policy documented?
This is an attempt at discussing, defining. and documenting this policy. To be clear, this is not necessarily asking for a change in policy. I am only asking for the policy to be clearly defined.
What Do Available Resources Say
3 weeks ago a user asked for clarification on the policy and it was closed as a duplicate of this question answered by "off-topic questions can be answered in comments". This indicates that this is the currently active policy. There has been discussion on SE Meta that off-topic questions should be closed without answers to prevent people from asking bad questions.
Every new user is suggested to take the tour before posting their first question or comment. The tour specifically calls out the area for questions, and the area for answers. It also clearly states the following (emphasis is not my own):
Our goal is to have the best answers to every question, so if you see questions or answers that can be improved, you can edit them.
Use edits to fix mistakes, improve formatting, or clarify the meaning of a post.
Use comments to ask for more information or clarify a question or answer.
The SE Meta has a post on Answer or Comment etiquette that is over a decade old. This etiquette policy, to my knowledge, has never once changed. Answers should be answers. It also brings up a secondary reason: answers are always indexed by search engines while comments aren't necessarily indexed.
SE Meta's help page is very clear on their stance:
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)
Skip this if you don't want greater context for the history of these policies on ELU.
Not everyone stays active with the meta boards for a particular stack, so some policy changes or clarifications may have slipped under people's radars, or they may have taken a break from ELU while change occurred. Here's a very brief, non-exhaustive history of the policy that I could put together while I was researching this policy myself.
There was discussion of answer policy dating back much farther, but 6 years ago the policy was clearly stated (with 12 votes):
[You] should not answer in comments.
The only time an answer in comments is appropriate is if you are unsure of your answer or if you are confused by the question and need further clarification.
There was a few-year period where some discussion happened with a bit of line-moving but no substantial change. Skip ahead to 3 years ago and a major change in the policy received 10 votes:
Stack Exchange encourages the editing of answers for improvement. This carries the corollary that Stack Exchange recognises that answers may be initially offered in a form that is less than ideal. However, as with some other high-traffic SE communities, the ELU community tends to penalise unsubstantiated answers.
For simple answers to simple questions, leaving them as comments is fine.
This is the first time I see it clearly stated that answering in comments is fine.
2 years ago the top voted answer with 29 votes was "answers may be made in comments where the question is off-topic but we still wish to help the asker." This more narrowly defines the policy than the entry above: answers in comments are only appropriate for off-topic questions.
Also 2 years ago the top voted answer with 6 votes was created as a community wiki entry. The following answer really requires context, so I suggest reading it directly from the link. I've pasted the answer here for completeness, though.
"We expect answers to be substantial, and backed up by references. [⬅️ This therefore is not an answer. :-]" —tchrist♦
By this, I suppose what tchrist means that because his comment does not qualify as an answer, due to a lack of substantiation, that it has immunity from the rules against answers in the comments. This explains part of the reason why he did not post it as an answer: He does not believe it to be one. However, another part of the reason why he did it that way may just be that he intended it to be self-illustrating.
Consider the following example in light of the quote above:
Question: Questions about the verb “coin” when coining an idea
User Comment: To "coin" means to take a piece of nondescript metal and stamp it with a pattern that makes it a recognizable piece of money. In other words, create something of clear, discernible value out of raw materials. Other meanings are metaphors on that concept. – Hot Licks
Mod Comment (bold in original): @HotLicks Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, by not being editable by the community for improvement, and by not having a visible edit history.. Comments are to be used only for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – tchrist♦
Hot Licks's comment wasn't answer-worthy, per tchrist's note that "We expect answers to be substantial, and backed up by references". This contrasts with the (earlier) "Please don't write answers in comments" from the same moderator.
We need clearer guidelines about what constitutes an "answer in comments".
This occurred concurrently with the previous post, is a community wiki post, and also calls for more clarity.
I did not find any more recent policy-related questions beyond those from two years ago.