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This morning, I and my fellow moderators are faced with a quandary. Once again, we have a pile of disputed low quality flags in our queue, the majority of which are for answers to single-word-requests.

Most low quality flags go through the community review tools. They come to the moderators to resolve when there is dispute about whether the flag is valid.

They usually manifest as one or more of the following:

  • as a suggestion/question

    How about "fish"?

  • filled in the blank of the example context question

    I would really like you to examine that thing.

  • as a shotgun list that might be copypasta from a thesaurus

    wedge; heel; flat; slide; mule; slipper; trainers; jellies; crocs;

And that's the entirety of the answer.

Here's the problem:

  1. Most of the time these are technically answers.
  2. Most of the time these don't meet our requirements - they are not linked to a dictionary definition and explained.
  3. Most of the time we leave a note to that effect and either the answer is never updated or the poster gets angry and ends up suspended.

Personally, I'd like to post a reminder on Meta and then begin just deleting these answers outright. I would like to hear suggestions from the community first.

  • 12
    Nobody reads meta except people with experience, so posting a reminder there is preaching to the choir (not that the choir doesn't mind a little preaching; I mean they like church) – Mitch May 31 '16 at 17:15
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    If you're going to delete a one liner, or a one word answer that's coated with prepositions and conjunctions, then please do so when the answer is still relatively new and before they get 50 odd upvotes. – Mari-Lou A May 31 '16 at 17:44
  • 2
    Now, I wouldn't have had the courage to delete this submitted ‘answer’. An answer that was upvoted 111 times, but was, objectively speaking, LQ because it consisted of a one word reply that didn't even answer the OP's question! That short quip should have been deleted much earlier. Why wasn't it? – Mari-Lou A May 31 '16 at 17:52
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA Where? I can't see that 111-answer. – NVZ May 31 '16 at 18:39
  • @NVZ it's been deleted. You need 10k rep to "see" deleted posts, you're not quite there yet. – Mari-Lou A May 31 '16 at 18:40
  • How about instead of deleting it, you convert it to a comment? – Mitch May 31 '16 at 18:43
  • 1
    @Mitch Sometimes I do, but then there's the problem of answers-as-comments and then the comments get deleted, etc. – Kit Z. Fox May 31 '16 at 18:44
  • Can we have a monthly/weekly site cleanup thingy like they have in Chemistry's "The Great Retagging Event"? I mean, it will be a time for all online users to go back to their old posts and improve them all. – NVZ May 31 '16 at 18:56
  • @NVZ You can propose it as a new Meta post. Be prepared to organize it if you want it to happen. – Kit Z. Fox May 31 '16 at 18:57
  • 7
    Part of the problem isn't the answer, but the up-voting. It's stunning to me how many truly mediocre (or worse) answers end up with sky-high scores on those questions asking for a word or phrase. Up-votes for these questions seem to mean "Yeah - I thought of that too!" instead of "This is a high quality answer that deserves to float to the top". Basically the one line answers have been incentivized. Need to get some reputation quick? Just shotgun a bunch of word request questions with the first thing that pops into your mind. – ColleenV Jun 2 '16 at 21:42
  • 1
    What was the word?!? – Mazura Jul 19 '17 at 4:29
  • Nobody reads meta except people with experience - perhaps this should replace either one of the SWRs suck metas that are currently featured on the sidebar. – Mazura Jul 29 '17 at 19:31
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For the most part, the first-time posters who submit one-word answers followed by a little filler to meet the minimum character count are not interested in anything more than participating in a quiz-show-format guessing game. They have no sense of what EL&U's standards are or what sort of resource the site is hoping to be—and admittedly single-word requests feed that impression by being (in most instances) fairly trivial questions that draw predictable answers and have little long-term value to the site. But single-word requests (and more recently, phrase requests) evidently have tremendous popular appeal on this site, drawing lots of page views and upvotes.

Some of the words suggested by newcomers without citation or documentation are legitimate suggestions, but many others are marginally suitable for the OP's context or are simply bad. The former, I think, deserve a chance to be improved, and we give posters a chance to do exactly that by adding a comment beneath the bare-bones answer recommending that the poster add a suitable definition from a reputable dictionary. Usually posters ignore the advice—but sometimes they respond positively, and it seems to me that those who do may very well become productive participants at EL&U, given their willingness to improve their initial answer, their respect for this site's standards, and their ability to provide basic support for their answer.

From a moderator's perspective, it must be a nightmare to have to slog through an endless marsh of crappy answers from clueless and sometimes belligerent one-off answerers. Nevertheless, I don't think that all insufficient answers should be treated the same. If a moderator feels that a word or phrase suggestion is unsuitable to the OP's context or is only marginally justifiable, AND if the suggestion appears without any documentation or other support, I think deletion is a mercy to everyone involved. Far too often, I've encountered a poor SWR suggestion in an Review queue answer and asked the poster to add a suitable definition from a dictionary to show why the posted answer may be helpful. This amounts to challenging the poster to find the Elephants' Graveyard or the Seven Cities of Cibola; and the only lesson the poster may learn from the experience is that, if you look a word up, you may find that it doesn't mean what you thought it meant.

On the other hand, some suggestions are good, and the only thing wrong with them is that they lack supporting references. In these cases, it seems to me, the problem isn't so much that the posted answer is irredeemable as that it shows annoyingly little effort or a real or feigned ignorance of EL&U guidelines for posting an acceptable answer. If EL&U were like some other Stack Exchange sites, we might get around the problem by having other site participants add the missing components to the answer. But that's not the way this site generally works.

Why? I can think of several possible reasons. One is that single-word requests are already on shaky ground here. As tchrist points out in his answer, very few SWRs have any staying power. Their contribution to the site is like an all-sugar lunch: they draw a big buzz for a short time, and then they crash. In the language of publishing, they have little or no tail. Why should anyone make the effort to improve someone else's SWR answer when the question itself is ephemeral?

A second possible reason is that, by any practical measure, an answerer who posts a quick-and-dirty SWR answer hasn't shown enough effort to deserve to reap multiple upvotes when someone else does the minimal work involved in meeting the very low standard required of a supported answer. The quiz-show aspect of SWRs, where in many cases there are a few widely known suitable answers that participants are sure to suggest sooner or later, already rewards quick-draw answers. If we were to adopt a policy of filling in the blanks on incomplete answers for those posters, we would surely encourage more of (or worse than) the same.

A third possible reason is that the subject matter at EL&U is not conducive to collaborative answer building. Questions about English usage or even about word or phrase origins are often better answered by separate responses that take different approaches to addressing the question than by a single canonical answer that addresses every aspect of the issue. But that being the case, we tend to consider answers (and answerers) as sinking or swimming on their own—both in SWR situations and with regard to more-complicated questions.


Conclusion

I think that if an SWR answer makes a legitimate but unsupported suggestion, we should give the poster a chance to amend it, with a warning that the window for doing so is narrow (specifying the time frame, if possible); then, if the poster doesn't improve the answer within, say, 24 hours, we should delete the answer.

SWRs are a gateway into EL&U for some people who eventually become major contributors to other types of questions. I wouldn't want to wall off that continuing source of valuable site participants. But if a one-minute SWR answer is off-base, I think we should be far more ruthless than we have been in the past in simply deleting it. In dealing with such an answer, advising the poster to find supporting evidence for the posted suggestion is a waste of everyone's time.

  • 3
    Is there a moderator tool which makes it easy to queue a deletion for a future time and cancel it if the post is edited? Otherwise I think I agree with a lot of the analysis, but not with the proposed solution until it becomes practical. – MetaEd May 31 '16 at 20:14
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    @MετάEd: Your question is good and your reservations are reasonable. I would hope that Stack Exchange could set up a timed kill tool for moderators that deleted a designated answer after 24 hours if it detected no changes to it in the specified interval—but I have no idea if such a thing exists. The vast majority of deletions would then go forward without requiring a mod to revisit the answer, because most answerers don't respond to requests to improve their answers. But if the tool isn't possible, a plan that entailed revisiting unsatisfactory answers would impose a double burden on the mods. – Sven Yargs May 31 '16 at 21:43
  • @MετάEd: There isn't a tool. We currently leave flags in the queue for up to a week, once a comment has been left asking for more effort. – Matt E. Эллен Jun 1 '16 at 9:22
  • I'm not a moderator, so I don't know all the ins and outs of SE. Tell me, if a moderator leaves a comment on an answer and then immediately deletes it, can the author (a) still see the post and the comment, (b) edit the post, and (c) request undeletion (e.g., via a flag)? If the answers are yes, yes, and yes, then I suggest that approach — moderators would need to revisit only those answers whose authors had at least jumped through the hoop of asking for undeletion. – Scott Jun 3 '16 at 21:10
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tl;dr: Leaving these lying around just encourages others to follow their bad example. We don't want that to happen. Deleting is good for the site.


SLAs are NARAs

We used to have “Not A Real Question” close reason, sometimes called a NARQ. It seems that now we’re discussing the flip side of that, or NARAs: things posted as answers that are “Not A Real Answer”.

Just as writing a good question takes some amount of effort, so too does writing a good answer. That’s why this post notice text exists:

We’re looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don’t just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don’t include explanations may be removed.

An “answer” that doesn't include actual reasoning behind it explaining why this or that suggestion applies, preferably with actual references and citations properly document, is Not A Real Answer.

SWRs are like network-wide honeypots drawing extremely low-quality “contributions” that do nothing to improve the site for future visitors. If someone wishes to be especially forgiving for these drive-by SLA (single-line answers) then one might attach that post notice, or add equivalent text as a comment.

But such SLAs just keep coming in daily, and far more often than not a notice is ignored anyway. If a moderator chooses to delete these low-quality contributions out of hand, that’s perfectly fine, even when they have positive vote totals. It just isn’t worth taking the time to try persuade the answerer to apply the requisite turd polish needed to make the NARAs into RAs.

  • 1
    What about an SLA written by high rep (native speaker) user? Are their answers exempt from deletion because they are native speakers? If the answer is "correct" but consists of a single line that has no reference, no source but the user's experience. Should that answer still be deleted? Or do we make exceptions? Ack... slippery road, suggesting to delete all SLAs, even if they are an answer. – Mari-Lou A May 31 '16 at 18:10
  • @Mari-LouA I'm looking for input about answers that are disputed and come through the mod queue. I don't think we need to campaign for a site cleanup. That will cause more mess than clean, I think. – Kit Z. Fox May 31 '16 at 18:27
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    @KitZ.Fox I understand your point. However, there are a few users who deliberately post a one-liner even though they are aware of the guidelines. We ask new users to follow them, but we are very lenient towards those high-rep users. It is about time we dealt with their answers. It is unfair to new users. – user140086 May 31 '16 at 18:30
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    I often flag such NARAs as NAA, but then I get "mod declined your flag, lack of evidence" – NVZ May 31 '16 at 18:45
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    @NVZ: It's confusing, but I read somewhere that the "NAA" flag is only supposed to be used for things that obviously do not eve attempt to answer the question. I usually use VLQ flags on one-liner answers. – herisson May 31 '16 at 21:09
  • @Rathony I asked a question about short, unsupported answers from users who know the rules last year: meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/7070/… I received a thoughtful answer, but I think the only solution is to flag the truly egregious ones and then vote to delete when they appear in the review queue -- whoever posted them. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Jun 5 '16 at 18:58
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    @ab2 Well, it depends on how you see this issue. The purpose of ELU is, as far as I understand, to create a knowledge database with a definitive answer. I think the more experienced you are, the more conscious you should be about this. How long will it take to link a reference or type ten to twenty more words in your answer? I don't think we should tolerate any one-liner no matter how it answers a question. We need to make sure all users know that one-liner is not acceptable and if you don't want your answer to get deleted, you need to expand your answer. – user140086 Jun 5 '16 at 19:13
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    @sumelic But the VLQ flag is only supposed to be for things that are gibberish: so unreadable that they are not possible to clean up with edits. – MetaEd Jul 19 '16 at 15:14
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Sven Yargs points out that the problem is with poorly supported but otherwise correct answers; tchrist advocates deletion of single-line answers (SLAs) because they are not real answers. MετάEd concurs, but leaves it in the hands of the moderators (reviewers).

The key question is whether an SLA that gets to the heart of a question should be shored up or deleted:

Why should anyone make the effort to improve someone else's SWR answer when the question itself is ephemeral? - Sven Yargs

Here's a somewhat contrarian view:

The aim of Stack Exchange is to build a high-quality reference database. As a reference database, it might be used in a way analogous to Ngram.

Each Ngram search can hold a significance to the user that far outweighs the number of times that search is conducted. More to the point, any given document returned by Ngram might only ever have been accessed a small number of times. If the document matches the user's requirement, the fact that it has only rarely been accessed is of no consequence whatsoever.

To say that it's like finding a needle in a haystack is to miss the point (no pun intended). The active users of Stack Exchange work to plant and curate those needles.

The concept of the long tail should therefore be applied to the database as a whole, not any specific question or answer on its own.

The somewhat contrarian view I'm floating is, then, that if someone thinks a particular SLA is an exceptional nugget of an answer for its question, we should encourage them to edit for quality - put in dictionary references, etc.

What if this encourages the lazy user to post more brilliant nuggets? Well, that's not a problem. What if they post, um, the other kind of nugget? Those get flushed post-haste.

  • 1
    +1 Another consideration is that when a single-line answer to a single-word request makes a valid suggestion but provides no support (in the form of a dictionary definition), the poster may simply need a model for how to include such support. In reviewing the Low Quality Answers queue, I have occasionally seen good suggestions (like this one) that seemed worth keeping but needed additional support to meet site standards for a complete answer. Such answers are rare enough ... – Sven Yargs Aug 4 '16 at 16:21
  • ... that I don't think it's a tremendous burden on reviewers to supply the missing support in those instances. Providing an example of how to format and cite corroborating evidence may also help new site participants by providing a model for such things as how to code for block quote and how to insert links—stuff that long-time users take for granted but that can be daunting to newcomers. I remember being delighted to discover (through other participants' edits of my early answers) how to perform such tricks as embedding a visible Ngram chart in an answer. – Sven Yargs Aug 4 '16 at 16:31
  • @SvenYargs Good point. I joined SE to participate in Puzzling.SE, which has significantly more formatting options than ELU. I've used LaTeX for formatting, but it took me a while to find the instructions for SE's version. It certainly helps for someone to edit one's early post(s) to use as a template for future posts. – Lawrence Aug 4 '16 at 22:54
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Once a post has gone to moderation, the resolution is moderator’s choice. Deletion is a perfectly reasonable choice when the post does not belong on the site. Deletion leaves the site clean while also educating the author.

We should not lower the bar further for answers than for questions. I enjoy a good SWR, but they’re few and far between. SE management have repeatedly said SWRs do not belong here, with the exception of requests which are:

  • expert-level

  • particularly interesting, unique, and thought-provoking

  • showing effort and research into the question

Most SWRs and their answers do not meet this standard.

  • Questions that don't meet these standards will always garner likewise answers. What happen to the 'close crew'? Looks like Ranthony left, who was the last unofficial head of that department that I know of. When I see things closed these days, it's one or two moderators, usually single-handedly. Is there a badge for using all your close votes per day? What's a user's incentive to VTC? – Mazura Jul 29 '17 at 19:25

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