If a question is being closed, or has been closed as being unclear or lacking research, is it ethical to clarify and add substance to the question when your edit will make your answer plausible?

Example: What is the origin of "man on the spot"?

I'm tempted to edit this question in hopes of reopening it, but it may be too self-serving.

  • No. But you can ask your own question showing your own research if you really want. Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 1:37
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    I think this a good question for the moderator election, because I completely disagree with @curiousdannii that somehow editing questions to bring them on-topic is unethical or questionable. What is the goal of the site if not to be a large collection of good questions and answers? If you can make it a good question, and you have a good answer, why wouldn't you edit it? Maybe there's a little problem with the poster getting undeserved reputation by you improving their content, but is that small issue worth throwing away potentially worthwhile content?
    – ColleenV
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 2:48
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    So long as you don't materially change the question's intent or put words in OP's mouth (or unfairly or unjustifiably bias the language of the question towards your prospective answer), then I don't see how it would matter to the site who improved the question. We want good questions, and encourage collaborative editing.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 2:48
  • The problem with editing the question as ab2 has does is that the dictionary quotation he provide is about a "on the spot" phrase, with an example of "man on the spot". Sure it's 99% most likely that that is what the OP meant, but it's possible that they were asking about a different phrase whose meaning doesn't come from combining man and "on the spot". That's why I think it should be the OP who needs to explain what they mean and give the sources. If we start making this a common practice we'll start fixing questions where we're far less than 99% sure about what was meant. Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 6:46
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    @curiousdannii Yes, there is a gray area where you have to decide whether the edit changes the question enough to merit an entirely new question. If the edit doesn't change the question that much (according to how most of the community interprets it), does it matter what the OP meant if they don't bother to come back and clarify? It's still a good question regardless and has someone that cares enough about it to groom it. The OP is always welcome to come back and roll-back or correct it. This is a collaborative site and some tolerance of other folks changing your content is required.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 14:16
  • @ColleenV Well no, by our community's standards, it's not a good question because it shows zero signs of research effort. If a third party puts in that effort, why reward a mediocre question? The question should've been closed instead. And it's not like it's an old question from before the community standards became what they are now, with old answers that should be preserved. It's a three week old question which took far too long to be closed. Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 14:19
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    @curiousdannii We are talking about editing a question to bring it on-topic. I assume we're starting with a question that is off-topic for some correctable reason. The goal of closing questions is not to punish a poster and the goal of reopening a question is not to reward a poster. The goal is to have good content. Your focus is, in my opinion, on completely the wrong thing.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 14:23
  • @ColleenV Sure, the goal is good content. But almost always the impetus for that content should come from the OP. If it's absolutely clear what needs to be done to bring a question into our on-topic standards then anyone can make the edit. But if there's any question then the we should wait for the OP to indicate how they want the question improved. Pretty much every question can be improved on this site, so saying that we're starting with a question that's off-topic for a correctable reason doesn't count for anything... if a third party cares so much then they can ask a new question. Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 14:29
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    I asked a related question a few months ago. If in doubt about the ethics of an edit, you always have the option of simply asking a new, well-worded question, and linking it to the previous. Site norms allow you to answer the new question yourself.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 23:29
  • I got my wrist firmly slapped, figuratively speaking of course, on another stackexchange site for daring to answer a question on its way to being closed. I understand the reasoning (they didn't want to reward a bad question), but I felt my answer had legitimate merit. (Obviously, or I wouldn't have answered.) Your mileage may vary.
    – Ghotir
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 18:55

3 Answers 3


As the exchange between curiousdannii and ColleenV beneath the original question indicates, one area of controversy involves attempts to rescue questions that were closed—or are on the verge of being closed—on grounds that they do not show any signs of prior research effort by the poster.

A number of very active question reviewers on this site feel strongly that a question's lack of evident research effort should be an absolute bar to its being answered—that upon seeing such a question, a would-be answerer should not even consider whether it may be interesting and worth trying to answer: If it doesn't show research effort as originally posted it should be removed, period.

But other site participants will unhesitatingly embrace a potentially interesting question, regardless of whether the question's poster has satisfied the threshold research effort requirement. I'm one of those. To me, there aren't so many interesting questions at EL&U of a summer's day that I'm okay with automatically rejecting unresearched questions that might reward investigation.

I've never been a fan of the "closed for lack of research effort" rationale. I think that it exists as a close reason mainly because it offers a convenient way to deal with questions that don't quite fit into a demonstrable "closed as general reference" pigeonhole—either because the research required to find the answer involves a Google search (and there is a years-long dispute at this site over whether Google search results are equivalent to general-reference information, at least in some cases) or because the close-voter isn't sure where to find the answer but feels sure that it wouldn't be hard to do. Alternatively, it offers a simple way to filter out some of the many questions EL&U receives every day, without having to consider their merits more than superficially.

If we treat the close reason at face value, of course, once a question does show at least a modicum of research effort, the formal argument for closing for lack of research effort collapses. Any insistence that the showing of research must be done by the original poster is, to me, an acknowledgment that the "show research" requirement is in place simply as an excuse to reject questions mechanically, not as a way to ensure that they ask something at least moderately difficult to answer.

This came up only yesterday in connection with a question that, as asked, showed no research effort but that I nevertheless thought was interesting enough to be worth looking into. The question had already drawn one or two close votes before I posted the results of my research as an answer; and after I posted the answer, the question drew two more close votes—and a commenter admonished me that I "really shouldn't be answering such blatantly unresearched questions."

In an effort to save the question (and answer), I added a bit of previously uncited research to the question. As a result, the question now shows some research independent of the answer I posted. If the question had been submitted originally in its current form, I doubt that anyone would have claimed that it didn't show adequate prior research. But I daresay that some close voters may feel that by adding research to the question, I was cheating, and that the spirit of the requirement demands that the research be done before the question is posted and that it be done by the poster.

I can't agree. What matters is what is in the question—not who put it there. If a question is objectively improved by an editing alteration or addition, who or what is victimized thereby—the original poster, whose name is now associated with content he or she didn't write? That's what the rollback option is for. The integrity of a Q&A system that rests on the need for questions to persist in their state of primeval faultiness so that close-voters can remove them more efficiently? Then why does anyone other than the OP have the ability to edit the OP's question?

If an original question has little or no substance, its formal flaws are not worth addressing. But if, with a little effort, you can make the question useful to the site, it seems short-sighted to disqualify it on purely technical grounds. My advice is to look to the long-term value of a question and its answers, and to try to make promoting that long-term value your primary concern.

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    Why haven't you nominated yourself as a mod yet? [+1] Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 10:37
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    Yes, you should have nominated yourself. There are a few members who have a destructive approach to questions, which in no way contributes to EL&U. We need more people like you here.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 13:56

As a general rule

Questions can be edited by anyone because we expect the community to help out to improve questions. Therefore, if your edit improves the question, it is hard to argue that doing so is unethical.

As a matter of topicality

Off-topic things usually cannot be edited into shape. However, sometimes it is possible. A question closed as "proofreading", where the OP is essentially uttering a concern about some grammar point, might be editable into a question about that grammar point. This type of edit is rarely possible, and should be attempted with care, because it's not always clear how to reformulate the question into an on-topic question while preserving the OP's intent. Maybe the sample sentence has an interesting use of auxilliaries but the OP was really worried about who vs whom and didn't explain themselves properly.

The Question

The question , er, in question, is an example of the latter case. The OP didn't give enough detail about what they are asking about and another user inferred it and filled it in. It's not obvious to me that the filled-in content is right or wrong. I'd consider this example borderline. One of the things missing from the OP's question is an example of the phrase in context. Probably the edit is referring the same sense of the phrase as the OP but I can't say for sure. However, intent being a part of ethics, I'd argue that this edit is acceptable until the OP shows up to speak for themselves.

  • Thank you for a thoughtful answer. I felt editing the OP's question was on the right side of the line (although not by a lot) so I did. If I had not been certain of the OP's meaning, which I instantly recognized from Graham Greene, I would not have.
    – ab2
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 20:03

If you have a good answer, I don't see any reason to disagree with reopening the question. As an asker of questions myself, I know the satisfaction of finding an answer.

If it is a poor answer however, it's probably best to leave the question alone.

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