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One of the multiple-choice options that close voters are invited to select as justification for voting to close a question posted on English Language & Usage emphasizes the absence of evident research in the body of the question:

Please include the research you've done, or consider if your question suits our English Language Learners site better. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic.

Whatever the merits of this close reason, it doesn't on its face foreclose the possibility that someone other than the original poster will try to satisfy the identified shortcoming by adding research to the question. In doing so, of course, the person making the addition may be criticized for intentionally or inadvertently altering the nature and direction of the original question—and thus frustrating the OP's attempt to get a suitable answer. As a commenter put it yesterday,

The value of mindreading askers and adding research they never performed is a question for another day.

But let's make it a question for today: Should English Language & Usage forbid third parties from adding research to questions that are subject to closure for lack of research, on the ground that such additions necessarily involve guesswork about and approximations of what the OP wants to know, and on the ground that such editing may shanghai the OP's original question and refocus it in a direction unintended by the OP? Are there other good reasons to adopt a policy of leaving posters to sink or swim on their own when trying to ask questions that EL&U close voters find acceptable?


I admit that I have a strong bias in favor of intervening to save and improve potentially interesting questions. In part that's because, as a copy editor, I make my living reading the minds of authors who have expressed themselves ambiguously or incompletely, and trying to express their thoughts more clearly and seamlessly—often to the extent of adding or citing research that they have omitted. My experience (or professional hauteur, as the case may be) leaves me unapologetic about the mindreading aspect of the job; after all, I'm not the only reader who will have to struggle to make sense of the ambiguity or gap if the text remains as it is. And if I get it wrong, the author can set things right easily enough by clarifying what his or her intentions were.

But my bias in favor of intervention also comes in part from a sense that what matters long term at EL&U is recognition and refinement of questions worth answering—not careful adherence to the limits of a poster's original conception of the dimensions of the question posed. If a poster asks a question that has very interesting implications, but the poster exhibits no awareness of those implications, I think it is counterproductive to insist that we adopt what we take (using our mindreading powers again) to be the poster's narrow conception of the question—especially when doing so will lead us to close the question as unfit for the site.

My views on adding research to potentially interesting questions are similar: Why should we think that our primary duty in dealing with a question that lacks research is to uphold the poster's autonomy and integrity in having chosen not to include research? If the long-term goal of accumulating a full roster of useful answers to interesting questions is central to EL&U's reason for existing, I think we should take that goal seriously and do what we can to promote it. And I think we serve that goal better by making the improvement of potentially good questions our primary focus than we do by ensuring that we do not stray from strict fidelity to the question asker's original (and quite possibly myopic) intent.

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    Just very quickly, if a poorly asked question ever has fascinating implications editing it is not the only way forward. Asking it yourself, framing the question the way you want it to be asked, with your own research, is always an option. And I think the preferred option. – curiousdannii Nov 23 '16 at 0:49
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    I'm not sure that editing the question to include the research is unacceptable. For new/low rep users, or an interesting question, I used to do it often enough, and never felt any antagonism. I don't do it anymore because I choose not to, not because I think it's unacceptable. – anongoodnurse Nov 23 '16 at 1:35
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    I think it is counterproductive to insist that we adopt what we take the poster's narrow conception of the question hits the nail I think. The only issue I see is (1) A superfluous edit is done after an answer is posted (why not edit it before you answer it?). (2) A completely unnecessary edit is made to draw extra attention to get a Q reopened or get more upvotes, e.g., adding "in English". What Qs on ELU are not about English? (3) Sometimes those edits lead to vandalism. One high-rep user is continuously doing this kind of edits. Not only is it unfair for other Qs, but also is detrimental – user140086 Nov 23 '16 at 7:56
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    If the OP has left the stables, I'd say edit the question if you can spot a gem hidden in the crevices. If the OP is present, leave a comment, or two either suggesting ways they could improve their question, or offering to do it yourself if they agree. – Mari-Lou A Nov 23 '16 at 9:25
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    @Mari-LouA: Thanks for your comment. It's so nice to have you back. – Sven Yargs Nov 23 '16 at 17:34
  • I don't think there are enough good questions to throw away ones that can be salvaged with a bit of work. As for closing a question that is almost there and then reposting essentially the same question with a bit of added research...well, that seems like stealing someone's idea. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Nov 23 '16 at 22:19
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    @Mari-LouA Very often this research is added in by other users before the OP has the chance to respond or ignore the request. Often it happens in the first day since the question has been asked. If it only happened after a week I wouldn't be so opposed to it. – curiousdannii Nov 24 '16 at 6:59
  • @curiousdannii I was in fact thinking of older posts. If the question is older than a week, and the OP has never asked or answered a post before or since, then it's safe to presume s/he has gone to greener pastures. If the OP is a regular contributor, I don't see where the problem is, users can suggest ways in order to improve the post in comments. If the OP prefers to leave their question as is, why force the edit down his throat? (I'm not referring to edits that improve the formatting) But usually newcomers are eager to have their questions answered, and will be happy to tweak things. – Mari-Lou A Nov 24 '16 at 8:16
  • If it's just a question of adding a simple dictionary definition to stave off the would-be-close-voters, then add the definition, and be done with it.Presumably Sven is referring to posts that have some merit and should be left open to save and improve potentially interesting questions P.S I've been locked up for a couple of months, so maybe things have changed on EL&U in the meantime. :) – Mari-Lou A Nov 24 '16 at 8:21
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    I think ELU users might find it very difficult to agree on what constitutes research. I've seen users leave judgmental remarks left on questions about which the OP had presumably thought in some depth, over a period of time, whereas the commenter took one quick glance at the post and deeded it somehow beneath them, perhaps just because the asker had not chosen to mention (or link to!) all the different dictionaries they consulted, or had used a gauche turn of phrase, etc.. So I am a bit sceptical about the `saving from closevoters' aspect. Users just VTC posts they do not like/understand. – anemone Nov 24 '16 at 8:55
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    However on the grand scale of things I think there is a lot of merit in trying to improve posts. If the OP has a keen interest in the question not being altered in any way, they will revert the edit (it is always possible to leave a comment about the possibility to revert to new users who may not be aware of the possibility). In all other respects, it is in the interest of the "community" (if I may use a term I have a limited understanding of) to maintain a library of valuable answers to interesting, clear and somehow representative questions; edits help achieve that. – anemone Nov 24 '16 at 9:01
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    @anemone I bet all of closed questions can be made on-topic if I spend some time. The reason I don't do it is because of "Don't feed the bear" policy. Let's say there are five new users. You help one user with an edit and don't help other 4 users, it's not fair. If they want to learn something, they have to read the guidelines and ask an on-topic question. Otherwise, they can go to other places where there is no such guideline. Why does ELU have to help those who don't want to help themselves? – user140086 Nov 24 '16 at 9:20
  • @Rathony I thought it was "Don't feed the troll" or "Don't poke the bear". Is this like feeding the bears at Yellowstone just encourages them to expect more handouts? – Mitch Nov 30 '16 at 19:42
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I am all in favour of editing thought-provoking questions to add research; I do it myself.

If:

  • the question is relatively clear, just lacking research
  • it's getting close votes for lack of research
  • you're able to do some research and prove that the question is non-trivial (i.e. not just answered by consulting a dictionary)

then I think editing in your own research is completely justified.

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My only objection to edits adding research is that they may not reflect the actual understanding of the original poster (OP). I don't agree with the idea that adding research is wrong because "lazy" OPs deserve to have their questions closed, or something like that.

I think the principle that "edits should reflect the intent of the original poster" is somewhat important because:

  • the OP always has control over the accepted answer. It's not ideal if someone writes a long answer addressing some interesting side point, and this answer gets stuck beneath a boring/trival answer that addresses the OP's boring/trivial original question.

  • the OP generally has control over revisions of the question. If the OP returns to a question that has been edited to ask something else, the OP may make new edits that invalidate existing answers.

  • Or, if this is not permitted, the misinterpretation of the question may annoy the original poster and, in the worst case scenario, this drives away someone from the site.

Some of these scenarios may be unlikely. But as curiousdannii says, you can always ask a new question if you get an idea for a good question from an unclear post.

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