# Are two questions that only differ in the desired level of sophistication of the answer duplicates?

This meta discussion is sort of a spin-off from this recent meta discussion about whether or not an asker's age is relevant to a question, and whether or not it should be edited out. Since the issue of age is fraught with multiple issues, I thought it would be good if we isolated this one specific issue and debated it separately here:

If two questions ask for essentially the same thing, and the only difference between them is that the asker of one question specifies they know no physics or math beyond the very basics at all, and the other is a graduate student of physics, are these two questions duplicates?

Obviously there are precisely two positions here, namely "yes" or "no" (excluding a spectrum of "yes in the following cases, no in other cases" positions, of course) which each have some issues we should address:

1. If yes, how should users without the understanding required for currently present answers to a question request answers suited to their level?

2. If yes, should requests for particular levels of explanation in a question be edited out?

3. If no, how finely-grained should we go here? Is "explain like I'm five" substantially different from "explain like I'm ten", or is "I'm an undergraduate physics student" different from "I'm just starting to study physics at university"? What about incommensurable qualifiers of the level of sophistication (e.g. "I'm in Xth grade" vs. "I know only basic physics", with the added bonus of not knowing Xth grade in which country)?

(I'm not seeking for a discussion of whether these incommensurable qualifiers are actual or good measures of "physics level", just what we do with them when askers make them. If it turns out we don't really care for the specified level, discussions about how to specify it are moot, anyway.)

4. If no, do answers that substantially miss the required level of sophistication in either direction constitute not-answers, meaning they should be flagged and deleted? What do we do if someone posts the same answer with the same level to all questions asking about the topic regardless of the specified level?

5. If no, is specifying a level required? If it isn't, is the question without any specified level a duplicate of either of the versions where it is specified, or vice versa?

• If I find more, I'll make sure to fine them before posting them here. – Emilio Pisanty Aug 8 '17 at 1:38
• – AccidentalFourierTransform Aug 8 '17 at 9:07
• I think you are asking what site policy should be, but this is not clear in your title nor in your question. – sammy gerbil Aug 13 '17 at 19:16
• @sammygerbil I'm not quite following you - what else would I be asking for? – ACuriousMind Aug 13 '17 at 19:44
• You could be asking for an interpretation of what site policy currently is. – sammy gerbil Aug 13 '17 at 19:46

Premise: two posts asking the same question are not, by default, duplicates if they are both explicit about the desired level of sophistication, and they are significantly different levels.

Let us be more precise about what we mean by the italicised words:

• Explicit: the level of the question must be clear in the question itself, not by adding a "I know only basic physics", but by how the question is formulated. This could be archived, for example, by showing some prior research. If OP wants a low-level answer, they must show that they researched about the topic and found the literature too terse (quoting unclear definitions, for example, or by pinpointing some particularly unclear concept in a book/set of lecture notes, etc.). If OP wants a high-level answer, they must specify what they already know, be clear about what definitions they are using, what results can be taken to be known and which cannot (to avoid circular arguments), etc.

• Significantly: this is the tricky part, but I guess we could settle for low-level (high-school/undergrad) vs. high-level (graduate/research level). Anything in-between must be rounded either up or down.

• By default: questions are to not be closed automatically if the topic is the same. They may be closed if reviewers consider that the two previous conditions were not satisfactorily met (OP was not explicit enough about the desired level, or the requested level is not significantly different from the duplicate post).

• Not sure your "by default" is a meaningful qualifier: Nothing is closed automatically, it's always up to the judgement of the individual close voters/reviewers. – ACuriousMind Aug 8 '17 at 11:57
• @ACuriousMind homework questions, exact duplicates, questions about non-mainstream physics, etc. are off-topic by default. Reviewers might choose not to vote to close them if they dont want to, but according to the official policy they are expected to. OTOH, my position here is that "different-level duplicates" are not to be closed according to any official policy; reviewers are not expected to vote to close by default. The decision is up to them. – AccidentalFourierTransform Aug 8 '17 at 12:04
• So you're okay with the problems I outline (i.e., rep-farming, a disjointed library of Q&A)? – Kyle Kanos Aug 8 '17 at 15:06
• @KyleKanos not quite. For example, if we restrict the different levels to just two: "low" and "high", there would be little room for rep-farming (ELI5->ELI know nothing->ELIchair,etc. wouldnt be possible). Of course, this wouldnt mean that we would have two copies for each question, the "low" and "high" versions, but only that such a scenario is not against the rules. Users may choose to downvote the duplicate if they feel it is unnecessary. – AccidentalFourierTransform Aug 8 '17 at 15:22
• So when the bounties say Looking for an answer drawing from credible and/or official sources. or The current answers do not contain enough detail. or The question is widely applicable to a large audience. A detailed canonical answer is required to address all the concerns., these mean what specifically? – Kyle Kanos Aug 8 '17 at 15:26
• @KyleKanos I'm not sure I follow you: they mean exactly what the text implies. What does that have to do with anything? – AccidentalFourierTransform Aug 8 '17 at 15:27
• Perhaps I should be more clear about this: my stance on this is that we shouldnt "legislate" against "different-level duplicates", not that they are always a good thing. They will sometimes be close-worthy and sometimes they wont. The general rule is that there shouldnt be a general rule. If the question is not a blatant duplicate, it should be left to reviewers to choose what to do. If OP was not explicit or the level is not significantly different, the post should be closed. Otherwise, it may or may not be closed, depending on the reviewer. I didnt mean to imply that it must be left open – AccidentalFourierTransform Aug 8 '17 at 15:29
• @AccidentalFourierTransform: the point I'm making with the bounty text is there there already exists a mechanism in place to deal with these conditions: bounties. There isn't a need to allow for "extra" cases of high-level & low-level questions because they are fundamentally asking the same damn thing, so of course they should be closed & if someone wants a different answer ,they can get it through the bounty. – Kyle Kanos Aug 8 '17 at 15:34
• @KyleKanos so your point is that if there is already one way to do something, we must block any other way? If bounties serve to a particular purpose, any other mechanism that enables that same purpose must be forbidden? I'm sad to hear that you think that way, but it seems that the rest of users do not think that. – AccidentalFourierTransform Aug 8 '17 at 15:36
• To be clear: I'd be in favor of completely eliminating any request for any level because the mechanism by which different answers can be requested is through bounties. So any answer to the post, whether it draws from grad texts or undergrad texts, is perfectly valid. – Kyle Kanos Aug 8 '17 at 15:36
• @AccidentalFourierTransform: yes, we close questions as dupes all the time because that is part of the mechanism by which we generate a library of questions & answers. What you're advocating now is that under "certain" cases we can ignore the mechanisms already in place and not follow SE practices. – Kyle Kanos Aug 8 '17 at 15:38
• I prefer zero loopholes than allowing some; every question should be treated the same as every other question. – Kyle Kanos Aug 8 '17 at 15:40
• @KyleKanos a prefer a situation where we trust in reviewers (and the rest of users) instead of overlegislating. – AccidentalFourierTransform Aug 8 '17 at 15:49
• @AccidentalFourierTransform I'm not advocating "overlegislation" I am advocating status quo. If anything, you're advocating for underlegislation. – Kyle Kanos Aug 8 '17 at 15:54
• Actually, I take that back: you'rr introducing more conditions to the decision tree, so you are the one overlegislating, not me. – Kyle Kanos Aug 8 '17 at 16:10

## Why?

The answers are vastly different. An answer about a quantum mechanics question to a grad student will probably be (to generalize) math heavy, highly complex, and over my head. An answer about a quantum mechanics question to a highschooler might be one whose answer I'd be able to write. They're so different that closing as a duplicate helps no one.

A small side note

Also, bounties, which might normally serve this purpose, don't really help as much as they should. A newer user can't place a bounty, and even when they reach that ability, would they really want to, seeing as they'd then lose many privileges that are often really helpful?

## Specific concerns

For fine-grained-ness, I'd propose including age if it is "extreme" - i.e., young teenager or younger (this also includes "how do I explain to my 5yo kid" questions), and then level of education for others. For example - my questions might have "young teenager, no formal education but enthusiast/studying on my own". Other questions might have "Graduated with a degree in physics 20 years ago and don't remember much of it" or "In grad school for chemistry" or whatever.

To keep things narrow - 3 to 6-ish should probably be an "age category", and 7 to early highschoolers (around 16, maybe?), and then late highschoolers to undergrad students, then grad/professional, and then a final category for an older individual asking say 5+ years after their last class. That leaves us with 5 fairly distinct categories. Not too many, and distinct enough that answers will be fairly different.

To explain what I mean here by class - if a question was asking about such-and-such, at undergrad level, and another question was also asked at undergrad level, then vtc as dupes. But if question A was asked at age 3 to 6 level, and B at undergrad level - well, then they're just not duplicates.

Answers that are at the wrong level are indeed NAA, and should be flagged/deleted, though if there's another question which asks for an answer at that level, might be good to alert the poster of that other question. If an answer is cross posted, delete the ones at the wrong level, and keep the one at the right level.

## Number of categories

Comments have suggested that 6 (I cut one, so now 5) categories are too complex. Here's why I think that's wrong: we don't often get the same questions at all different levels. This isn't a proposal that we quick run out and write new questions that are the same as others but at different levels - it's so in the future, if we see a duplicate, we stop and think.

And, really, if we can't figure out that a 5 year old will not understand an answer intended for a graduate student, I think we have a more fundamental problem than 5 categories. If anyone has any suggestions for consolidation, I'd be glad to here them, but I really think these 5 are quite distinct.

## Why it's worth the effort

It's really not that much extra effort, first of all. Really, the distinction between the categories is fairly clear, and the two categories that questions will be mainly asked in are the late highschool/undergrad and grad/professional categories. It's also fairly rare how often questions will be asked that are similar except for level.

That being said, it is still some extra effort; so why do it?

1. It helps users, especially new ones. New users cannot award a bounty, and currently, when they have a question at a very different level than the answers on the currently existing question, they really have nothing they can do. This is highly frustrating.

2. It organizes content more easily. It's been suggested that answers of different levels can all reside on the same question. Really? That makes it harder to find the answer you want, makes it harder to review the answers, and provides a strange juxtaposition of simplified explanations with complex, equation dense answers.

3. Easier judging of answers - the method of multiple answers at drastically different levels on one question may also lead to downvotes for the more "simple" explanations or the more "complex" explanations. In other words, it's harder to judge what answers best answer the question.

4. It helps the OP more. Say the OP asks a question, and is a highschooler. If the first answer he gets talks about Lie groups the OP is going to be at least a little frustrated. It's much easier if the level of the answer OP is asking for matters. If it does, then by consequence answers not at that level are NAA, and from there, those answers should be allowed on questions of different levels.

• I fundamentally disagree with the notion that there are "sometimes duplicates" and "sometimes not duplicates". – Kyle Kanos Aug 8 '17 at 15:42
• And the 6 "fairly distinct categories" is too many. Heck, even AFT only recommended 2. – Kyle Kanos Aug 8 '17 at 15:43
• Yep, so I'll just answer your next question with an answer addressed to a five year old - makes sense, right? – heather Aug 8 '17 at 15:43
• Since there are no restrictions on the levels of answers, feel free to answer them at any level you want. – Kyle Kanos Aug 8 '17 at 15:44
• I mean, look at what you're proposing here. Take a step back and look at the complexity of the thought processes required to ascertain anything about dupes. It's tough to imagine this working in any capacity. – Kyle Kanos Aug 8 '17 at 15:47
• @KyleKanos, first, people should be thinking before vtc'ing in any form, especially in dupe closes. Second, it's really not that much thought. How often do we get a question intended for a 5 year old? Really, there's only 2 main categories that are commonly asked in - late highschool to undergrad, and graduate/professional. Finally, I've also reduced it to 5 categories, though I'm pretty sure that's the maximum the system can reduced without becoming ridiculous. – heather Aug 9 '17 at 0:07
• @heather An answer "addressed to a five year old" might contain a profoundly new (and previously unpublished!) insight into how some phenomenon can be understood in a very simple way, or it might be patronizing drivel that even insults the intelligence of the 5-year-old. Post away, and let the readers decide and vote, on a case-by-case basis! – alephzero Aug 9 '17 at 21:56
• @heather I'd argue that anything more than one is overkill and anything over two is being plain ridiculous. Dupes are dupes, if you can't see that, you should not be reviewing, plain and simple. – Kyle Kanos Aug 10 '17 at 0:52
• @KyleKanos, indeed, dupes are dupes. I have no idea where that gets your argument though. An answer addressed to a 5 year old is not a legitimate response to a question asked at a graduate level. Neither does it make sense to close a question asking for an explanation at a 5 year old level as a duplicate of a question asking at a professional level. Duplicates are meant to prevent the duplication of information. Answers at different levels are not duplications of information. – heather Aug 10 '17 at 0:55
• @heather you're saying they aren't dupes. It's literally your first statement, you realize that, right? I'd argued elsewhere here that no question should specify the level, so trying to specify your position is true and then saying my position makes no sense is illogical. Any answer to the question, where no level can be specified, is a valid answer. – Kyle Kanos Aug 10 '17 at 1:00
• I disagree with your reasons why this would be worth it, except for the first. For 2, I do find it easier to scroll down a single page than to click through several pages, and there is no guarantee that all the questions asking the same question at different levels would be linked from the one I found, meaning I have to invest more time searching for the right question. This is precisely what duplication is meant to avoid. For 3, I do not follow at all why the presence of other answers would make it harder to judge which is best. If anything, the other answers put each single one [...] – ACuriousMind Aug 10 '17 at 15:43
• in a much better prespective than it would have if it was the sole answer. Yes, it's "easier" to judge things if you only have 2 options instead of 6, but that doesn't mean your judgement is better or worse. For 4, OP could always ask the answerer e.g. in a comment if they could explain it in a simpler way, and I don't see why we should prioritize OP's potential feelings about an answer over their head over the users who'd find that answer useful and learn something from it. – ACuriousMind Aug 10 '17 at 15:43
• I've deleted some slightly inappropriate comments in which the discussion kind of ran off the rails. If that particular discussion thread is to continue, it's probably better to have it happen in chat. – David Z Aug 15 '17 at 4:39

## Why:

The answer has to be "yes," because it is common practice on the site to answer simple questions with over-complex answers, and there's no real way to control this or to migrate answers to the other question.

Also, the questions are not just for the asker, but for any potential viewer to the question, so having a multiplicity of answers at various levels is better for someone googling the question and ending up at the site.

This said, I don't necessarily see a moral disaster of letting the asker ask for a certain level of question.

• This is strange reasoning ("yes, because that's the way it is"). -1 – heather Aug 22 '17 at 16:26
• @heather: you can build pathways where people already walk, or you can build awkward ones and then yell at them when they're walking through the grass. And there are other benefits to having multiple levels of answers to the same question -- mainly, the audience of people googling. – Jerry Schirmer Aug 22 '17 at 16:30
• you can build paths where people already walk, or you can build paths along a better route no one knows about. And there are other benefits to having distinct questions for distinct levels - do we really think it's okay to have an answer intended for a 5 year old next to an answer for a researcher? That just doesn't make sense! It also helps new users actually get the answer they want. If a highschooler is asking and someone answers at a research level, and maybe the question gets no more attention, they won't be able to place a bounty because they're new. They'll be frustrated. – heather Aug 22 '17 at 16:41
• @heather: can you show me an example where that has ever happened? Because I strongly oppose creating rules that solve nonexistent problems. – Jerry Schirmer Aug 22 '17 at 17:24
• If you look around on this site, you can find many examples. It's happened to me, though I was able to place a bounty (I ended up just asking about it in the site chatroom, a method also not available to new users). Also look at some of the comments around my answer (some have been deleted because it was a long comment thread) and my answer in general to see my argument. If you wish, pop into the chat and ping me and we can talk about it. – heather Aug 22 '17 at 20:17

I want to approach this issue mostly from the viewpoint of the answerers, i.e. subquestion 4:

If no, do answers that substantially miss the required level of sophistication in either direction constitute not-answers, meaning they should be flagged and deleted? What do we do if someone posts the same answer with the same level to all questions asking about the topic regardless of the specified level?

The choice here is clearly binary - either answers of all levels are allowed, or only those "around" the specified level are. Both possibilities strike me as undesirable:

1. Allowing answers of all levels leads to duplication of answers to "non-duplicate" questions: If questions asking for different levels are not duplicates, and answers of all levels are allowed, then all answers to one question also constitute answers to the other. This is precisely what the notion of duplicates is trying to avoid - duplication (or potentially quintupulation or worse) of effort with no net gain. Remember, we're primarily not here to help any specific person, but the aggregate of users interested in a question as a whole.

It is inefficient to have several questions to each of which the answer you're looking for could have been given, and then having to click through all of them. It also leads to potential abuse where a user answers several questions of different levels with the same (maybe even excellent!) answer in order to multiply the reputation gain from their effort.

2. Restricting answers to the same question to a certain level leads to a disproportionate amount of reviewing work requiring expert reviewers, and will frustrate users: If we declare answers of a different level "not answers", then someone is going to have to review these answers and delete the ones that miss the required level.

The most common ways of specifying level - giving age or state of progress in formal education or distinguishing "basic"/"advanced" knowledge - are far from universal, what an "undergraduate" can be expected to know varies wildly between different forms of education and between institutions. Answerers responding to such questions would always have to fear that their correct, on-topic answer gets deleted because they misunderstood what level was asked for, because they misjudged what level their answer would be perceived as, or because the flaggers/reviewers applied a narrower notion of the "window" of acceptable answers than they did. Additionally, reviewing such flags would require considerable knowledge in the area of expertise of the question.

In the same vein and as a lesser but still relevant issue, flaggers will have NAA flags rejected for not agreeing with others what a certain level specification was supposed to mean, or how much the answer deviated from that.

The bottom line is that a considerable amount of effort would be spent to delete correct content that actually answers the question asked, in addition to the wasted effort on the part of the answerer. I am strongly against "rewarding" such attempts to positively contribute to our site with summary deletion, and wasting valuable time to decrease the knowledge available.

A different, but no less severe issue is that not all questions can be answered at all levels. Some questions intrinsically require a technical answer assuming much prerequisite knowledge, others have answers that don't substantially differ at the "high school" or "post-grad" level. What are we to do with such questions?

Deciding whether a question is a duplicate should not require the reviewers to actually know the answer to a question, but we would end up either closing these questions as duplicates of those whose answers are the same, or leaving open questions that just attract literally the same answers or have no answer at all (because every possible answer is outside the level specified).

In light of these problems, I am strongly in favour of closing questions that ask for different levels as duplicates, and, in fact, strongly in favour of not asking for a specific level of explanation at all, although I don't think enforcing that though any kind of policy would be useful. We're supposed to be a library of useful questions and answers, not a help desk.

I find it tremendously useful to have answers at all different levels in one place (i.e. at one question), and much less useful to have to click through half a dozen variations of the same question until I have found the kind of explanation I wanted. It is also often useful to compare answers of different levels against each other - for consistency, or for pedagogical purposes. If a particular level of explanation is missing from the answers to a question, the proper course of action is to offer a bounty requesting an answer of that specific level.

• I think in this case, it is worth a little extra effort. We can agree upon a general standard and guideline to be followed upon. Besides, I believe that most can agree most of the time with sufficient consensus on what constitutes what level. – heather Aug 9 '17 at 23:03
• @heather My argument is not merely "It's too much effort!". My argument is "It's too much effort that doesn't actually improve anything, and in fact makes things only worse." If you think this is worth the effort, you have to explain why. We're not losing answers by closing as duplicate, since answers of all levels to all questions are allowed if we decide to do so. – ACuriousMind Aug 10 '17 at 10:07
• Okay, see edit to my answer elaborating on why I think it's worth the effort. – heather Aug 10 '17 at 15:24

I tried a couple times, but couldn't get this into a nice paragraph form, so I'm leaving it as bulleted thoughts.

• I don't think that asking for a particular level of answer is good thing, or even possible, in many/most cases
• I say it's not a good thing because it's restricting answers to the question and likely misses out on insight provided by someone who doesn't think there answer is "at that level" and so doesn't post their answer. As a Q&A site, I think restricting the A part is inherently wrong.
• In this sense, then any answer (be it to a 5 y/o or a 25 y/o grad student) would be perfectly valid to any question asked.
• It would then be the job of voters and OP to decide which answers are useful.
• This is more-or-less status quo for the site
• There also exists a method within the framework of the SE network that allows one to get the answer at the level they want: bounties.
• I've also suggested this previously, and it seemed rather well-liked
• This can prove difficult for new members who do not have the required 75 rep
• This can be a two-way street (i.e., grad $\to$ lesser and lesser $\to$ grad)

Thus, the only viable conclusion is that asking the same question is indeed a duplicate and should be closed as such.

Further, if the OP of the closed question wants more details, he can always refine the question to ask to fill in the missing details (i.e., asking something like The questions here (link) state X, but I don't know why this condition holds. Can someone explain it?). In this case, this would not be a duplicate and gives the OP the opportunity to get the answer they want without requiring a 'new level' of question. And this fits within the existing framework of SE.

Some points to consider as to why allowing obvious duplicates to remain is a bad idea are:

• Allowing different levels of the same question would necessarily lead to $n$ copies of pretty much every question.
• Most especially as $n=6$, as heather suggested, but even with $n=2$ as AFT suggested this would be the case.
• From a library of detailed answers to every question about physics, astronomy and astrophysics perspective, it is better to have one question with multiple answers than to have multiple questions and answers--most especially if those answers are at different levels!
• This would almost certainly lead to rep-farming: Find a high-level, well liked question? Go ahead and say, "Same question, but ELI5?" and then "Same question, but assume I'm an undergrad in physics?" and then "Same question, but assume I'm a chair?" and so on. Easy rep!
• As there are already over 100k questions at this point in time, this would only go to inflate the work required of the limited number of reviewers currently available (more on this next).
• The work required to certify that the answer is at the appropriate level grows and burdens reviewers (who are already over-burdened with reviewing)
• For those grad- & research-level questions, this may even prove impossible to accomplish because the number of members able to 'review' it could be too small!
• Current implementation & expectations are that we close dupes as dupes
• Asking us to handle special cases of 'different level' adds to the complexity of the reviewing process (Is it actually a dupe, or is it a 'new' question at a 'different' level? Am I fully aware of all different level versions of the same question? etc)
• This leads to such questions as: Is moving against network-wide implementations a good thing? (i.e., is there a fundamental reason why the close-as-dupe path even exists) Is there a reason to overlegislating how to handle close votes? I'm inclined to say no, that we should stay with the same rules in place that say duplicates are duplicates, regardless of levels, and no one has actually presented any rationale as to why we should allow them to remain open (only that we could handle it if handled by X).

While noble to want questions at different levels to cater to different users, this would be completely impractical in practice and lead to negative behavior in the site. Instead, we should continue to allow answers at a variety of levels and let the users decide if the answer is appropriate in the business-as-usual methods (voting & flagging for deletion, as appropriate) and vote to close these types of questions as duplicates (i.e., not change policy & continue with status quo).

• There's a perfectly valid use case (which we do see often enough) where parents ask how to explain things to 5yo's and younger, or post on their behalf. To my mind, that use case invalidates most of the objections or dismissals of the <13yo case. – Emilio Pisanty Aug 8 '17 at 1:43
• I downvoted because I disagree with the position they are duplicates. While I disagree with your ELI5 opinion, that's not what I was voting on. – heather Aug 9 '17 at 0:08
• @KyleKanos I don't understand your first comment on this thread (and I don't think the ensuing discussion is constructive, either). Very little of the content of this answer can be objectively right or wrong, and where you provide argumentation, it is based on premises with which it is perfectly reasonable to disagree with. This answer presents a valid, well-argued, opinion, that people can disagree with; I would interpret the downvotes as just that. The only thing that's happening here is that people disagree with you on a subjective issue. There is no need to get upset. – Emilio Pisanty Aug 11 '17 at 1:22
• @EmilioPisanty: Self-deprecating humor mostly. That said, I'd really like to know what you're viewing as an opinion here because as far as I can tell this is reality as I see it, but my movie may be different than your movie. – Kyle Kanos Aug 11 '17 at 1:27
• There's too much here to respond comprehensively; I disagree with most everything here but here's a selection. (i) "Allowing copies would necessarily lead to dupes" - I find this alarmist and lacking in evidence. This site is not under Gell-Mann's totalitarian principle; not everything that can happen must happen. (ii) I disagree that the status quo is closing differ-by-requested-level as dupes. (iii) I disagree that the allowing level-requests requires extra reviewing. (iv) I disagree that it would lead to rep-farming (mostly because it's already the status quo). (v) others. – Emilio Pisanty Aug 11 '17 at 2:15