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I've noticed that some members provide a perfectly good answer to a perfectly good question in the comments area under the question rather than posting their response as a standalone answer.

As this practice often occurs among members of high standing in the community, it seems to be acceptable, but I'm wondering why it isn't discouraged. After all, a big disadvantage of this practice is that the original question will appear to be unanswered in the search listing, discouraging a user from drilling down on the question.

Is there a general principle people are using governing when an answer is better off being provided as a comment than as a separate answer?

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The main reason I suspect this is done is that some of us (especially those of us who've been here a long time and have high rep) hold ourselves to very high standards for quality answers.1 There are questions we see and know right away what the answer is, or at least how to find the answer, and we envision the perfect explanation. We have in mind an answer so clear it will dispel any and all misconceptions, enlightening a new generation of students.

But then we realize how long it would take to write such an answer. We might not be particularly interested or we might have other things to do. But then we don't want to leave the question without any answer at all. And so we dump our thoughts in the comments.

This isn't an excuse, just an explanation.

In fact, this probably isn't a healthy practice. Answers should be preserved as answers for many reasons, including:

  • Comments cannot be downvoted;
  • Comments can be deleted at any time, leaving no record of their existence.

Speaking as someone who has left answers in comments before, I can say that I hope someone will turn them into full answers. Ideally with the details filled in, but I can't begrudge anyone for just copying the ideas as they stand.

So what should you do if you come across a comment you feel really should be an answer? I would suggest this course of action:

  1. (Optional) Ping the commenter and suggest they make the comment an answer.
  2. Post the answer yourself. If you use the exact words of the comment, it's probably best to attribute the quotation.

I say (1) is optional because in my mind once I've posted something as a comment I've lost any sense of ownership over that idea (not just legally, but morally). Regarding (2), I've seem some behaviors on the network that indicate a hesitation to do something that might be perceived as benefiting from others' work, such as:

  • Marking the answer as Community Wiki so that it earns the answerer no reputation.
  • Praising the commenter for their insightfulness, even when no direct quotes are used and the answer clearly builds upon the comment.

This might not be the median opinion on the issue, but I think the above points are unnecessary. If you post an answer, you deserve the credit. If you insist on thanking the commenter for making the comment in the first place, I suggest adding the thanks as a comment to your answer. This way it is as ephemeral as the comment itself. (There are a number of answers on the network that start with "I'll just rephrase the excellent comment by @userwhatever..." except the comment has long since been deleted, so this whole sentence becomes just noise.)


1More cynically, if you play around with the Data Explorer enough, you'll start finding niche statistics that you excel at. For example, I'm unhealthily proud of my position in this list among those with at least 100 answers (or better yet 500).

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    $\begingroup$ I often do the same -- leave the punchline in the comment and hope somebody comes along to flesh it out into a real answer. But I honestly don't know if that fleshing out has ever really happened... Also, small nit-pick but point 2 is more than "it's probably best to attribute the quotation" -- the license says it is absolutely mandatory to attribute it and link back to it. I think there's a meta post somewhere about that (yup, this one) $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Jun 18 '16 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ Totally me. Id hate to leave an answer and then suddenly realize i made a huge mistake or something silly $\endgroup$ – user122066 Jul 4 '16 at 23:09
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To offer an "official" response: the mods support what Chris said. If you see an answer posted as a comment, you are welcome (and encouraged) to make an answer out of it. You are not required to make your post community wiki nor to credit the commenter in any way beyond what is required by the CC license and our rules on plagiarism.

To add to that (otherwise I would have posted the above as a comment):

As this practice often occurs among members of high standing in the community, it seems to be acceptable, but I'm wondering why it isn't discouraged.

Again "officially", it's not acceptable. The thing is, there's no way to prevent it, other than the posters themselves being careful, and still, posting an answer as a comment is a really easy mistake to make. The best we can do is to educate people, and try not to leave these answer-comments sitting around to serve as an example to newer members like yourself. So any time you see an answer posted as a comment, there are three helpful things you can do:

  • Post the answer yourself
  • Reply to the comment to remind the poster that it should have been an answer
  • Flag the comment as "not constructive" so it can be deleted by a mod
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  • $\begingroup$ It is difficult to "educate people" if high-rep users who are well-aware of this policy don't follow it. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jul 14 '16 at 12:23
  • $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil indeed. But what should be done about it? The mods haven't really considered this worthy of disciplinary action (other than deleting the comments), but we may change that. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 14 '16 at 13:30
  • $\begingroup$ No, I agree, disciplinary action is not appropriate. True, not much can be done about it, but I suggest that perpetrators be asked directly (by the Mods) to adhere to official policy.... On the other hand, such answers-in-comment are valuable in framing one's own Answer, and a prompt high-rep answer would probably discourage newbies from trying to compete. So perhaps the practice is not as detrimental as it appears. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jul 14 '16 at 19:56
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Since Chris White has given the PoV of a member in high standing, I'll offer a n00b's view.

If I do this, I'll typically do it because I am confident that there are currently no correct answers, and I feel I can add to the discussion, but not to the level of a full answer. So perhaps I can give a synopsis of the right answer, an explanation of why existing answers are insufficient, and/or references to more info, but not enough to constitute more than a one-liner answer.

So either way (comment-answer or one-line-answer) I'll be in the wrong, and I'm not going to try to fake an answer by padding it out with unnecessary words.

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    $\begingroup$ Good to have your perspective. I think we've had an idea that this is why some people might post answers as comments for a while; you're not the first to say so. My response would be that a one-liner answer is still an answer, and should be posted as such. You may rightly suspect it would probably get downvoted, but it's really not that hard to fill it out with a few more sentences giving some explanation. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 14 '16 at 13:29
  • $\begingroup$ Good points. Another good argument for a one-liner answer if that's all I can do, is that writing one often leads to further research on my part, and I can always come back and flesh it out then. $\endgroup$ – Dewi Morgan Jul 14 '16 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with @DavidZ that even a one-line answer is worthwhile - and often more helpful for the OP than an exposition of the state-of-the-art. It also makes it easier for others to comment and point out how your answer could be developed. Such an answer is sometimes down-voted - that's no real loss. Better to stick to one's principles than fear disapproval. I agree that you should not pad your answer, but should include what you see as shortcomings in other answers. As DavidZ suggests in his answer to this MetaQ, you can also incorporate (and attribute) other answers-in-comments. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jul 14 '16 at 19:32
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My two cents. I've seen it and understand the reasons stated, both from high rep and others. Good reasons. But really it defeats the purpose of both comments and answers. If you think you know spend the time to answer it right. If you are not sure it's complete or totally right, or cannot take the time to answer it right, let others take their chance. Sometimes one goes to answer a question just 30 minutes after being posted, and there is already comments - sometimes some saying it is a bad question, some giving a 1 line or worse 2 word answer (in effect saying a stupid and obvious question that 2 words will answer).

I understand it can not easily be controlled, except moderators can certainly make it clear the site preferences and rules, and try to enforce it in some extreme cases. I am not advocating for a censure-like approach on comments, just to have some minimal controls.

As for the purpose of comments, I understood it was to comment on what is posted in the question or answer. Such as clarify your question on this xxx topic, or it does not make sense for this xxx reason, or it is an interesting question that could be modified in tHis xxx specific way to be more to the point, or other comments. Not grammatical minor issues, but comments on the topic clarification.

Then let the people who would try to answer give it a try. One can be quality comment on answers.

Like it's been said before, comments are not for extended discussions. Many questions and answers do merit extended discussions, I know it's in chat that you're supposed to do it, but I have not seen really if that works. When I go to chat I see a million things except some thing I was looking for. I probably don't know how to really use it, but just a point that the extended discussions may not be working well (they don't for me, others may know better).

Bottom line, comments should not be answers or answers to answers, just comments. Many of you have Ben here longer so you may not better, just my two cents

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