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:
- (Optional) Ping the commenter and suggest they make the comment an answer.
- 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).