We had a small rash today of first-time users posting easy-close questions—"recommend me a theory book," "recommend me a signal processor," and "what's this musical quote." I glanced at them while getting dressed and planned to add some helpful comments—"Hi! This kind of question isn't covered here, bla bla, link to help topic, bla bla... but having said that, maybe try Aldwell and Schachter or Laitz." And in the back of my mind I wondered "Hm, is that a bad idea, 'rewarding' people for asking the wrong kind of question by giving them what they asked for?" And by the time I got back on, I found both sides of that argument represented in this question. @Tim mentions the help center, @guidot says "nevertheless, it's Art of the Fugue," and Tim voices the concern that that will encourage similar behavior in the future.

I'd argue that it's still a good idea—in situations like this, where the answer is simple and cut-and-dried ("What instrument is in this clip?" "It's definitely a melodica." "Who wrote this song called 'Moonlight Sonata'?" "Beethoven."). Maybe it's not a good idea for a lot of recommendation-type questions, in which some of the close-reasons are that answers vary subjectively and don't have great lasting value (I recommend this amp, you recommend that one, they're both surpassed by a new model 5 years later).

My arguments would be:

  • These are mostly brand-new users who haven't yet encountered our list of covered topics. In fact, statistically, it seems like few ever come back to ask a second question (heck, sometimes I think nobody ever comes back to get their answers). Withholding an easy and obvious answer isn't going to discourage the next such user... because they too will be brand-new and won't have checked the topics before posting, let alone trawling old questions to notice that past users got rewarded in the comments.
  • On the other hand, if the concern is that this specific user will be emboldened to ask more such questions and get comment-answers, I'd say let's cross that bridge when we come to it. In my estimation it seems like most such users, learning that these questions aren't covered, respect that in the future (or, more often, they just don't show up again for another question). If we see an off-topic question and see that a user has a history of such, sure, we can withhold the comment-answer (or take other measures).
  • Another argument for adding the obvious-answer in the comments is that future users might come to the question from a Google search. In this case, they'll see the obvious answer and leave informed and the world will be a better place.
  • One argument against could be that comments are impermanent... but if a full answer is inappropriate in the first place, then I don't see that this is a reason to abstain.


3 Answers 3


It's a good question, and one that might be worth revisiting regularly as our user population evolves (e.g., I sense that we have a higher percentage of new users than we did, say, five years ago).

On other meta sites, a few questions address similar issues:

  1. Should one advise on off-topic questions?
  2. Handling comments that answer closed questions
  3. Should one downvote answers to off-topic questions?
  4. Should I downvote valid answers to off-topic questions

The prevailing answer seems to be that not only should we discourage answering any questions (off-topic or not) in comments, we should actually encourage downvoting any answers that are given. I would extend this to encourage flagging comments that give answers to off-topic questions.

You raise a good point that a lot of these questions may come from one-time users who will never return. While that may be true (I'd be curious to see some data to this point), I think I'm more worried by an unnamed Music.SE user of ~9 years with ~15k rep who has asked "What is the name of this song?" questions multiple times, seemingly because s/he knows they will get a response some way or another. My fear is that by answering these off-topic questions we have inadvertently condoned that kind of behavior.


IMO, it's pretty black and white:

  • Comments are for clarifications.
  • Answers are for answers.

And the corollary:

  • Comments with answers should be flagged and deleted.
  • Answers that ask for clarifications should be edited to remove the clarification to a comment.

I don't think this has anything to do with whether the user is new or established; it's just the way the SE sites are intended to work. When a new user enters any community, it's incumbent on that user to be respectful toward the community by reading the rules before participating. Even if they aren't thorough enough to realize their question doesn't pass muster, they at least will understand after it's closed that this is part of the process.

Where I find some grey area is when an off-topic question receives an answer. I agree with the idea of downvoting, with the caveat that it's not always obvious that a question is off topic — which is why five votes are (usually) required to close a question.


Andy - you make some good, valid points. I still stick with my ideas that by giving answers (to often facile questions) that we're encouraging others to ask willy-nilly. Richard also makes good points, but by actually providing answers, that goes against the purpose of the help centre, and we could find ourselves inundated with questions such as those which contravene.

It's most likely true that they're asked by one-time visitors, many of whom we'll never see again. That may be because they feel they've got the brush off, but more than likely it's simply one question which needs answering, so no great loss there.

Agree with Richard that those who actually provide answers should be downvoted (reasons given!), but even answering in a comment, which many times I've been tempted to do, is still off-side to me.

This ought to be debated well, with an ensuing solution, but I'm not holding my breath.

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