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I've been using this SE for several years and noticed that in recent months a trend has emerged of not answering questions via the answer feature but rather via comments. Sometimes the commenter would turn the comment into an answer and sometimes (more rarely) another user will do it, but most often the question will remain open without answers but with some "answers as comments".

This is especially noticeable when there are "competing" comments - which is exactly the place for multiple answers and community votes.

There are also occasional disagreements in comments (which is perfectly fine!) which in my opinion would be best handled by creating a different answer (letting the community vote to decide the "better" answer).

I find it bad form in several ways:

  • It doesn't allow for clear voting on different answers (other than the often overlooked comment upvote)
  • It limits the detail in the answer, as comments are short and don't allow formatting and images
  • It leaves questions open, and a casual user might miss that there is in fact an answer to the question
  • It promotes chat or forum like discussion in the comments, where a suggestion/answer is made by a user which is followed by a clarification question by the asker, etc. An answer allows for separate comments discussion for clarification as well as editing should it be required
  • As far as I am aware, comments aren't affecting question activity, so a new comment doesn't place the question on the top of the list of questions vs. a new answer that would
  • This goes against the SE policy of using comments for clarification and not for answering the question (at least based on my experience in other SE sites, both as a participant and as a reader)

I would be interested in hearing if others noticed that and whether or not they consider this an issue that needs addressing.

A few examples from the top of the questions list of questions without answers but with answers in the comments and some follow up discussion:

And an example of a disagreeing comment that should be turned into an answer:

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  • Hear, hear! Part of the issue may be that, like cats, there are many ways to skin a woodworking problem, and maybe people don't want to post something that sounds like it's the "authoritative" and/or "only" way to do something.
    – FreeMan
    May 14 at 14:57
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Maybe we need to make a small policy change? Encourage others to turn comments into full answers if the original contributor has not done so within 2 weeks? I haven't been around participating as much as I should be (and I apologize for that) though I do try to pay attention to stuff requiring moderator attention.

I do know I've read comments on questions in the past and thought "that's pretty much what I would say" and 'assume' they will get around to making a full answer. Obviously, it's often enough that they don't.

You make good points and I for one will try to not leave them that way. Every now and then I do try to go through the 'unanswered' questions and see if I have an answer to give. I'll need to get back into doing that more often.

I encourage others to do so as well.

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As a moderator for the site I have also seen questions with answers in the comments. I agree that a full answer post is most desirable, and I have myself given partial answers in comments. This post raises an interesting question.

In my experience I can identify several reasons for my comment answers.

  1. A weak/unclear question often requires clarification to give a full answer. I may give a partial answer in a comment to make a specific point with the hope that the OP will provide the info and someone will provide a more complete answer.
  2. Some questions are too broad and a full answer is not possible. I always ask for more information, especially photos and drawings (I am very visual). Without this additional input I do not think a full answer can be made, but if I have some thoughts I want to put them out there so that my concerns are included in answers.
  3. Sometimes I do not believe I am the best person to offer a complete answer, but I do have some relevant experience to pass on.
  4. The answers that appear on WSE tend to be pretty informed. I see the discussions that sometimes emerge in the comments as very valuable. Very often there are many ways to approach a problem with none being more or less right than others. Important points are made here and no one correct answer may emerge in either comments or answers.

I was amused that @Eli Iser's question identified the comments here. In that case the first answer comment is by @Graphus who is notorious for comprehensive answers. I always assume that if he does not have more to say it is that he doesn't have time, maybe it is because it is dinner or bedtime.

I view comments as a public forum which often hold valuable, but incomplete responses to the question. I see them as public information and would invite anyone to take the ideas included and consolidate them into a viable answer. This is especially good for newer community participants looking to build reputation credit. WSE is a very supportive community. As I see it, combining ideas from comments into an answer is not plagiarism, it is helping out. You may want to offer credit to the various posters who contributed to the new answer through their comments.

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  • Graphus is notorious for comprehensive answers and has also been guilty of many answers in comments of late. (Yes, that's the bus you hear backing up for another run!) I've prompted him more than once to make his comment into an answer. Of course, I think we're all guilty of comment-as-answer on occasion. I'll try to do less of it, and if my answer is incomplete, I'll be sure to point out where and hope that others will fill in gaps in the comments or answers of their own.
    – FreeMan
    May 14 at 14:55

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