Most of the times when I see a question that I (think! I) can answer, I leave a comment first checking if that solution is really helpful to the OP, or not. This is to prevent providing answers that are misguided/ just plain wrong, because of a misunderstanding of the question etc. I assume others are practising the same. That is, only providing answers if they are absolutely sure that it answers the OP's original question.

Suppose someone else leaves a comment that I believe solves the problem as well. What's the etiquette to follow here? I feel like if I leave an answer to the question, then it's like "stealing" from the original commenter/answerer.

An example: how to center equations in parentheses (disclaimer: I am in no way targeting any one in that question, but it does exemplify what I'm trying to say here. This is not about rep as well.)

There are a few things an incoming I-know-the-answer-but-someone-else-has-provided-it-in-the-comments person can do:

  • Leave a comment for the commenter to add the comment as an answer
  • Just answer the question because it doesn't matter who makes it, as long as the answer answers the question

With the second option, how long should we wait before actually providing an answer (going back to the point about "stealing")? Is this just something really minor and that I am overthinking (or maybe over-feeling)?

Ps. The title is a little clumsy. If anyone has a more concise way of phrasing it, feel free to edit it.

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    Good question! Many unanswered questions are, indeed, answered in comments! There are many reason why people answer in comment, see here: tex.meta.stackexchange.com/q/3238/101651. It happened to me a couple of time to have posted an answer simultaneously to an analogous comment of another user or viceversa. I think we all should try to answer more and comment less... – CarLaTeX Apr 6 '17 at 8:33
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    Ops I commented instead of answering! :):):) – CarLaTeX Apr 6 '17 at 8:37
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    Normally, I leave a comment asking the person that answered in a comment to convert their comment to an answer if they haven't done so after a bit of waiting. If the commenter does not get back, I answer myself, sometimes as community wiki (if my answer adds little more than what the commenter already mentions) or not (if I feel my answer adds value over the comment). Problem is that if you wait too long, your answer might not be seen by many people (especially if the OP has abandoned their question). – moewe Apr 6 '17 at 10:03
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    the phrasing of the question is perfectly clear, and expresses a nicety that is welcome. i wouldn't change it at all. that said, my first instinct is to ask the person who provided the good answer to post an answer. but if that doesn't happen, test it to make sure it is correct, and post it yourself, as community wiki if you're not adding anything significant. i disagree with @moewe that it won't be seen -- adding an answer pops the question to the top of the active list -- although some visitors do look only at new questions. – barbara beeton Apr 6 '17 at 12:17
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    Thanks all for the replies. @CarLaTeX Nice one :) I'm all for commenting an answer actually. (Most of the time because I'm not 100% sure it is what OP wants, so I usually wait for OP to give a thumbs up before I submit an answer.) Just wanted to check with the community what the etiquette is after someone leaves an 'answer-comment'. '@moewe & '@barbara Community wiki is a nice option, haven't really thought about using it until now. This perspective is nice, I appreciate it! – Troy Apr 6 '17 at 12:33
  • There are a few cases where it may be clear that someone has "stolen" a comment and used it for his/her answer. This is certainly not nice, but does this really happen that often? For me the main point is whether the information is sufficient to help the OP. If yes, then one can relax and wait whether the commenter is willing to transform the comment to an answer, for future visitors. Otherwise it is justified to give a worked-out answer, even if someone has already thrown in an idea that is similar but incomprehensible to the OP (who sometimes are on an extremely elementary level). – gernot Apr 7 '17 at 13:57
  • @gernot I think stealing comments and turning them into answers is more of an issue elsewhere on the network. We also have very few duplicate answers compared to some other sites – Chris H Apr 11 '17 at 8:21
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    @gernot: Sometimes two users have the same idea at the same time: One decides to comment, the other one posts a more or less full answer with the same same content. That's not stealing, of course. – user31729 Apr 11 '17 at 10:47

I will express my opinion as an answer instead of a comment do to its length, but please mind that mine is not the “correct” etiquette, simply my opinion.

I often find myself commenting instead of answering for many reasons: an answer usually has to be written completely, compiled, tested… maybe I don't have the time to compile the code, make sure it works, pretty print it, etc… maybe I don't have the answer but some pointers or suggestions, which nevertheless may prove decisive to solve the original problem. I usually write my comments as answers only when requested.

I usually think that stealing an answer from a comment is kind of wrong, unless one takes the care of expanding the comment (after making sure that the original commentator has no interest/time of doing that himself). After all it's not my idea, and maybe the original comment-poster has some code going already (so I would probably waste time).

Nevertheless, one should always strive, in my opinion, to form a complete and thorough answer whenever possible, not only for the benefit of the person who asked the question, but for making the question/answer pair more easily searchable in the future. A comment is not that visible.

On another note, sometimes it can also happen that, while creating a thorough (or at least tested) answer (which can take some minutes: creating the code, explaining it, compiling, snipping the pics to be uploaded) someone else answers it better or summarizes all you want to say in a poignant comment. Well, it happens! (And it happened in the question you linked)

  • Hi :p That definitely is a possible situation, I didn't think of that before. It's certainly unfortunate, but it only happens because there are so many helpful folks in this forum. Gotta love this community :D Anyway, it seems my thinking has proven to be narrow-minded, so I'm glad to have had this discussion with all of you. Cheers. – Troy Apr 7 '17 at 1:29
  • Ehe. That unfortunate situation happened to me more than once already – Moriambar Apr 7 '17 at 6:16

Further opinion:

A fairly new user (or new to answering) should be encouraged to write the answer themself. They could use the rep (of course they've got enough to comment if we're asking this, but it could be a self-answer).

An old hand can be assumed to know what they're doing. By providing a quick fix in the comments they sort out the OP's problem and save the effort of writing the rather thorough answers that are common here. I do this myself, especially if I'm on the train (patchy mobile signal). I can only speak for myself at this point, but if someone comes along and fleshes out my comment into an answer -- great, the system is working. A mention is nice of course. Rep is nice, but I doubt it's why many of us are here -- in fact some are still active on comp.text.tex (I might be if I had decent usenet access) where rep isn't measured.

Best case: a fairly new user asks a question that turns out to have a simple answer (but of course not a duplicate), an answer appears in the comments, and the OP writes their own answer.

If I throw down a quick comment ("try \command from package") and I intend to write an answer immediately, I'll normally say so in the comment: something like "I think xxx should work, I'll have a play". On the other hand I've also been known to comment things like "xxx might do the trick. I'll write an answer if I get the chance later, but someone else might get there first" as a hint that I'm not bothered if I'm beaten to it (and will quite likely forget to come back in any reasonable time).

I tend only to answer when someone else has commented if (i) there's still a bit of work to do (this could be a very snmall but IME important step), (ii) some time has elapsed, and (iii) I'm interested in learning something from the attempt. As I'm not the quickest at writing an answer, especially if it's going to take a bit of debugging, I'm unlikely to get there before anyone else who starts ahead of me.

I think one factor behind the thorough answers I mentioned is that we're populated by people who not only are helpful, but come from a background involving academic or technical writing and think about their writing, leading to a reluctance to commit to the permanence of an answer if it's not done properly.

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    I disagree. I think it is rude not to ask if a commenter wants to answer. (Unless it is clearly only an initial thought and any answer requires significant expansion.) Somebody might be willing to answer, but want to check that their idea is what the OP is looking for. Very few people say 'I'll write an answer later', although it does happen. Personally, I'd worry that I'd forget in the meantime and put somebody else off answering, which would be the worst possible outcome. – cfr Apr 13 '17 at 0:38
  • @cfr I see where you're coming from, and tend only to answer when someone else has commented if there's still a bit of work to do, some time has elapsed, and I'm interested in learning something from the attempt. As I'm not the quickest at writing an answer especially if it's going to take a bit of debugging, I'm unlikely to get there before anyone else. I only comment that I'm writing an answer if I'm doing it straight away - I have also been known to say something like "I'll write an answer if I get the chance later, but someone else might get there first" (maybe not on tex.se) – Chris H Apr 13 '17 at 5:51
  • That sounds like my 'significant expansion' case, to be honest, where the comment is just really pointing you in a useful direction and needs substantially more to become an answer. Maybe you could clarify this answer? – cfr Apr 13 '17 at 15:24
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    @cfr aside from a little room for maneouvre of the significance of significant I hope we're not too far apart. I'll try to get the main points of my last comment into the answer (between writing the answer and the comment I've thought about it a little, prompted not just by this question) – Chris H Apr 13 '17 at 15:30

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