I catch myself answering questions that are not well asked (without MWE, question not clear to everybody,...), sometimes with comments that request exactly what's missing, because I think I understand the problem and I can solve it. But I realized, it might be a bad idea to answer those questions until the minimum amount of work of the asker is done properly (i.e. they do what is advised/requested in comments, like providing a MWE or clarifying the question).

I like to help users and, since this mainly affects new users, I don't want to discourage them. But I'm not sure. What do you think?

Personally I think you should only ask for a MWE if the presence of an MWE would help you to answer the question.

A MWE almost always helps even if only to avoid the answerer having to write some standard article class boilerplate to make a test file.

But it doesn't always help, and unless you have contemplated producing an answer and the lack of an MWE is hindering that, it is best not to comment.

Rather too often I've seen one of the "standard comments" inserted asking for MWE when it's fairly clear that the question is not document related. For example if the error message says tex isn't found, then it will say that whether or not a document exists and posting an example document to the question doesn't clarify that in any way.

  • Yes. Or since it's the World Cup and I need characters, yeeeeeeeeeeeeeesssssssss! – Alan Munn Jun 27 at 23:48
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    Do you really think I shouldn't suggest an MWE if its presence would help others to answer it, just because I know I won't be able to answer anyway? I tend to think such comments are helpful precisely because people will be better able to answer, most likely, with an MWE, even though I can tell I won't be among them. – cfr Aug 20 at 0:14
  • @cfr I only said that you should ask for a MWE if it would help you answer, not that you would necessarily answer. I ask for them sometimes if it's late or if I am busy or whatever, but only if it would help if I was going to answer. Some people just seem to ask from the review queue almost as if they have not read the question at all, just noticed the lack of a grey code block.... – David Carlisle Aug 20 at 8:36

I completely disagree with the proposition that we should refrain from answering questions in order to educate new users. I simply don't think it's my job to educate new users about how to ask questions. And I don't really agree with the idea that withholding useful information is a good way of educating people.

Like all of us, I don't theoretically like (what seem to me) to be lazy questions of the "do this for me" type, and I'd sooner ignore them unless they happen to pique my interest.

But there are lots of reasons for "bad questions" including lack of familiarity with the very weird and complex LaTeX ecosystem, and quite often language issues as well. When you know how to do something difficult (whether that is driving a car, playing a musical instrument, solving an equation, writing LISP or LaTeX or finding answers on TeX.sx) it's very easy to forget how difficult it is to learn and attribute bad faith where there is none. LaTeX is a vast (over-)complicated "system" built in a ramshackle way (I can install Ubuntu faster than TeXlive, or at least not much slower!). It's idiosyncratic to an almost absurd degree. Its documentation is both wonderful and, often, more or less useless to anyone who actually needs it.

So I like to be slow to assume bad faith. And we should bear in mind that the primary "educational" role this site can serve is to teach people about TeX and not to teach people how to ask questions on TeX.sx. I'd really rather put up with a few annoying jerks than put off sensitive potential users with real needs. An inexperienced person who is browsing and considering whether to ask a question will very likely not understand why what looks (to them) like a reasonable request is being treated with disdain: they may well just see the disdain.

If we behave like oracles, who will only speak when the supplicant has duly performed arcane rites to perfection---the archive meticulously searched, the MWE melodiously intoned, the log-file scrupulously offered---we will find ourselves sitting in an empty temple before a cold altar, while doctoral students write their theses in Word.

So, all that being said, nobody is obliged to answer, and if you think "I can't be bothered to answer" don't. But there's no need to say that this is done out of the high purpose of educating anyone; it's quite alright just to say "I can't be bothered answering if someone can't be bothered to ask a question to a certain standard". That's up to you. And if other people can be bothered answering, that's OK too.

For myself, I will answer any question if, however badly it seems to be written, I am reasonably confident that I know what the answer is, and have the time to spend to answer it. I'm not going to answer if I am completely in the dark about what the questioner wants, because I may be wasting everyone's time. And I may not answer if the questioner is so confused that it's going to take endless backwards-and-forwards with comments to set things straight, when the problem is simple and dull. But otherwise: sure, I'll answer, because I think it is more conducive to the lively and widespread use of TeX (which I care about) if people with urgent and immediate problems get them solved than if we build up (yet another!) comprehensive and intractable pool of wisdom, or a set of fossilised formal conventions.

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    I hate native english speakers, you eloquent bastards. It seems to me that if I worded that italic sentence better it would be have been significantly more powerful even though the meaning would be pretty much the same ;-) – percusse Jun 28 at 1:10
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    I was actually trying to say something very similar to what you are saying but I am not eloquent enough. ;-) – marmot Jun 28 at 4:34
  • I reply with a whole heartedly yesn't. Yes, you're right about almost everything, but (comming back to a single particular user) if a user has his account for 2 years and still doesn't provide any useful information in his questions, even if I knew the answer perfectly well, I would not for the sakes of it answer. New users get a comment that they are supposed to provide more information and/or an MWE, that many users would refrain from answering, and still might get an answer from me. – Skillmon Jun 28 at 9:23
  • @Skillmon And I support your right to take that stance (I might well do the same, at least if the user has not only had an account but actually been using it: I don't deny that a few users make one tear one's hair out). But I don't do that in any hope of educating such a person, or out of a sense that I am obliged to do so. And if it happens that someone is willing to overlook the deficiencies and wants to answer, I would not criticise them for making that choice. – Paul Stanley Jun 28 at 11:09
  • Wow, well written! I just want to point out this preposition doesn't represent my attitude. I merely wanted to start this discussion and what is happening here is exactly what I had in mind! – nox Jun 28 at 11:32
  • @PaulStanley neither would I openly criticise a person for making that choice (as long as this or any future discussions don't lead to a consense or convention, which I don't think will happen). The particular user did use his account (more than 20 questions less than 100). – Skillmon Jun 28 at 18:45

I would like to tell you what happened to me some time ago.

In the beginning, I answered also questions without MWE.

One day I answered telling the OP: "Next time, please add an MWE" and he promised me he would do.

Little time after that, he asked again a question without MWE, and again I answered telling him: "Next time, please add an MWE" and again he promised he would do.

A few days after, he asked again without MWE. Honestly, I had the feeling of being mocked. I only left a comment asking for an MWE, but it was useless since someone else answered!

Since that day, excluding very exceptional cases of interesting questions, my policy is:

  1. I leave a comment asking for an MWE
  2. if the OP is not a new user (let's say a new user is one with less than 100 reputation points, complimentary bonus excluded), I downvote the question (if it wasn't already downvoted by someone else)
  3. if the OP is responsive and tries to add an MWE, I answer (if I can, of course)
  4. after some days, if there is no news from the OP, and nobody else answered, I close the question as too broad or unclear what you're asking.

I think that answering questions without MWE gives a wrong signal and it is unfair to those who have lost time to create one.

In any case, I think priority in answering should be given to questions with MWE and, at least, questions without MWE are not to be answered immediately.

Moreover, questions without MWE are often also unclear, and I think they will rarely appear in a search by people with the same problem.

Obviously, this applies only if the MWE is necessary, otherwise, see David's answer.

By the way, when needed, creating an MWE is useful also to the OP because it helps to:

  1. reason on the problem, not to act as a monkey copy-pasting the correct solution
  2. find the solution by herself/himself (just happened to me at this moment!).
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    Do you really downvote (almost) every question you see without an MWE where the OP is not a new user? – Dai Bowen Jun 27 at 9:52
  • @DaiBowen Only the question I open because I think I could answer. And I consider new user also one with < 100 rep. points. – CarLaTeX Jun 27 at 9:55
  • a user coming in new to tex.sx from another site, often math, will automatically be given a 100-point complimentary bonus, so someone with a rep of 101 is almost certainly new to tex.sx. since the need for an mwe is not always common on other sites, that user might also be requested to provide one without bias. – barbara beeton Jun 27 at 12:22
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    @barbarabeeton Yes, I know, I consider the 101 new users, too. Let's say the new users are < 100 rep. points, bonus excluded. – CarLaTeX Jun 27 at 12:23
  • Do you check if they've ever been asked for an MWE before down-voting? Often, they've just got answers with no comments of this kind. So how should they know? After all, nobody mentioned it before and their posts elicited perfectly useful solutions. – cfr Aug 20 at 0:19

I once made very bad experiences with a specific user. I asked that particular one several times to post an MWE and he never did. In the end I posted a longish comment that I will never answer any questions of him again if he doesn't post a perfect MWE.

In fact I was so mad about him it took me an one hour walk to calm down after I also posted to chat about that user (which certainly is bad behaviour).

I keep the user profile of that user pinned in my Firefox to remind me of my promise. Up to today I did not see a question of him meeting the criterias I set.

Today I often ask for an MWE, sometimes I post answers before that MWE is delivered, this is dependend on my current mood. Mostly I do this if I think the question is clear enough, sometimes this leads to incompatiblities.

I think good practice is what CarLaTeX does, but I don't downvote already downvoted questions. If that practice would be common to all or most of the users new users would still get good answers but the overall quality of the questions would be increased, I think.

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    I downvoted only if the question wasn't already downvoted, too :) – CarLaTeX Jun 27 at 18:59

I am pretty sure that you won't accept this answer, but anyway I'd say

No.

Why? This site is meant to provide answers and useful information for everyone, not just for the one who asks a question. So if you think you have got something (moderately) useful to say, or if you are able to fix some problem, just do it. You may thus help someone who deserves it. I personally don't see myself educating others how to ask questions properly. This does not mean that I do not comment on questions, it just means that I do not want to force anyone to change her or his behavior (unless it is rude, offensive or in similar ways inappropriate). Of course I often wish that the question was clearer or the OP would have made more effort, but again I do not want to impose a certain behavior on the OP. Needless to say that I do of course not upvote such questions.

Of course you will find the above self-contradictory in that I try to argue that one should not impose things on others, but if others follow this, I have in a certain way imposed some behavior on them. So if you decide not to follow my arguments, that's of course perfectly fine. The only thing I want to avoid is that some get blamed for giving reasonable answers to questions by lazy users. These answers may help some not so lazy other users.

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    i agree that good answers overrule poor questions, but if it turns out that an answer is totally inapplicable because of some crucial point that the op failed to mention, it's preferable to leave a very pointed comment asking (with specifics, if possible) exactly what is being requested. an answer citing beamer is probably of absolutely no use to someone using a springer class file, and even an excellent answer will probably not be found by other beamer users. – barbara beeton Jun 27 at 13:09
  • @barbarabeeton I fully agree with that but I read the above question such that the assumption is that it is clear to the one who hesitates writing an answer. Of course, if you don't understand a question, you cannot answer it. My answer is on the "educate" part of the question. – marmot Jun 27 at 15:44
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    But @barbarabeeton's point is still valid. Often one posts answers because they work for the simplest of all setups (class article no additional packages), but turns out to be not working because of another class or incompatible packages. If there was an MWE (even a poor one), that wouldn't have happened and it would have saved everyone time, the OP, too. – Skillmon Jun 27 at 18:06
  • @Skillmon This is true but still does not mean that the answer is useless. It might still be something someone else is looking for. (Don't get me wrong, I am not arguing that one should spam the site, I am just arguing that it is not our job to "educate" others. Some users are uneducatable beyond repair IMHO.) – marmot Jun 27 at 18:10

No, I don't think that they should be some automatism here.

When I decide if I want to try to answer a question a lot of factors are involved: my free time, does the question look interesting, do I know something about it, do I know the user and naturally also the "quality" of the question. A missing or bad minimal example is normally a negative factor but it doesn't overrule all other factors automatically and it also doesn't have a fix weight. E.g. if a package has a bug after an update the first question normally requires an example to analyze the problem but the follow-up questions do not and so the importance of a good MWE drops.

If I decide to answer despite a bad MWE I often add as small nudge some remarks like "untested due to missing example" or "I can only guess ...", or I remove lot of unnessary code in my answer.

If I decide not to answer I don't care if someone else answers. Most factors and their weights for my decision are quite personal and can be different for others. But I do find it irritating if people answer and at the same time complain a lot about the missing MWE.

If I decide not to answer I often quit without comments (or even run away if the question is too horrible). But also quite often I leave a comment indicating what I miss. If the question is improved I reconsider, if the user ignores my comment I go away. If the user claims not to be able to make a better MWE I sometimes help to train this (important) skill.

But I don't let the user bully or persuade or "educate" me to answer if the question isn't improved before or some new important data emerges. I stick to my (normally sound) decision. I have seen too many people quitting support frustrated and feeling abused and pushed around because they answered too many question they actually didn't want to answer but weren't able to say "NO".

  • Shouldn't the follow-up questions concerning a now-known bug be closed as duplicates rather than answered? – cfr Aug 20 at 0:23
  • @cfr You are referring to the example of the first paragraph? That depends on where the questions are asked. If my first sight is on a german site, the next on c.t.t and then a similar question pops up on tex.sx "duplicate" is probably not the right reaction. – Ulrike Fischer Aug 20 at 8:16

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