# Should I downvote valid answers to off-topic questions

Off-topic questions (accounting, elementary homework, etc.) regularly get detailed answers, usually correct ones. Obviously this rewards the OP of the off-topic question and may attract more off-topic questions. (There are several users who are trying to outsource their econ course here.)

Should I downvote correct answers to off-topic questions as a disincentive or is that going too far?

My gut feeling would be no. But then I read this:

Should one downvote answers to off-topic questions?

It seems like the accepted approach in the broader SE community is that answers to off-topic questions should be downvoted. In particular, this answer seems persuasive.

Since there is no obvious reason why Econ.SE should diverge from the network-wide convention, my suggesion would be to downvote answers on off-topic questions.

• Excellent links. As this is a meta discussion I will wait a few days and then accept the answer with most votes. – Giskard Jan 23 '17 at 20:23

Downvoting correct answers because you do not like the question is not ever appropriate. If you believe the question is not off-topic, vote to close or move the question. That's what that option is for. If others agree with you, the question will be closed or moved. Otherwise you are downvoting good answers to questions that others think are fine.

Despite the opinion ubiquitous gives that this practice is the consensus on other forums, I have not seen it anywhere but here. The fact that we can find people who say they do it elsewhere doesn't mean it's the consensus and it certainly doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

Considerations:

1. Downvoting an answer sends a signal that the answer, not the question, is bad. The purpose of downvotes is to say (to the OP) that the answer is bad in some way. Standard practice that I have seen on StackExchange is to upvote helpful answers, leave answers that are right but not the best alone and downvote only when an answer is wrong. If you downvote a correct answer, the OP and others reading the question will likely think the answer is wrong and actually be harmed my the question, rather than helped.
2. The line between "on-topic" and "off-topic" questions is blurry. That seems to be especially true in the econ stack exchange. Most questions here are either requesting help on homework (whether at the undergraduate or Ph.D. level) or are people who are not economists asking big picture questions. Either one could easily be viewed as on or off topic. If there is insufficient agreement to close the question, then penalizing people who think the question is valid and try to help is counterproductive.
3. Downvoting answers will do little or nothing to improve the quality of new questions. Off-topic questions pretty much universally come from people who don't spend much time in the forum. Dinging people who answer questions you consider off topic will not affect the people who are the source of these questions.
4. Penalizing good answers harms the community. The purpose of StackExchange is to help people. For this we need a community of experts answering questions. Trying to coerce experts into not answering certain types of questions by giving negative feedback to good answers encourages these experts not to participate on other questions. This behavior makes StackExchange a less productive place, to say nothing of being rude.
5. Downvoting answers breaks the logic of moved questions. The most blatantly off-topic questions often are on topic elsewhere. If the question does get moved, as it should, then a downvote on a correct answer becomes especially inappropriate.
6. Downvoting correct answers causes confusion. I came here because the OP (denesp) caused some significant confusion by downvoting an answer that is both correct and helpful to a whole class of problems. Because downvoting is an inappropriate response to that, there was confusion about the reason for the downvote--I figured that because the poster was continuing to have problems, he had either voted the answer down or someone who thought my answer was not explicit enough had done so. Downvotes mean something. When they are used for something else, confusion ensues.

When you downvote an answer, StackExchange suggests that you leave a comment in case the answer can be improved. This is clear evidence that a downvote is meant to indicate that the answer is bad, not that the question is off-topic. That's how it should be used.

I've seen people who do all sorts of negative things, like downvoting good answers so their answer looks better, appealing to their (non-proveable) credentials, and posting off-topic comments. The fact that these behaviors happen does not mean they are right nor helpful. Before doing anything on StackExchange (upvoting, downvoting, or answering), ask yourself if what you are doing will help someone learn more about economics. If the answer is no, don't do it.

I posted this meta answer because of a problem this notion just caused. Someone posted a mid-level undergraduate econ question, and demonstrated that effort had been put in but they were stumped. In my opinion this is not off-topic but I respect those who think it is. I provided an outline on how to solve this type of question and some hints that, if followed, would have solved the problem and others of that form. The poster commented that they were glad for my help and learned a lot but my answer was wrong (apparently they made an algebra mistake while following my directions). My answer also got a downvote. To me this means either the poster downvoted because they thought I was the one who made a mistake or someone who didn't know how to solve the problem downvoted because they thought it was wrong based on the comment. I left a more explicit solution and told the poster not to say things are incorrect unless they know that they are incorrect.

In fact, denesp had felt that the question was too introductory and therefore downvoted my answer, causing the confusion. This type of behavior is not unknown among new stack exchange members, but for a high repuation expert to do it is strange. To have a meta discussion coming to an apparent consensus that this is desirable behavior is bizarre. I see that this meta question was initiated by denesp, who has also taken it to be a consensus view and is practicing it. I hold no personal grudge--I'd be happy to go get a beer with you IRL--but I do want to make it clear that this idea was introduced, promoted, and practiced here by you and does not represent normal expert behavior from what I have seen elsewhere on StackExchange. If StackExchange wanted a "penalize an expert for answering a question you think is bad" button, we would have one.

• On this being a one man crusade I would like to point to Ubiquitous's link, which points to the main meta, and where the same answer has the highest number of votes, 63. – Giskard Aug 5 '17 at 0:14
• You may also want to read this econ meta question. – Giskard Aug 5 '17 at 0:16
• Ubiquitous wrote both the accepted answer here and the policy you are pointing to. Certainly one person agrees with you. I agree that the question we are discussing was not the best; however it was good enough that my answer was helpful not only to the OP but to others solving the same type of problem. It was not clearly off topic, even by the standards you just linked to. – farnsy Aug 5 '17 at 0:22
• The main meta answer you reference is not, to me, compelling either in its arguments nor its statistical significance in representing what is actually done. For that matter, neither is this question (not many people come to the meta). We can instead (or in addition) look to experience: You and I have just observed the downside of this practice and I would be surprised if either of us have observed others doing it or an upside. I should think that would be compelling at least to you and me. – farnsy Aug 5 '17 at 0:32
• I am sorry if my downvote has caused confusion to you. It seems to me this was mostly due to unfamiliarity with the FAQ and other meta posts, but I am still sorry. – Giskard Aug 5 '17 at 0:42
• A flood of bad questions is a potential annoyance, but in my opinion the econ area of SE has something of the opposite issue: very few questions and very few answers. Just because a question is more advanced doesn't mean it's more interesting nor helpful. Ultimately you and I (and others here) decide what type of place econ.SE will be. Will it be hostile to undergraduates in an attempt to have advanced questions only? That is a valid choice but not one I prefer. Anyway, in my opinion penalizing people who answer is not a good solution to the problem of too many bad questions. – farnsy Aug 5 '17 at 0:47

I downvote questions and answers that are blatantly off-topic.

Here is what I do (now) with trivial homework questions without shown effort:

• I downvote the question.
• I downvote the answer if $>+1$ and they really just did the whole thing, including all calculations.
• I upvote comments saying something along the lines of "this is a homework question, don't post it without showing effort."
• I never downvote anyone who provides encouraging hints without providing a full solution.
• I have also upvoted an answer to an elementary question. The question came up in my lecture once and I couldn't figure out what is not to understand about this concept. Through the answer I could figure out what went wrong in a confused mind and how to answer it next time.

In general, I do not think that learning economics should be discouraged. I do think that shirking on homework questions should be discouraged. However, if minimal effort is shown, I am happy to be a teacher.

• Unfortunately the line between minimal effort and zero effort is frequently blurred. You yourself have answered or provided very strong hints to basic questions where the OP has clearly shown no effort at all. – Giskard Jan 23 '17 at 21:33
• On the teaching angle: In my experience if the student has no concept of how he could arrive at a solution his time would be better spent studying theory than on deciphering the solution to one particular exercise. This sentiment (dare I say wisdom) is not shared by most students. But unless the exam has the exact same type of question with different numbers or the goal is not merely to pass the exam but to learn to think, deciphering solutions is pretty useless. – Giskard Jan 23 '17 at 21:36
• And in case you would like some tips, the site does have some guidance on homework questions. – Giskard Jan 23 '17 at 21:41
• I am pretty new to this site. I came up with the procedure along the way. A problem of this site is that in the beginning I did not have enough reputation to comment and an answer not providing an answer gets downvoted. Also where is the bar for "low level" questions? As I have heard there have been multiple tries to open an econSE and all have failed, because there are too few experts. If I had to decide between no econSE at all and the current one, I'd pick the latter. – Bayesian Jan 23 '17 at 23:36
• I know (that is why I linked to the FAQ) and we are happy to have you. I also answered a lot of homework questions when I was new. Now I honestly don't believe I am helping the student by doing that. There are also several meta questions on whether having an econhomeworkSE is better than not having an econSE. I seem to recall there is no clear majority for either side. – Giskard Jan 24 '17 at 9:31
• As for the 'bar of low level questions': I have no clue where it is. But in my opinion basic no effort questions are underneath it. Btw. some would say that effort is no redeeming quality at all: The question is either interesting or it is not. – Giskard Jan 24 '17 at 9:32