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The current guidelines for editing are very scarce. I would especially like to know the actual consensus on the philosophy of editing the answers of others.

Current policy

  1. We welcome all constructive edits, but please make them substantial. Avoid trivial, tiny one-letter edits unless absolutely necessary.

  2. fix grammatical or spelling errors.

  3. clarify meaning without changing it.

  4. correct minor mistakes.

  5. add related resources or links.

  6. always respect the original author.

  7. this site is collaboratively edited, like Wikipedia.

Issues

  • Point 1 is incompatible with 2 and 4. The vast majority of questions and answers that require corrections for clarity or spelling are going to range from trivial to small and affect a sentence or two, without risking conflict with point 6.

  • Point 1 is fundamentally incompatable with 3, 6, and very likely 5. Real "substantial" edits to improve the quality of a question or answer are almost guaranteed to modify meaning, especially if they involve correcting factual or coding errors. Additionally, important coding corrections are likely to appear "unsubstantial".

  • Point 7 (from the FAQ), from what I gather is a very bad analogy. Per the previous bullet, the types of edits that "boldly" modify content are discouraged, sometimes even if unambiguous and indisputable (e.g. coding errors again). This makes stack overflow very unlike any other wiki in which the goal is to collaborate in order to make a page or article as good as it can be.

  • Point 5 seems rarely exercised in practice. Doing so especially with accompanying text, again, often entails modifying meaning. Adding links or resources is usually done in comments.

Personally, I don't see the point in whitelist-only heavily filtered editing. Why can't it work like most wikis where if an original author disagrees with an edit, they can simply revert or improve it themselves? Things naturally work themselves out except in the case of comparatively rare edit wars requiring intervention.

Public forums like S.O. where editing is impeded run the risk of succumbing to what I call The W3Schools problem. That is, the most popular resources with high search rankings and containing information that appears plausibly correct to the non-expert can be, and often is dangerously flawed, and can spread misinformation to the masses for years if nobody is allowed to edit them. Respecting the original author means leaving critical mistakes intact in answers clearly written and upvoted without adequate research. The positive impact I can make by downvoting or leaving a comment is limited especially if the author disagrees, and the current reputation system gives no incentive to this important task. The most constructive types of edits, i.e. those that improve the accuracy or completeness of an answer, are sometimes unwelcome.

But that's just my initial observation. The main point of this question is that a philosophy should be decided upon, made clear in Policy, and enforced consistently. The FAQ in particular says almost nothing about editing philosophy other than that questions and answers may be edited, leaving new users to guess.

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Usually, when an answer is fundamentally inaccurate or requires substantial edits, I would rather go with adding an answer on my own as well as downvoting the answer itself. –  jokerdino Jun 30 '12 at 14:54
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@jokerdino I usually do that as well (and only downvote if it's really wrong and author won't correct). Late answers unfortunately often go unnoticed. Also I should have added that the majority of especially very popular answers that get enough eyes are fine. There seems to be a certain threshold though where moderately popular answers fly low enough under the radar to go unchallenged. –  ormaaj Jun 30 '12 at 14:58
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I strongly disagree with "The vast majority ... range from trivial to small". The vast majority of posts needing to be edited requires lots of typo and language fixes. –  Daniel Fischer Jun 30 '12 at 15:02
    
@ormaaj If they are going under the radar, you can't really edit them either right? I don't see much of a problem with this. –  jokerdino Jun 30 '12 at 15:03
    
The creator of the site says 2 and 4 should be removed. –  raven Jun 30 '12 at 19:45
    
@raven That'd be one way. I think there are probably better ways but I'd take it. Save two people's time. –  ormaaj Jun 30 '12 at 21:06
    
"Substantial" means edits that are not "trivial, one character edits." More specifically, the system looks for six characters or more to change before it considers it a valid suggested edit. I think the rest of this is just sauce for the goose. –  Robert Harvey Jun 30 '12 at 21:44
    
I agree with this a lot. I hear the "too minor" thrown around a lot to mean that editing spelling mistakes/salutations/grammar/punctuation is "too minor" and shouldn't be done unless you're fixing other stuff (all "other stuff" usually falls into those categories). Long-term I think that's total BS for anyone except those without full edit privileges, and doesn't match edit usage at all –  Ben Brocka Jun 30 '12 at 21:59
    
@raven not really, the editing policy applies to everyone, not just sub-2k rep users. Plus when people fix other problems with the post we definitely want them to fix typos and such, or the editing policy becomes "add resources and links otherwise never touch anything" –  Ben Brocka Jun 30 '12 at 22:10
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@BenBrocka: Minor edit == I'll do it. Major Edit == Vote to Close. See also meta.stackexchange.com/a/116555/102937 –  Robert Harvey Jun 30 '12 at 22:43
    
@RobertHarvey sounds good to me. The one part where we're NOT like wikipedia is totally correcting a totally broken article. Those should be downvoted, closed or deleted if their original author doesn't fix them. –  Ben Brocka Jul 1 '12 at 1:21
    
I agree with your points concerning #5. More often than not, I see edits that add links to related posts rejected as This edit is incorrect or an attempt to reply to or comment on the existing post. –  gobernador Jul 6 '12 at 2:01

5 Answers 5

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I believe you're reading point n°1 too literally, the substantial part of it doesn't mean edits should change 50% of the post: it means you shouldn't fix a single-letter typo when it doesn't introduce ambiguity and there are other things in the post to fix. Point 2, 3 and 4 don't conflict at all.

Point 6 is simply a matter of politeness, and point 7 is a fact - nothing to argue about that, anyone can click the "edit" button.

The idea and guideline is as I see it by combining points 1 to 6:

  • If you change a post from meaning "A" to meaning "Z", the edit will (usually*) be rejected, regardless of whether Z is indeed better than A or not. Don't edit for that, post an new answer if you can and want to, comment if that would help, and use your votes.
  • But as long as the meaning of the post is still "A" after your edit, and the overall quality is improved (if possible, without minor fixups left to do), then your edit is welcome and will (usually*) be approved.

To elaborate:

That first point is not incompatible with points 2, 3, 4 (except possibly for code) at all. Fixing spelling mistakes, grammar errors, or rephrasing to improve "sub-optimal" English are more than welcome as long as you don't change the meaning/intent of the original author.
Edits that only correct a pair of typos and rephrases a sentence are welcome, anything to improve readability (and searchability) is good. Fixing a single typo in a post that is not formatted properly and has numerous other things to fix is not good.

Also take into account that the substantial part is especially valid for people that don't have full edit privileges (2k rep). Edit reviews take time from the community, so edit that aren't substantial, in the sense that they really add value to the post, sap resources from the voluntary community reviewers.
Once you gain the full edit privilege, use your common sense and remember that edits bump questions on the front page (this is especially a problem for low-traffic sites).

Point n°4 is a bit more contentious if you're talking about code (on Stack Overflow). Fixing minor errors in code is welcome too, but be careful there: fixing code in questions is a bad idea - any code error there could be part of the problem.
Minor in this context means something like an "obvious" typo (in a variable name for instance) - something that a compiler or proper IDE would have spotted right away. Changing an algorithm, changing what API/data type/standard library function a piece of code uses in an answer is generally a bad idea.
If you see an answer that is no longer correct because it uses now-deprecated language features for example, you have I believe three options to help maintain site quality:

  • Edit the answer to add an updated version - if the change is minor (1/2 lines, not the whole algorithm/method/approach) If you do this, keep the original around, and do say when the change became necessary, or recommended. Adding links to official docs about the change is a good idea here.
  • Or post an answer of your own with the current best practice/favored method of answering the question - that's ok too, even if it does build from an existing answer. If the change required is substantial enough (use your common sense and domain knowledge to define that), having it separate from the original is a good thing - allows independent voting.
  • Add a comment saying "XYZ should now be used instead of ZYW when dealing with version FooBar of ..." if you can't/don't want to post a complete answer and the change required to the existing answers is too extensive.

The idea is that if you have a substantial contribution to make, that isn't covered by existing posts, add an answer so that it can be reviewed/triaged on its own merits. If you have a minor tweek to existing content, edit or comment.

Now, regarding point n°5, it is indeed rarely used, except for Tag Wikis. It should be used, IMO, only to add authoritative references (links to official documentation/samples, standards, whatever). (Adding links to an add-laced blog that only partially answers the question is not welcome.)


Addressing the last two paragraphs of your question: I disagree. I rarely encounter wrong content when I see Stack Overflow (or other SE sites) in my search results. And guess what: when that happens, I have tools to deal with it: editing, voting, commenting, even flagging.
Compared to results gotten from your average forum or mailing list, SE results are, in my experience, much more relevant and helpful.

The voting system is there to do the filtering. Incorrect content will eventually be weeded out, and good content rises to the top. Sure it doesn't always work as well as everyone would hope for, but, by and large, it's pretty good.
(And the flag/close/delete workflow takes care of the more egregious content.)

(Comparing SO to w3schools is apples to oranges. Stack Overflow isn't a tutorial, or a documentation repository, or whatever w3schools aims to be. It's a place to get your code questions answered.)


* As for useful edits being rejected (or valid edits getting approved), yes, that happens. I probably rejected some - sorry if I did - but that's to be expected given the sheer volume of activity, the points above, and the fact that people are not perfect and mistakes happen.

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This elaboration makes a lot more sense - particularly interpretation of point 1. (These things that most people agree upon could stand to be articulated in the FAQ a bit IMO). I've made a couple edits. A few of those were rejected for understandable reasons. I sampled a couple hundred from the moderation queue and it seemed the most common rejection reasons were either "changed meaning", or "too minor" on that day, plus the approval voting was often not unanimous. Thanks for sharing –  ormaaj Jun 30 '12 at 17:11

I do agree that the guidelines need a bit of a facelift, but I disagree that they're in total conflict with each other. There are some conflicting issues, but overall it's reasonably straightforward. My feeling is that, if you're editing out coding problems, then you're not really editing the question.


  • Point 1 implies that you're not going to make a non-substantial change to the wording or style of the question. Things like moving around curly braces would be seen as non-substantial.

    "Unless absolutely necessary" is an implication that tiny changes should be made only when they truly improve the quality of the question or answer, and if you're < 2K rep, others may or may not agree with that change.

  • I soundly reject the second issue, and I offer this question on Ask Ubuntu as proof. I'd argue that one can damage the original intent of the question by correcting coding errors (i.e. adding a type to a variable, properly indenting Python code, etc), since that may very well be the original asker's code.

    Assuming good faith when the person asks a question with code in it, even if it contains syntax errors, is something that shouldn't be edited out - if there are syntax errors, tease them out in comments, and ask them to revise those. Or, if that's the actual answer to the question, answer it instead. (If it's something obscure or something you feel can't help others, it'd be fine to [flag to] close as "Too Localized".

If you could provide an example of an edit that was rejected that "improved the quality of the answer", then that would be one thing. I haven't come across any recently, so I can't really say. However, I will say that edits that improve a question or answer are rarely, if ever, rejected.

Edits that change coding conventions are something I'd reject since that has nothing to do with the question, or it could be the actual problem.

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Good points. Note that my question is slanted towards answers, but your points may be applicable there too (i.e. the answerer is confused or just made an error). –  ormaaj Jun 30 '12 at 15:14
    
Right - I don't view questions and answers as two separate entities when I'm making a change or two to them. If the answerer made an error in their syntax, it's worth commenting; if they said something totally wrong, it's worth downvoting instead. –  Makoto Jun 30 '12 at 15:17

There are two large issues you mention: too small edits and too large edits.

The guideline to avoid minor edits, which is also hard-coded into the suggested edits feature, is purely a response to the problems too many small edits can cause. It is not a fundamental principle of SE as I understand it, but the necessary consequence of the SE mechanics. Edits must be reviewed, or the site is vulnerable to vandalism that is hard to detect. The mechanism by which this is done currently is bumping any edited post, no matter how minor, to the frontpage. These bumps displace newer posts that need the attention, so any edit harms the frontpage, but substantial edits offset this harm by the improvement they bring to that post.

Now, most post that have one spelling or grammar mistake, have a few others that could be corrected at the same time. There are cases where there is just this one, annoying mistake in a post, but they are pretty rare in my observation. So I don't think discouraging one-letter edits has an overall negative effect, the positive effect of encouraging users to fix all the problems with a post outweigh the negatives in my opinion.

On the matter of too large or substantial edits, I'd emphasize that edits are not the correct way to deal with completely wrong answers! They are the ideal way to correct small mistakes in an otherwise good answer, but completely rewriting an answer is not the idea behind the edit system.

You're mentioning wrong information on SE sites, if you see a wrong answer you should comment on it and explain why and how exactly it is wrong, preferably cite an authorative source that shows that you're correct. A well-placed comment can often guide voters and prevent incorrect answers that appear plausible to rise to the top.

Another very important mechanism to correct wrong answers is to post your own, correct answer. Combined with a comment pointing out the error and downvoting the wrong post this is the preferred way to deal with just plain wrong answers.

The comparison to Wikipedia is a bit misleading, in most cases SE doesn't work like a wiki where everybody edits the same post. That sometimes works, especially when the initial poster of an answer recognizes that others need to extend the first revision and declares it community wiki, inviting others to chip in. But it is not the common case, but more an exception.

The one big problem in my opinion with substantially editing answers is that it is incompatible with the voting system. It doesn't make any sense to edit a wrong answer that has been downvoted, the voting will still reflect the old, incorrect state of the answer.

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You misquoted the policy. Points 2 to 5 are each an example of a generally-good edit. An edit isn't supposed to match all of them, it's supposed to match one of them (or none: this is not meant to be an exhaustive list).

Point 1 isn't contradictory with the others. It says to “avoid … tiny … edits unless absolutely necessary”. Fixing a dozen spelling errors isn't that tiny.

I don't know where you get that point 5 isn't exercised.

The one difficult thing about edits is balancing points 6 and 7: respecting the original author while striving to make the content as good as possible. As a rule of thumb when editing, ask yourself: would the author have written this if he'd known better? If the answer is yes, your edit is probably good. If the answer is no, your edit is probably bad.

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As I recall the "guidelines" were worded slightly differently at the time I had written this question. I'm not sure whether there were some changes, or whether the interface varies a bit with reputation changes, or I'm imagining things. Your answer is reasonable nevertheless. –  ormaaj Mar 8 '13 at 2:13
    
@ormaaj These guidelines haven't changed at least since October 2010 except for some very minor rewording. –  Gilles Mar 8 '13 at 2:15

Complexities in editing policy reflect the fact that simple rules are not sufficient.

For example, below edit looks reasonably OK doesn't it? (save for the questionable can->may and minor glitch of not changing i to I):

http://i.stack.imgur.com/LUWpt.png

But this is only until one takes a closer look into the edited post - which immediately reveals that suggested edit is not substantial. Not even close!

enter image description here

The problem with suggested edit is that its author did not make an effort to look into post text that badly needed cleanup. I would say that substantial edit is one that takes into account all issues in the post. Note this does not imply that it's required to edit everything - this is at editor discretion, I can imagine cases when I'd skip some editing (say, when title and tags are severely broken and need quick fix while large post text requires more thorough check).

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Who says it's not substantial? It significantly improves the title. As far as I'm concerned, that qualifies as a substantial edit. And that's the problem: what constitutes "substantial" is subjective. Could the edit have done more? Yes. But why did it need to? It is not the responsibility of a single edit or editor to fix all the issues of a question. –  Nicol Bolas Jun 30 '12 at 18:10
    
@NicolBolas The problem with suggested edit is that editor did not make an effort to look into post text that badly needed cleanup. –  gnat Jun 30 '12 at 18:13
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So what you're saying is that "substantial" is defined as "fixes all the problems in the post?" And again, how is that not subjective? –  Nicol Bolas Jun 30 '12 at 18:24
    
That's one way to look at it. Another is that the problem is only a side-effect of the labor involved in moderating each and every proposed edit - a problem that isn't applicable to a great many publicly editable resources, some of which are very reliable, or even the authoritative reference in a given domain. The Haskell wiki might be one example. Certain subprojects of Wikipedia might also qualify. They are reliable because small groups of experts closely monitor the parts of these sites that are of interest to them, not because of global moderation efforts. –  ormaaj Jun 30 '12 at 18:33
    
@NicolBolas one objective measure applicable in cases like that is editor effort. If an editor skips the part that takes 3 minutes to fix, 3 minutes is an objective measure. Upon that, I feel safe building my subjective evaluation, like: skipping 3-min work is lazy, skipping 10 min work is gray area, skipping half-hour work is OK etc –  gnat Jun 30 '12 at 18:41
    
@gnat: We're not talking about people who are being paid to make the site better. We're talking about people who do it in their free time. And if he feels that the most he can donate to this question is the time it takes to fix the title, who are you to say that this is insufficient? Skipping 10 minutes of work on a free site should not be considered a "gray area". Why should a 20 second contribution that significantly improves a question be stopped? The quality of the edit should be judged on how it improves the question, not your personal estimate of how long it took. –  Nicol Bolas Jun 30 '12 at 18:57
    
@NicolBolas well for the case I refer to, who are you question is pretty easy to answer. I am the guy doing this in my free time, I am the guy who approved the mentioned edit and I am the guy who cleaned the crap that remained after the edit. In other words, I feel sufficiently "enabled" to apply my judgement in that case. If you feel otherwise TTFB –  gnat Jun 30 '12 at 19:17
    
This would have been a better example had you not picked such a crappy question to pick apart. This one's only good for a close vote. –  Robert Harvey Jun 30 '12 at 21:43
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I think the "fix ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING FOREVER IN ONE EDIT" idea I see floating around is pretty much absurd. Yes, they should have fixed more. But so what? If they have edit privileges, who cares. If the edit needs extra improvements, use the Improve option. Saying it wasn't improved enough is unsustainable nickpicking. We do want to encourage people to fix all problems in one go, but discouraging people from making edits is not the way to do that. –  Ben Brocka Jun 30 '12 at 22:03
    
@RobertHarvey for one thing, I voted to close. For another thing, yes I did as much cleanup as possible to make sure that it isn't mis-closed for irrelevant stuff like the poor grammar or inadequate formatting. Do you have issues with this approach? –  gnat Jul 1 '12 at 0:02
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@gnat: Not at all, I just think it's a waste of time. If an op can't be bothered to write a reasonably coherent post from the start (or one that is on-topic, which this example isn't), why should I bother cleaning it up? –  Robert Harvey Jul 1 '12 at 1:18
    
@RobertHarvey you're maybe just a better reader than me. I regularly catch myself at changing initial voting plan after cleanup of post grammar and formatting. Editing to me often serves as an error-prevention trick - especially in cases when I intend to cast a close vote –  gnat Jul 1 '12 at 14:19

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