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Should users be penalized for answering bad questions?

When I come across an SO question which is too broad or shows no research effort (the type that one google search could solve), I flag it, down vote it, and leave a comment with the problem. I often see other users correctly answer these questions, which leaves me with a dilemma:

  • The question is bad, not the answer
  • If the answer gets up voted several times it lends credence to the bad question
  • The user answering the question is getting reputation bonuses for contributing to lowering the quality of SO

What should be done with such answers?


3 Answers 3


If you don't want to reward the user for answering a low-quality question it's best to leave the answer alone, not downvote it, especially if you know that it is a good, correct answer. However, if a question is so unclear that you can't even judge if the answer is correct, it's also best to leave it alone.

Personally I only upvote an answer if I can determine that it is useful and correct, and downvote it if I can determine that it is bad, wrong or completely misses the point of the question (if I can understand the question in the first place). Otherwise I leave it alone for either of the above reasons.

As a little tidbit, I recently witnessed a case of an answer getting downvoted, except the downvoter was unable to adequately explain the vote because the question was so unclear. The user posting the answer got pretty annoyed that we voted to close the question, but absolutely nobody bothered to edit the question to try and make it clearer — not even the asker, after being prompted from multiple people, including the user posting the answer — and not even the answerer either, who apparently understood it enough that he should have been able to help with an edit.

Turns out the answer was indeed correct, as it was then accepted. Weird, huh?

And here's a tip for answerers: if you understand a question and its answer well enough, please do the community a favor and:

  1. Ask the asker to edit the question to clarify it
  2. Failing that, try to clarify it as much as you feel you know how, especially if the community makes it clear that it's in a dire need of an edit.

An edit can go a long way — in many cases it helps immensely in getting a question reopened, and sometimes it may even boost the question's score, if there are enough viewers.

Also a tip for everyone: when in doubt, don't. We want good answers to good questions, not unconfident answers to unclear questions. Guesswork isn't always going to work out for the asker, the answerer(s) as well as (and especially) future readers. This is why we have the NARQ close reason at all, and even when a question does get closed, it can always be reopened after it's improved through an appropriate edit.


A good answer is a good answer regardless of where it is posted. If someone wants to spend their time posting answers to bad questions, why penalize them for it? In fact, there is the gold Reversal badge that rewards people who post great answers to bad questions.

If it really bothers you, know that the question asker still receives a penalty even though they get an answer to their question. Enough downvotes and they'll be banned from asking more questions.


A truly good answer to a bad question is one which explains why the question is inherently bad and also offers the "correct" alternative, whilst not necessarily answering the question literally.

So, if the question was "How do I secure passwords using ROT-13?", a technically-correct literal answer would be something along the lines of "Here's a PHP function to encrypt as ROT-13; save the result in your database."

A truly "good" answer would explain that using ROT-13 to secure passwords isn't actually a good idea and explain an alternative solution using salted hashes.

So I think downvoting technically-correct answers which fail to explain that there's a better approach is acceptable, because letting people wander off down a sub-optimal path isn't helpful.

It's a bit like a salseperson selling you a $100 HD cable when they know fine well that a $10 one would suit you fine - they've solved your problem (need an HD cable), but not in the best way possible.

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