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If you come across a question that can be answered with one of your old answers, what is the policy for re-using your old responses? (assuming the the question is different enough or too old to be closed as a duplicate).

Only posting a link to the other answer is annoying.

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    A situation where an answer is really appropriate in multiple places without the questions being duplicates is super rare. Can you point to an example? – Pekka supports GoFundMonica Oct 22 '13 at 2:08
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    @perhapsPekka: sometimes they are worded differently, but essentially lead to the same answer. Some people on SO are quite hesitant to close as duplicates these sorts of questions. – Qantas 94 Heavy Oct 22 '13 at 2:16
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    @Qantas they probably shouldn't be. :) – Pekka supports GoFundMonica Oct 22 '13 at 2:20
  • @perhapsPekka: Take this example from June: AskUbuntu: Correct way to open GEdit as root?. Yesterday, I found the perfect place to re-use that information: AskUbuntu: How do I start nautilus as root?. They are different questions, but my solution to both problems was very similar. – IQAndreas Oct 22 '13 at 2:21
  • I felt guilty about re-using so much of the information, but I really didn't want to write "Follow the instructions on this page, but everywhere I use the word gedit, write nautilus instead, and line 19 in that example is supposed to be line 18 in your case." – IQAndreas Oct 22 '13 at 2:22
  • @IQAndreas ok, those examples make sense I guess (if the questions themselves are on-topic on Ubuntu.SE, which I assume they are) – Pekka supports GoFundMonica Oct 22 '13 at 2:26
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    Questions are never too old to be closed. – George Stocker Oct 22 '13 at 2:39
  • @Qantas94Heavy Are they essentially the same question though? – doppelgreener Oct 22 '13 at 2:50
  • @perhapsPekka I cannibalized one of my old answers in writing this answer. The questions were different enough that it didn't seem appropriate to close as a duplicate, but the background explanation was the same. The difference was in how it was applied to the problem at hand. I did make a point to note that I was doing it though, and linked to the other answer. – Joshua Taylor Oct 22 '13 at 4:07
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    Questions are not the same if the search strings/ titles/ topics are not close or identical. Think of it as a hash lookup, with similar values under different keys. It's not correct to delete such keys -- that would break the efficiency of the cache :) – Thomas W Oct 22 '13 at 4:27
  • @ThomasW: that's against the idea of duplicates. The whole idea of them is that people can search rather differently, wanting the same answer. Closing these questions as duplicates (very similar question worded differently) would be appropriate. About what appears to be very different questions (but somehow happen to have the same answer), I'm not so sure about that. – Qantas 94 Heavy Oct 22 '13 at 5:31
  • One problem case is a pair of questions, where one has stricter requirements than the other. So any answer on the strict version is valid on the relaxed version as well, but not the other way round. You can't really close them as exact duplicate, but the duplication between them is still annoying. – CodesInChaos Oct 22 '13 at 8:16
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While I see nothing wrong with re-using old answers on new questions, the likelihood that the answer is a perfect fit for both questions is close to zero, unless you're deliberately trying to astroturf a product, or the questions are exact duplicates.

Always provide a custom written answer for each question (even if it contains substantially the same information as an old answer you have written), and you'll never have a problem.

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    Reusability of answers is quite high, I think, for specific error messages that OPs don't understand. One good answer is enough to explain what the particular error message means, and then an additional sentence or two is enough to explain why it's occurring in the present case. It's happened in these questions. I've also reused answer content for this answer where some common background is needed, plus a sentence or two about the specific case. – Joshua Taylor Oct 22 '13 at 4:21
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Executive Summary

Copy in part occasionally? A-Okay.

Copy in part frequently? Consider a canonical question.

Copy an entire answer verbatim? Comment and close as duplicate.

Copy in Part Occasionally

Alice asks a question, 'How do I get from A to D?' It is a good question that follows all the rules, so IQAndreas creates a thoughtful answer explaining how to take the ideal path from A to C to D.

Bob asks a question, 'How do I get from B to D?' Another good question, IQAndreas explains how to take the ideal path from B to C, and then copy-pastes the portion from C-D from the other answer since the process is identical.

Copy in Part Frequently

If the process of getting from C to D is popping up very frequently, but doesn't have a question of its own, you may want to create a canonical question explaining how to get from C to D. Hopefully this will teach people how to solve half their problem, and limit future questions to getting to C. If a question does ask how to get to D, you can explain how to get to C, and then link to the process for C to D.

Copy Entire Answer Verbatim

If, on the other hand, Chris asks, 'How do I get from A' to D?', and the answer for how to get from A to D applies with no modifications, then it should probably be closed as a duplicate rather than copy-pasting the answer. In the meantime, a comment saying, 'This explanation of how to get from A to D should solve your problem' (possibly with an added comment explaining why A and A' don't change the solution) will help the asker get a quicker response.

  • I like this, but have aa few related questions: What do you do to make a canonical question specific enough to not be off topic? If you do make a canonical question, what do you do about the existing questions with accepted answers, or that have been closed as duplicates already? Vote to close as duplicates of the new one? Reopen and reclose the ones already closed as duplicate? Do you have a strategy for commenting about duplicates that won't get deleted automatically? – Joshua Taylor Oct 22 '13 at 4:43
  • @Josh, "How do I get from C to D?" is a pretty specific question (much more specific than the broader "How do I get from A to D?" question), so it shouldn't be off topic if A to D isn't off topic. As far as not getting comments deleted, if the question is closed as a duplicate the link exists in the message informing that it is a duplicate. The goal is to provide earlier guidance to the user before the question gets closed. I don't like the behavior you point out, but it shouldn't affect the strategy I explain either. – jmac Oct 22 '13 at 4:47
  • Part of the reason for closing questions as duplicates is to help point future users to the duplicate question. If an explanatory comment is needed in order to show how the original answers the duplicate, it's problematic, in my opinion, that it might get deleted. (This isn't a shortcoming of your approach, with which I agree, but of the automatic deletion process.) – Joshua Taylor Oct 22 '13 at 4:49
  • Regarding the "copy frequently", you're right on the "how do I get from C to D? style questions; a canonical answer is fine. I think there are other places for canonical answers too, but I'm not sure exactly how they'd fit. – Joshua Taylor Oct 22 '13 at 4:51
  • @Josh, hopefully the comment would be read prior to deletion and allow the user to solve their own problem. If the solution is non-obvious or many users have the same struggle, you could add a small note to the original answer explaining that this work for A, A', or A'' without any modifications for reasons X, Y, Z. This will also have the benefit of direction questions about A' and A'' to the original answer, rather than to the question closed as a duplicate. – jmac Oct 22 '13 at 4:54
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If it was someone else's answer, I'd provide attribution, but providing attribution to your own answer may look like "I answered this question before: link-to-answer. But here is that exact same information again: ...".

I see this as a good argument for just copying the relevant information from your old answer, and editing it to suit the new question where needed.

The only reason I see to include a link to your own original answer is if there are more answers on the linked question that they can benefit from (in which case, the link would fit better in a comment than an answer).

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    It's not just a matter of attribution; it's a sign that something else is going on, either that the questions are duplicates, that one or both of the answers isn't suited to the question, etc. – Servy Oct 22 '13 at 3:59
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As I mentioned in the comments, I've re-used content from past answers in other answers. For instance, I cannibalized one of my old answers in writing this answer. The questions were different enough that it didn't seem appropriate to close as a duplicate, but the background explanation was the same. The difference was in how it was applied to the problem at hand. I did make a point to note that I was doing it though, and linked to the other answer.

The problem with some of the situations where this arises, though, is that there's a very common thread to certain questions, and most of the explanation needed to show a question asker what's going on is the same. The details of how something applies in the particular case is different though. Recently I've seen this in

In some cases of these kind of things, I flag as a duplicate, but add a separate comment (because comments indicating duplicates often get deleted, grumble) indicating how that particular answer relates to the present question. What I'd really like to do in these cases, though, is to write a new question with a canonical answer and then close the rest as duplicates of it. This isn't really an option, though, when some might already have answers or be closed as duplicates of each other.

The other problem in writing a canonical question/answer for a particular error or task is that by the time you generalize the problem, it's no longer a specific programming problem, and so it's not likely to be on-topic for Stack Overflow anymore. That's why I favor the "close as duplicate, but include a comment about how to apply the answer to the present question" approach.

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