I've had a couple of circumstances where this moral dilemma has arisen: The asker's question is really off-topic by all counts and is already receiving downvotes. I can downvote now, but I also want to be helpful.

Is it ok to downvote the question as off-topic and unsalvageable and still answer or at least comment to the user to try to assist them? Or is that considered encouraging off-topic questions?

To clarify, I'm not talking about commenting to help them ask better questions, I'm talking about trying to answer or guide them toward an answer while downvoting their question.

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    It's usually better to stay clear of answering them. If you answer, you just encourage the OP to keep asking bad questions and hoping for an answer to slip in. Sure there's a question ban for these people, but there are also plenty of ways around the ban. – Mysticial Feb 24 '14 at 20:27
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    You could separate the cases of cluelessness vs. deliberate laziness. The first may be eligible for a pity answer, the second should be treated ruthlessly. – Leeor Feb 24 '14 at 20:33
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    @Leeor I disagree. If the question is of very poor quality the answers inevitably are going to be of poor quality and won't be helpful to future visitors, even if the person asking the question is well meaning and not just lazy. Attempting to answer questions that are very unclear, too broad, entirely offtopic, etc. virtually always results in poor quality answers. That's why these types of questions are closed in the first place. If they tended to result in quality answers despite the poor questions, there wouldn't really be a need to close them. – Servy Feb 24 '14 at 20:34

If the question meets the criteria for closure, such as being offtopic, then you absolutely shouldn't answer it. The reason that closures exists it because extensive experience has shown that these types of questions don't generate quality content.

Rather than a futile attempt at trying to solve a problem that you don't have the ability to write a quality solution for, spend you effort helping the author improve the question. Ask them clarifying questions to figure out what is missing. Suggest improvements in how they can form their question to help make it answerable. Edit what you can to improve the wording, formatting, and other aspects of presentation. If/when they question has been improved enough to warrant being (re-)opened, then you can answer it.

  • I think this is the answer I was looking for. I should keep in mind that I am not here to help an individual, I am here to help a community - whether that community is here or hasn't been to a SE site yet, my answer and by extension the question should be just as helpful either way. – David Wilkins Feb 24 '14 at 20:36
  • Relevant: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/4283/… – bfavaretto Feb 25 '14 at 1:10
  • @bfavaretto That's really outdated. That was posted before there was a meta site, and all meta questions were offtopic everywhere. These days such questions would simply be migrated to the relevant meta site, answered, and left open (unless it should also be closed on meta). – Servy Feb 25 '14 at 3:39
  • I know that's old, but there are people who are still in favor of closing and answering in some cases. That include some moderators. I'll try to find some better links. – bfavaretto Feb 25 '14 at 5:45
  • @bfavaretto To the first, I disagree strongly with that position. He's saying that he feels that the question shouldn't be answered by anyone else besides himself. That most certainly is hypocritical, despite his (unsupported) statement to the contrary. As to the second link, it's discussing the case where the post is fixed after the close vote is cast, or where the person realizes the close vote was in error (it was posted before the ability to retract close votes) or in cases of a duplicate closure, which is a bit different than other closures. – Servy Feb 25 '14 at 14:24
  • I mostly agree with you. My point is that on occasion answering and voting to close doesn't do any harm – especially in the case of duplicates where the asker might need some additional pointers about their code. The site is kept clean, and the asker gets an answer. – bfavaretto Feb 25 '14 at 14:28
  • @bfavaretto If the duplicate doesn't adequately answer the question then it's not really a duplicate. If it does, then there's no compelling need for a new answer. Generally if the new answer is of higher quality than those in the dup target the questions should be merged. You don't want the best answer to a canonical question hidden in one of the duplicates; you want it in the open question where it's much more likely to be found. – Servy Feb 25 '14 at 14:30

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