Let's start with an example of two questions (on of course involving one downvoted question of mine...) https://stackoverflow.com/questions/29049160/how-to-refactor-variable-names-in-the-stata-do-file-editor and Consequences of the Inverse Galois Problem. The one deals with code refactoring on a programming Q&A, the other with the "Inverse Galois Problem" on a math Q&A. In one (my) question the explanation of the technical term "Refactoring" was requested in the other not while both are clearly centered around a technical term - and you'd never think about asking what the "Inverse Galois Problem" is in a comment rather than checking for yourself on wikipedia, right?

Why would a person who does not understand a technical term want to engage in a question which is clearly centered around it and absolutely requires knowledge about the technical term? That wouldn't make any sense for both the person trying to answer the question because he_she'd have to learn what the OP knows and more to answer the question and the person asking the question because the chances of getting a useful reply from a person which knows less about the problem than the OP is fairly low. There's no point in increasing the readability of the question for people who are neither the OP nor engaged in the question in any way neither because no one can complain about someone asking a question using technical terms - those should be banned from SE sites otherwise. If you don't know the term your possibilities to contribute an answer or any other content to the question is practically zero (while non-content contribution like editing and flagging are possible, of course).

Where to draw the line? When to enforce an explanation of a technical term - be it with a bunch of downvotes or a constructive comment? Is there a different handling of (descriptions of) technical terms on SE sites which are targeting professionals explicitly and other SE sites?

  • I'm not sure I see the relevance of your second example. I see the first one, and I'll withhold judgment there for now, but the second one doesn't seem to have any complaints about explanations. Could you clarify? Or is it offered as a counter-example? Mar 15 '15 at 0:12
  • @MatthewHaugen It's a counter example (edited). Mar 15 '15 at 0:20
  • Alright, thanks. Counter-examples can be kind of difficult here on Stack Exchange, unfortunately: every site has its own community, so saying "this is okay on this site but not on this other site" tends to carry little weight. You'd probably have more luck posting on Meta Stack Overflow. Mar 15 '15 at 0:26
  • So, I conclude that there's no SE-wide guideline on that. Mar 15 '15 at 0:27
  • Generally, that's a fair conclusion. I mean, yeah, I don't know that what you encountered in your question is necessarily an example of a "site guideline," even, I can kind of see where the user was coming from, from the cursory glance I gave it, but not really. But yeah, in general, as long as it's not something fundamental like what constitutes an "answer," it's unlikely that there's a super solid network-wide rule for it. Sites are given a lot of freedom, within reason. Mar 15 '15 at 0:37

After reading the comment thread under https://stackoverflow.com/questions/29049160/how-to-refactor-variable-names-in-the-stata-do-file-editor, I interpret the question/feedback in the comments differently than you.

I don't think the request was to explain "refactor" as a general term. It is certainly reasonable to expect that somebody who would be a candidate to answer your question would have an idea what it means. The problem I'm seeing is that "refactor" is such a widely used term (one could argue that it's overused) that it does not have a very precise meaning. It's one of these terms that people like to throw around, and not everybody uses or interprets it the same way.

The way I read them, the comments suggested that "refactor" is too vague, and that you should define more precisely what exactly it is you want to achieve. You were not asked to write a generic description of refactoring, but a precise definition of what you mean by it in the context of your question.

While this may be somewhat of a stretch, let me try and apply this to your counter example. Let's pretend that "Inverse Galois Problem" was a term used by many mathematicians, and mathematicians from different fields would use it in different ways. If you asked a question where you used the term, it would be reasonable to expect that you define exactly what you mean by it. You wouldn't have to write a textbook about Galois Problems, but disambiguate the term so that everybody knows exactly what you mean by it in the context.

In other words, I don't think you need to explain all the terms you use. But you need to make sure that your questions are precise and clear enough. And if some of the terms you use have wide definitions, you may need to clarify what you mean by them.

I suspect that mathematicians tend to be more precise about their terminology than programmers. So this kind of ambiguity might be less common if you use mathematical terms.


The environment provided by StackExchange is fickle, and there are many, many, many motivations people have to engage in things that they are not familiar with. Mostly people are driven by the possibility that there will be something in it for them: reputation or a badge.

Ultimately, and this is something I fully support, the content residing on Stack Exchange adds to a particular knowledge base and is meant to support an evolving community that will outlast you and me. Therefore, while you think it may be worthless (pick your choice of words here) to further explain something, it may in fact be very beneficial for future visitors of the site who land on your question. By this I don't mean that you have to explain certain theories into their deepest of detail. Just consider that someone is interested in knowing more, and they're asking you to provide more detail. It's not just about you. It's not just about you getting what you want from someone who spends time answering your question.

In my opinion, both questions are benefit from some TLC. Here's why:

  1. The first (about Stata) opens itself up for a single 2-letter answer "No." Your research may point to that exactly, but would you settle for an answer like that?

  2. The second (about the Inverse Galois Problem) can easily be closed as "too broad", since there is no particular answer that would be a definitive answer to the question...

There is no guideline for "enforcement" of content contained within a question or answer. You're dealing with people here. And people can be subjective sometimes, even emotional (and vote accordingly, of course). It is what it is.

Not that this may pertain to you, but for those future visitors to this location, consider the following bed-time reading: How do I ask a good question?

  • Technically, "No." is a 3-letter answer. Mar 15 '15 at 13:13
  • @PaŭloEbermann A letter is "A written symbol or character representing a speech sound and being a component of an alphabet or a written symbol or character used in the graphemic representation of a word, such as the h in Thames.", so "No." has 2 letters, but 3 characters.
    – bjb568
    Mar 15 '15 at 18:15

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