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Some questions get put on hold as being unclear, when in fact the question is perfectly clear, it's just lacking a few details that are preventing it from getting answers. This is more common on the IT sites than say History, English Language & Usage, Seasoned Advice, etc.

I don't know what the final wording should be, something like "This question is lacking some vital information". If the level of quality we want is at least 1, then the current "unclear question" message really only applies to quality below 0.5. I'm proposing a new message to apply to quality of 0.75 to 1, where the remainder (0.5 to 0.75) would go into one or the other as quality can be rather subjective anyway.

The current thinking seems to be that 99% clear == 100 % unclear. Yes, there is that 1% that is not clear, but there is a big difference between "I can't even understand the gist of what you're asking" and "I can understand what you're getting at but I need {this specific information} to be able to start answering your question". Most vote-to-close-ers don't leave feedback as to exactly what is missing, regardless of whether the entire question is low-quality or if it is generally high-quality except for one or two points, leaving it as an exercise for the OP to try and guess. So differentiating between these types of posts would be useful to the OP. Should they totally rewrite (or consider deleting) their question, or is it worth trying to salvage it?


Stackoverflow example

Can sum1 help my code plz!!!!

This is so vague as to be completely and utterly unanswerable. A message saying "what is your exact problem" is completely appropriate.


EL&U example

What is a word that means "X"?

  • Comment: Can you add an example sentence (or a few) with a blank space for the word?

This is asked in a clear manner. The person who posted the comment should also vote to close, as in their opinion there is not enough information to answer the question. Other people might find that there is enough information and post an answer while it is still open.

Treating both these cases as exactly the same is unreasonable, in my opinion.


So, can we split the current "unclear" reason into a much-too-low-quality reason (keeping the current message) and an almost-high-enough-quality reason (with new wording)?

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    Why is this necessary? What problem does this solve that isn't accomplished with the current close reason? – grg Feb 5 '16 at 8:13
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    the current unclear reason applies to potentially anything under 1, depending on the reader. It works just fine. – Rory Alsop Feb 5 '16 at 9:24
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    Some questions get put on hold as being unclear, when in fact the question is perfectly clear, it's just lacking a few details that are preventing it from getting answers. If it's lacking details that are preventing it from getting answers then it's not perfectly clear. It is in fact by definition, so unclear that it cannot be answered. – Servy Feb 5 '16 at 18:40
  • @gnat Please only discuss the issue raised here. Nowhere did I say that the question shouldn't be voted to close, only that it needs a more constructive message. – Cool Fool Feb 5 '16 at 22:02
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    @CoolFool between comments and custom close reasons, what more is needed? Perhaps suggest some alternative standard site specific close reasons on site meta to deal with that particular nuance that doesn't exist on other sites? – user213963 Feb 6 '16 at 4:27
  • @MichaelT Something like Although your question generally seems clear, it is missing some key information that makes it hard to answer. For a high quality, almost answerable question As it's currently written, it's hard to tell exactly what you're asking. gives the wrong impression. I think people are relying too much on semantics. "Everybody should know that exactly means 100%". Yes, SE started as a site for programmers, and programmers tend to be literal-minded. But that doesn't work well for all sites, especially ELL, where the target audience is people learning English. – Cool Fool Feb 6 '16 at 5:13
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I think that is a bad idea since the current close reason is okay. The question is unclear.

If the question is How to replace the engine of my car? the question is indeed unclear. It lacks information to make it a clear, answerable question: the brand and model. You can understand the English written, but it is unclear how to answer it.

Furthermore, the description is very clear what someone should do to make the question clear:

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. ...

Adding vital information are the details asked for.

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This is what comments are supposed to be used for.

If you need a bit more info about something in particular then just leave a comment on the question stating 'can you tell us a bit more about X' and they can provide it.

If there is enough content in the question for people to be able to provide some sort of answer then I wouldn't say the question should be put On Hold, because that prevents people from providing that answer.

Sure, questions can always be improved, but not all of them need to be prevented from being answered until improvements have been made.

  • Absolutely! But can you enforce it? It's a lot easier to click a "close" button than think of and type a constructive message. – Cool Fool Feb 5 '16 at 9:44
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    You should vote to close at the same time. If it gets edited into shape, it can be reopened (or may not even get closed in the first place if the edit happens soon enough) – Kevin B Feb 5 '16 at 16:32
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I do think there is a genuine problem in that the same "unclear" close reason gets used both for questions that look good but just need a little bit of clarification, and for crap that's so hopelessly muddled that nobody can make head or tail of it. The former type can be rescued and reopened if the OP just makes the requested edit, whereas the latter can't be fixed without a complete rewrite, if at all.

But I think this is actually a broader issue with closing in general: the current system fails to properly distinguish salvageable questions from hopeless ones, gives askers little guidance on which class their question belongs to, and does a pretty poor job of tracking the salvageable questions and getting them reopened if and when they're fixed.

(The automatic reopen flag on edited questions does help a bit, but users are poorly informed of it, and can easily waste their one chance on a trivial edit. The only site where I've really seen the "quick hold → edit to clarify → reopen" cycle work well is RPG.SE, but that seems to be mainly driven by heroic moderator efforts.)

I don't have any obvious solution, but I do recognize the symptoms: on one hand, we have plenty of blatantly off-topic, nonsense or otherwise hopeless questions lingering "on hold" for a week, even though it's plenty clear to everybody (probably often even the asker) that they'll never be reopened; on the other hand, plenty of questions that could be made answerable with a simple edit never are, either because the option isn't clearly communicated to the asker, so that they never come back to edit their question, or because the klunky reopen process never triggers properly after the question has been fixed, leaving a perfectly good question closed forever (and the OP frustrated and disillusioned).

Another symptom is the fact that, after a while on SE, people stop even noticing the difference between "[on hold]" and "[closed]". The whole point of introducing the "on hold" status was to suggest that such questions aren't permanently closed — but since there's no actual mechanical difference, and since reopening rarely happens in practice, people become blind to the difference. (It doesn't help that even the UI uses "close" and "put on hold" pretty much interchangeably.)

So, let me throw out a few random ideas on how we might improve the situation:

  • Make "closed" and "on hold" actually different states. It should be easier to put a question "on hold" than it currently is (maybe require just three votes instead of five?), but it should also be easier to reopen such questions. If a question looks hopeless (e.g. blatantly off-topic), there should be some way for reviewers to directly make it "closed" instead of letting it linger "on hold" for a week.

    • One solution might be to let three voters put a question on hold, and then allow three more voters to directly close it, if they deem it appropriate. Diamond mods could have a direct option to either put a question on hold or immediately close it. This would require some tweaking of the current closing workflow (such as, maybe, a new review queue for "questions recently put on hold", with options to "leave on hold" and "close immediately"), but perhaps not much.
  • Make it easier for users to notice when a question they've put on hold is edited. If there was some way to explicitly mark a question as "on hold, but potentially salvageable", users who voted that way could even be automatically notified (via the topbar inbox) when such a question is edited. (The reason we'd want to notify those particular users, instead of just sending the question off to review, is that those are the people who've already invested effort into reading the question and figuring out what it's lacking.)

    • This would require something a bit more explicit than the "3+3 votes" mechanism suggested above, though. A checkbox in the close dialog saying "notify me when this question is edited" might do it. Of course, we'd need to actually implement such a notification mechanism in general.
  • Delay the automatic reopen flag cast when a closed question is edited, e.g. by a day, so that the question can accumulate multiple edits before it goes into review. (Of course, if somebody manually flags the question for reopening in the mean time, great! The auto-flag should really just be a backup in case that doesn't happen within a reasonable time.)

  • Or perhaps make "flag this question to be reopened" an explicit UI option when editing a closed question. Users with the appropriate privileges could have that option always available, e.g. as a checkbox under the edit form, while the question author could have it as a one-shot option (with a fairly visible UI so they don't miss it; e.g. two submit buttons labeled "Save draft" and "Save and resubmit"), with a confirmation dialog asking if they really think their question is ready to be reviewed now.

  • Alternatively, we could just abolish the "on hold" status entirely, and suggest to askers of closed questions that, if they think they can fix the issues with their question, they're better off deleting and reposting it. In this model, reopening would basically be reserved only for questions that already have answers when they're closed. This might seem brutal, but in some ways it's just acknowledging the current reality on many sites.

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