87

I ran into a case today where I felt compelled to restore a question that was deleted by its author. It wasn't that the question itself was remarkable, what was remarkable was the amount of time and effort someone put into answering it.

Yet it was a bit of a niche question, and there was no voting on the question or the answer, which happened to be the only answer.

This isn't the first time I've done this, and I'm not alone - I believe at least half of our network moderators have encountered this sort of exception and reacted in the same way.

We currently disallow self-deletion of questions if the question has received multiple answers, or a single upvoted answer. As this is in the interests of people not wasting their time writing great answers, should we also block self-deletion if any answer provided has been edited 3 or more times?

We'd then make a much clearer path to our contact form in the UI shown to the user when the system refuses to delete the question, so they don't panic if they posted something that they probably shouldn't have (which might spark more motivation to just edit it out and contact us instead).

What horrible things could this cause that I haven't thought of? Is 3 a great number to start with, because Tesla really liked it, too? Most of all, what do you think?

Addendum

So there is the option of just disallowing self-deletion once it's clear that anyone other than the question author is vested in the question. We need to run some numbers in order to see:

  • How many questions with pretty junky terse answers would be left around if we did that
  • How much good stuff we're throwing away by requiring that the single answer be up-voted in order to block self-deletion

If that turns out to be close, then there is the option of disallowing self-delete once something is answered and immediately pulling the question into the help and improvement queue. Because at this point it has an answer, someone cared enough about it to write one, and that answer could help improve the question more.

If that doesn't turn out to be close, and it looks like we'd be leaving a lot of litter around for longer - the proposed option could be adjusted a little bit to better indicate "someone other than the question asker obviously cares about this".

But this is something I'd like to tighten up. We'll be back with numbers.

  • How did you discover the answer? I don't think answerers are notified when a question they answered gets deleted, except perhaps indirectly via reputation being removed. I'd be fine with the asker deleting their question if I was given an opportunity to give my answer a home on a self-answered question, which would simultaneously respect the asker's desire to delete their contribution. But maybe the answerer cared enough to write a great answer, but is discouraged that no one voted for it and the asker seems to want it gone? Not sure what would happen, just thinking aloud. – Jeffrey Bosboom Feb 23 '16 at 10:26
  • @JeffreyBosboom The answerer complained What can I do if a user removes a question after I've written an extended answer? ;) – DavidPostill Feb 23 '16 at 12:33
  • @JeffreyBosboom: The answerer checked back to see if the answer had been accepted, and found the question deleted: meta.stackoverflow.com/q/317470/157247 – T.J. Crowder Feb 23 '16 at 12:33
  • 2
    Cannot delete question if contains answers edited at least three times. Will have to remember this present if next year there will be again some "let's post nonsense and then delete it" hat. ^_^ – SPArchaeologist Feb 23 '16 at 18:48
  • This sounds useful, but without knowing the purpose of self-delete, it is hard to know if this change is constructive or not. The truth is user1 could create the question, user2 and user3 could edit it, then user1 could realize that the whole thing was worthless, but not be able to delete it because the question was edited. Should this question be available for self deletion? What if user1 edited the question multiple times to add relevant information as it was found? I think we should address all uses, rather then applying a "fix" for something which might make things worse. – Trisped Feb 23 '16 at 21:46
  • @Trisped I believe the editing idea is meant for answers being edited, not the question. – Kendra Feb 23 '16 at 22:05
  • @Kendra You are right, I miss read it. Either way, this would allow the blocking of self deletion without, so the purpose of self deletion should be reviewed to verify that the change is positive. Abuse is rampant, I want to make sure we are making it harder, not easier. – Trisped Feb 23 '16 at 22:28
  • 1
    We're only talking about preventing immediate deletion by the op, not 10k deletion, right? Why not make their delete vote count as one vote, and leave it to the normal 10k process to delete it? If there is some important reason that the question must be deleted, they can always use a mod flag. – davidism Mar 7 '16 at 22:43
  • 1
    @davidism yes, it seems like this is talking specifically about self-deletion. – TylerH Mar 8 '16 at 14:03
  • Related: meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/318490/… – TylerH Mar 8 '16 at 14:04
  • An inhibitory time period really ought to be all you ever need. Some time between 1 hour and 24 hours in which the OP cannot self-delete unless the question is closed or no answers are posted. – Robert Harvey Mar 8 '16 at 16:01
86

Any non-downvoted answer should prevent question deletion. If it isn't an actual answer, or simply a bad one, it will either be deleted or downvoted, allowing question deletion.

Any users with the ability to downvote would be able to circumvent this, but that is probably not an issue as those users are also much less likely to misuse question deletion than very new users with low reputation.

I simply don't see any reason why users should be allowed to delete answered questions. Someone spent effort to answer already, and we shouldn't let a single user decide to just delete that answer entirely. All answers have 0 upvotes at some point, and that leaves a pretty large window for problematic question self-deletions.

  • 4
    I agree with this. I suggested it myself as well a year ago. The issue described by Tim happens quite commonly in niche-tags, as soon as an answer is provided, someone has made an effort to make an answer, whether or not it has been edited three times is a non-related factor in my opinion. – g00glen00b Feb 23 '16 at 12:23
  • 8
    We're going to run some numbers to see how much 'litter' this would leave versus salvageable questions that got a pretty good answer. This is going to be pretty manual, so it might take a week, but we're going to look a bit deeper to see what things would look like if we just did what you suggest. I thought about this about a year and a half ago, took a quick look and decided it would hurt more than help, but I think we need to be more thorough. – Tim Post Feb 23 '16 at 13:21
  • @TimPost Most stuff that would be 'litter' should be stuff that the automatic deletion should pick up. – Mad Scientist Feb 23 '16 at 13:29
  • 4
    How about "any answer that is not downvoted ignoring down votes by the asker should prevent the question being deleted", to avoid an incentive for the asker to downvote the answers for any other reason than quality? – SQB Feb 23 '16 at 13:50
  • 3
    I totally agree, and it seems that the Meta community on Stack Overflow does as well. There were some suggestions there about time restrictions for this (not allowing within 72 hours, etc.), but I don't know if those would be needed. – Brad Larson Feb 23 '16 at 15:38
  • @MadScientist The roombas run on a schedule, some monthly - so the question of how littered the streets are going to get before the sweepers come in to clean is a pretty important one. We've run some numbers, but I need to do a pretty manual review of the last month's worth of data. We can't do anything that visibly diminishes the overall quality of questions while we're still working to make sure the streets are still pretty clean by the time the sweepers show up. – Tim Post Feb 24 '16 at 5:23
  • @TimPost To be honest, letting users delete answers that might or might not be good ones simply because they haven't got an upvote yet just doesn't seem to be a good idea. Of course this will likely take out some trash as well, but that isn't justification enough for me to leave any recent answer vulnerable to self-deletion. – Mad Scientist Feb 24 '16 at 20:15
  • 1
    You could also require a score lower than -1, to circumvent the own downvote problem. – wythagoras Mar 9 '16 at 17:11
27

I don't think that the number of times an answer has been edited should have any bearing on whether the asker of the question should be able to self-delete the question. This could very well lead to the following happening often across the network:

  1. user### posts an answer.
  2. user### waits five minutes.
  3. if answer is upvoted, end; otherwise user### makes an insubstantial edit (could be an HTML comment, or a few zero-width spaces) to their answer.
  4. if enough edits have been made to prevent self-deletion of question, end; otherwise go back to 2.

I don't think this sort of noise is what we want to see anywhere on Stack Exchange.

Also, the number of edits made to an answer does not always translate to the amount of effort or care a user has taken in writing it up. Careful users may make exceedingly few edits to their original answers, but somehow this would translate to their being considered "throwaway" answers.

A possibly better solution would be to prevent the self-deletion of any answered question. Instead, allow the asker to flag the question for deletion, possibly together with an automatic "recommend deletion" vote. This would allow the respective community to decide whether the question and its answer(s) should be retained. This, too, has its drawbacks, but has the IMHO big advantage over the current proposal — and the current situation — of treating all answers equally.

24

I’ve actually been thinking about this since something similar was suggested over on Meta Stack Overflow but just hadn’t gotten around to pulling some numbers. This was the kick in the pants I needed to pull something together.

I looked at the past 90 days of activity, where a user posted a question and deleted it. I’ve also limited the results to the sites that had more than 10 deleted questions with answers.

First, I looked at the total number of questions deleted and then the total number of these questions had answers. I also included how many were closed, and flagged as either a typo or a duplicate question, and how many of each of those had answers.

# Qs  # Closed # Qs w/ Ans # Closed w/ Ans # Typo Flagged # Typo Flagged w/ Ans # Dup Flagged # Dup Flagged w/ Ans Site Name 
----- -------- ----------- --------------- -------------- --------------------- ------------- -------------------- --------- 
62681 8604     6626        797             939            197                   3465          413                  Stack Overflow
4024  451      348         38              0              0                     150           12                   Mathematics
1106  120      61          8               0              0                     40            3                    Super User
926   114      57          10              9              0                     69            7                    Ubuntu   
739   233      52          19              0              0                     44            3                    Physics   
852   267      45          7               0              0                     32            1                    Server Fault
344   72       33          10              0              0                     12            1                    Electronics and Robotics
473   67       34          4               0              0                     15            1                    Unix and Linux
373   45       24          1               22             2                     4             1                    WordPress 
310   43       24          4               0              0                     7             1                    Magento   
250   50       24          5               0              0                     11            0                    Drupal Answers
262   64       20          4               0              0                     21            1                    English Language and Usage
546   177      20          7               0              0                     4             0                    MathOverflow
780   288      19          12              137            4                     16            0                    Programmers
211   35       18          1               0              0                     7             1                    Salesforce
651   164      15          2               0              0                     24            2                    Statistical Analysis
247   52       15          5               0              0                     7             1                    Database Administrators
493   220      14          4               0              0                     0             0                    Code Review
239   55       14          1               0              0                     7             0                    Game Developers
180   26       13          0               0              0                     3             0                    Apple     
204   77       12          2               27             2                     26            3                    Gaming    
257   60       10          1               0              0                     9             1                    Computer Science

Besides telling us how many times a user self-deletes a question that has an answer, this doesn’t tell us a lot.

Next, I looked at how many edits were on each answer to see if blocking deletes based on edit totals would result in a large number of questions being saved.

Max # Edits On Answer # Qs Site Name 
--------------------- ---- --------- 
0                     5532 Stack Overflow
1                     838  Stack Overflow
2                     171  Stack Overflow
3                     58   Stack Overflow
4                     14   Stack Overflow
5                     3    Stack Overflow
6                     5    Stack Overflow
7                     2    Stack Overflow
8                     2    Stack Overflow
9                     1    Stack Overflow
0                     292  Mathematics
1                     41   Mathematics
2                     11   Mathematics
3                     4    Mathematics
0                     55   Super User
1                     6    Super User
2                     1    Super User
0                     47   Ubuntu    
1                     9    Ubuntu    
2                     1    Ubuntu    
0                     39   Physics   
1                     12   Physics   
5                     1    Physics   
0                     41   Server Fault
1                     4    Server Fault
0                     31   Electronics and Robotics
1                     2    Electronics and Robotics
2                     1    Electronics and Robotics
0                     28   Unix and Linux
1                     4    Unix and Linux
2                     1    Unix and Linux
3                     1    Unix and Linux
0                     19   WordPress 
1                     4    WordPress 
2                     1    WordPress 
0                     20   Magento   
1                     4    Magento   
0                     19   Drupal Answers
1                     4    Drupal Answers
3                     1    Drupal Answers
0                     18   English Language and Usage
1                     1    English Language and Usage
3                     1    English Language and Usage
0                     18   MathOverflow
1                     2    MathOverflow
0                     16   Programmers
1                     2    Programmers
2                     1    Programmers
0                     16   Salesforce
1                     2    Salesforce
0                     14   Statistical Analysis
1                     1    Statistical Analysis
0                     10   Database Administrators
1                     5    Database Administrators
0                     11   Code Review
1                     1    Code Review
2                     1    Code Review
3                     1    Code Review
0                     12   Game Developers
1                     2    Game Developers
0                     13   Apple     
0                     12   Gaming    
0                     10   Computer Science

Just looking at the number of edits, we're not preventing a lot of stuff from getting deleted. On Stack Overflow, if we blocked deletes because an answer had >= 3 edits, we'd only prevent 85 questions from being deleted.

I'm not sure looking at the number of edits offers a high enough signal to determine if the question should be kept around.

So, I decided to look a bit closer at the total number of edits and the length of the answer. Assuming that a longer answer might mean it's a higher quality post.

                            Total Questions with Answers of 
                                  A Specific Length
Max # Edits On Answer < 200 200 - 500 500 - 1000 1000 - 2500 > 2500 Site Name 
--------------------- ----- --------- ---------- ----------- ------ --------- 
0                     1205  2320      1384       544         78     Stack Overflow
1                     73    232       300        202         30     Stack Overflow
2                     3     41        60         60          7      Stack Overflow
3                     1     9         16         26          6      Stack Overflow
4                     1     0         4          9           0      Stack Overflow
5                     0     0         2          1           0      Stack Overflow
6                     0     0         1          2           2      Stack Overflow
7                     0     0         0          0           2      Stack Overflow
8                     0     1         0          1           0      Stack Overflow
9                     0     0         0          0           1      Stack Overflow
0                     89    119       64         19          1      Mathematics
1                     6     20        8          7           0      Mathematics
2                     0     3         2          6           0      Mathematics
3                     1     1         1          1           0      Mathematics
0                     11    22        15         7           0      Super User
1                     1     3         0          2           0      Super User
2                     0     0         0          1           0      Super User
0                     11    18        15         3           0      Ubuntu    
1                     1     5         2          1           0      Ubuntu    
2                     0     0         0          1           0      Ubuntu    
0                     8     10        12         8           1      Physics   
1                     0     3         5          4           0      Physics   
5                     0     0         1          0           0      Physics   
0                     9     15        17         0           0      Server Fault
1                     0     1         1          2           0      Server Fault
0                     5     8         13         5           0      Electronics and Robotics
1                     0     1         0          1           0      Electronics and Robotics
2                     0     0         1          0           0      Electronics and Robotics
0                     7     14        6          1           0      Unix and Linux
1                     0     2         0          2           0      Unix and Linux
2                     0     0         0          1           0      Unix and Linux
3                     0     1         0          0           0      Unix and Linux
0                     7     5         4          2           1      WordPress 
1                     2     1         1          0           0      WordPress 
2                     0     0         0          1           0      WordPress 
0                     5     9         4          2           0      Magento   
1                     1     1         2          0           0      Magento   
0                     5     5         7          3           0      Drupal Answers
1                     0     0         2          2           0      Drupal Answers
3                     0     0         0          1           0      Drupal Answers
0                     6     8         4          0           0      English Language and Usage
1                     0     1         0          0           0      English Language and Usage
3                     0     0         1          0           0      English Language and Usage
0                     4     6         5          3           0      MathOverflow
1                     0     1         1          0           0      MathOverflow
0                     4     6         5          1           0      Programmers
1                     0     0         1          1           0      Programmers
2                     0     0         0          1           0      Programmers
0                     4     7         4          1           0      Salesforce
1                     0     1         0          1           0      Salesforce
0                     4     1         4          4           1      Statistical Analysis
1                     0     0         1          0           0      Statistical Analysis
0                     2     4         2          1           1      Database Administrators
1                     1     2         0          2           0      Database Administrators
0                     0     4         5          2           0      Code Review
1                     0     0         0          1           0      Code Review
2                     0     0         0          0           1      Code Review
3                     0     0         0          1           0      Code Review
0                     1     7         2          2           0      Game Developers
1                     0     0         2          0           0      Game Developers
0                     5     5         2          1           0      Apple     
0                     2     6         1          1           2      Gaming    
0                     1     6         1          2           0      Computer Science

If we checked the length of an answer - let's say 500+ characters we'd be preventing a lot of more questions from being deleted. At least on Stack Overflow, if we blocked deletion if it contained an answer with a length greater than 500, we'd stop 2.7k+ questions from being deleted versus the 85 by solely looking at edit totals.

Maybe the signal we should look for to prevent self-deletes is answer length instead of edit totals?

  • 3
    Then users would add filler to their answers to prevent the question from being deleted, even if the question and/or answer is bad. I think we need to establish why self delete exists before we reduce it. – Trisped Feb 23 '16 at 21:32
  • 8
    @Trisped I don't disagree that we should look at why self-delete can deter contributions. But this "add filler" or "carefully time editing" stuff isn't something to try and optimize too much for - it's a pattern of abuse, and would get someone suspended pretty quickly. – Tim Post Feb 24 '16 at 5:07
  • 1
    The same could be said of the issue we are trying to fix (question deleted after work was put into an answer). My point was that we should establish why self-delete exists before we try to fix it. It is quite possible that self-delete would be better restricted to higher point users and lower point users could flag there questions for delete. – Trisped Feb 24 '16 at 17:43
  • 4
    The one of mine that you undeleted was close to 3000 chars with no edits. This seems a more reasonable way to limit things than the number of edits. I spent 60-90 minutes on the answer, specifically to address similar problems for other newcomers. – Bill Woodger Feb 25 '16 at 17:59
10

We could respect both the desires of the OP and the time of the answer(s) by allowing a user to surrender a question rather than delete it if the question has qualifying answers.

The surrendered question would be automatically disassociated from the account, which today is a manual process only exercised in unusual circumstances. Surrendered questions with net negative votes may still need to be factored into banning algorithms.

A question should only be eligible for surrendering if it would be blocked from deletion under the current rules.

  • I like the idea of surrendering. It's a bit like "Community Wiki" for questions. – Matthieu M. Mar 8 '16 at 14:19
  • Seems the only difference between dis-association and surrendering the post is that the latter is only available when deleting is not. Anyway, SE is already (very slowly) working on automated dis-association without the repercussions on the rate-limiting and other quality-control systems, as far as I know. – Deduplicator Mar 8 '16 at 16:05
3

About a dozen times in the last two years, I have been the first to answer a question and I end up spending more than a few minutes—maybe 5 to 15 minutes—editing away at an answer (without saving). Then the dreaded notice at the top of the screen says "This question has been deleted". I don't have a lot of choices at that point. One is to hope the question will soon be undeleted and then (maybe) I can press "Post your answer". More realistically, I have to close the page and lose my answer.

The number of edits proposal is a non-starter in my view since it doesn't help share my work unless I game the system by saving after each word's entry or something cockamamie like that.

The substantialness of edit strikes me as more useful and reasonable measure especially if it applies to not-yet-saved answers. A threshold of maybe 250 characters seems about right, unless it took me an hour to generate a great answer in just 175 characters. :-)

Eric's idea of surrendering a question seems the most useful mechanism, especially if there is any evidence of substantial effort being made to answer it. Minutes of typing, number of characters, number of edits, etc. Is that technically feasible?

3

How about, prevent users from self-deleting questions with recent activity, where recent could be 24 hours or a week (need someone with numbers to suggest a good time period for this), and activity would definitely includes answers/edits, maybe comments, and possibly views?

This means if someone has recently answered a question, or edited their answer, the creator can't delete it without some time passing where no-one adds additional answers, or with the existing rules, up-votes an answer (or the question?).

pros

  • This would prevent wallyk's case where a user deletes a question someone has recently answered and is editing their answer on.
  • Self-deletion would be limited to answers that have had no responses, no recent responses, or no decent answers in a recent time-span

cons

  • If someone answers to say, e.g. 'this is a dupe of X' the creator would no longer be able to self-delete.
  • Self-deletion would be limited to answers that have had no responses, no recent responses, or no decent answers in a recent time-span...

Note/disclaimer: I have relatively minimal experience with stack overflow/exchange (and nearly none with meta), so sorry if I've given examples that might not actually happen.

Edits that make my not-so-organized brain ramble into a well-formatted sense-making stack exchange answer would be welcomed.

2

As @RobertHarvey suggested in a similar question on meta.SO:

All that said, I would be in favor of a period of time (somewhere between 1 and 24 hours) in which the OP cannot delete their question unless the question is closed or no answers are posted.

Ideally, this period would restart when the first answer arrives. Except for real niche topics, 24 hours is enough for a good answer to get some upvote. This could be applied in combination with the number of edits, preventing the OP to delete the question before the answerer has time to do the edits.

Btw. I'm not a friend of neither the number of edits nor the answer length limit. Simple grace period is much harder to game. How much it would help would be a matter of another stat search though.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .