It is an article of faith in the Stack Exchange ecosystem that everything hinges on a good question. We can all point to outstanding examples of questions that have garnered many upvotes and generated fantastic answers. It is equally easy to point to questions on other Q&A sites (such as Y***o) which definitely do not meet our expected standards. There is, however, a very grey area between these two extremes where there must be a border of acceptability.

We have recently seen an example of how the suggestion that a question is not appropriate can cause offense. I suspect that there have been other examples of potential users withdrawing from the site (but without the public announcement) in similar circumstances.

Several users have grappled with how to (unambiguously) identify questions that need improvement, how to advise the author of that fact gently, and then how to have appropriate modifications made. As a community we do not appear to be getting any closer to a workable solution.

So how should an individual respond when facing a not-good question?

  • 1
    I know that this is a lost cause; but (for the record) I still believe that using Twitter to "feature" meta-discussions at the expense of actual Q&A content is at best counter-productive and probably destructive.
    – Fortiter
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 11:52
  • for the record I wish we had any control over the content of our Twitter feed.
    – user104
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 14:52
  • Oh. Does making this "featured" so it shows up on the sidebar also puts it on the Twitter feed? b*gger... I didn't know that. ETA -- no, it doesn't; meta posts that have never been featured have been tweeted.
    – user104
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 15:13

5 Answers 5


It's up to the community to decide what is appropriate. My opinion is this question itself reflects a faulty assumption that a good question requires extensive research. Our faq says:

The community tends to respond better to questions that show you have already done some research (at least used a search engine or consulted a dictionary) before asking for help.

It does not say you need to include the research (just that you'd get a better response) and it does not imply the level of research this question seems to imply.

If our objective is to hit a very narrow niche of 'serious' genealogists, then we should remain focused on higher quality standards. If that is the desire we should edit our FAQ to reflect the expectation is. My expectation if we did this is that the site would continue as it has and Stackexchange will shut it down due to low use. I maintain we are scaring away the vast majority of amateur genealogists.

If however we want to get the kind of traffic most other genealogy sites get, then we should allow short questions about actual problems people have. Most questions on other stackexchange sites, and most questions on other genealogy sites, do not require the research we seem to require. Note most sites (both stackexchange and other genealogy sites) are not asking you to do the research. They are asking if you already know the answer and are willing to share it. The fact we are at 99% answered questions is an indication we might be erring on the side of 'doing the research'.

  • I am not sure who down-voted this response, but you have confirmed that this is a perfectly legitimate view within the "community" that I needed to capture in my options. I hope that I did so (in 5).
    – Fortiter
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 11:54
  • genealogy.stackexchange.com/helpcenter/quality-standards-error is standard across all stackexchange sites. Note the bit where it says: "Check to make sure that your question has ... Any background research you've tried but wasn't enough to solve your problem." And "Add as much detail as you can" is probably relevant as well. So is the fact that the standard downvote tooltip says "This question does not show any research effort". Perhaps you can point me to the stackexchange sites that don't need any research?
    – user104
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 15:31
  • I went to 5 se sites I participate in (stackoverflow, scifi, security, sustainability, programmers) and read the 5 newest questions in each. In not a single one of the 25 questions did the question have any reference to search they had done within stackexchange or on the internet to find the answer. Yes it is good practice to search. You don't say it's a low quality question because they didn't say they searched.
    – Duncan
    Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 11:04
  • I wonder how many votes those questions get. I'm not advocating closing questions that show no research unless they separately meet one of the closure criteria, although that does happen on other sites. But it is standard on SE that 'no research' = 'low quality' as per the help center and the downvote tooltip so nobody should be surprised if they get downvoted or ignored. And I've only suggested mentioning a search if there's no other demonstration that some effort has been put in, such as the OP including enough detail to show they understand the background to the their question.
    – user104
    Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 12:53
  • Also, I said show me the SE sites that don't need any research, not show me the SE sites that ask you to say you've done a search. Research does not only equal Internet Search. Especially in Genealogy.
    – user104
    Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 12:55
  • I think that some participants who are not experts enjoy having a question they are able to answer :-) Also, as others have mentioned, these questions will show in a Google search & help keep us active.
    – Jeni
    Commented Jul 3, 2013 at 11:18

I have read most comments against the first three answers and would like to just say what my approach is.

If I think someone has asked a question that makes me think too little research went into it I will either ignore it or ask a probing question or two like:

  • Have you tried consulting this reference ...?
  • You said this but by that are you meaning ...?

If they don't respond, I figure they are not all that interested, and I then have no qualms ignoring the question. If they do expand with more thoughts then I suggest they revise their question rather than just respond in comments.

I would not close a question just for lack of apparent research, but I would if I thought it was off-topic or represented a question too close to a previous one that could have been revised, answered or commented upon instead to achieve the additional information sought.


I've now just answered two vague, and admittedly bad, questions, with answers that I hope added value. I also used to do that quite a bit on Mathematica.SE; nowadays there are plenty of others to do that so I mainly concentrate on moderating there now.

My basic approach on both sites to such questions is to teach them how to fish. Don't just give the answer, in fact don't give the answer. Rather, provide a strategy for solving the question themselves. In genealogy, that would be "look here or here for this type of record, bearing in mind that type of pitfall". In Mathematica it would be "use code of this type, looking up this tutorial to understand how this style of programming works".

I also make it clear that they have not given enough information to answer the question directly, so as to give the message that subsequent questions should be improved. That won't influence the drive-by askers but it might influence later visitors.


Option 1

Ignore the question entirely. If it is so poor that trying to answer it will be a waste of your time, then why waste any time telling the author so. Make no response to the question at all -- no downvotes, no close votes, no comments, nothing.

If someone else with lower standards or more free time than you elects to engage with it then so be it.

Option 2

Accept that as a good citizen of an SE community, you share responsibility for policing its standards and make that minimal commitment. Cast a downvote or a vote to close or both (as appropriate) but do not provide any explanatory comment.

The author may choose to rail against the "system" or a "closed cabal" that rejects his or her work but you avoid the risk of further inflaming the situation with words that could evoke an emotional response.

Option 3

Recognise that simply labelling something as needing improvement does nothing to meet your community obligation to raise its standard and edit (or even, rewrite) the question until it is acceptable (in your eyes).

If others have a different view, then they can make further edits or roll-back until we arrive by an iterative process at something that we can all accept as meeting the relevant criteria.

Option 4

Acknowledge that community members share a twin responsibility to maintain group standards and to grow individuals. Add a carefully-worded comment that identifies the perceived fault and draws attention to a suitably extensive discussion of how they might be remedied (such as https://genealogy.meta.stackexchange.com/a/1694) because short-hand comments are notoriously hard to interpret.

Offer to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the question (which should be considered a working draft) in a chat session. Engage in a collaborative editing process with the original author until both parties are satisfied.

Option 5

Stop being so pedantic and just answer the question. Assume that (over time) the author will absorb whatever essence of good question permeates the community and their questions will improve as a result. Let them learn from their mistakes without emphasising the fault.


Embedded within the above options can be found the operating assumptions of a number of web-based groups with which SE shares some charactistics (and with which it claims to compete). IMHO this group is suffering from not having a consensus view of what is the SE:G&FH way.

However each one also reflects an individual perspective based upon personal philosophy and predisposition. I mean no disrespect when I say that I checked my list by asking "How would ... answer?" (You may wish to insert user-names against each option as a (private) exercise.)

When the personal position repeatedly comes into conflict with the corporate (either that centrally espoused de jure or the one currently prevailing de facto) then each individual needs to ask "Is this the place for me?"

  • 2
    I don't think any of these options - or your Option 6 (the crafty diagnostic comment) - are out-of-line with the "G&FH way". Or at least, they shouldn't be - we're a community of individuals, after all, with a range of personal quality standards and ability to take criticism, however gently worded. I'd worry if we all used Option 1 all the time, but I've done it myself when I've been short of time or the milk of human kindness. I've used Option 2 when the OP in question has a 'track record' of not listening to feedback or demonstrating prior effort. [contd.]
    – user104
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 7:56
  • If I've time and interest (or am just feeling stubborn about getting something 'sorted') then Options 3 and 4 are my preferred routes. And I've used Option 5, typically when a question has the potential to be useful to somebody other than the OP (even if it needs a little editing to be so). I suspect I've even resorted to Option 6, although I can't think of an example off-hand.
    – user104
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 8:02
  • The things that would make me leave this place are if the quality of the majority of questions (and answers) fell too far (the memory of Y***o still makes me shudder), or it became a place where imperfect questions (or rather questioners) were routinely treated unkindly and not helped to improve. However, there will always be some people for whom this isn't the right place -- they're not willing to do any work, don't accept the collaborative ethos that SE is built upon, are not amenable to being questioned/criticised (even constructively) -- and they'll be happier elsewhere. [contd]
    – user104
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 8:10
  • 1
    But G&FH can and should accommodate a range of quality standards - we mustn't become an elitist ivory tower. There are questions and answers on this site that I quite frankly would be embarrassed to have posted but that's all right - I didn't post them and I'm not the only arbiter of quality here. I'll freely admit, I'm probably an outlier in what I consider 'good', but there are enough of us here (I hope) to generate a balanced consensus that falls appreciably above the Y***o level.
    – user104
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 8:18
  • I vote option 5 of the choices. I'd say option 5 or option 1 if option 1 wasn't so pejoratively worded. I would have said 'ignore the question and let others who may already know answer the question'.
    – Duncan
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 11:42
  • 1
    @Duncan The scenario that cannot be handled by me doing 1 and someone else doing 5 is when the author of the question does not know what they don't know. There are questions that are dashed off with so little thought to background and context that they cannot be answered sensibly in their present form. What happens then?
    – Fortiter
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 11:59
  • What happens then, if options 1 and 5 are all that are available? They fester either unanswered or with useless attempts at an answer. Or maybe in 5 years time somebody who is actually researching the same ancestors notices them, by which time the OP has lost interest and gone elsewhere and everyone gets frustrated.
    – user104
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 14:54
  • @Fortiter - I honestly want this site to succeed. That is the only reason I'm still trying. You do also. We have different views of what will increase participation. If we had the problem of too many questions 'dashed off with so little thought to background and context that they cannot be answered sensibly in their present form', then maybe we should work harder at discouraging questions. Given our low question rate, I think we should err in the other direction. We are at 5% of the desired question rate (and dropping) and 10% of the desired hit rate (and dropping). Encourage, don't discourage
    – Duncan
    Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 11:18
  • @ColeValleyGirl - 'fester unanswered' - Do we have the problem of unanswered questions? We are at 99% answered and 90% is fine. That means we could have 50 more unanswered questions, not affect our beta 'answered' yet improve our 'question rate' and 'hit rate'.
    – Duncan
    Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 11:27
  • @ColeValleyGirl - '5 yrs ... lost interest'. Genealogy is a long term hobby. If we got a new user 3 months from now due to an unanswered question that would be a good thing. If we have too many questions lingering for 18 months or more then maybe we should look at the cause. We do not have that problem in my opinion at the moment.
    – Duncan
    Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 11:29
  • @Duncan we all want this site to succeed. We currently get a smattering of questions dashed off with little thought. Most of them get improved by people probing what's already known & what's really needed (the Options 3 and 4 that you disagree with) so they do contribute to our question rate. Leaving them unimproved won't help us build a library of high-quality questions and answers which is SE's stated aim and what we'll ultimately be judged against. It's also very dangerous during the site's Beta to set an expectation that poor questions are the norm, which is what encouraging them will do.
    – user104
    Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 13:05
  • @Duncan, no we don't have an unanswered question problem and I'd rather not create one. 99% answered is "excellent", which is preferable to "good enough". If people ask a question and don't get an answer fairly quickly, they won't come back. And they'll probably forget they ever asked here... hence my comment about them not coming back to see an answer that's 5 years late. I wasn't suggesting that they'll have lost interest in Genealogy in 5 years but they'll have lost interest in this site.
    – user104
    Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 13:09

In my initial discussion, I strove to adopt a very rational, even professional, stance in describing how idealised community members should respond to this situation.

As a deeply-flawed human, I might be tempted to explore the following additional possibility.

Option 6

Add a comment that (naively) asks for amplification of a central element of the question. If the author has undertaken appropriate personal effort (to gather background etc) but neglected to show that, he or she can edit the question to include the additional material and thereby demonstrate bona fides. We then have a basis to work on improving the question even further.

On the other hand, a shameless fraud who is expecting others to carry out all the basic work for their benefit will be exposed as such and can be ignored with a clear conscience.

  • I think the core issue is defining 'appropriate personal effort'. Is a 5 minutes with google sufficient?
    – Duncan
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 11:04
  • 'a shameless fraud who is expecting others to carry out all the basic work for their benefit' - what if they aren't a shameless fraud, but instead are a person asking if someone else alredy knows the answer? If you don't know the answer, then ignore the question. That is how the vast majority of stackexchange sites work
    – Duncan
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 11:06
  • @Duncan: Is a 5 minutes with google sufficient? Well, the FAQ says yes, as long as it's "shown". But the more effort somebody is expecting me (or anyone else) to put into an answer, the more effort is appropriate from them, as I tried to explain at meta.genealogy.stackexchange.com/a/1694/104
    – user104
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 12:35
  • @ColeValleyGirl - my quote is from the first faq under 'asking questions' on our help page. Your "as long as it's shown" quote I could not find on that page or others. Where is it? The page I referenced just says you'll get a better response if you include, not that it's a low quality question if you don't say "I looked on google and didn't find the answer'
    – Duncan
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 13:52
  • @Duncan: The FAQ says: "The community tends to respond better to questions that show you have already done some research." So if it isn't apparent any other way, because everything you've tried has failed, you'll get a better reaction if you say so (and maybe you'll get some guidance that helps you do a more effective search next time.)
    – user104
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 16:05
  • 1
    One of most important things that I learned from a career in education was to ask "Why do you want to know?" when asked "How do I ...?" or "What is ...?". A surprisingly large number of people ask for the wrong help. That is, what they have requested will not actually assist them to deal with the real problem they are facing.
    – Fortiter
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 12:03

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