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In March 2017, not very long after Literature Stack Exchange had launched, Hamlet asked, Is the accepted answer feature good for this site? In his question, he wrote,

The thing about accepting an answer is it can be misinterpreted as saying that there is nothing to discuss. (…) On a site like literature, where there are multiple ways to analyze the same text, it's important that people feel comfortable describing alternative viewpoints even if it's not the viewpoint the OP expects.

There are several other issues with the accepted-answer feature.

  1. Answers sometimes get accepted very quickly. For example, the answer to Does Joyce use interior monologue in "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"? after just over 20 minutes after it was posted (according to verbose, who wrote the answer). (In March 2017, one answer on SFF SE's meta apparently got accepted within 16 seconds, "hardly enough time to click on and read the answer".) The answer to How to read "truths in Nietzsche’s sense of the word" was accepted within 6 minutes of being posted. My answer about the oldest Braille book was accepted within 10 minutes of being posted. More recently, the first answer submitted to the question How was the possessive used in Elizabethan literature? was accepted within (roughly) an hour of being submitted, and two answers that were submitted later showed that the first answer contained a factual error. This leads me to my next issue.
  2. People very rarely change the accepted answer when a better one is submitted. I am aware of very few examples of answers that were unaccepted: Is there really a single "Old Babylonian version" of the Epic of Gilgamesh? (in March 2020), possibly What does "between us there was, …" mean …? (see Rand al'Thor's chat comment from August 2018) and possibly What does Lady Macbeth mean by "what thou art promised"? (based on a Napoleon Wilson's / Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach's comment in chat). (It is difficult to identify answers that have been unaccepted because this is not recorded in an answer's history.) And the answer to the question Was the Wood in Tales of Goldstone Wood inspired... was delete-voted after it had apparently been accepted (see this 6 December 2018 chat comment by Rand al'Thor, who was not a mod at the time).
  3. In literary criticism, many questions can never be settled definitively, so an "accepted answer" feature does not make much sense from a scholarly point of view.

Based on this, I think the accepted-answer featured needs to change. Last year, Stack Overflow asked whether accepted answers should remain pinned at the top or not but that proposal did not address any of the issues listed above. How should this feature by changed then? I can think of several ways:

  1. Get rid of it entirely. Many questions in literature cannot be settled definitively. Interpretations of literary texts, for example, have evolved over time. Unlike Stack Overflow, Literature SE is not a site where you can run and test a code sample submitted in an answer to verify that it does what the OP wants. The accepted-answer feature makes sense for identification requests, but that type of question is not representative of diversity of the questions on this site. (One issue with this suggestion is that it would lead to two categories of questions: one category submitted before the accepted-answer feature was removed and another category that was submitted later. Do existing accepted answers remain "accepted"?)
  2. Make the accepted-answer button unavailable for the first 48 hours after submission of the question. This would prevent a very quick acceptance of answers that were submited within the first few hours of posting the question. (48 hours is admittedly an arbitrary time span.)
  3. Make the accepted-answer button unavailable for the first 48 hours after submission of the first answser. This would give users at least 48 hours' time to come up with a better answer if they think the first one can be improved upon.

(Personally, I wouldn't mind getting rid of the accepted-answer feature entirely but I expect this to meet with a lot of resistance. The third option is my favourite alternative.)

What do people think about this? Should the accepted-answer feature remain as it currently is or should it be changed? If it should be changed, what suggestions do you have?

PS: (1) I don't know what the chances are of a change getting implemented by Stack Overflow Inc., but we can't expect the changes we want if we don't say what we want in the first place. (2) Different sites have different attitudes towards the accepted-answer feature, so we don't need to come up with something that would work across the Stack Exchange network. However, if we reach consensus on a specific change, I would like to take that idea to Meta SE, since some other sites may also be interested in it.

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    Upvoted as this is a worthwhile discussion to have, not necessarily due to agreeing with the proposal to change the accepted-answer feature. (People who have opinions on whether/how it should be changed or not, please post answers here to be voted on!)
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Feb 13, 2022 at 19:18

3 Answers 3

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Although it is always nice to get a green tick and a few extra points, it can be galling to come to a question late and see that an incorrect or incomplete answer has been accepted and then to see that continue unchanged after you post a more complete or correct answer.

It bugs me when that happens, less for the points and more for the message it sends to later visitors. It makes the latter, more correct answer appear to have been judged and found wanting.

I think I would be reasonably happy to see green ticks go, but if they stay a ‘cooling off period’ of some sort would also be good.

Edited after thinking about a comment in Sean Duggan's answer:

While I'm okay with the idea that some posters never now accept any answers as a matter of policy, because they think the feature is a poor fit for our topic, and I respect their freedom to do that, I do kind of wish they would make some other acknowledgment of what they as the asker think of the answers. Casting answers into a void can feel a bit futile, so I generally skip such questions now.

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The reason the accepted answer feature exists is that it is useful for a site like Stack Overflow. If you have a discrete practical problem where the effectiveness of a solution can be objectively measured (even by a novice) then it makes sense to provide question-askers with a mechanism to certify that the solution worked.

However, the nature of the scope of this site is such that the accepted answer feature does not serve much purpose. Much of the content here deals with abstract issues, often involving subjectivity or matters that are open to various interpretations, sometimes with only subtle differences. A literature novice is hardly well positioned to determine which answer is superior when serious literary analysis is involved, and is certainly not better positioned than the rest of the users of the site. Granting the questioner the ability to award the green checkmark (which carries connotations of correctness, even if it does not officially represent that) seems to be a strange allocation of power.

I would be fine with removing the feature entirely, if only because that is more likely than Stack Exchange offering something that could be designed for the specific site needs, but if we had the ability to customize something I would like to retain some vestige of a system where askers can acknowledge that they have received sufficient help (beyond an anonymous upvote).

I would imagine something with two components. First would be an option for the asker to share to what extent the existing answer(s) have helped. For instance, some sort of dialog box or sliding scale with choices such as "fully resolved", "mostly resolved", "somewhat resolved", "barely resolved", and "totally unresolved". The second component would allow the questioner to specify what lacunae should be filled in. Much like when offering a bounty, there could be a few general categories to choose from, such as "add authoritative references", "add literary analysis", "add external evidence", etc. This would not be meant to replace detailed comments, but would just be something to provide indication to the current answerers and potential future answerers of what the the questioner is still seeking, and could conceivably be displayed under each answer.

The benefit of this, in my opinion, is that it provides the asker with an easy way to give feedback about answers that don't require the ambiguity of upvotes/downvotes or the effort of comment discussions. It also provides other users with an easy way to know if the question is still "in play". While some users are happy to spend hours composing answers that the questioner will never read, others would rather know in advance that the questioner is not seeking further discussion. Similarly, while some users won't care if the questioner is satisfied, others would be happy to expand their answers if they knew what additional aspects the questioner was still seeking. Most importantly, such a system doesn't lend any particular credence to the questioner's assessment of the answer in terms of it being right/wrong, good/bad, accurate/inaccurate, etc.; it merely indicates that the questioner is still looking for additional information.

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  • A mechanism with choices such as "fully resolved", "mostly resolved", "somewhat resolved" etc. is something I had not thought of; thanks for suggesting this. However, shouldn't there be some delay so that the mechanism doesn't get used prematurely, like the current accept mechanism?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 13, 2022 at 23:48
  • @Tsundoku I could see advantages and disadvantages to having a delay, so I would consider that as separate from my main proposal.
    – Alex
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 0:33
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I understand the "accepted answer" as not necessary the "correct answer" but rather the "best answer for the querent". So yes, it does tend to be subjective, and people can be a bit too hasty to reply. That said, from my experience with the SF&F community and others, it is generally not read as "this is the only answer", and having the idea of one "accepted answer" also discourages shotgun questions and answers (e.g. "Why is Scout dressed as a piece of ham in To Kill a Mockingbird? Is it a sexual metaphor? Do we have any indication of sexual feelings from Scout? Or from Jem?" or "You might say that Jem is a metaphor for burgeoning male sexuality in early America. Then again, the idea that they are all Jesus in Purgatory might also apply here. Or maybe Harper Lee just didn't like ham.")

Honestly, I'm more bothered by people who don't accept answers than people who accept too early because the latter at least indicates some interaction or connection, while the former feels like I've been brushed off ("Here's this answer you wanted, given to the best of my ability." "Oh, cool story, bro. GTG").

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    ^_^ And just to clarify, unaccepted answers don't keep me up at night. It's just one of those little things. Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 16:14

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