Mithrandir asked a question about the TombQuest series, and the author of the series offered to come write an answer.

Should answers written by authors be treated differently from normal answers on this site?

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    Not sure why the question is getting downvoted here. If you disagree with Hamlet's take on the issue, downvote his answer - but surely this is a reasonable discussion to be having in the first place? – Rand al'Thor Mar 20 '17 at 17:59

This is a complex and multi-faceted issue, and I'm probably not going to be able to (maybe I'm not even qualified to) cover all aspects of it, but here goes.

I think an answer from an author should be judged on its own merits to some degree, but we should also bear in mind that it's from the author when evaluating it, because that may make a difference.

There's a happy medium to be found here. Obviously we shouldn't take every answer from an author to be "Word of God", the definitive final answer to the question ... but on the other hand, the author can, at least in some contexts, tell us things that nobody else could. A lot of this is going to depend on the nature of the question as well as just the text of the answer.

  • In a pure analysis question which relies heavily on interpretation, an answer from the author isn't going to be worth much more than an answer from anyone else. Saying "X means Y, because I'm the author and I intended X to mean Y" would be a bad answer, but saying "X can be interpreted as meaning Y, because [blah blah blah, sensible analysis]" would be a good one.

    I don't think I really need to give examples here. The issue of how much an author's statement is worth has already been gone over ad nauseam on this site.

  • In a question which asks about authorial intent, or about some other aspect of a literary work which the author would be likely to know better than anyone else (let's remember that this site isn't just for analysis questions), an answer from the author should be treated differently from an answer from just some random SE user.

    For instance, if we had a question like this about a work by an author who was still alive, and they signed up to the site to tell us about the parallels between their own childhood and that of their character, that could be a really good answer which nobody else would be qualified to write.

In both cases, I think there's a simple rule of thumb to determine how, if at all, an answer by the author should be treated differently from any other.

Imagine the author had been interviewed, said exactly what's in this answer, and the interview had been published. Would just quoting from that interview make a reasonable answer?

  • Take the first case, of an interpretation-based analysis question. An author might have given an interview in which they state that they intended X to mean Y; just quoting this wouldn't make a good answer. Or they might have justified in the interview why X meaning Y makes sense, in which case (if their argument is good enough) quoting this could make a decent answer.

  • Take the second case, of a question which the author is more qualified to answer than anyone else. If they've already answered it in an interview, then the contents of that interview could be turned into a reasonable answer on this site.

It's true that the Stack Exchange platform isn't designed for hosting interviews with experts, but it is designed for getting answers from experts to good questions, and interviews can sometimes be quoted in order to form decent Stack Exchange answers.

In this answer or this answer, for instance, I've included quotes from authorial interviews as part of a broader analysis of a topic. If Art Spiegelman or Richard Adams had posted those answers, with the textual-analysis parts exactly the same and the authorial-interview parts replaced by simple statements rather than linked quotes, the answers would be exactly as valid as mine are.

There's still the issue of verifying that an author really is who they claim to be. I mean, anyone could sign up under the username "J.K. Rowling" and post troll answers to questions about the Harry Potter books. I've already addressed this issue elsewhere:

No personally identifying information about SE users is publicly visible. And beyond making off-site contact with the celebrity themselves (which is a possibility and has been done in the past), such information is the only way of proving a user is who they say they are. So, if you find someone who claims to be a specific actor, author, etc. and you're doubtful about their claim, feel free to flag the post for moderator attention. The mods are the only people who have a chance of verifying a user's identity.

In some cases (such as with the question from @Mithrandir linked in the OP), the author could confirm elsewhere, e.g. using their official Twitter account, that the answer really is from them. And if you're unsure, you can always raise a flag and ask the mods to check.

Of course, this only matters in cases where it makes a difference whether or not the answer is really from the author. If someone claims to be the author and posts a decent analysis which would stand on its own, no need to check. If someone makes claims about the author while claiming to be them, and those claims are crucial to the answer, then a check might be wise.

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  • I'm sorry, but I don't think this debate is about whether interviews from authors are acceptable sources (everyone seems to think that's what I'm arguing about, but that's not at all what I'm saying). The debate is about whether the Stack Exchange platform is an appropriate platform for question and answer sessions with authors. – user111 Mar 20 '17 at 18:41
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    @Hamlet I know you're not arguing against interviews as acceptable sources. But what I'm saying (and what Mith is saying in his answer) is that answers from authors can be just as valid as quotes from interviews with authors. – Rand al'Thor Mar 20 '17 at 18:48
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    It's also worth noting that good answers require sources, context, and thorough answers. An author answering with "this is true" is just a bad answer: they need to cite their own work. – user80 Mar 20 '17 at 23:14

I was going to just keep this as a comment, but then I ran out of room in the comment box.

I think one of the flaws here is this idea of us not being here to interview authors. Sure, I can totally agree that that's not what we're here for. There are many other sites that rock that sort of author interaction, and we're not here for that.

That said, I think there is a large difference between "hey I wrote this thing! I have a unique perspective because it came out of my head!" and effectively doing an AMA thing using SE's platform. If the author can come in, and write a super excellent answer held to the same standards as any other answer on this site, why not? And if we can demonstratively prove they are who they say they are, that's kinda neat, no? (Bonus points if we can make them stick around and be more active, because more people is always awesome).

I don't think we should turn away authors of works, if they choose to grace us with their presence. After all, if they came in and wrote an awesome answer and didn't state they were the author, we'd be like HOLY MOLY THIS IS GREAT HAVE AN UPVOTE. I don't see why this should change if we manage to prove they are who they say they are - after all, the beauty of the SE system is that we can have multiple answers, so even if the author comes in and says the thing is x because y, it is completely possible someone else could come in and go "what about x being because of z" and if they manage to make a good strong case for it backed up by the text or whatever else, that's awesome too.

Sometimes the author is going to be the right expert for the job at hand, sometimes they won't be. I think as well we need to keep in mind that not all our questions are going to be or should be high level analysis, so there's room for all sorts of expertise from all sorts of angles.

I say we should give it a shot, hold anything to our usual standards, and then see how it falls out. No use throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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If they provide a reason to believe that they actually are who they claim to be, then we treat it as if it were an interview or other statement by the author.

If the person who is answering can provide a reason to believe that they are who they claim to be, then we can believe them. In this case, I tweeted the question I asked, on a Twitter account for a wiki about that series, that the author of that series is following and has retweeted/responded to before. This is the author's official Twitter account, so unless you believe that his account was hacked, we can assume that if someone posts an answer with the name 'Michael Northrop' on that question, it's them.

We use quotes from the author as (mostly) reliable sources - for instance, in (self-promotion alert!) my recent question, the answer has some quotes from an interview. If that's a good source, then why not having the author post here?

In this case, again, this can't be answered from solely the books or solely the game - it requires knowledge of both. I assume that he will provide screenshots (and if he doesn't, there's always the comments); he might not want to post quotes from his book online, though. In this case I'm inclined to assume that he knows what he's talking about :)

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  • The Stack Exchange platform isn't designed for interviews with authors and other experts. See meta.stackexchange.com/questions/58486/… and meta.stackexchange.com/questions/258474/… – user111 Mar 20 '17 at 18:16
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    @Hamlet No-one's advocating using SE for interviews, but rather to treat what they say in an answer with the same weight as you would do an interview on another site—it would be silly to require authors to cite themselves on what they intended to do, and the whole point of SE is expert-level Q&A. – Aurora0001 Mar 20 '17 at 18:27
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    Quoting an interview without adding anything to it makes for a poor answer, and this answer equates an author's Stack answer with an unadorned quote. That concerns me because it lowers the quality expected from author answers in comparison to Stack answers given by other users. – BESW Mar 20 '17 at 22:20

Let's untangle this a bit. There are a lot of red herrings in this discussion, and it's become a bit of a mess. It's starting to hinder our ability to talk about this cleanly. Ignore quality, author validation, and all the rest for now; that's putting the cart before the horse. Let's talk about that later.

For now, let's focus instead just on the relationship of an author to their work. Albeit this is more complicated and thorny than I'd like it to be, let's delineate Questions a User Can Ask into two subtly different categories:

  1. Questions about what the author meant to say
  2. Questions about what meaning the text conveys (and other textual questions)

The author has the power to write the work however they'd like; often, authors will have a goal in mind when doing so. Authors therefore have primacy over questions of intent. An author's answer stating, "I am the author, and I intended to [have Sam lob an expensive mango at Susan]" is sufficient to establish what the author intended to write. This should be an acceptable answer.

Authors, however, do not have the power to absolutely determine what meaning the text conveys. The meaning of the text is the meaning as interpreted by the reader, not by the author. Understanding the meaning of a text requries evidence, thought, analysis, and cultural critique. Authors therefore do not have primacy over questions of meaning and interpretation. If an author wants to answer one of these questions, that's great! They're probably one of the most qualified people to do so. But they still need to provide the same level of evidence and analysis.

The critical point is this: if an author answers a question of meaning with a statement of intent, they have given a non-answer to the question.

Quality is a separate issue. An author providing a statement of intent without textual evidence to show where it comes through is missing something important. It is an answer to the question, but it may or may not be a very good one; questions of intent are better when they're supported by textual and meta-textual evidence. We should encourage authors to provide as much information and evidence as possible, because it will make their answer better - but it isn't a strict requirement.

Things that are red herrings:

  • Validating an author's identity. We can't discuss the importance of validating an author's identity without first knowing whether and how much the author is important at all. While relevant to any practical consideration, it's tangential to how we should handle their answers in principle.
  • Interviews with authors & the form and method of interviewing. We're getting sidetracked talking about interviews, and using Stack Exchange as an interview platform. A great deal of things are implied by the word "interview," very few of which concern the purpose of this question.

Things that might be confusing:

  • Primacy isn't authority. An author's answer doesn't mean their response is guaranteed to be correct. It has happened in the past, albeit relatively infrequently, that the consensus about an author's intent differs sharply from their stated intent. Primacy here simply means first consideration.
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  • What if a user, who you knew wasn't the author, wrote an answer to a question about intentions saying "I was the author, and here were my intentions." How would you react to that answer? I'm guessing that most of the people on this site would downvote it. In my mind, that invalidates your claim that validating an author's identity isn't important. – user111 Mar 21 '17 at 6:47
  • @Hamlet I'm trying to separate practical considerations from philosophical ones. We can't discuss both of them at the same time, and we need to have our ducks in line before we can look at the practical way of handling authorial answers. I'm not dismissing the question, but I think this is the wrong time to try and address it. – user80 Mar 21 '17 at 6:47
  • I don't think you can separate the two. Stack Exchange philosophy is fundamentally against verifying the identity of community members. In practice, these answers only work if the identity of the author is verified. There's a conflict here that no one seems to be addressing. – user111 Mar 21 '17 at 6:51
  • @Hamlet Discussion hasn't settled on whether answers from authors are meaningful at all. That's a wider-reaching discussion than one on whether we could validate an authorial account. They're not in conflict, either: "we'd like to do X, but we can't validate, so we should do Y" is a totally reasonable answer. But you can't come to that answer without first knowing X. – user80 Mar 21 '17 at 6:54

No, authors should be treated as expert users like everybody else. Experience-based answers are often very useful, and an author's experience can be part of a great answer about their own work or the industry in which they operate!

We still expect the same level of quality from an author as from any other user, including providing explanations, sources, and quotes as needed to give an answer the "how" and "why" which makes Stack answers awesome. The author isn't exempt from the need to support a claim; they just have access to a different set of resources to do so.

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  • I like this answer, but. If the question is essentially about the author in some way (whether it's about their intent in a particular book, or their life outside of their books, or anything else), why do they need to provide sources or quotes? They'd end up quoting themselves, when they could just have made their statement outright. – Rand al'Thor Mar 20 '17 at 22:43
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    @Randal'Thor "Explanations," then, would be the expected how-and-why-ness. This is basic experience-based answer guideline stuff. If you're answering based on personal experience you don't have to quote things, you have to explain what you did, what effect it had, why it matters, and so on. – BESW Mar 21 '17 at 2:36

No. Answers by authors should be treated exactly the same as answers by normal community members. The fact that the community member claims to be the author (whether that claim can be verified or not) should have no bearing on how we evaluate the answer.

Clearly, the community has decided that for certain types of questions, answers that only discuss intentionality are correct and encouraged. That's not what's at issue here.

What's at issue here is that in practice, an answer by someone claiming to be an author will only be correct if we can verify that person's identity. Think about it. What if a user, who you knew wasn't the author, wrote an answer to a question about intentions saying "I was the author, and here were my intentions." How would you react to that answer? I'm guessing that most of the people on this site would downvote it.

The problem is that the Stack Exchange platform isn't designed for answers where the correctness of the answer is dependent on who wrote the answer. We don't have features like verified profiles for a reason. Answers aren't evaluated on the basis of who wrote them, but the arguments and evidence contained in the answer.

If an author comes along and writes an answer but offers no evidence other than "I am the author", I would downvote that answer the same way I would downvote an answer that offered no evidence other than "I have a PHD in [x]".

What evidence is available to authors? The same evidence available to normal users. Quotes from the book are acceptable. Unverified claims that "this is how I wrote the book" or "these were my intentions" are not.

Here's the standard we should use for evaluating author answers. Imagine that the answer was written by a someone who you know is not the author. Would the answer still be a good answer? If yes, then the answer is acceptable. If no, then the answer is not.

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    In this case, the proof is that I specifically asked him to come and write the answer, so it's not just some random guy claiming to be the author. We have a reason to assume it's the actual author. – Mithical Mar 20 '17 at 16:44
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    If an author says "I intended to say ____", then why should that be any different from them having an interview, quoting that in an answer then posting it? Quoting an interview would certainly count as a valid source here, so why would that be any different to them just saying it directly in an answer? – Aurora0001 Mar 20 '17 at 16:46
  • @Aurora0001 because the Stack Exchange platform isn't designed for interviews with experts. – user111 Mar 20 '17 at 18:21
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    @Hamlet But quoting such interviews can (in some contexts) make for decent Stack Exchange answers. – Rand al'Thor Mar 20 '17 at 18:22
  • @Randal'Thor that is not what I am arguing against here. I am not arguing against interviews with experts being appropriate sources. I am saying that the Stack Exchange platform is not an appropriate platform for interviews with experts. – user111 Mar 20 '17 at 18:37
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    @Hamlet I don't see why not, it's a Q&A platform. Turning it around, say someone asks a question that would be best answered by quoting a statement by the author ("Why did the author choose to...?"). The author sees it and could clearly answer it right then and there. What should the author do if you think that posting their answer is not a good idea? – Martin Ender Mar 20 '17 at 19:15
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    @Hamlet The Stack Exchange platform is all about getting answers from experts. What's the difference, in your view, between that and the idea of "interviews with experts" which you're so against? I mean, both are about asking question(s) and getting answer(s) from experts. – Rand al'Thor Mar 20 '17 at 22:09

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