Keeping the TeX-sx site working well is a balancing act. We want good quality content, and that means there is housekeeping to do: voting, editing questions and answers, looking for duplicates and adding comments. At the same time, it’s important that users are not put off by being told for example that their question has been asked before. On the main StackOverflow blog, there’s a post about how they’ve approached this: it’s raised quite a lot of comment. Each StackExchange site has its own approach to these issues, and so I thought I’d look at what the TeX-sx approach seems to be.
A key aim is to make the site accessible to new users, whether they are new TeX users or not. That means giving people some leeway when they ask questions or post answers: very rapidly closing is not normally the best plan. Many TeX questions are focussed on single documents, and teasing out the required detail is something that the questioner often needs some guidance with (they are often under pressure to get things done!). Of course, there is still a need to keep on top of material which needs improving. That’s one of the reasons for the Answer the Unanswered sessions: it lets us keep on top of questions where improvements were needed and did not happen.
It’s a similar story with voting: in general, we’ve tried to avoid downvotes. Voting on TeX-sx is hopefully about being positive: good questions and answers get upvotes, and less good ones don’t. Some really poor material might deserve a score of minus one, but beyond that there’s no value in downvoting.
Editing material is something that needs a bit of care: every question and answer has someone’s name on it, even if it’s been edited. Again, the feeling has been to keep a balance between the needs of readers (to have well presented material) and of original authors (to have their efforts respected). That’s led to some questions, but in the round I think we’ve not done badly.
So what’s the message? Remember that there are many different site users, with many different requirements. We want good content, but we also want a welcoming site where new users feel they can contribute.
At the same time, I find it increasingly frustrating that certain well-known elements of the TeX community feel the need to engage in a passive aggressive battle against certain packages. The main tactic being that they go out of their way to answer an entirely different question than what was asked and pushing their package’s method as best. That is all fine, except when using their package introduces critical changes to the workflow that one cannot afford. I see this come up time and again, where someone asks a question about how to do x with y, and one of the replies inevitably is: look how easy it is to do it in z. Again, I think reasonable people can disagree on methods, but to troll almost every question in category y with the “look at how wonderful z is, you really should use z” solution is just over the top. And what’s worse, it leaves a false sense that the question was answered when clearly it was not (indeed, newbies often will mark it as accepted). Just because they are well-known or popular should not give them a pass from being reprimanded for not following the rules.
We had a discussion early on in the life of the site about to what extent it was acceptable to provide answers which highlighted how different approaches were available to problems. A classic one is that ConTeXt offers some abilities that are difficult to achieve in LaTeX, but clearly require a different workflow (different TeX format => separate set up entirely), but with over 1800 LaTeX packages on CTAN this obviously can happen quite a bit in the LaTeX world alone. The feeling was that this is acceptable to answer using a different approach, provided the answer is tackling the question in wider sense (for example, ‘Package x is old and inflexible, so I would use y to achieve the output you want because …’).
You don’t say which packages you are thinking of, and I can think of several possible common cases. Often, this can reflect the fact that new packages get developed, and while the questioner may be using an older one that does not make this the best choice for dealing with problems. What I do think is important is that if a question is very focussed on a specific package, reasons are given for suggesting an alternative, while if the question is not so clear (quite often the case) then this may not be so important.
It’s not always clear from questions whether the package use is a requirement or simply a case of ‘I have heard of x’. That’s particularly the case when a question is tagged for a package, but it’s not actually in the text of the question. There is a difference between ‘I have just started writing a document, and want to do x’ and ‘I have several completed documents, which I need to do x in for final production’.
After answering, voting is the first thing everyone should do to pick what they feel is the best answer to a question. Clearly, if there are specific issues where you (or others) feel answers are inappropriate then they can be commented on, raised on meta or in the chat room, or flagged for moderator attention.