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High reputation users should already know the answer to: Is it acceptable to answer an off-topic question? and yet, I see some users who are playing the game for up-votes and answering questions that are clearly off-topic. When a high-rep user answers an off-topic question, that encourages bad behavior from new users who may not be as familiar with the guidelines. How do we encourage established users to keep it on-topic?

Edit: Here's a question today that is an economic question. I'm sure given time, I could dig up examples from every category of off-topic question, and especially duplicates. What is the median retirement savings in the United States today?

Everyone is fixated on the one question that prompted me to ask this, but there are many more, and I would like this to be a discussion of the problem in general, not this specific question that bugged me.

So for your consideration, here are 11 more highly up-voted questions that were closed as off-topic, all of which have answers from high-rep users:

  1. How can Americans get a chip-and-pin credit card for use while abroad?

  2. Making $100,000 USD per month, no idea what to do with it

  3. Is buying a lottery ticket considered an investment?

  4. Should I charge my children interest when they borrow money?

  5. Where do countries / national governments borrow money from?

  6. Why is the fractional-reserve banking not a Ponzi scheme?

  7. What U.S. banks offer two-factor authentication (such as password & token) for online banking?

  8. What's an economic explanation for why greeting cards are so expensive?

  9. How much interest should I pay on a loan from a friend?

  10. Is there a website that lists the latest financial scams, similar to Snopes.com for urban legends?

  11. If a country can just print money, is global debt between countries real?

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    And yet, the cited question has only one vote-to-close, but no suggestion to move to economics.SE which would be my inclination. I believe that a migrate will kill the money.se points accrued and they'd need to have an economics.se account to garner those points. The larger concern is that there's only one vote in 9 hours so far. – JoeTaxpayer Dec 15 '16 at 22:34
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    I would think selecting off-topic -> economics implies a suggestion to migrate to economics.se. I can certainly dig up more examples than this, and again, I don't want to single out a particular user because I've seen it happen with a few different users. I was probably guilty of it myself when I was a newer user to the site. – Nathan L Dec 15 '16 at 22:40
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    My concern is that economics on topic lead me to believe this isn't on topic there. It's a strange thing to reject due to economics but not have it fit there. Wondering if we just have a gray area where the question fits neither site. – JoeTaxpayer Dec 15 '16 at 22:46
  • There are always going to be some gaps. I tend not to worry about it. YMMV. – keshlam Dec 15 '16 at 23:46
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    Quick reminder: Not all the high-reputation users give a damn about rep. Don't assume people are responding for points. – keshlam Dec 15 '16 at 23:48
  • Apparently not all the high-rep users care about what's on-topic either. ;) – Nathan L Dec 15 '16 at 23:49
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    Why would that question about median retirement savings be off-topic? Isn't others' level of retirement savings of interest to individuals, e.g. how they might compare? I think the issue you raised is valid, but the example isn't a great one. The economics off-topic questions are described as "Questions about economics that are academic or have no bearing on personal finance". The example you raised is related to personal finance, isn't it? – Chris W. Rea Dec 16 '16 at 1:19
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    To be fair, five of the questions in your new examples (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) were asked in '10-'11, when the site was still in its infancy, and each of them remained open for at least two years before they were closed. You can't really fault anyone for answering those. – Ben Miller Dec 16 '16 at 5:27
  • I simply threw a search together and returned the top-voted examples that popped up. I hoped that would prevent me singling anyone out. I'm trying hard not to pick a fight with anyone. – Nathan L Dec 16 '16 at 5:30
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    @Nathan L: Or perhaps they just don't agree about the off-topicness of a particular question? – jamesqf Dec 17 '16 at 18:34
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I think the question that brought this question up is on topic. I at least will not answer - generally even in comments - clearly off topic questions and agree they shouldn't be.

But I think that questions that revolve around personal finance topics and have relevant elements to them should be open and on topic. We should not be overly quick to close things just because they are on an edge; if it sparks good and interesting answers i think it should be open if it's close to our topic.

In this case the last two sentences save it for me. It's not really asking what the median is: it's asking how people expect to retire with so little. That's a very legitimate question for our site. Perhaps further editing would be helpful to tighten the question, but as it stands I think it's okay.

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    I don't see an answer from you on that question. – Nathan L Dec 17 '16 at 0:16
  • Good point; I started to answer it but other answers were better by the time I got close to finishing it. :) – Joe Dec 17 '16 at 1:07
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While the question you have bought up does need discussion;

High reputation users should already know the answer to: Is it acceptable to answer an off-topic question? and yet, I see some users who are playing the game for up-votes and answering questions that are clearly off-topic.

On this site we have few high rep users. Not even 1% of user base have 1000+ points. Unlike other SE sites, the users on first page on Money are quite well spaced out. So even if we assume there is gaming going on say 10% additional votes; this still does not change the user ranking. It is also to be noted that daily reputation is capped at 200 points. So a few answers with large up-votes don't result in equal number of reputation.

We need more High Rep users on this site.

Overall we are still maturing and hence there are;

  • Some grey areas. We have been trying to define this better and better.
  • Some of the questions are read differently be different users.
  • Some were old and on-topic / off-topic got refined later and hence closed

On specific Questions;

What is the median retirement savings in the United States today?

This to me is was more of curiosity question and hence should have got closed. Although I don't know; but others may have read it as "If USD 5000 is sufficient, I am fool to save more? This doesn't sound right? How much should I really save?"

How can Americans get a chip-and-pin credit card for use while abroad?

This to be would have been on topic, as it is not asking for a specific recommendation, but what to do in such situation? now it is irrelevant.

Similarly for the next set of questions 1,3,5,6,7,10,11 were asked around 2011-12 and got closed later around 2013-205. Again some I still see as on-topic, it goes back to how you read the question ... this is where the voting comes in ...

We have closed quite a few high rep questions. So yes the voting works well.

I was taking a look at overall statistics few months back. We close around 30% of question as off-topic. This in my view is quite high. This could be because what we think on-topic is very different from the view of OP's on this group.

  • Closure rate on Workplace is also high, and for similar reasons... – keshlam Dec 16 '16 at 8:51
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EDIT - After the edit, in which Nathan added 11 examples of high-voted, closed questions, it might be time to reflect on the on-topic list. Not to expand it or cut it back, but to refine the wording for clarity. Keep in mind, we've already discussed the high voting, in an of itself, does not indicate on topic. After sifting through the comments, Nathan's point is that -

Questions about economics that are academic or have no bearing on personal finance

with Chris' response -

It was raised in reference to a mass media news article about retirement, a subject very much in the personal finance space, and not arising from, say, a research paper or dissertation.

Which prompts the need for some clarification. Are questions about data on-topic? I recall Is it true that 90% of investors lose their money? which appeared to be in a similar group, a member looking to understand a bit of data that didn't seem right.

Original text of my answer -- I think we are hitting a gray area. I can look at a list of questions and easily find the 80% I'd say are solid black, right on topic. But then there's gray. The question about how to join finances when married (for example). The OP needs a good shrink and pre-marriage counseling. Yet, the question is about personal finance, and I think "will this help potential future visitors?" Good chance it might.

The question discussed here is about a statistic, and one that's being misunderstood.

If indeed 5k is an accurate figure, how do 50% of old Americans survive in their old age? Do most old Americans rely on their children for financial support?

This might be on topic if only the numbers were accurate. If I were to post my own answer, which I'm not, I'd start by pointing out that one needs to look at data specific to pre-retirees. Even that might not offer the whole picture, but it would help.

The more I ponder this one, in particular, the more I agree with Nathan, that it's not really on topic, it's looking to discus a statistic. And regardless of the answers, it's not likely to be of use to future readers.

But, I take issue with our "economics" rejection. It's easy to check that box, but it implies something that's usually not true. It's not a candidate to migrate to Economics.SE.

To Nathan - I agree this question is off topic. But gray off topic, not clearly. If it were clearly, we'd have closed it by now.

Update 12/23 - The question was closed, then voted reopened. Which can mean a number of things:

  • The question is off topic, but members don't care
  • The question is off topic, but not clearly so, and members interpret our current on topic list to include this type of question
  • The question is on topic, but not clearly so, and members are divided
  • (welcome to insert additional list item here)

Either way, we have a situation where the question itself

How do we discourage high-rep users from answering questions that are clearly off-topic?

might be problematic. And given the lower rate of participation that meta sees, consensus may be difficult here. I hope to more input here, to at least feel like we have closure on this issue.

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    After reading your answer, I realize skeptics.se is probably a good match for this question. – Nathan L Dec 16 '16 at 5:00
  • Thank you for your answer. I do appreciate your viewpoint. I was wondering if you could elaborate on two things: 1. Why would it be on topic if the numbers were accurate? We get questions with faulty premises all the time; shouldn't we correct the info in an answer? 2. Why do you think questions about personal finance related statistics are off-topic? – Ben Miller Dec 17 '16 at 17:31
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    Got it. If the numbers were correct, is the question "how do 50% of old Americans survive in their old age?" on topic? I think stats are a tough issue. Even though they should be 'scientific', i.e. 'numbers don't lie,' there's always the issue of interpretation. Example - "In town A, new home sale prices have fallen 5%/yr for 10 years." Awful? Nope, newer homes were smaller. Each existing house continued to increase. My opinion is most stats have this issue. And answers morph into discussion, not Q&A. Keep in mind, I did not vote to close this one. And now there are 4 re-open votes. – JoeTaxpayer Dec 17 '16 at 17:41
  • I see the point of those who feel that this is an economics discussion related to personal finance, and I don't feel bad that the question was reopened. I think you're right that the wording of the off-topic reasons should be refined. I think discussions related to personal finance should be surrounding best practices or should be "actionable" as I suggested to Ben Miller below. That's one opinion, it's probably time to open another meta question. – Nathan L Dec 23 '16 at 14:25
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I think part of the issue is that everyone has different ideas about what is on- or off-topic. Yes, we all can read the on-topic rules, but applying these rules to individual questions is very subjective. Some of us tend to be more open toward questions that are on the edge, and others of us like to close anything that approaches the edge.

I definitely fall into the camp of users who like to leave questions open. It's not a secret; I've posted before that, when evaluating questions, I look for a reason to keep them open, rather than looking for a reason to close. It is only when I can find no justification for them being open that I vote to close.

Looking at my own answers: Of my most recent 60 answers, 2 were on questions that were eventually closed as off-topic (one, two). A few others did collect a few close votes, but not enough to actually close the question. For each of these questions, I can understand why someone would vote to close, and yet, in my opinion, they should remain open. (If I didn't see these as on-topic, I certainly wouldn't have answered.) I often issue a Vote-to-Reopen on questions after they are closed, but it is rare that a question gets five reopen votes after being closed. It is just the way Stack Exchange works; the system, in my opinion, is biased toward closing questions and keeping them closed.

As for the motivations of people writing answers, I can only speak for myself. My initial motivation was to try to give something back for the answers that I had received from experts on other Stack Exchange sites. The reasons I'm still here are to learn, to improve my writing, and to help people. Competing for fake internet points, although it might be fun to increase a score, is not a great reason for being here.

I like seeing new questions that I can answer. I think it is a shame when someone has a question, takes the time to post, and then the question gets a knee-jerk reaction of rude comments, downvotes, and closure votes. I just don't understand this. Our site is not overrun with questions, and it doesn't hurt anyone to leave interesting questions up. I understand that question quality is important to the site, but look at the example you posted about median retirement savings: It's about how much people have saved for retirement. Retirement savings are something that we cover every day here. It's a clear, well-written question that has generated a bunch of interesting answers. It has made the hot network questions list, and is bringing people to our site (also a good thing, in my opinion). Why would we want to stop that?

As far as migration goes, I'm not personally a fan of widespread migration. When a question gets closed as off-topic that should have remained open, it at least has a chance of getting reopened. Once it is migrated, it is gone. In addition, when a question gets migrated, the OP often loses control of the question, which means that no further info from the OP is possible. Also, we are not necessarily great at knowing what will be well-received on another site. Stack Exchange seems to agree that migration is a controversial subject. Instead, when I see a question that would be much better on another site, I like to comment and suggest to the OP that he moves his own question, allowing him or her to retain ownership.

In conclusion: When you see a high rep user answer a question that you think is off-topic, ask yourself: Could this question be considered on-topic? Does it hurt the site to keep this question open? The users that answered have already made the decision that yes, it should remain open. You are allowed to disagree, but your opinion, like mine, only represents one person. Vote, state your opinion, and move on. Sometimes your opinion will ultimately win out, and sometimes not.


To address your question: How do we discourage high-rep users from answering questions that are clearly off-topic? I did my best to address it by asking the meta question that you referenced. But, I'll be honest, when I see someone who answers and votes to close, usually my problem is less with their answer and more with their close vote.

As to your proposal to start mass deletion of questions that are closed as off-topic, I have to disagree. Questions with positive score answers should not be deleted, in my opinion, unless there is a specific reason why a particular question needs to be deleted. If you look at the help page for the deletion privilege, you'll see warnings against deleting questions that have good answers. In fact, the more answers a question has, the harder the system makes it to delete. This is all by design. Closed questions are not supposed to be automatically deleted, unless there is absolutely no value (perhaps the question makes no sense, or it only has negative score answers).

  • Sure, there are differences of opinion about whether some questions are on-topic. I vote to leave-open in many cases. This specific question about the size of an average retirement account is definitely an academic economic question. What harm is it? Does it hurt the site? Only when the next user to post an economic question cites this one as an example of on-topic. I knew closing would be an uphill battle because it is on the hot list, but again this was just the catalyst for me to start the discussion. I'd dismiss it as a one-off if I hadn't already seen a pattern with a few users. – Nathan L Dec 16 '16 at 0:10
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    @NathanL Why is it definitely an academic question? It was raised in reference to a mass media news article about retirement, a subject very much in the personal finance space, and not arising from, say, a research paper or dissertation. – Chris W. Rea Dec 16 '16 at 1:22
  • @ChrisW.Rea Maybe I think too literally. I was thinking of academic question with the definition that can be found at dictionary.com: a query which has an interesting answer but is of no practical use or importance what possible value does anyone get from comparing their own retirement savings with a group that is woefully underprepared? A false sense of security? What value does the answer to this question add to the subject of personal finance? – Nathan L Dec 16 '16 at 3:44
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    I believe that for an economic question to be on topic, it needs to be actionable. If the question was: Should I stock guns and food in preparation for the coming under-prepared baby-boomer retiree zombie apocalypse? I would consider that a silly, but on-topic, question. – Nathan L Dec 16 '16 at 3:49
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    @NathanL The question has been viewed 2709 times so far. I would imagine that some of those people read the question and answers and said to themselves, "I'm one of those people that hasn't started saving yet; I really should do something about that soon." Others read the question and said, "I'm well above average; that makes me feel good about myself." In both cases, a positive outcome. But the fact of the matter is that the OP read an article about personal finance and wondered about people that retire with little savings. It is actionable for those in that situation. – Ben Miller Dec 16 '16 at 3:58
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    No, nothing in the discussion is actionable, the question is whether the statistic is true, and there is some discussion of what truth there is to the statistic, but your hypothetical reader who has no retirement savings isn't given actionable direction, only a sense of despair. If the question was Like the average American, I am unprepared for retirement, how do I rectify that problem? That would gather answers that are actionable. That would be on-topic. – Nathan L Dec 16 '16 at 4:57
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    @NathanL I understand your point, but I disagree. In any case, I don't have a problem with theoretical personal finance questions that are not necessarily directly actionable. In my opinion, nothing in the on-topic rules explicitly excludes that. – Ben Miller Dec 16 '16 at 5:11
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My own opinion is that we need to start deleting some of these off-topic questions after they are closed. The only way to remove the incentive to those who don't care about the rules is to take away the reward (remove the reputation they received by answering the off-topic question. It will probably be a while still for me to get to 10,000 rep so I can start initiating delete votes, so now's a good time to talk about it instead of me immediately acting on my feelings. ;)

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    I respectfully disagree with the proposal to start automatically deleting closed questions, and I've added a section in my answer to address it. – Ben Miller Dec 16 '16 at 4:18
  • @BenMiller I don't think we need to delete all of them, and I don't even think that we need to be more strict in voting to close. I completely agree that there is a big gray area with a lot of questions. I do think, however, that there are some questions that are off-topic, though maybe the one I chose as the sole-example wasn't as black and white as I initially saw it. I still believe there are plenty of examples that are. I appreciate the perspective in your answer. – Nathan L Dec 16 '16 at 5:24
  • Downvoted, closed questions are deleted automatically by the system. See How does deleting work? What can cause a post to be deleted, and what does that actually mean? What are the criteria for deletion? on Meta Stack Exchange for the gory details. – a CVn Dec 20 '16 at 16:22
  • @MichaelKjörling Yes, unless those questions have positive score answers. As a result, we rarely need to manually delete questions at all. – Ben Miller Dec 28 '16 at 17:13

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