The number of unanswered questions is growing steadily. I think it's time we came up with a plan to deal with this.

Here are my personal thoughts on it:

Why deal with this at all?

Because some unanswered questions are difficult but interesting (at least to some people), some are irrelevant, some are really already answered in the comments but so simple that no one has posted an answer ...

The point is to make the important ones a bit more visible, and get rid of the rest. This refers to old unanswered questions, not ones posted only a couple of days ago.

How to deal with it?

I have the impression that there are actually lots of questions that are not so difficult to answer, but it's a lot of work to implement the solution. Many have good enough answers in the comments already, but people here tend not to post in the answer format when they didn't work out the full solution and don't have code for it. Sometimes this is really simple to write up the code, but it's also boring and not worth anyone's (but the OPs) time. I think often (but not always) it's enough to just give enough information to solve the problem. It's not necessary to write all the code for the OP... When someone already made a comment which practically answers the questions but doesn't have the code, why not just re-post the comment as a community wiki answer?

Similarly, when the answer to a question is "this is a bug", it's better to get the question out of the unanswered list by posting a community wiki answer.

How to organize dealing with it

Once we come up with a few guidelines on how to deal with various types of questions, we could organise bi-monthly cleanup days/weekends.

I think what we need to significantly reduce the unanswered count is to set some guidelines on how to deal with certain kinds of old unanswered questions, and make these guidelines "official". Then people won't be afraid that they'd break some unwritten etiquette rule when thinking of posting a very simple answer.

I'm going to post a set of proposed guidelines as a community wiki answer below (so everyone can edit it). Please edit it or post alternative suggestions as another answer. The aim is to end up with a set of guidelines everyone agrees upon.

  • At what age should an unanswered question get the treatment proposed here?
    – m_goldberg
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 17:34
  • @m_goldberg I wrote this post completely on my own and there wasn't a lot of feedback on it so far, except for upvotes. So please do not take it as official just yet. This needs to be a community decision. Until more people give their opinion, I'd suggest: use your common sense. If there's no activity on the question any more, and it's more than a week old, then I'd say go ahead. But if the question looks like it could really use a better, more detailed answer than what we already have in the comments, then better wait and give it a chance. In fact the reason I suggested doing this ...
    – Szabolcs
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 18:25
  • ... is to give those questions which still need a good answer a better chance of getting it by not letting them drown in the unanswered sea ... (at least not letting the number of unanswered ones get out of hand). To answer your question directly, personally I think one week is a good start.
    – Szabolcs
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 18:27
  • Sorry, but I don't trust common sense in this matter. Not my own, anyway. I see there is now a clause setting the time at one week. I'm fine with that. I anyone else thinks it should be different; well now we have a place to discuss it.
    – m_goldberg
    Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 1:02
  • @m_goldberg I think the best way to decide is to start acting and get some first hand experience. Then we will be in a better position to see what works well and what doesn't. I think your opinion in this matter is quite valuable because you do more editing work then most, so you could more easily come up with examples like "for this particular question following the guideline wouldn't be a good idea, because [argument about specific question]". If we find many examples like this, then we can improve the guideline based on this experience :-) Until then let's stick to one week.
    – Szabolcs
    Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 1:37

3 Answers 3


Official (not yet) guidelines on handling unanswered questions

These apply to unanswered questions that are at least one week old and do not have any new activity. These guidelines are mainly meant for community organized cleanups for easy to deal with questions.

Please also consider if the OP is still active on the site and responsive. If you're in doubt, ask the OP about a possible solution in a comment.

  1. Bugs If the problem has been confirmed as a bug in the comments, and the OP is not waiting for workaround answers, just post "This has been confirmed as a bug" as a community wiki answer.

  2. Simple idea, but laborious implementation If there are comments which make it very clear how to solve the problem, and the implementation is straightforward but laborious, post an edited version of the comments as a community wiki answer.

  3. Complete answer code already in comments Just transfer the code and any accompanying explanation to a community wiki answer. Add some explanation if the comment didn't include any.


To add to the discussion:

If anyone feels like spending 15 minutes to look at unanswered questions, here's a small program that will give you 5 random ones:

items = {};
page = 1;
  result = 
    Import["https://api.stackexchange.com/2.1/questions/unanswered?page=" <> 
     IntegerString[page] <> 
     "&order=desc&sort=creation&site=mathematica", "JSON"];
  items = Join[items, "items" /. result];
  If[Not["has_more" /. result], Break[]];
]  (* if you run this too many times, it'll burn up your API quota *)

With[{questions = RandomSample[items, 5]},
  Column[Hyperlink["title", "link"] /. questions]]

Take a look at them, upvote if you want to know the answer yourself, answer if you can answer, or deal with them in the way described above if appropriate.

  • You might want to replace RandomChoice with RandomSample to prevent getting duplicate questions.
    – s0rce
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 17:29
  • @s0rce Then I suggest adding Quiet as if the number of unanswered questions goes below 5, RandomSample will issue an error message. No hurry though, plenty of time to do that... Commented Feb 27, 2013 at 3:52

I picked an unanswered question I thought would be an easy case. It qualifies as category 3. I hope there will be some feedback here. I would like to know if what I did constitutes a satisfactory resolution of the no-answer issue for the particular question I worked on. Here is the link.

Easy as it was, writing up the answer still took a fair amount of time. My experience leaves me with the impression that carrying out the full program proposed here will be a long and arduous project.


Well, I got feedback almost immediately and no less than from Mike Honeychurch the question's poster. He pointed out that I had misunderstood the question and had picked the wrong comment to transcribe as an answer. I felt there was nothing for me to do but delete my failed attempt to supply an answer.

I conclude from this experiment that difficult as I thought this proposed project would be, it is far more difficult than I first imagined. My conclusion may only apply to me. Others, who have a better understanding, may get better milage, but I will be very reluctant to participate further.

It wasn't all loss, though. I provoked Honeychurch into posting his own answer, so at least the question is off the unanswered list.

2nd Update

I think it would be better if the community made this kind of intervention unnecessary. People simply should stop writing answers in the comments to the question. They should, rather, put a little more time and effort in and post a real answer. Such answers may be on brief side but they better than leaving the question in the unanswered state.

  • It was more fortuitous that i happened to be online than anything else, although I probably would have come to the site within 24 hours. In any desire to supply answers to unanswered questions don't let enthusiasm cloud an understanding of what the question is about otherwise the "answer" provided my not actually be an answer -- as was the case this time. Which is not to say it may not be useful code but just that it belongs as an answer to another question where someone needs that specific code. Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 5:24
  • I actually view this a relatively good outcome (although I understand why you might consider the experience a waste of time). The reason is that I feel it's better to have an answer than nothing at all, even if it's not the answer. A common reason for questions to go unanswered seems to be that people don't quite know what to make of them--perhaps they're unclear, or the issue in question is somehow subtle or surprising. Although incorrect or irrelevant answers will obviously attract comments/downvotes, reasonable but incomplete attempts may still prove useful to the OP or other answerers. Commented Feb 15, 2013 at 2:19
  • Of course, this entails some risk that one's contribution might not ultimately prove useful, and you're certainly not the only one to have written an answer only to have someone point out its fatal flaws. While this can be seen as failure, it's important to remember that most answers will not suffer this fate. As Szabolcs has observed, it's become the custom on Mma.SE for every answer to be a complete and comprehensive solution to the problem posed in the question--but this unusually high standard might actually discourage people from making lesser, but still worthwhile, contributions. Commented Feb 15, 2013 at 2:47

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