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I define "vexatious questions"1 as a series of questions from the same user that are minor iterations on a theme or idea. The first question in the series contributed to worldbuilding. The rest of them are, for practical purposes, duplicates of the first and are not contributing to worldbuilding.

Periodically we encounter a user who asks the same basic question over and over. Some of the most heinous examples were abuses of the Anatomically Correct Series, but there are times when a user gets an idea stuck in his/her head and can't let it go. I'm hesitant to offer examples because I don't want to single anyone out.

While we all like lots of questions to be asked (see "mindless social fun," below...), the goal of Stack Exchange is to be a clearing house for useful information and our Stack Exchange Overlords would prefer that no stack be cluttered up with questions that don't bring value to the service. This is, indeed, the reason for the "duplicate" close reason.2 And each vexatious question subsequent to the first is (without explicit justification) a duplicate of the first.

I'm posting this query because there are potentially multiple reasons for this problem:

  • This could be due to forgetfulness, meaning the user has forgotten the previous questions were asked.
  • This could be due to intellectual "blinders" that keep the user from applying what they learned from previous questions to the current case.
  • This could be due to a variety of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • This could be a violation of the Help Center prohibition against mindless social fun.

In the past I've down voted the question and left a comment with a link to a search that lists the multiple questions along with a "what is different about this question that wasn't answered by the previous questions?" kind of statement.

In a handful of really egregious cases, I voted to close questions 2 through the last as duplicates of the first.

What should be our policy concerning vexatious questions?

Edit: In a comment to @IchtysKing's answer I made a point that I believe deserves to be repeated and expounded upon here. One of the goals of this Stack is to help people learn the process of building worlds. One measure of either our failure to teach that lesson or the user's failure to learn it is the presence of vexatious questions. Vexatious questions are fundamentally an abuse of Stack Exchange, but if they're not simply "mindless social fun," then they might indicate that a problem exists with the effort to teach and/or understand the process of worldbuilding (and the process of learning from the Stack Exchange experience). Senior users like myself need to make a conscientious effort to compassionately help younger users realize what we're trying to do. On the other hand, younger users would benefit greatly from meekly realizing they're not achieving a valuable goal. This post frankly focuses on the former, because (despite our hopes otherwise) we cannot control that latter.


1It might be a little harsh to relate a series of fundamentally duplicate questions to the idea of vexatious lawsuits as there isn't any malice involved. But I'm doing it because the action is pestiferous.

2I'm making this point because some users may think that I'm making a tempest in a teapot. Maybe I am. But if Stack Exchange didn't care about the number of low quality questions they wouldn't have a "duplicate" close reason and the value of each question added to a vexatious question list is lower than the previous.

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4 Answers 4

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Assume the Best; Insist on the Awesomely Sufficient


Assume the Best
I think the best approach to any problem that, ultimately, distils down to a personal issue (in this case the querent's) is to assume the best intentions of the querent. By this, I would propose that any policy not dwell on the personality of the querent. I know who you mean in this case, but I don't know that person outside of WB.SE nor any of their internal struggles or issues. I'm certain you're not suggesting that we base policy on a person's issues, but I wish to make my perspective clear.


Insist on the Best
That leaves the other half of my solution: that we should insist on the best from both querents and respondents. By this I mean that whenever I choose to respond to a query, I hold myself to a high standard of providing a good answer. I may fail in meeting the standard, but my responses should be: holistic (taking into account the entirety of the querent's world system); focused (answering the specific query); insightful (answers should be "factually correct" as well as connecting the dots between real world knowledge and fictional world subrealia); entertaining (I want for the querent and also the rest of you to enjoy reading my answers as much as I enjoyed writing them).


I also think it is fair of our community to insist that querents adhere to a standard of question writing as well. We do this through various policies, references and helpful resources that corral the querent's writing abilities into a product that reflects their best efforts. For example, we insist that questions reflect the querent's own work (no third party questions), that questions be about the world itself (not story based), and that they be answerable (not a long list of brainstorming ideas).


Vexatious questions
These kinds of questions fall into a kind of grey area. Grey because, as you rightly note, they might be repetitious to the point of being duplicates, but also because this assumption rests on us the readers, not the querent. In other words, you see these as repetitious while another person sees them as distinct.


My proposal is that when we find queries like these, we should always do the following:

  • if we think there is a pattern in the querent's writing (would X1 do Y, would X2 do Y, would X3 do Y); we must comb all the questions carefully do determine whether or not the pattern is a surface artifact or a deep issue.
  • if we determine that the pattern is trivial we have to consider possible actions. First, we should always try to engage the querent. Ask them "this is the third nearly identical query you've asked: is there some historical, anthropological, cultural, religious, cognitive, etc reason why this series is being asked?" We should insist that the querent edit all their questions to adhere to the Best.
  • we should not be afraid to insist on a cease and desist. If the pattern is something deep in the creatures of the world in question, that's fine. That then becomes the answer to all further questions along this line, and we should feel confident in insisting that the querent find a new line of questioning to pursue.
  • if the rationale doesn't pass muster, then VTC. There are several valid rationales ranging from being story based to being duplicates. If we honestly see our community as a "clearing house for useful information", then we shouldn't be afraid to close questions that we find to be non-useful.
  • likewise, downvote a non-useful question. If the first question in the series was seen as useful, then upvote that one. Encourage the vexatious querent to ask good and useful questions while discouraging them from asking poor and repetitious questions.


Vexatious Lawsuits
I don't think the comparison is overly harsh at all. Just as the legal system has to fairly, justly and compassionately deal with such things, so do we here. There is a subset of vexatious lawsuit that has arisen from the sovereign citizen movement. The movement has become so vexatious that it is now considered to be a form of domestic terrorism in the US. I am not suggesting that we raise the asking of vexatious question here in WB.SE to the level of terrorism, but I am suggesting that if the activity is seen as detrimental to the community then its proponents ought to be dealt with.

  1. If a vexatious querent asks a question, that's fine.
  2. If they ask a formal duplicate, then assume the best. Remind them that they just asked this question a short while back and this could be closed as a duplicate.
  3. If they ask a third, do as you suggest and vote to close the question; downvote it and give a link to the search results.
  4. If they ask a fourth, vote to close and down vote. Insist that the querent stop asking duplicate queries.
  5. If they ask a fifth, vote to close, downvote and escalate to moderators.


Moderators should be prepared to suppress the activity by giving the user a temporary ban. If the user earns two or three moderator interventions, then ban them. The ban should be given only after so many infractions simply so that no one can accuse our moderators of abuse or our community of personal bias. It should be obvious that the vexatious querent is bringing this on themselves. It should also be obvious that the ban is being issued for matters of action not matters of personal behavioural traits.

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    $\begingroup$ That's a well-thought-out answer. You're correct, I'm not suggesting that we base judgement on the personality of the user. In fact, that's my problem. With only one exception I can remember (which was, after about 9 questions, obviously "mindless social fun"), I frankly don't know why the querent isn't deriving an answer to question N after getting answers to questions 1 through N-1. I'd love someplace I can point users (e.g., your answer) so they can understand the problem without having to be proverbially beaten with a stick. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jun 12, 2023 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ "The perfect is the enemy of the good". I don't think we should "insist on the best". We should "insist on the good and sufficient". I do think that sometimes holding the bar too high is what has sent some good people out of this community, and created an atmosphere of casual bullying that has even caused some to delete perfectly good (or salvageable) questions. We do need standards, but standards should be a bar which we expect everyone to be able to meet for sake of an on-topic community, not something we use as a bludgeon. Sometimes, it has become a bludgeon. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Jun 22, 2023 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @JamieB --- Fair point. I'd say that's another design feature of SE in and of itself. It sets the bar high. But as you say, we don't have to set it quite that high. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 22, 2023 at 21:05
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First up - I can think of a few users/question series that spring to mind from your description.

I generally take the viewpoint that Policy is too heavy-handed in the majority of cases for these questions.

I feel that the Duplicate close reason is more than sufficient in 99% of cases.

My reasons is that if the question is so similar to the previous question(s) that there is unlikely to be any meaningful differentiation in the answers - then closing as a Duplicate is warranted.

If the question isn't so similar to the previous question - then most of the time I'm happy to let it stand on it's own feet. It might be that the asker has been working on their story/world/game/idea and hit another snag, based off of the progress they made from the previous question.

Sometimes there are interesting worlds that people come up with, with multiple interesting scenarios.

Finally - if there is a question that although unique, but we feel is being 'over-asked' - I would put my VTC with a comment saying something like 'This is the Nth time you've asked a question like this in X hours - I'm closing for now as I think you need to pause and re-think your idea a bit' or similar.

If enough regulars recognized the pattern and agreed with the vote - then it would get closed. If we felt that liberties were being taken, we could flag for the mods.

I don't think a formal policy is needed - that the collective wisdom of Netizens is sufficient to police the grey area.

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Different problems can need different solutions

What if I smelt aluminum with low temperatures?

What if I smelt copper with low temperatures?

What if I smelt iron with low temperatures?

Aside from the metal in question, these questions are completely identical. However, the answers to these three questions are completely different:

  • Aluminum won't be extracted at all, as it must be electrolysed
  • Copper will be extracted in a liquid form
  • Iron will be extracted, but will form a solid spongy mass

Would you expect someone with questions about metallurgy to extrapolate the existence of sponge iron from just the knowledge that aluminum requires electrolysis to extract? If not, why would you demand similar leaps of knowledge out of worldbuilders?

Sure, the answers to these variant questions may ultimately be the same as the original, but the querent does not know that. If they did, they wouldn't be asking the question in the first place (or at least they would also answer it themselves)

In conclusion, there is no issue here to deal with: These 'vexatious questions' are nothing more than questions which consider similar subjects

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  • $\begingroup$ It's funny your whole point is to prove each question is much more different in practice, then you end telling these questions "are nothing more than questions which consider similar subjects". I highly suspect you actually wanted to tell they're "similar-looking but actually different questions" ^^. $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2023 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena Being similar is not equivalent to being the same $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2023 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ Same and similar are synonyms. So no, if your point is that they're similar (instead of "looking" similar), then the questions ought to be closed as duplicates (a synonym of similar, too. It's just it is a noun ^^). $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2023 at 16:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena Are you a genetic duplicate of your siblings? $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2023 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ @IchtysKing No, because we're not twins, even less true twins 🦋. Let's not talk about your assumption that brothers and sisters are even remotely similar, they more often than are not on many points. $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2023 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ That being said, you shouldn't play with the choice of words rather on the content of your point : it brings no value when these words are clearly defined among the population you are targeting, and their meaning cannot change unless you explicitly redefine them "with your words". It's also no use when your "opponent" gave you a stronger interpretation leading to the conclusion you want. $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2023 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ (cont) questions. In stead of asking about corsets on fishmen and birdmen and catmen and dogmen and snakemen and gummymen and mantismen and turtlemen, why not just ask about the crafting of corsets in a world where all these kinds of people exist? Third, we are unfortunately no strangers to the kinds of questions you are in the unfortunate habit of asking. We do actually have a sandbox where you can get help with question formulation and writing skills! You often have a lot of good ideas, but I have to be honest in saying that your execution sucks. Let us help! I demand excellent (cont) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 14, 2023 at 3:26
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    $\begingroup$ I think this answer raises a valid point. Querents may not know the subjects they're asking about, which leads to chains of similar-looking Q's. Maybe when we spot this sort of thing we should encourage users to think about forming it and all future Q's about it under one roof. (Tort's badgering this A over semantics isn't helpful; Colloquially, similar ≠ same.) $\endgroup$
    – BMF
    Jun 14, 2023 at 10:00
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    $\begingroup$ @BMF It is important because similar questions with -most importantly- similar answers will get closed as duplicates. Here same and similar has the... same meaning for this purpose, because we can't deny a duplicate just because a word or two changed. That's most likely not what Ichtys King wanted to tell, but it's their concluding sentence, and likely a reason some were quicker than usual to downvote them. $\endgroup$ Jun 14, 2023 at 12:09
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    $\begingroup$ It would be one thing if effort was made to clearly indicate how each question builds off previous ones, if effort was made to show the consideration for existing asks and why a new question is warranted. However instead of putting in effort to be a good member of this site we instead get arguments that hinge on tiny semantic differences. That in itself is vexatious. You've been told that these questions are inappropriate and unwelcome. You've been told how to ask better questions. If you want to actually act in good faith learn and change don't repeat disruptive behavior. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jun 15, 2023 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ I can't but disagree with your answer. Yes, those similar questions have different answers, but in every case you failed to do the necessary research that would avoid the need to ask over and over. You're expecting us to educate you and you learn nothing from previous responses/comments (which includes the process of finding an answer). Your corset question is an excellent example. The differences in creatures is irrelevant because corsets require hips and if your creatures don't have them they can't wear them - which ... (*Continued*) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jun 15, 2023 at 7:41
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    $\begingroup$ ... you'd know if you researched corsets. Remember, the down vote roll-over states, "this question does not show any research effort…." BTW, please understand that this Meta post is not just about you. You simply had the misfortune of being the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back. A fair number of users have asked vexatious questions over the years. As mentioned, the most notorious involved the ACS. You've asked a fair number of good and really interesting questions - and that's appreciated. But part of our goal is to help people learn the process ... (*Continued*) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jun 15, 2023 at 7:43
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    $\begingroup$ ... of building worlds. And one measure of either our failure to teach that lesson or the user's failure to learn it, is the presence of vexatious questions. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jun 15, 2023 at 7:44
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    $\begingroup$ Since you like anatomy, let's change the question. Let's say you asked "so, endoscopes are really cool for seeing inside people; poke a hole just here and stick it in, will this work for a lizard?" Come back a couple years later and ask "will this work for a bird?" Six months after that and ask about a fish. Do you see where this is going? The first question was really useful. It's pretty clear that utility can be extrapolated across creature types with similar anatomy. Further questions really aren't needed because a) the same extrapolation works and b) the original question could (cont) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 16, 2023 at 1:36
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    $\begingroup$ (cont) have been asked slightly differently as we've seen. Questions aren't closed on the basis of graphs or whatever. These I voted to close because they are functionally identical questions. Each one is a repeat of the first question in form, matter, result and predictive power. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 16, 2023 at 1:47
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1) Pretend usernames don't exist.

This is my rule of thumb nearly all the time, in many things on the internet, especially when it comes to moderator activities. It's too easy for "bad blood" to skew moderator actions to the point that, from the view of someone who wandered in here and just read one question, the close vote action and yelling in the comments makes no sense. i.e., "why did they shut down that guy's question? There was nothing wrong with it. Why is everyone so angry?"

Of course the reality is it was the 8th very similar question they've seen from someone they are basically sick of, so, well, the close votes got a bit...angry. Understandable but also, frankly, unacceptable. Each question must be judged in a vacuum, as if the CEO of SE himself appeared and asked the question. If it's too similar to other questions, link the duplicate and shut it down. If it violates some other rule, cite the rule and shut it down. If the violation is just that you're a bit annoyed at the same person showing up over and over, well, that's not a reason to downvote or close a question. It must be treated as a stand-alone question. I personally try to not even look at usernames when going through the close queue, for example.

2) We often create this problem ourselves. (and continue to do so)

Another pet peeve of mine is how rules like "too broad" or "asks multiple questions" get enforced in such way as to actually cause the problem you are describing. Sometimes I see the letter of the law being laid down without regard for the spirit of the law.

I don't have a good example off the top of my head, but sometimes someone asks a question that could be answered in a general way but instead they get bullied with the letter of the law, demanding they get more focused and only ask a highly specific question. So they do. But the highly specific answer to their highly specific question still leaves them with general questions, so they go through asking them one at a time.

I know you're ready to jump in here and say "It's very important to enforce those rules!" Well, pick your poison. If you don't want to recognize the general question they are getting at, and the single answer they needed in the first place, then prepare to suffer through that series of 15 tightly related questions. I would bet we could go back to their first attempt and find comments and close votes that literally told them to do exactly what they are doing.

I do think that sometimes these "vexatious questions" actually are people mildly trolling us, and very intentionally so, but it was what they got told to do when their first question got blown up.

(To be clear, sometimes people really do ask multiple unrelated questions, or genuinely lack focus within a single post. These rules are useful for putting a stop to that. But they are also unfortunately open to interpretation, and overly strict interpretations lead to side-effects, including "vexatious questions".)

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    $\begingroup$ 1. You do make a valid point about how to treat people, but the question isn't about "vexatious people". It's about vexatious questions. 2. I totally agree with you on this point. This is one of the design features of community moderation: everyone has their own ideas on how the place should be run (including me and including you) and we all nudge the forum a little bit every time we interact here. I actually am not going to say it's so very important to enforce those rules. I have very strongly disapproved of the "opinion based" rule for years. I almost never (cont) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 21, 2023 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ (cont) enforce that rule. I will also admit that I might enforce a rule on a vexatious question that I would not if the question were in isolation. I think you make a good point about one possible outcome of the "series of 15" questions. However, we need to understand an important distinction here: the problem arises from querents who ask 15 different questions in their initial post! We ask --- nay, encourage --- them to break such questions down into multiple new ones. What's going on here is a series of questions where question 2 through x are functionally identical. (cont) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 21, 2023 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ (cont) We would, I hope, never encourage any querent to ask the same question again 2 times, let alone 15! As for trolling. It's possible. If it's thought a user is actually trolling, Mods should feel free to hammer the troll into the void. A further note on 1. --- We are in full agreement that this issue is not about any specific user, and further, that this kind of problem can not be approached from that direction. (There may be other abuses of this forum that pertain to an individual person that moderators might need to deal with.) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 21, 2023 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas This is a topic about vexatious people. JBH says so in his opening definition. "From the same user". It is ultimately the user he finds vexatious. If it was 15 similar questions from 15 different people, it would not meet his definition of "vexatious" and presumably would just be "people not searching for similar questions" rather than "a single user being annoying". $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Jun 22, 2023 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ No, it's literally about vexatious questions. Nowhere does the querent speak of "vexatious people". Let's see the whole quote so there can be no confusion: "I define "vexatious questions" as a series of questions from the same user". In other words, a single user --- who could in fact be the sweetest person in the whole forum --- writes a series of vexatious questions. Your analysis of the grammar is, I think, incorrect, especially given that "vexatious" and "question" are clearly connected into a single concept involving an adjective (cont) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 22, 2023 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ (cont) and a noun, whereas "users" remains unmodified by any adjective. It is best to not ascribe emotions and motives to JBH's query. You run dangerously close to contradicting your own rule of thumb. It simply doesn't matter what he thinks of any user; the only consideration here is the nature of the questions themselves. Per the query as written, a series of 15 "vexatious questions" from a non-vexatious user must still fit the definition, since the query is not about the user. I think you need to retract your statement. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 22, 2023 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas I'm just reading what he says. You don't get vexatious questions without them all coming from a single person, meaning the questions themselves are not the problem. But it's entirely irrelevant to the discussion, so I'm not sure why you have spent so many comments on it. We'll save it for a discussion about "vexatious comments". $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Jun 22, 2023 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ Your reading doesn't make logical sense. You may be right, but you are assuming that JBH has a personal problem with IK. This is outside the scope of the question. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 22, 2023 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Again, "from the same user". He's saying he wouldn't have a problem if the questions were all from different people. Not sure why you're skipping that. It is the entire reason I'm saying we should ignore usernames -- instantly his problem vanishes! If it's not what he meant, then he should change his original post, but it is a direct quote of what he said. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Jun 26, 2023 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not "skipping" anything. Understand this: a series of questions can only be "vexatious" in this context if they're coming from the same person. If six people ask roughly the same question, we close those for being duplicates. We don't seem to do this much, but I think they can even be merged. If one person asks roughly the same question six times, this is a problem with a particular user that requires attention and action by both the community and the user in question. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 26, 2023 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Which brings us full circle to my statement. It's not vexatious if it's 6 questions from 6 people. Ergo the questions are not the problem. The problem is with the user. A problem that does not exist unless you are looking at usernames. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Jun 26, 2023 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ Great!! We're in complete agreement: It's not (a) vexatious (question) if it's 6 questions from 6 people. Yep. I support this position 100%, as I do not believe that JBH's query applies to multiple people asking questions. Indeed, their questions are not the problem. Quite simply, Person C doesn't know that person A asked a functionally identical query 5 years ago. She couldn't find anything similar on search, and so asked. And so on. JBH never once states that it is about people, so you're obviously quite wrong on that point. If you think he does, then take it up with him and prove it. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 27, 2023 at 1:58
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Exactly! We are in complete agreement, along with JBH, that it is caused by a user -- or rather, the perception that it is all coming from a single person -- and my solution up top therefore resolves the issue. I look forward to your upvote and am glad we finally settled this! I often wonder how many problems could be solved simply by hiding usernames and thus removing egos or grudges from all equations. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Jun 27, 2023 at 5:00
  • $\begingroup$ Your "solution" doesn't actually solve anything, which brings you back to the problem --- that there are a number of vexatious questions that do actually have to be dealt with somehow. Ignoring problems never makes them go away. Whether or not you can see the user name, the underlying problem remains. In your forum, where user names are suppressed, you simply place the problem on the moderators. Moderators might not be so willing to help or defend the user who created the problem and might be more likely to give them the boot. SE relies on community moderation, and people have proven (cont) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 27, 2023 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ That's an implication I would not make. It's also meaningless within the context of SE because user names are public. Sure! Let's read the problem one more time! I define "vexatious questions" as a series of questions from the same user that are minor iterations on a theme or idea. The first question in the series contributed to worldbuilding. The rest of them are, for practical purposes, duplicates of the first and are not contributing to worldbuilding. I've consistently read this as a problem of question while you've consistently read this as a problem of person. (cont) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 29, 2023 at 13:49

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