In relation to How to play recorded music without electronics?.

Over the course of time I have encountered questions where people other than the OP edited the question in an effort to resolve issues brought up in comments. Too frequently, the editing effort (no matter how well intended) changes the intent (or assumes the intent) of the OP. Regrettably, the OP is almost always absent or unable to respond for a full 24 hours or more. It's amazing what can happen in that much time.

Question: What is the difference between helpful editing and vandalism?

In my opinion...

  • The Help Center states anybody (with adequate rep.) can edit...
  1. To fix grammar and spelling mistakes

  2. To clarify the meaning of the post (without changing that meaning)

  3. To include additional information only found in comments, so all of the information relevant to the post is contained in one place

  4. To correct minor mistakes or add updates as the post ages

  5. To add related resources or hyperlinks

I believe the problem is with #2. I don't know if the issue is that people are impatient, or they want to favor one answer over another, or what their issue is, but from time to time, people jump in and interpret the question on behalf of the OP.

This has occurred with the linked question. They haven't been illogical assumptions, but they were assumptions nonetheless. But what they did was:

  • Put the question into the VTR queue when it should not have been.

  • Obsoleted answers.1

  • Made assumptions about the OP's intent that were not in evidence in comments.

I consider this vandalism, others may consider it acceptable editing. I'm seeking community consensus to better understand where the proverbial line should be drawn.

1There is an attitude among some on this site that no edit should ever obsolete answers. There are times when that is false and against the basic design of Stack Exchange. (A) If a question is sufficiently within the rules such that it needs no significant clarification (i.e., clarification requests will not obsolete answers), then it is unacceptable to change the question. This is the case when an OP realizes the question they asked isn't what they intended. (B) However, if a question is not ready to be answered in that it is receiving multiple close votes or is obviously not prepared to be answered (see the Help Center, "Answer Well-Asked Questions" section), and you answered it, then you answered the question before it was ready. Now you're paying the price by having your answer obsoleted. That's unfortunate, but it should be a lesson reminding respondents that patience is a virtue and they are as responsible for helping the OP produce a good question before answering as everyone else. (C) Finally, note that what is contrary to SE's design is asking the "same" question again, only it's "right" the second time. That's justification for marking the second question a duplicate, because OPs are expected to edit their first question to make it right.

  • $\begingroup$ Oof. What a tangled web of edits, answers, and miscommunication. $\endgroup$
    – Dubukay
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 19:48
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding the footnote, it's also not ok to ask a sufficiently-detailed question, get answers, and then edit to change that question. If the original was too vague/broad/off-topic/whatever and you answered anyway then maybe that's on you, but if the OP pulled the rug out from under you, that's cause to revert. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio that's a good point. I'll enhance the post to reflect that there's a time to do it and a time not to do it. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ "There is an attitude among some on this site that no edit should ever obsolete answers" - not sure that "attitude is the best neutral choice of words, since it is explicitly stated in the help-center. Is your question potentially leading to a request to change the wording there, I wonder? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ @DonQualm In my life, "attitude" is only negative when used in the phrases "don't give me..." or "he has an...." It's by far and away more positive in its use, which is probably why the negative definition is #7a on Merriam-Webster's list. I don't have the help center memorized, where does it explicitly say questions should not be modified to obsolete answers? It's a fundamental condition of SE to improve questions, even if it means obsoleting answers. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 2:22
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I've not even read the whole thing, let alone memorized it, but numerous people have pointed out the error of invalidating existing answers on numerous occasions. I've tended to rely on advice given in comments in order to learn how the site rules work. I did look that one up before citing it though. The rules of applying it would seem less salient though. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 9:47
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    $\begingroup$ @DonQualm in other words, it isn't explicitly stated anywhere. Stack Exchange encourages editing and improving questions 1,and more even if it results in obsolescence. The fact that users on WB keep whining about it doesn't change anything. Indeed, it only proves they answered too quickly. One of the purposes of this post is to underscore that simple truth. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 17:15

3 Answers 3


Assumptions are not inherently bad.

Let's face it; no question is ever going to be totally, completely, 100% specified with no possibility of any ambiguities at all. That's just not how natural language works. Despite being far more formal than almost anything anywhere on the Stack Exchange network, even detailed contracts, or law, need to be interpreted; that's why there are courts and lawyers. Computer code also needs to be interpreted; let's not get into undefined behavior.

That said...

As a general rule, it's up to OP to clarify their own question.

If the question is sufficiently unclear that it isn't possible to determine whether a given answer is a good answer to the question that is being asked, then the question should probably be put on hold until it can be fixed. "Unclear what you are asking" is there as a close reason for a reason.

Don't rush to answer bad questions. Work with the user who posted the question to turn them into good questions first, and only then answer. This goes double (or triple) for a creative site such as Worldbuilding.

Once the intended meaning has been clarified, the community can help on how to express that intent.

For example, it's not uncommon to see people who are more used to forums to tag edits with "edit 1", "edit 2" and so on. Working those into the question text and turning the question into a coherent whole rather than a set of edits is something I consider a good edit, even if that edit needs to make large-scale changes to the text of the question to make the text flow properly. The same reasoning applies if OP posts clarifications in comments or answers.

However, it's not up to the community to decide what the meaning and intent of the question is. We can't know that. We can only know what the user who posted the question tells us about their intent, which brings us back to the above. So any time you are making assumptions about what the OP wants to know, again the way I see it, you're on very thin ice, no matter how nominally small the edit might be.

Another example is that far from everyone on the site has English as their first language, or even write it very well. As a result, a question might come across as poorly written, but still understandable by someone who puts some effort into figuring out what the question actually says. In such a situation, it's a great edit if that person fixes up the language of the question to flow better, because it helps everyone; it helps OP get answers because more people are likely to put forth the effort to read through the question, and it helps people who read the question because they don't have to slog through a jumbled mess. (The same goes for answers, by the way.)

If you aren't sure what the intent is, then vote to put on hold as unclear, and post a comment that asks for clarification of whatever it is that you don't understand. On the flip side, if you come across a question in the close queue where such comments exist, don't blindly assume that your interpretation is necessarily the correct one. If enough people find the question to be unclear it ends up on hold, and if soon enough, it can be fixed without worrying about existing answers at all.

Also, always be nice about it. OP probably thought the question was clear enough to be answerable, or they likely wouldn't have posted it. (Exceptions do exist.) It's very easy to have a picture in your mind of what you want to know, but fail to convey some critical part of it. If you can't say it nicely when asking for clarification, then don't say it at all, especially (but definitely not exclusively) to a relatively new user. If you get frustrated, then find a way that works for you (any you) to deal with it. You wouldn't believe how many times I've written something up in a different window, thrown it away, and then written up something much nicer that gets posted for real.

  • $\begingroup$ If you don't mind my setting an example: by Another example is that far from everyone on the site has English as their first language, or even write it very well you probably meant, "Another example is that we have users around the world and many speak English as a second language - and some may neither speak it nor write it well." Is that what you meant? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 22:13
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH English as a language other than one's first to me doesn't necessarily imply that English is that person's second language. It could just as well be someone's third language, for example. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ That's a good point, and it's my fault. I've taught "English as a second language" and at that time, all languages other than your native language were considered a "second language." Industry slang that got in the way of clear ideas. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 16:25

Since I'm the one who brought the issue to your attention in the first place, I'll toss my penny-hapenny into the hat in reviewing the answers you've gotten:

1. Assumptions are in fact inherently bad -- You know the old bromide: when we assume, we make an ass out of u and me. The problem with a third party editing based on their own assumptions of the OP's intent is that the editor is not the OP and does not know the OP's intent. That the OP wrote a confusing or poorly worded query is not anyone's problem and is never a cause to take on oneself. If you don't like a confusing question, write your own less confusing question! But never alter the substance of another's question.

2. The OP needs to edit their own question -- I concur. The query belongs to the OP and it's their sole responsibility to edit anything of substance within the query. I also concur that the community can help help with the expression of the OP's ideas. JBH lays out the limits of third party editing of queries. This would fall under "clarifying the meaning", I believe.

3. Is this vandalism? -- I'm the one who said it (to be clear, the edits under Line 5) was vandalism, and I stand by that assessment. The edits in question were made very early in the process, they did not accord with the OP's intent, they did not take into account answers already posted. The result may have had good intentions, but was a fundamental change in the nature of the query. It was then and remains my opinion that such actions are acts of vandalism. Refer to point 1. If you don't like someone's query, go write your own. Just don't make it a duplicate! The ideal behaviour in this instance would have been for the Vandal to ask the OP for clarification. If that clarification never comes, then there's nothing we can really do about it.

Also as a matter of clarification, the Vandals have retracted their axes and torches, apologised for sacking the castle and everything is hunky-dory once more!

4. What's the right thing to do in this circumstance: -- I think the best practice to engage in when any question is seen as confusing or poorly written is to take these steps:

  • First, address the OP. Ask for clarification.
  • If there are obvious mechanical, grammatical, typographical or factual errors, edit those. Sometimes a query makes more sense when it's been rendered into good English (pace homines non Anglos).
  • Third, try to refrain from answering a query that is obviously unclear or has been put in the close queue for some reason.
  • Fourth, once the OP clarifies their query, then proceed with answering.

If vandalism (however cute or seemingly well intended) occurs, best practice is to do these things:

  • Alert the community: in a comment, either consult with one of the forum's Wise Heads or else state that you are going to roll back the incorrect edits
  • Get the job done: Roll back the edits and make a clear notation in the rationale box.

5. Treatment of Poor, Abandoned, or Closed Questions: -- I've thought about this kind of editing for a long while. There are many very old questions in this Stack that were closed years ago for whatever reason that could easily be edited and reopened. They are abandoned and were never worked on by their OPs after being closed. The only problem, of course, is this idea of not vandalising another's work.

There is a very old community worldbuilding project that has actually enshrined this as a Rule. While I'm not suggesting we implement that Rule, it is a guiding principle I go by even here in WB.SE. While abandoned (or seemingly abandoned) queries, such as the one in question, and of whatever vintage, and of whatever quality we may think of them seem to be fruit ripe for the picking, let us not forget that we ourselves didn't ask the question. It doesn't belong to us at all. There is only so much we as community members can do to help a question along. All the fundamental work belongs to the OP.


The edits in question were indeed vandalism. I consider myself in the right to have consulted with JBH on the matter. I consider him in the right to have taken up my suggestion to revert the edits back to the OP's most recent revision.

  • $\begingroup$ I get it now, +1 $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 4:35
  • $\begingroup$ @DonQualm --- No worries! I'm just glad it's cleared up! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 4:36
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    $\begingroup$ Don't feel bad about using the word "vandalism," I've felt this way for a year. While I may have been unconsciously influenced by your use, I actually don't remember reading it and I used it intentionally. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 2:34

I think vandalism is a strong word, cute as it is to label in this way. It implies an intent to deface or ruin the original intent of the work (whether it be a stone wall or a Worldbuilding question).

What we have here are overly eager editors.

All of us can make mistakes when editing. Sometimes even a single character can completely change the meaning of a word, which can then change the question (or answer, if that's where the edit is). Sometimes someone's grasp of English grammar (and it's not always from a non-native speaker) is so bad that it's hard to know what s/he was trying to say. I ask for clarification when I'm unclear on something major, but sometimes the problem is with a single sentence.

What you're talking about is mostly beyond simple mistakes and misunderstandings of what the author was trying to say. It rises to the level of putting words in their mouth, something that's okay in a collaborative document, but not here.

Some Stacks feel differently. In Genealogy.SE, for example, I've had my posts edited by moderators no less, in ways that would never fly here. In one answer, I listed various resources that the OP should try for more information about her/his ancestor. For one I stated that I hadn't found that resource useful for my work but that s/he should try it. Several edits (which I rolled back) changing my assessment of the resource to one that was effusively positive. Their rationale was that all SE posts were collaborative and meant to be a resource for others.

My own view is closer to yours: that authors have the right to say what they mean. We can close or delete ones that don't work, and of course we can edit out anything offensive, but editors should not put words in someone else's mouth.

Your example is a clear case of that.

So what is the distinction?
Would the OP consider the edit to be an accurate version of her/his work? Is it in the OP's voice?

  • $\begingroup$ You should see The Workplace where complete rip-apart-and-rewrite is encouraged because people tend to tell their life stories before getting to the point. Every stack is, indeed, different. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 16:26

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