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I have noticed a pattern that some people seem to vote down answers to questions not because they have any actual objection to the answer but because they do not approve of the question.

A recent example I noticed that triggered this meta question is this question about distinguishing strands based on sequence. I noticed that three answers all had one down-vote and no comments, despite the fact that some of the answers had things to say that I thought were quite clear and useful.

On other prior posts, I have seen this made more explicit. I don't have an example at hand right now, but I've seen comments of the form "Downvoted: don't answer bad questions."

This seems like a bad practice to me that is against the spirit of StackExchange. If somebody finds a question interesting enough to provide a good answer to, then the answer should be judged for its value, not voted down because one doesn't like the question.

Indeed, the Lifejacket and Lifeboat badges are explicitly intended to encourage good answers that can help "salvage" initially problematic questions.

Do people in this community believe that answers to "bad" questions should be down-voted, or should this practice be discouraged?

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    $\begingroup$ I have already provided a response to your question. However I would make a separate point. The way to rescue poor questions is to edit them so they become acceptable questions before answering. In the example you cited none of the answerers did that. I considered doing that myself, but that would have generated a duplicate of the numerous questions on identifying genes already on the site and which the poster should have discovered. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Jul 12 at 16:25
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MSE discussion of similar issues

Similar issues have been raised on the main meta:

How can we discourage people from answering bad questions? Should we?

Should users be penalized for answering bad questions?

Should one downvote answers to off-topic questions?

with some mixed opinions shared (and quite old questions).

Downvotes in general are the source of much angst: some people want them explained with comments, others strongly feel that downvotes are about the opinions of the person downvoting.

Why isn't providing feedback mandatory on downvotes, and why are ideas suggesting such negatively received?

Encouraging people to explain downvotes

The settled rule as I see it is that long as they aren't used for revenge or reward (that is, upvotes/downvotes towards a person rather than content), users have broad leeway to use the voting system how they want. If there is disagreement in the community about the value of an answer, that should be reflected in the balance of up and down votes, such that no one user can unilaterally decide an answer shall have negative score indefinitely. If one user's downvote keeps an answer negative, then that reflects that a) One user found it not helpful, and b) No other user has found it helpful. Of course, that's a bit idealistic as in reality on our small site the number of people interested in a given question can be quite small.

The role of community and moderators

Moderators won't be doing anything to police voting like this (not that this question asked them to, just covering bases). For one, we don't have the tools - your voting habits are private, outside of some external tools that can reverse engineer rep changes a bit). This is really just a discussion of how we'd like to be as a community, rather than settling on any enforceable rules. I do think that this discussion is valuable, though, and it can be helpful to show different perspectives.

This specific example

In my opinion, the downvotes for this specific question are only marginally justifiable; I wouldn't have downvoted myself. Probably the ideal situation would have been that the original question be closed before it was answered to allow for better context to be provided. There's always some tension between aggressive closing of questions, which some perceive to be rude or unwelcoming, and allowing poorly defined questions to attract answers.

I can see judging these answers as "not useful" since it is not possible to judge their usefulness given the lack of clarity in the question. They might be useful information generally and something OP and others could learn from, but SE Q&A are meant to be focused in both directions. Alternatively, I could see judging the answers as "useful" because they do help direct OP to ways this might be done, given an example different from the one they pose.

I'm suspicious from the question that maybe it was not actually the type of meaningful question the answerers interpreted it as, but an XY problem question about an unclear assignment they were given. For example, someone gave them this sequence and asked them for the sequence of an mRNA transcript, and they don't know how to proceed.

My personal general guideline

I agree that mass downvoting answers because you don't like a question is not a good practice.

However, I do think that users have substantial leeway in how they vote, as long as they vote on content and not users, and that this is a key part of the quality-control mechanisms of SE that make it a more useful collection of sites than others, even if the feeling is a bit prickly from the perspective of people whose content is downvoted.

I would suggest that users only use downvotes on answers when they feel those answers are "not useful". That said, all answers are judged in the context of the question asked: a beautifully worded treatise that is factually unimpeachable is still a bad answer if it doesn't serve the question. I consider answers to a homework question, answered before closing, to be "not useful"; occasionally I delete the most blatant versions of these, usually to unelaborated multiple choice questions. Answers to questions that are unclear are a bit more ambiguous, but I think as long as the voter concludes that the answer itself is problematic rather than judging solely on the question then they are justified.

As evidenced by the badges rewarding the behavior, it is recognized that sometimes an answer can turn a poor question on its head. I think these cases are fairly rare, but when they do occur it's usually quite apparent to many people reading them, and disagreement from one voter won't substantially impact the final score of the question.

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Personally, I have always adhered to the principle that answers can make the question and I've often given answers to downvoted questions because I found the question intriguing.

However, there's a limit to that principle. I always discourage answers to questions that are clearly outside the scope of this site. For instance, it often happens that self-help questions receive (dodgy) answers. Those answers are sometimes (though rarely) pretty good, but that doesn't take away the fact the question is explicitly offtopic and doesn't belong here. The moment new users see this ('hey, self-helps receive useful answers!') more of those unwanted questions will be attracted to this site. Thus, answers should not be provided, just comments that the question is offtopic.

So, the consideration should be whether the question is just of low quality yet ontopic (good answers can save the day), or whether the questions is clearly offtopic and needs closure. In the latter case an answer is unwanted as it encourages this type of question to be posted again. And if the answerer is introduced to these matters in the comments yet they still fail to remove their post, I can understand people may start downvoting. It may not be best practice, but it is understandable. The mod team should intervene at that point and close the question and flags from the community are really helpful here.

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    $\begingroup$ I think there is a problem in the lack of distinction between "out of scope" and "didn't do enough of the homework assigned to the OP in the comments by the experts on this site." The former is usually fairly clear; the latter is very much a matter of opinion. How, for example, would you categorize the example linked in my question? $\endgroup$
    – jakebeal
    Jul 9 at 11:09
  • $\begingroup$ The linked question is definitely a lack of research. And yes, the homework issue is a very gray zone with nearly black ones receiving answers and light gray ones end up being closed. Bu I reckon this discussion is not really the matter at debate here, no? $\endgroup$
    – AliceD Mod
    Jul 11 at 10:05
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I think there are many flavors of bad questions, and that the flavor of a question can affect the perception of its answers.

I provided one of the (initially downvoted) answers to the linked question -- Is it possible to distinguish between coding and template strands from the sequence? I would classify this question as lazy. There are ample resources on Biology.SE and other sites that describe gene identification. Moreover, the question's author provides an example sequence without added context, and does not edit the question to provide context when asked in the comments. If I encountered a similar question today, I would likely not answer as I did, and instead vote to close in the absence of clarifying edits. From the perspective of the person who downvoted the answers (and I do expect it was a single person), I can see how it is frustrating that such a question would be "rewarded" with multiple answers. If you are of the belief that answering bad questions begets more bad questions, then it makes sense to discourage answers to such questions.

In contrast, consider the question Is sonic hedgehog a gene or a protein or both? At the time I am writing, this question has a score of −4, and the sole answer (mine) has a score of +8. I suspect some of the downvotes to this question were due to the author's pedantic tone concerning trivial semantics. [From what I remember, a similar How could biologists be so naive? tone was implied in his other questions, but, sadly, they have since been deleted.] That said, the question comes across as confused yet assertive, and thus the answer is perceived by readers as appropriately corrective. This is not a case of a bad question being rewarded with an answer, but rather an instance of an implicit assertion (Gene and protein nomenclature is inconsistent) being met with repudiation (Within a model, there is consistent naming).

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I do not accept the premise of this question, that the answers do not deserve downvotes in themselves, regardless of whether the question uses incorrect terminology.

The question, using my preferred terminology, is:

Is there any way to determine which of the two strands is the ‘sense strand’ in the following DNA fragment?

 5’-ACCAGTACTTCGT-3’ 
 3’-TGGTCATGAAGCA-5’
  • Answer 1 says “machine learning to predict promoters”. This is a bad answer IMHO as there is no requirement that this sequence contain a promoter.
  • Answer 2 refers to “annotation of open reading frames”. This is a bad answer IMHO as the fragment in the question is far too short for this analysis.
  • Answer 3 is about promoters and suffers from the same criticism as answer 1.

If, as I maintain, all these answers are incorrect and can mislead the poster and other users, the correct thing to do on SE is to downvote them all. There is no obligation to say why, and in one case a good reason not to. Some people respond in an incredibly abusive manner to criticism.

Oh. The correct answer is NO.

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    $\begingroup$ I provided "Answer 2" to the question at issue. If I encountered a similar question today, I would likely vote to close ("Homework") in the absence of clarifying edits, and I agree that the most exact answer to the question is "No, there is insufficient context to determine the sense strand". That said, some of the best answers on SE address the question that the author meant, not the question that was actually written. You may think me naïve or pretentious for trying to pull greater meaning from a poorly researched question, David ... $\endgroup$
    – acvill
    Jul 13 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ ... but I think you know as well as anyone that the real question is often revealed after some coaxing in the comments. Moreover, an element of the original question that your revision does not capture is the speculative tone. It opens with Let’s say..., which implies to me that the author is looking for a general framework by which to assess which strand is coding, not an answer for the specific (poorly chosen) example sequence. $\endgroup$
    – acvill
    Jul 13 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ Just seen your comment. Must have been one of the two unanswered I couldn’t find. In fact I indicated in detail in the comment how the question needed clarifying, but was — as is frequently the case — unable to “coax” anything out of the poster. The answerers did not make such an effort but just churned out something on their pet topic. I often rewrite questions to help make them useful when I have received clarification and change my vote. Others answer without any attempt to improve simple English mistakes. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Aug 9 at 7:49

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