I spend a lot of time patrolling for duplicates in story identification questions. One issue that repeatedly comes up are the differing definitions of "quality" held by various users when deciding which is the "best" duplicate target to choose. Since "quality" is in the eye of the beholder but the site values consensus-oriented policy, this question is being put forth in an attempt to collect group opinion on:

  • which factors are important in deciding the quality of an answer, and
  • what is the relative weighting of importance for these factors

The idea inspiring this question is that of a grading rubric, such as might be found in any situation where multiple teachers have to grade student essays based on the same standard. While a rubric does not eliminate subjectivity, it does provide a more objective basis by which to rate the closeness of a particular essay to the group-defined ideal. Such a rubric would commonly leave room for hard-to-pin-down aspects such as style and organization, but would still serve to limit the divergence in independent evaluations by reducing the scoring impact of these subjective factors.

It is my hope that something similar can be built here, if for no other purpose than to allow clearer communication between site participants about what they mean by "better" when comparing two posts.

To accomplish this, I am asking that any participating user please post individual answers making a case in favor of each specific factor that he or she deems important. If another answer is posted that more or less agrees with your thinking for a particular factor, please upvote that answer instead of posting a new one. A comment on the answer can be used to make any necessary clarifications or to make a case against that factor. Similarly, if you agree with a particular clarification or disagreement comment, please upvote that comment to express your support.

The hope is that the resulting answers will evolve to an ordered list showing the level of consensus around specific factors, from highest to lowest in group-evaluated importance. (It may also serve as a guide of how to create questions or answers that are broadly deemed as high-quality.) I would prefer it if nobody places any downvotes on any answers, as this will distort the relevant rankings.

I am completely aware that the question of duplicates in general and "quality" in particular have been thorny topics. This is NOT intended to provoke an argument that casts more heat than light. This is a genuine attempt to find out what kind of consensus can be built so that I and others can reduce the friction around the process of closing duplicates.

Note that this question is not about how to ask a good story-identification question so much as it's about what features are considered valuable by the community for an answer or a post as a whole (both question and answer). It's also intended to produce guidance on the relative weighting of the value/importance of each feature.

  • I understand that you hope the voting will show which factors are the most important, but looking at the existing answers (currently all from you), I consider them all valid. As I have no other way to rate their importance, I have up-voted the three (of seven) that I think are most important. – Blackwood Jun 20 '19 at 2:42
  • @Blackwood, that's exactly the kind of response I'm hoping for (along with the addition of new factors not listed by me). Thank you. – Otis Jun 20 '19 at 2:43
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    General note: please be careful about upvoting too many of the answers here too quickly. Since the same user posted them all, the system might interpret such votes as "serial voting" (even if it's not) and reverse it. – Rand al'Thor Jun 20 '19 at 8:17
  • @Randal'Thor Does the reversal script run on meta? I wouldn't have thought it does but I don't know. – TheLethalCarrot Jun 20 '19 at 8:19
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    FWIW this is very related to the story id answer guide and a possible dupe. – TheLethalCarrot Jun 20 '19 at 8:20
  • @TheLethalCarrot It does. I fell into this trap before on another site, up/down voting a bunch of "poll" answers by the same user and then finding next day that my votes had disappeared. – Rand al'Thor Jun 20 '19 at 8:22
  • @Randal'thor - Frustratingly that script also runs on the election pages which is frankly bloody stupid – Valorum Jun 20 '19 at 11:47
  • @Randal'Thor -- I wasn't aware of this mechanism; thank you for pointing it out. I posted multiple answers only as a way of giving examples to spur the discussion. Would it be better for me to delete some of them? – Otis Jun 20 '19 at 12:51
  • @Otis No, that's fine. Just an FYI for voters here. – Rand al'Thor Jun 21 '19 at 12:24
  • @Valorum Huh? There are no "posts by the same user" to upvote on election pages. – Rand al'Thor Jun 21 '19 at 12:25
  • @Randal'Thor - On the questionnaire page – Valorum Jun 21 '19 at 13:28
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    @Valorum There'd be no "multiple answers by the same user" there, as each user submits exactly one post on a questionnaire page. So what's the problem? – Rand al'Thor Jun 21 '19 at 14:34
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    Possible duplicate of How to ask a good story-ID question? – Möoz Jun 23 '19 at 23:58

There is no general rule of thumb as to what makes answer A better than answer B. Answer A might include all of the "good details" but just be very general and not address any of the OP's memories. Whereas answer B might drill down into the work and be very specific to the OP's description. If you use this list here then objectively answer A would probably come out as the "better" one but I'd argue that answer B is actually the better one.

It's also worth noting that these elements alone aren't what makes a story id answer good, it's the correct combination of said elements that make it good. For example, an isfdb link might end up being the highest voted in the list here but if it is pretty much the sole element of the answer is it a good answer? Almost certainly not.

The correct combination of elements will change depending on the specific question and won't apply generally. Some people prefer having book overs shown in the answer but if the question doesn't talk about a book cover you could put them off of the scent because it doesn't match what they remember because of alternate versions. If that ends up being highly voted and so always included it could actually cause a somewhat negative affect with making OP's think it isn't actually what they're looking for because they don't remember that particular cover.

Instead of trying to come up with some semi-policy on which way to close story id duplicates I'd say it doesn't actually matter policy-wise. It's always going to be a gut call on which one is better, answer A might be better but question Y might have a lot more detail than question X. Choose the better overall post and consider it as a post as a whole rather than the question or answer in isolation.

In other words you can't qualify which individual elements are the best ones because it's the combination of those elements and how they relate to the question which makes for a better post.

This is all a very subjective thing and whilst I understand you are trying to objectively come up with a measure here, trying to objectively answer a subjective thing isn't going to work.

  • I continue to agree that quality is subjective, but I strongly disagree that there's no value in attempting to define guidelines that can serve as the basis for coordinated and cooperative community action. I have extensively reviewed the various meta discussions and personally encountered conflicting pushback from various groups of users with differing opinions on various points. True consensus means a shared vision based on shared values -- let's try to develop some. May I suggest that you add an answer along the lines of "presence of multiple factors on this list" as a mark of quality? – Otis Jun 20 '19 at 12:48
  • @Otis As I said in my answer it isn't about the presence of any of these factors or some magic combination of them. It's about how well the answer is tailored to the question and what is included because of that. My bold paragraph is the main point I'm making, you have to take both things together not individually and that's why I feel like there is no magic rule to create the perfect answer. – TheLethalCarrot Jun 20 '19 at 12:52
  • I understand your point. It is valid in that there is a "whole is more than the sum of its parts" aspect of quality. However, I would expect this to be even more subjective than assessment of individual factors, and therefore even more likely to generate disagreement. I would argue that maintaining private, ill-defined definitions of Q&A quality is the main driver of friction in the process, and that these "magic" (i.e. unexplained) individual rules are the root of the conflict around this issue. – Otis Jun 20 '19 at 13:06
  • @Otis My main issue is taking the "parts" out of context will not give you accurate results. What makes sense on one post won't on another so trying to come up with "rules" for what can make a good answer is never going to work. We can all agree that these things can contribute to a good answer but having a post that says "this is better than this" is inherently flawed and that is the main point of my answer here. You just can't come up with an objective way of saying point A is better than point B without considering the context it is posted in. – TheLethalCarrot Jun 20 '19 at 13:10

Inclusion of the author's name and story title as text (not pictures)

It sometimes occurs that an answer includes a cover image showing the title and author, but the text of the answer does not "spell these out." This makes them invisible for the purpose of searches (either via a search engine or when using SE's own search function). It's better to specifically include these details as part of the text of an answer, even when they are clearly visible as part of a cover image.

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    I would argue this is a minimum requirement, not a nice-to-have. To the extent that I will edit it into an answer that doesn't include it. – DavidW Jun 20 '19 at 2:52

Accuracy of included details

It's not uncommon for story identification questions to have misremembered details cited in the question, and it sometimes happens that even the accepted answer includes incorrect information about the story. If one is familiar with the story in question and/or has a copy available to review, it seems reasonable to judge the question and answer with fewer incorrect details as superior.

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    I'm not convinced about this one. It sounds like incorrect details should be penalised, which I disagree with. All else being equal, if one question says "aliens" and it's being compared to one that says "aliens from Aldebaran" and the story is really about aliens from Arcturus, I would still say the 2nd one is better. – DavidW Jun 20 '19 at 3:33
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    @DavidW I'll bite. If the aliens are not from Aldebaran, why is "aliens from Aldebaran" better than "aliens"? How is an answer improved by adding misinformation? – user14111 Jun 20 '19 at 8:58
  • @user14111 It's not complete misinformation. "Aliens from Aldebaran," even if the star name is wrong, tells us that they are from a single, specific place. The aliens are not a galactic empire, nor are they nomads. We can also reasonably infer there is one type of aliens, it's not a federation. Just saying "aliens" conveys none of that. – DavidW Jun 20 '19 at 14:20

Inclusion of quotes from the story itself in an answer

These seem especially valuable for confirming that a proposed answer is correct, as they can be correlated directly with the details (at any level) included in the question. Even relatively short quotes can remind a searcher of their own memory of reading a passage, if it illustrates the author's style well.

  • I like to provide quotes if reasonable to do so. If the OP remembers enough of a story element to call it out, they'll probably recognise surrounding details when they read it, which may not happen with a paraphrase. But it's not always convenient to dig out the book, so I don't think the lack of direct quotes (instead of summaries) should hurt. – DavidW Jun 20 '19 at 3:50
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    @DavidW - Some users seem to delight in including many many book quotes despite them (often) being largely unnecessary – Valorum Jun 20 '19 at 11:49
  • @Valorum Oops, I may sometimes be guilty of overusing quotations myself. <blush/> Like I said, I think it sometimes helps to use the author's own words instead of paraphrasing, especially just a short paragraph. But please feel free to point out if I get carried away; I don't promise to always act on suggestions, but I'm always interested in receiving them, and will listen to any ideas for improvements of my posts. – DavidW Jun 20 '19 at 14:45
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    @DavidW - User14111 is the biggest culprit. Now, if only his answers weren't so damned good.... – Valorum Jun 20 '19 at 15:30

Inclusion of a link to a legitimate online version of the story

These seem to be extraordinarily valuable to searchers, both the original poster (who can readily confirm whether or not the story is the correct one) and to others viewing the question (who can read the story themselves if they find the premise to be interesting). A legal online version can often be found at sites such as the Internet Archive, various online science fiction magazines such as Lightspeed or Clarkesworld, or Baen's website.

  • While this can be handy, and a lot of fun, I would argue that this rarely makes one answer better than another. And then mostly because, having the actual text available, it's possible to give a more detailed answer or direct quotes. – DavidW Jun 20 '19 at 3:40
  • Certainly nice to have, but often times it's impossible to provide legitimate online version when there's none available (e.g. questions from fansub/scanlation of unlicensed anime/manga) – Andrew T. Jun 20 '19 at 3:44

Inclusion of "lower"-level and distinctive details about plot

Here "lower" detail level means more specific and less general. The presence of these in either the question or answer makes it extremely recognizable to searchers, so long as the searcher in question remembers the same details.

Even if not rememebered, distinctive details make it more likely to be found via search queries and also more likely for a candidate ID to be confirmed in some cases (e.g. a particular name).

  • These can be extremely useful. Just a few words can make a question completely unambiguous. e.g. "Israeli inspector general" – DavidW Jun 20 '19 at 3:37
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    I'd argue that, while this definitely makes an answer better, it's not always useful for dupe closing. Especially in cases where different OPs remember different details about the same book: if an answer verifies that the story matches all these details but says nothing about those details, meh. – Rand al'Thor Jun 20 '19 at 8:20
  • @Randal'Thor Not going to argue with that; that's a problem in general with marking ID questions as duplicates. Two people can read the same book and remember completely different things; I don't know if there's a way to reconcile that after the fact into 1 canonical answer to both. – DavidW Jun 20 '19 at 14:51

Inclusion of "higher"-level but distinctive details about plot

Here "higher" detail level means less specific and more general. The presence of these in either the question or answer makes it more easily recognizable to searchers, so long as they are specific enough to separate the story from others that are similar. A broader and more generic description of the whole story is potentially more valuable than a tighter and more specific description of a few particular aspects of the story, especially as a "hub" question that would be linked to the more specific questions closed against it.

  • I disagree, especially with the last part. The most important details are the most unique and memorable ones. Even if someone searching doesn't remember them, they will trigger recognition when seen. Is it more important that Ringworld involves the main characters getting attacked by a primitive society who thought they were engineers, or that it's set on a freaking giant ring in space? – DavidW Jun 20 '19 at 4:01
  • @DavidW, I'm not sure I understand the disagreement. Perhaps I expressed the idea here less than clearly. I would say that it's very important that the post mention the giant ring in space -- as something that's central to the story concept and different enough from others but still a relatively "high" level detail of the plot (i.e. an aspect permeating the whole story, not a specific incident). If there were two questions, one that mentions this and another that didn't, I would argue that the one mentioning the ring in space is the "better" answer, which I think is your argument, too? – Otis Jun 20 '19 at 13:18
  • I think the gist of my point (in other comments too) is that "distinctive" is key. Without the distinctive features, a lot of plot-level descriptions are likely to be tropes, like "elven archer." – DavidW Jun 20 '19 at 14:50

Inclusion of a link to an ISFDB or IMDB entry for the story/show/movie

ISFDB is a great resource for science fiction research, and it is particularly valuable for showing in which collection(s) a given short story has been published, as well as the existence of variant titles and translations. IMDB provides a wealth of information about movies and television shows, which may be of interest to searchers.

  • Perhaps nice to have, but I don't think this might be applicable in every situation since we're allowing all kinds of ID question; from short stories, to TV series, movies, and even games. – Andrew T. Jun 20 '19 at 3:38
  • This is the kind of detail that someone proposing a dupe target, or any other editor, can add; I don't think the lack of this should hurt. That said, I always put it in, because it allows the OP to browse alternative covers for a novel or what collections a short story appeared in. – DavidW Jun 20 '19 at 3:43

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