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I'm new to Stack Exchange and want to answer questions, but without 50 rep I can't post a comment asking the OP for clarification. Is there a clear guideline for what to do in this situation? (If so, can we make the guideline easy to find? Users with <50 rep are the ones least likely to know how to find that information on CV / meta.CV / meta.SE.)

As an example, I want to help Chrissy figure out How to explain when Main Effect and Interaction are not significant? but she doesn't provide details necessary to answer her question properly. Unable to request clarification in a comment, I requested clarification in an answer and did the best I could to answer the question given the sparse information provided. (As I was typing, another user requested clarification in a comment.)

What I did was explicitly against the guidelines in the window that pops up when answering a question:

Thanks for contributing an answer to Cross Validated!

Please be sure to answer the question. Provide details and share your research!

But avoid …

Asking for help, clarification, or responding to other answers.


In the SE meta I found the answer to Why do I need 50 reputation to comment? What can I do instead? which states:

But I want to contribute now. What should I do instead?

Can I put my comment in an answer?

No.

But suggests:

If you are sure you can provide a real answer, then you are of course welcome to go ahead, but make sure it's a full, valid answer to the question.

That's what I was aiming for, but given the details provided I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a full, valid answer to the question.

The question Comments incorrectly submitted as an answer instead: what should we do? addresses this topic from the point of view of a senior user cleaning up after a newbie. The 'best' answer is to let users with low rep treat the answer field like a comment field:

For people whose reputation (at the time the comment was made!) was low enough, the 'answer instead of comment' is all they can do. There is no cause to chide them.

However, other responses span the gamut from permissive to "we need to somehow reinforce that commenting is a privilege," and even "If they look like superfluous noise, then tell the author to STFU."


So is there a right answer? A best practice?

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    $\begingroup$ It is undoubtedly tough on people like you, but as you appear to know the system-wide idea is to impose a threshold for commenting to cut down drastically on spam, nastiness and wackiness. You just have to hold in there until you're 50. (When you are 50, it won't feel so great....) I emphatically don't endorse any rude wording such as STFU if you really have found that on the system. $\endgroup$ – Nick Cox Dec 4 '14 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ I found an answer I was happy to vote up, so hey presto! your personal problem is solved. Still, the principle remains open to discussion, but I guess zero chance of changing the procedure here. $\endgroup$ – Nick Cox Dec 4 '14 at 20:16
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@whuber's stamina is admirable, but I have to endorse @NickCox's suggestion: You just have to hang in there, contribute answers to questions that don't need clarification (etc.) until you get to 50.

The other option is to build the lack of clarity into your answer. Recognize that many askers here don't know enough to use the right terms or include the necessary (and only the necessary) information in their question. Thus, they may not understand or be able to provide the information requested in your comment. So an answer could be: 'I think you're asking about ____, but this other aspect could be A or B. In your case, if it were A, it would work this way...' This has more potential to help the OP and may lead to a stronger answer.

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We're fairly easy-going around here, but I can only speak for my own moderation habits on this one because nominally it's breaking the rules: when I run across an answer that has been flagged as really being a comment in disguise, and it begins something like "I'm new here and don't have enough rep to comment but I really would like to help somebody by making the following point ...," then I'm happy to run through a few mouse clicks to turn the post into a bona fide comment. (I also try to remember the poster's name, because such behavior indicates they're likely to be a really helpful person to have around.)

For other newbies reading this, please bear in mind that the system presents answers in varying orders depending on user preferences (and the phase of the moon), so if you feel moved to comment on a particular answer then please make clear which answer it is. Even if you currently see only one answer, by the time anybody actually reads your post other answers might have appeared. Remember, too, that comments cannot exceed 500 characters: anything after that in your post will vanish after it's converted into a comment.

As the site matures and traffic grows, it may become harder to bend the rules like this, so please be judicious. It's already becoming a lot of work to close a dozen questions a day.

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    $\begingroup$ -1 for mentioning the phase of the moon parameter. That's a classified algorithm you're messing with! $\endgroup$ – hairboat Dec 5 '14 at 4:05
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    $\begingroup$ (+1) Speaking as another moderator, let me second the part, in particular, about not being unduly "inconvenienced" (given current site-activity levels) in converting such posts from answers to comments. $\endgroup$ – cardinal Dec 5 '14 at 17:44
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The limit is a problem when people like yourself who have something to contribute find a roadblock. The system is a pretty crude instrument, but does cut down on the low-content comments that you see on so many sites.

While the mods have been very helpful in frequently turning comments-in-answers into comments, it's probably not something they can continue to do so often in the longer term.

People who take the trouble to post about it here in the past have often been reasonably close to having enough reputation to take them over, and it often turns out that someone manages to find an upvote-worthy post and the problem is solved. I suppose that technically we're not really supposed to use our votes in that way, but in practice it seems to work quite well. However, again, that's not going to be as feasible as the site grows. (As soon as I saw your post, I was inclined to see if your problem could be solved in that way, but it already had been. Still, I found something to upvote.)

One thing it's at least possible to do if you're able to give a partial answer is to post the answer as far as you're able and then seek clarification in the answer (but where possible you should seek to edit the request for clarification from the answer once the issue is addressed). This also gives the possibility that if the partial answer is good it may attract an upvote or two and that may well tip you into territory where you can post the comment as a comment.

So you pretty much did what you could do within that question.

Another possibility (and perhaps even what the intended solution is) is to find another question or two to answer - whether new, or an older unanswered question (either of which we have in abundance), or even an already answered question you have a particularly good take on that isn't there already. It can seem hard at first to get much recognition for your good contributions (especially for those people more like me, for whom it took some time to understand what kind of contribution would be appreciated), but a little perseverance in trying to provide good answers will win the day.

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