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What is the etiquette for editing questions? How much is it OK to modify? What are the guidelines and what are the limits?

I am concerned that once a question has been edited, the difficulties facing the initial user may not be as conspicuous because the editor may have inadvertently filled in some critical conceptual gaps in the question.

Specifically:

  1. Datasets are sometimes presented in different ways including jpeg screenshots. How should they be reformatted, in particular to avoid presuming R familiarity or preference? On this issue I got moderator guidance from @whuber advising to format them as text (usually comma delimited), or else include the data in the answer.

  2. Should plots be always left untouched? Beyond subjective, aesthetic considerations, perhaps some subtle change in the presentation or the data may occur that defeats the purpose of the OP.

  3. Do you all agree that improving the grammar to make the question understandable is an OK reason for an edit?

  4. Is reformatting with $\LaTeX{}$ to beautify equations OK without exceptions?

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  • $\begingroup$ Hi Antoni. This seems to be our best meta thread on editing questions and other questions are starting to get closed as duplicates of it. Nick's answer does indeed provide excellent guidance. However, the question is a bit long and its first part is more of an introduction. Given the question's popularity, I thought perhaps you might want to condense it to make it more to the point ("What is the etiquette for editing questions?"). (I guess if you prefer I could suggest an edit and you roll back if you don't like it.) Feel free to leave it as is if you find it more appropriate. Just an idea! $\endgroup$ – amoeba says Reinstate Monica Feb 13 '16 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ @amoeba It would be greatly appreciated it if you edited this question. There is no question on my mind that the changes would be an improvement. So please, please go ahead... Just don't decompose it into eigenvectors :-) $\endgroup$ – Antoni Parellada Feb 13 '16 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ I gave it a shot. $\endgroup$ – amoeba says Reinstate Monica Feb 14 '16 at 15:16
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This is a series of side-notes to @Glen_b's excellent answer.

Editing is a public service. Even some small edits can just clean up a post and make it easier for everyone to read, which is a positive contribution. Often an edit can change a question that looks too messy to wade through to one that looks readable. Editing can and should help the OP, who should get more and quicker attention (and, although this is a side-effect, who should also get feedback on their presentation for future questions). It helps others too.

Editing does not impart a moral judgment. We can't confidently and consistently distinguish between over-hasty, lazy presentation and someone struggling with one, two or even all three of a second language; statistics they really don't understand; and a medium that is unfamiliar. That said, I will on occasion comment firmly that a question (or answer) is just too messy to be worth anyone's time to edit. If the OP isn't able or willing to fix the presentation, then that is the end of the story: we are all volunteers here and there is no obligation to be infinitely helpful.

Changing just one small thing requires a careful decision. It will bump the question momentarily to the top of the active list. Some people are irritated to re-open a post of interest to find one minute change. But even threads that have seen many posts can carry errors worth correcting. Nevertheless, for this and other reasons, it is good advice that if you edit, edit everything that you spot as deserving change, so as to make the edit worthwhile.

Editing just the title can be valuable too. Posters can be especially blind to typos in the title. Considering that titles are key for later searches, even trivial misspellings can be a nuisance. It's common that titles are too long and/or carry useless words (please help; question about; how to analyse my data). On the other hand, sometimes you need to flag to posters that they should think up a better title themselves. (It's a fact of life in a forum that some members use eccentric or inadequately informative titles as a criterion for what to ignore, so improving them may seem a disservice too.)

Edits can be of any aspect of presentation (text, mathematics, code or data presentation), but as far as possible should only clarify, not change, the statistical content that defines the question being asked.

So you can edit grammar, spelling, punctuation and style, but you should not change strange or even incorrect uses of statistical terms, or any other dubious statistical content, even if obvious to you. Naturally, you should only change the language if you are confident that you are right (or have better taste or style...)! (Don't worry too much about this; a mistaken edit can be reversed.)

Content that should be removed includes greetings (at the beginning of a post) or signatures (at the end) and any material that looks irrelevant to the question. That includes polite (or even not so polite) expressions of how confused the poster is, how much time they have already spent working on the problem, how grateful they will be for an answer and (especially) how urgent or important the question is. The aim is not to deny the human side underlying a question, but to focus exclusively on the technical content at its heart. In a busy world, being able to read that content quickly and easily is a bonus for all. (Whether it's a benefit that editing sometimes makes it clearer that there is no underlying precise and concise question I leave as an open question.)

There is, as often, a small tension between the immediate, short-term aim of helping the original poster and the ultimate, longer-term aim of building an archive of high quality answered questions that should be of interest or use to many readers (in many cases, long after a poster may have disappeared from the forum). But any errors, omissions, or confusion in the statistical content of a question are likely to be part of the OP's problem and should be left as posted. Someone who edits a question need have no intention of answering it, but it can be helpful to publicise difficult points through comments. For example, you say that you want to apply multivariate regression, but you only have one response variable, so I think you mean multiple regression.

Similarly, you can introduce or improve mark-up of mathematics, code and data, but should not change even poor notation choices, which could be part of the problem. I would correct trivia, as when someone has posted $\beta2$, but it's evident that they mean $\beta_2$, but if in doubt, do not edit, but rather comment. There seems to be a square missing from your variance formula.

I think that it is rare that you should replace someone's graph. But here is a further situation where that does seems right: when presented with a very crude hand-drawn graph that someone has scanned or photographed, you may without loss be able to do a much better job.

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    $\begingroup$ Based on your earlier comments in chat I was keen to see you post -- especially because there's a few aspects where we differ. However, this is a better post even than I had hoped to see, with many good points and useful suggestions. It's important that people be able to see it here. $\endgroup$ – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Nov 17 '15 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Glen_b Thanks! I don't think we differ much at all. So far as I can gather, you lean towards fixing technical side issues and changing graphs to improve presentation a little more than I do. $\endgroup$ – Nick Cox Nov 18 '15 at 1:31
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, it's a small difference on a few items, but I think it's important to get a sense of those differences. I'll be considering those sort of edits more carefully, for one thing. $\endgroup$ – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Nov 18 '15 at 1:36
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[Just to make clear, though my answers should always be read this way: this is personal opinion]

You don't need to have any intention of answering a question to edit it.

the difficulties facing the initial user may not be as conspicuous because the editor may have inadvertently filled in some critical conceptual gaps in the OP.

Where feasible, it's important to have a question and answer that will be understood by and be useful to more people.

Mostly you should lean toward letting the OP's phrasing stand, but you can certainly encourage the OP to clarify. While some people would lean toward never fixing misconceptions in the question, if it's a side issue to the main question and fixing it is likely to clarify that misconception for the OP it may be okay. (It can sometimes be hard to be sure, though.)

The concern you mentioned is certainly possible so if you do edit, care must be taken - and you can always invite the OP to change anything back.

In the case of plots, and beyond subjective, aesthetic considerations, perhaps some subtle change in the presentation or the data may occur that defeats the purpose of the OP.

Such things are always a small risk with edits. If you're aware of the possibility, it's unlikely to be a major problem. Note that edits can be rolled back.

How should data points be posted to avoid presuming R familiarity or preference?

Certainly avoid editing to make anything R-specific; if it's already R-specific that's different. It's perfectly possible to edit to produce a cleanly-formatted ASCII table, for example, which will copy-paste (or easily be read) into a wide variety of packages.

e.g. something formatted like this:

    A     B
    4     2
    4    10
    7     4
    7    22
    8    16
    9    10

... is not R-specific but will read straight into R with a copy-paste (type OPdata=read.table(stdin(),header=TRUE) then paste, press Enter and you have a data frame; or just read from clipboard rather than stdin)

So: plain ASCII text in a standard form (space delimited or comma-delimited, compatible with CSV) is desirable -- these can be read by almost anything. This is uniformly better that an image of numbers (since it contains the same information but can be used by answerers) ... but be very careful you don't change the data!

On this issue I got moderator guidance from @whuber advising to format them as text (usually comma delimited), or else include the data in the answer.

It's sensible advice; I'd add space-delimited to the mix of what's fine.

Should plots be always left untouched?

I don't have enough context to know what things you're proposing to fix, but usually you wouldn't alter a plot. Always is too strong.

There are some situations where I have edited a plot. One example is where there's a small plot with gigantic amounts of white-space around it (a plot smaller than 1/10 the size of a standard page (A4 or 8.5x11), say 3x2.5 inches sitting in a field of white pixels the size of a page. In that case I cut out almost all the white space.

Do you all agree that improving the grammar to make the question understandable is an OK reason for an edit in some cases?

Yes, almost always.

Is reformatting with latex to beautify equations OK without exceptions?

Nearly always, it's a good thing to do.

But without exception? That's hard to say, since exceptions may be things we haven't thought of. But in this case I can think of a few possible exceptions.

i. If I expect a post will move to SO I try to avoid LaTeX.

ii. If an equation can as easily be read as pseudocode (e.g. can very easily be turned into say a formula in R if left as is) I'm less inclined to edit it because there's another way to use it as it stands.

Your question is filled with requests for absolutes. That's not going to happen. Don't look for ironclad rules here. Just act sensibly, change things in ways that will clearly improve the post for as many people as you can, but with respect for the OP's intent.

If one is to edit (which is a very good thing to do), it's necessary to accept that:

  1. You will occasionally make mistakes (of judgement, say)

  2. Even when you act in very sensible ways, people will disagree occasionally; there can be legitimate difference of opinion

Don't get too bothered about these things unless there seem to be a lot of problems, in which case you may need to attempt to move your expectations toward the community norms more. Mistakes are not irretrievable -- as the saying goes, it's not rocket surgery.


Oh, and definitely put me down in the "the data were" column. "Datum" is singular, "data" is a plural noun.

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  • $\begingroup$ Glen, Thank you for your answer. I tried the code and I got the following: OPdata=read(stdin(),header=TRUE) Error: could not find function "read" $\endgroup$ – Antoni Parellada Nov 14 '15 at 0:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Antoni thanks, that was meant to be read.table. I believe I originally typed read.table but I likely screwed it up during editing of my answer before posting. $\endgroup$ – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Nov 14 '15 at 1:39
  • $\begingroup$ I have a vague idea what rocket science is. However I would be interested to know what is rocket surgery? $\endgroup$ – mpiktas Nov 17 '15 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ @mpiktas Two common sayings are "it's not brain surgery" and "it's not rocket science", both of which mean the same thing. Mixing the two is amusing in a silly way, possibly implying the speaker (or writer in this case) is stupid. See urbandictionary or TvTropes or A Way With Words $\endgroup$ – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Nov 17 '15 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ Just as I suspected :) $\endgroup$ – mpiktas Nov 17 '15 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ The former saying has received (what shall I say?) a renewed boost recently with the ventures of a former brain surgeon outside brain surgery. $\endgroup$ – Nick Cox Nov 17 '15 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Nick Yes, I've watched those ventures with some amusement. It would be even funnier if the eventual outcome weren't so serious. $\endgroup$ – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Nov 17 '15 at 21:58
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    $\begingroup$ On data as singular and plural. Data clearly has a Latin root as a plural, but language changes and need not be logically consistent. Older folks who grew up writing down each value, adding them up and so forth are more likely to think of their data as plural than younger people for whom the data is [sic] just a single entity handled on the computer; and indeed the data can be both. Latin plurals can become singulars (who says "the agenda are long"?) and words can be both singular and plural (there's a hair on your shirt; I need to get my hair cut). $\endgroup$ – Nick Cox Nov 18 '15 at 9:57
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    $\begingroup$ I still usually prefer to say and write for myself "the data show", "the data are", but it's far, far too late to eradicate the other form. "The data is consistent with a linear pattern": I find myself saying such things too. But I still cringe at "I have a data" which I have only noticed in the last few years, but I can't put my finger on why. I think it's just that one form is idiomatic around me and the other isn't, so it's all probably food for the sociologists. $\endgroup$ – Nick Cox Nov 18 '15 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ Similarly on the word code as anything from a few lines in some language to a self-contained program. "I have some code"; "the code isn't working" sound fine but "I have a code" doesn't sound at all right and I tend to edit it out. That statement may well seem utterly parochial, all the way down to my perception of what is said among my own peer group of some British academics. But editing what is not widely idiomatic to what is widely idiomatic can be important too. $\endgroup$ – Nick Cox Nov 18 '15 at 10:07
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    $\begingroup$ Declaration of war: I always edit out i for I and gonna and wanna. $\endgroup$ – Nick Cox Nov 18 '15 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ ctd... As far as I see, few people have said datum or agendum in a long time. $\endgroup$ – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Nov 18 '15 at 22:23
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    $\begingroup$ Datum retains a specific meaning in surveying and geodesy. For example, land surface altitudes in Britain are reported relative to Ordnance Datum. But within statistics stricter sense I don't think I've heard the word used in recent years, except facetiously. Data point is often useful and (often deliberately) matches the geometric or graphical meaning perfectly. $\endgroup$ – Nick Cox Nov 18 '15 at 23:40
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    $\begingroup$ I think "an errata" is more nearly just a mistake. Ditto "a criteria", "a phenomena" (switching to Greek from Latin). $\endgroup$ – Nick Cox Nov 19 '15 at 9:32
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    $\begingroup$ Of course data had a tragic flaw: the lack of a dominant, unambiguous criterion for individuation. We can, & often do, talk glibly of "data" without a clear notion of what a single datum would be (is a point on a scatter-plot a datum? or two data?). Though attempted explanations of grammatical categories in terms of semantics seem to throw up as many exceptions as regularities, there's a tendency for mass nouns to share this lack, & I feel that some sense of data's kinship to news, information, & the like played a part in the change. Even careful writers who treat ... $\endgroup$ – Scortchi - Reinstate Monica Nov 19 '15 at 10:34

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