Puzzling is unique across the SE network for allowing "partial answers" -- that is, answers that aren't full answers to the questions, but just make some progress towards answering it. But recently, I've seen several answers that just give tentative answers to a small piece out of a large puzzle. This generally happens when a puzzle (or part of a puzzle) has a "list of clues" format, with a lot of small pieces that can be answered independently. Do these -- should these -- count as "partial answers" at all? When have I made enough progress to post something as a partial answer?
In my opinion, answering only a small part of a large puzzle should not be a "partial answer", particularly if these answers are unconfirmed. What counts as a "small part" will of course vary from puzzle to puzzle, but here are some guidelines I recommend (and use myself), to decide when -- or whether -- to answer:
- (1) A partial answer should clearly make some sort of confirmed progress.
If large parts of the 'partial answer' could be wrong, then it's possible that it couldn't be developed into a full answer, and therefore it's not a partial answer. This confirmation could be by words interlocking in a crossword, or by noticing that your clue answers all have some property in common (which is progress in itself!).
- (2) Partial answers should make significant amounts of progress.
Answering a few cryptic clues isn't enough by itself for a partial answer, even though the answers may be 'confirmed' by the structure of the clue. The fewer clues in your answer, the less likely they are to be a significant enough fragment of an answer that someone else can develop an answer off of yours. If you've solved, say, 5 or 6 clues of a 50-clue crossword, there's no meaningful sense in which a full answer is "based off of" yours, even if the person who posted it did refer to your answer.
(You wouldn't post a Sudoku puzzle with three numbers filled in as a partial answer, so you probably shouldn't do something similar with other puzzle types.)
- (3) Partial answers should be as much progress as you can feasibly make on the puzzle (at time of posting).
Posting a partial answer very soon after a puzzle comes out, and then updating it several times immediately after with more and more bits of progress, seems to me like "rep-grabbing" with an intentionally rushed and incomplete answer. Even if this isn't the intent behind it -- and I'm sure it's usually not! -- it gives that impression to onlookers. And I believe promoting this sort of "post an answer as fast as you can" attitude harms the health of the site.
(If you're actively working on a large puzzle but still want to show that you've made progress, why not leave a comment with your progress? If I only have time for a few potentially-useful thoughts, that's what I generally do.)
So, for example:
- In Sp3000's Signature Puzzle, solving most of the crossword but not figuring out the next step would be enough for a partial answer. There's clear significant progress there, confirmed by the words interlocking and filling most of the grid: so (1) and (2) are satisfied. And if you've solved the entire grid, you could still be stuck on the extraction step - it's reasonable that (3) could also be satisfied in this case. However, doing only the region in the top left corner, or a few random clues scattered around, would not be enough to warrant posting. It would likely fail (3), and even if you really couldn't make more progress it would still fail (1) and/or (2). This much progress might be worth a comment, but probably not an answer.
- In jafe's 5x5 Image Grid, answering 4 or 5 rebuses would likely not be enough to be partial-answer-worthy -- I would just give the ones I had in a comment if I couldn't continue from there. (But answering a majority of the rebuses, even if you aren't able to continue with the second and third steps of the puzzle, would be worth posting as a partial answer.)
If we want Puzzling to be an archive of high-quality puzzles and solutions, I think very small partial answers are ultimately harmful. Jokes about "sniping" other solvers when two answers are posted very close together are good fun, and a bit of friendly competition in solving certainly never hurt anybody. But I do worry that when "racing to fully solve the puzzle" becomes "racing to post whatever progress you've made", the overall quality of answers sharply drops. Prioritizing speed over quality and thoroughness can't be beneficial.
If you haven't made much progress but still want to share what you've made to help other people solve, there are a few ways to do that that are better than answering. You can just post what you have so far in a comment (possibly rot13-encoded, or behind an Imgur link). You could also create a chatroom for a group solve and link that in a comment on the question. Or you could post your answer as a community wiki -- this isn't done as often as it should be here on Puzzling, but collaboration is the whole reason the feature exists across the network!
Partial answers aren't the only option for sharing your progress so far, and in situations where you don't have very much of it, they likely aren't the best one.