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This question grows out of the events described in the recent meta thread Why did Moderator Dale M. delete my answer? but is worth addressing on its own, in my view.

I have been under the impression that posting images of text is strongly discouraged here. I have from time to time advised posters not to post such images. But I have not been able to find anything in the help center, nor any thread on this meta site, that specifically says not to post such images as part of a question or answer.

Images of text are inaccessible to those using screen readers. They also cannot be indexed or searched, whether by our internal search function, or by search engines such as Google. Thy do not reflow when a user's browser resolution changes.

In short they are significantly harder to use. They may well be easier to capture, but a user can use an OCR program (several are widely available) or simply retype the relevant content. A user can often type in a summery and link to the image.

Should we have an explicit policy that such images are discouraged, and should be replaced by actual text whenever possible? Should we say whether such images are grounds for deleting posts?

I am inclined to think that we should clearly say that such images are discouraged and disfavored, and should be replaced, but that they are not, taken alone, grounds for deletion of a post.

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5 Answers 5

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YES

  • Running a text through a free OCR is trivial if you can make a copy of the text anyway. If you have time to make a snippet of text, at least do that little step more!
  • Pictures are not readable by a Screenreader.
    • Deliberately excluding vision impaired people is against policy.
  • Text can be processed and searched for.
  • Links to pictures rot. Text doesn't.
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    The original image should still be included in case the OCR makes mistakes, so that a human can go back and verify the accuracy.
    – Mentalist
    Jul 12, 2022 at 13:12
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YES - "Pictures are for puppies, not for paragraphs"

It's not so much that Law SE needs its own policy on this - it just needs to apply what SE staff have already said on the subject:

No. Not even considering copyrights at the moment, we still don't want you to.

Images aren't SEO friendly. We'd much rather you type everything out, so it is all searchable. Worse, if the image goes missing, the entire context of your question is gone. So no, don't upload an image as your question. Images are for providing examples, not a shortcut to not having to type anything.

And while I think the reasons outlined in animuson's answer above are correct and sufficient on their own to say people shouldn't be doing it they don't tell the whole story. Trish's (excellent) answer already touches on the key points, but I think it's worth expanding on them:

  • Scanned text can be OCR'd to provide actual text - in most situations this is trivial to do at the point of scanning, so there's essentially no overhead on the original poster to doing this where they're working from an original hardcopy. And where the OCR is going to have difficulty (e.g. a marked, degraded, or otherwise low-quality source) this difficulty also carries forward on to those users who have some degree of visual impairment, and since OCR works better the higher resolution the image data is that means it's far better to fix this at the source, as opposed to relying on a third party to take the reduced quality image available in an already-uploaded image and process it.

  • Where images-as-text are not reproduced in their entirety (either in the body or as alt text) they become completely inaccessible to those who rely on screen-readers. Whether this exclusion of a disabled group is intentional or simple thoughtlessness doesn't change the outcome, and if you're going to reproduce it in it's entirety (or otherwise make it functionally unnecessary to the content) then why is it there in the first place?

  • Other visibility adaptions - contrast, zooming, line-space adjustments etc. All of these cease to function with images of text - so you're impacting on more than "just" blind and extremely low-vision users. I'll admit this one hits rather close to home - I have a browser extension installed that modifies text on Stack Exchange sites from the default to improve readability for me as a result of a disability. Rather unsuprisingly it can't work it's magic on text-as-an-image!

  • They can't re-flow - this causes problems if the content is being viewed on a different platform e.g. mobile, varying from the merely "ugly" to the "painful to use"

  • Images (even those uploaded using the SE editor) create an external dependency for the content - SE uses imgur for their image hosting needs, so if imgur is down, or goes away so does the image.

  • The text can't be appropriately indexed and searched for - a big part of what SE does is providing "a library of detailed answers", and the larger such a library gets the more users are going to rely on search tools (both internal and external) so making this content searchable is pretty important!

So as a rule of thumb if you're expecting the user to read text it should be text.

This isn't a new or revolutionary idea - the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Success Criterion 1.4.5 says not to do it (and has done for ~14 years), Stack Exchange staff say not to do it (and have done for ~10 years) and there's been multiple discussions across the network highlighting the myriad issues that come with it and why it should be discouraged.

Should we be penalizing users who do this? No, not unless there's an egregious pattern of behavior and an unwillingness to change - but discouraging the practice? Absolutely!

Should users other than the poster fix an image-as-text if the OP doesn't? By all means, but we shouldn't rely on it as a complete solution. Community curation like that is something SE users do rather well on the whole - but it's purely voluntary and may or may not happen at some indeterminate point in the future.

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Yes

and what seems to be the consensus here isn't being enforced currently.

I left a comment on this answer asking politely for an image of text to be converted to actual text or otherwise handed. There was no response the next day. So I raised a flag for moderator attention. The response of the unnamed mod who addressed the flag was:

As an image of the whole page of a magazine which is reproducing an article from a 192 magazine I think its OK.

This response seems entirely concerned with copyright issues, although it didn't exactly say that. It seems to ignore the accessibility and searchability issues mentioned at some length in this thread. Is it the position of the moderators that no mod action will be taken on such images unless there is a clear copyright issue? If so, I think that position is unwise and goes counter to the community view expressed in this thread.

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  • I didn't handle that flag, but just looking at that particular example it's not clear to me that the image is essential to the answer. I read the answer without reading anything in the image, and then reading the image didn't tell me anything else, so maybe one could consider the image to be an illustration – like putting a stock image of a cow in an answer that involves cows. One could reasonably edit out the image because there's also a link to the PDF of it in the answer.
    – feetwet Mod
    Sep 13, 2022 at 13:17
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    @feetwet Is it reasonable for users here on Law.se to flag such posts, expecting a mod to handle them in accord with the consensus formed in this thread? Or should users handle such posts by editing them to remove or OCR such text, or by proposing deletion of the post? Or is neither course appropriate? Do any other mods want to weigh in? Sep 13, 2022 at 17:23
  • Personally I think that it's always helpful to edit a post to add essential text from an image, and as a mod I would support such an improvement if it became an edit war. I would prefer people not flag when an edit solves the problem, but if a reviewer is unsure what should be done, or there's some contention, then flagging is fine.
    – feetwet Mod
    Sep 13, 2022 at 19:46
  • I should also note: the fact that your flag was declined does not mean that (a) the mod understood the issue; (b) the mod made the right decision; (c) other mods would handle it the same way; or even that (d) you shouldn't edit the post to make that improvement.
    – feetwet Mod
    Sep 13, 2022 at 19:50
  • @feetwet Thank you. I hope this will become a topic in the LSE mods chat. FYi the flag I raised was listedn as "helpful" but not acted on. Perhaps I will make some edits to posts with images of text. Sep 13, 2022 at 21:09
  • @feetwet I edited to remove the similar image by the same poster on law.stackexchange.com/questions/79934/… , and replace it with text derived from an OCR of the image, The OP has now tolled this back, and I hgave reinstated it. Moderator attention would be welcome. Sep 14, 2022 at 16:57
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We don't need one

It is a general Stack Exchange policy. We should apply it here as it is applied on any other SE site.

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  • The linked thread is entirely about code & error msgs, and entirely about technical measures to prevent posting such images, or remind users not to post them, It has no discussion about whether it is appropriate to: 1) edit out such images, 2) edit to replace with OCR, 3) lock such posts, or 4) delete such posts. Nor have mods or users been doing any of those consistently. I think we need a specific decision here as to whether it is reasonable and expected to take any such action routinely. Would you as a moderator be prepared to take any such actions on sight of an image? if so, which? Sep 1, 2022 at 15:39
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Should we have an explicit policy against images of text?

No. There are practicality, accessibility, and behavioral grounds for ruling out that policy.

Some questions require reading a few paragraphs (1-3 pages) from a textbook. Transcribing them falls in the "whenever possible" category you mention, but that task can be impractical and end up deterring a user from posting an interesting question (or useful answer, accordingly).

General experience on SE indicates that the loss of accessibility is not significant. The on-topic answers/remarks, follow up questions, and upvotes that a post with images of text prompts vastly outweigh the complaints for using images of text. By contrast, an anti-images policy that dissuades a user from posting would lead to the situation where everybody is deprived of access to that resource.

From your assumption that "A user can often type in a summary and link to the image" I would replace "often" by "sometimes". Case in point: Printed textbooks. Posting a link to images of text requires users to do the extra step of uploading those images to an external repository, with the risk that later it might be taken down and result in broken links. By contrast, allowing images of text makes the SE post more self-contained.

The contributor can overcome issues related to indexing and searching by mentioning key terms somewhere else in his post. After all, a post on SE hardly ever consists of images of texts and nothing else.

Lastly, keep in mind that the more prohibitions by policy there are, the nit-pickier some users become. Indeed, some users are fond of downvoting and hounding even where a contributor's "violation" of policy is immaterial. There is no need for bolstering that intolerance.

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    "Who cares about disabled people, they're in the minority!" Ugh.. ableist thinking like this is precisely why measures should be taken to protect them. Jul 12, 2022 at 14:08
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    @motosubatsu "Who cares about disabled people, they're in the minority!" That paraphrase mischaracterizes my point. By that token, let's shut down the Internet, computers, and devices till we can ensure that every human being has access to them. "ableist thinking like this is precisely why measures should be taken to protect them". Then what you need to do is demand that SE remove any and all functionality about uploading images. Getting mad at contributors who use, or make sense of, SE's implementation is misdirected anger. Jul 12, 2022 at 14:31
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    "demand that SE remove any and all functionality about uploading images" not at all - there's nothing wrong with images on SE when used appropriately, using them as a means of delivering text, when the answer box already provides a far more efficient and accessible means to do so is not an appropriate use of them. Perfect accessibility isn't feasible, but that doesn't mean we should be encouraging things which are actively hostile to accessibility for no good reason. Jul 12, 2022 at 14:38
  • @motosubatsu "the answer box already provides a far more efficient". Do you honestly believe that transcribing 1-3 pages of a textbook is more efficient than uploading a scan? "encouraging things which are actively hostile to accessibility for no good reason." The answer outlines good reasons why users may opt to upload images of text. Your term "actively hostile" clearly is inflammatory and misused. Hostility refers to animate beings. Suffixing it with "to accessibility" is futile wording. I highly doubt that users who upload images of texts do so in hostility toward disabled people. Jul 12, 2022 at 15:10
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    Is storing, and conveying textual information in.. well text more efficient than in an image of said text? Yes, absolutely. And, as Trish points out in her answer - quick and easy OCR exists so it doesn't even need to be transcribed. Jul 12, 2022 at 15:20
  • @mosobatsu I doubt storage efficiency is a concern nowadays. You are splitting hairs at this point. "quick and easy OCR exists". The easier it is to do the extra step, the clearer how intolerance (as well as the inflammatory speech as in "ableist thinking", "actively hostile", etc.) will increase if the proposal becomes policy. Thank you for proving the last paragraph of this answer. Since the extra step is that easy and anyone can download the image of text, any non-visually impaired user could readily perform the extra step just like when users edit others' posts. Jul 12, 2022 at 21:03
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    You don't disagree that it's more efficient, you don't disagree that it's easy to do the conversion, and you don't disagree that image-as-text excludes the visually impaired. But you do think that the idea of doing that conversion before posting despite that being just as easy, more efficient and more accurate is somehow an unreasonable ask, your answer argues against it as being impractical but apparently the easier it is to do the more unreasonable it is to ask? Jul 13, 2022 at 9:55
  • @motosubatsu "You don't disagree that it's more efficient". Storage efficiency is significantly less important than avoiding the point where the site becomes cluttered with too many policies. There is no need for policy on matters which any non-visually impaired user can readily remedy as I mentioned in the previous comment. The obsession that the author of a question/answer is the one to who has to do it is an example of nitpicking. Jul 13, 2022 at 12:07
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    @IñakiViggers So you are ok to exclude any Visually impaired user from reading the question until another user finds the offending picture, and has both the interest and the time to OCR the picture?
    – Trish
    Aug 12, 2022 at 9:41
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    There are a number of free online OCR services which will reliably transform images of printed text to actual text, so no one need re-type long passages. Sep 3, 2022 at 16:44
  • I concur with Iñaki Viggers in full although adding that (i) the policy to protect the differently abled should be imposed on the non-new user OP's, then the main user base to convert such image into text, the same on moderators if the former fails, and then the site in case all those before fail in this order, and (ii) in no case should this duty be imposed on the new user.
    – kisspuska
    Sep 21, 2022 at 6:29

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