Mark Gravell recent activity has set a pretty strong precedent for an issue that the rest of us have been tip-toeing around: what to do with answers that are blanket copy-paste, without being properly formatted or cited to indicate where the answer came from?

We're still discussing cut-and-paste answers in general. That's tangential. This announcement is only in regards to posts which are plagiarized.

We have attempted to set a good example, editing these posts where we find them and hoping others would follow our lead. However, the problem is still rampant, so it is felt that a stricter hand is needed to keep the site on track.

From the currently top-rated answer on this post, Shog9 makes the following point (emphasis mine):

If you lack the expertise to answer a question on your own, leave the job to someone else. Plagiarized answers will be deleted without warning, potentially leaving a question unanswered.

As such, we propose formalizing this into site policy, as follows:

In terms of improperly-cited cut-paste answers, please note that going forward, these answers will be deleted without warning.

Some of you frequently indulge in this practice. So far, we've been polite enough to point it out and request you to update your answers, without much (perhaps only a DV in some cases). This has now changed. Please flag plagiarized answers so we can address them promptly.

Of course, you are welcome to edit the answer so it is properly cited. This is essentially what we want you to do.

Properly citing and formatting a quote must include, at minimum, a mention of where the text was copied from (regardless of it is from an online or an offline source), with large blocks of quoted text formatted in a distinct blockquote (i.e., Ctrl+Q in the editing window).

This will help the site overall with quality, and will also keep it from wandering into potentially dangerous legal grounds.

We'll leave this up for a few days (to be determined) to establish a clear consensus among the users of the site.

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    why not edit and format them instead of delete? "delete on sight" seems extreme. this is a community based and wiki type website. not a court to arrest victims. – Battle of Karbala Jul 19 '12 at 17:42
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    @ahmadi up to now, we had been editing and formatting them and hoping others would follow by example, but the situation has not significantly improved. there is as much responsibility on the original poster to ensure their posts are of acceptable quality, as there is on the community to maintain it. – goldPseudo Jul 19 '12 at 19:28
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    Editing and formatting the first few times is fine, but if the user continues doing so, I think deleting on sight is not extremist at all. The community is not here to pick up after people on a regular basis. – Ansari Jul 19 '12 at 20:23
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    @Ansari, deletation should be preserved for really low quality answer and non-answer. Deleting answers because they have some issues is bad practice. You are not required to edit them to fix the problem if you personally don't want to so. – Kaveh Jul 20 '12 at 5:39
  • ps: Generally, site policies like this should be discussed on meta and among the community, not just in chat or among moderators. If think there is a need for a policy like this, present it as a suggested policy to the community in a meta post and ask for feedback/votes, e.g. a policy post on CS.SE, policy about plagiarism on MSE. – Kaveh Jul 20 '12 at 5:41
  • MSE policy meta post on closing copy-pasted questions, ... – Kaveh Jul 20 '12 at 5:48
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    @Kaveh, this meta post on plagiarism has been up for over three weeks. The top rated answer (with zero downvotes) clearly states "Plagiarized answers will be deleted without warning." This is hardly a snap judgement made just in chat or among moderators, all we're doing is formalizing it. – goldPseudo Jul 20 '12 at 6:08
  • @goldPseudo, I personally completely agree with what shog9 has written there. However, this policy (deleting these answers on sight) is not really discussed or voted on there. My votes on his answer means that I agree with the general idea that these are not good answers and should be discouraged (an etiquette). By discouraging I mean commenting and down-voting by users, not using moderator powers to enforce that there are no such answers. There is a big difference between that and the policy in this question. – Kaveh Jul 20 '12 at 6:21
  • @kaveh Fair enough. For the sake of establishing consensus, I'll make this a proposed policy for now, giving everyone a chance to weigh in. – goldPseudo Jul 20 '12 at 6:25
  • @goldPseudo if you mean me I always format and link copy-pasted parts. I remember only one case I forgot format and you edited it. before it I formatted my copy-pastes. " not significantly improved" is not true about me at least. maybe in few cases I did not format unintentionally. but in many cases I formatted in past. – Battle of Karbala Jul 20 '12 at 6:37
  • @goldPseudo, thanks. :) – Kaveh Jul 20 '12 at 6:41
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    @Ahmadi The problem is hardly limited to any single user. I've lost count of how many people's posts I've either edited or commented on just for the sake of citing quotes properly. – goldPseudo Jul 20 '12 at 6:57
  • @goldPseudo I know your great editing role here. I always see your edits all around this site. I appropriate your collaboration in editing. anyway any user has some special capabilities and interests. and this is why wiki based sites are more successful. – Battle of Karbala Jul 20 '12 at 7:30
  • @HasanKhan be careful about making accusatory remarks. We are human beings with limited energy and other responsibilities. Would you rather we spend that deleting bad answers or actually working constructively on things like solving "hard" problems like source citation and FAQ policy? – ashes999 Jul 20 '12 at 15:12
  • @ashes999 apologies, I didn't mean to accuse you in particular but its an observation that I have in general. You are doing a great job as a member and as a moderator. You're also doing a great service to religion by being part of this site. – Muhammad Hasan Khan Jul 20 '12 at 15:55

Please note: this is a very tricky area, and it was not my intent to define policy. But: that excerpt was rather huge, and something needed doing. I do not claim to be an authority on these matters. The community team may have useful input here. Equally, note that I didn't "delete on sight" the entire answer: in many cases there may be salvageable content (by the person actually replying) around the text, that is useful to retain.

Equally, note that "properly cited" also is tricky; if, by "properly cited", you mean "copy/paste a big chunk, but with a link and indicating the author", that still may have (depending on the source) copyright issues. Or it may not, depending on the source.

Edit: from experience, I would say: if an answer consists only of copied text, then I suggest making it a hyperlink-as-a-comment, rather than a post. If there is commentary, then maybe leave the commentary and replace large copy/paste with a link.

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    Don't worry, this isn't in any way a result of your activity. We'd already decided on the policy (at least inre plagiarism), at best you just prompted us to make the announcement a bit early. :) – goldPseudo Jul 19 '12 at 19:35
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    @Marc you just catalyzed an existing issue. We have users who repeatedly do this despite warnings. This is not acceptable for an SO site. Yes, there are intricacies; we will evolve as we go forward. – ashes999 Jul 19 '12 at 19:57

Answers that quote outside sources should follow the academic style used in essays and papers. Something along the following points:

  • Quotes should be clearly marked.

  • Author and online link (if it exists) should be clearly displayed.

  • Only quote the relevant portions of the text.

  • If the above is not possible, do not post a huge block of text. Instead, summarize the source material's findings as they are relevant to the question while stating so and maintaining a link to the original uncut source.

  • A quote and a link alone do not make for a good answer. Make sure whatever you write can actually stand on its own. A quote is simply there to support your answer, not to be the whole answer.

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    These points are great, but I think you need a 5th: the copied content cannot comprise the entire answer. It can supplement it, but no original content = not an answer no matter how relevant and attributed a quote is. – Caleb Jul 19 '12 at 21:02
  • @Caleb - Good point. I'll add it to the rest. – System Down Jul 20 '12 at 5:41

To clarify: I started deleting these answers after seeing comments pleading for attribution ignored, and seeing answers consisting entirely of copy-pasted text up-voted and accepted. Such behavior sets an extremely bad precedent for the site, and I encourage the moderators here to handle it directly - don't "tip toe" around the issue; make it abundantly clear that there is zero tolerance for such answers.

If someone wants to set and example by jumping in and making "heroic" edits, great - but if this doesn't happen, it is imperative that the post is removed.

Even with attribution, answers that lean too heavily on external sources or quotes don't really demonstrate much in the way of understanding or expertise on the part of the author... A few quick Google searches on some of these "quotes" turn up dozens of copies around the 'Net, most of them duplicated without attribution - if this site follows this pattern, developing a reputation for being a content farm full of unoriginal posers... Well, that doesn't really add anything of value to what's already out there.

We've previously closed sites where this behavior was endemic, and won't hesitate to do so again.

One more thing: I'm seeing a lot of confusion between copyright and plagiarism here.

Plagiarism is not a crime per se but is disapproved more on the grounds of moral offence, and cases of plagiarism can involve liability for copyright infringement.

Ignoring ethical concerns, plagiarism is problematic on Stack Exchange for several purely pragmatic reasons: it tends to result in posts that can't be corrected by their authors (because the author doesn't understand or even care enough about the topic to actually respond to criticism), it distorts the reputation scores of users, and excessive duplication can result in being de-ranked by search engines (thus depriving a site of its single largest source of new readers).

Copyright is a different matter: there are specific laws regarding the duplication of content that Stack Exchange, Inc. is bound to uphold, even when such content is properly attributed. These cases are not handled by moderators, and you need not waste your time developing a policy on it - when faced with a formal complaint, we're obligated to remove such content, and the only recourse is a formal counterclaim.

But it is rarely worth discussing copyright, since there is simply no sure way of guaranteeing that a given quotation falls within the boundaries of "fair use". I will note that minimizing quotations to only the most relevant passages and diligently attributing them to their original authors (both of which you should be doing anyway) also makes it less likely that the author will object to your use.

  • +1 this is exactly what we're saying. Thanks for clarifying the repercussions of what this can lead to. – ashes999 Jul 20 '12 at 15:33
  • usage of terms "zero tolerance" for this and that encourages bad behavior from high rep members. And the final threat in your last paragraph re-inforces that. – Muhammad Hasan Khan Jul 21 '12 at 1:54
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    @Hasan: yet another comment that seems to think this isn't a problem, or that I'm bluffing. I'm not. This is serious. It's the sort of thing that can do damage well beyond this (currently quite niche) site, and frankly I'm disgusted by the cavalier that's been a fixture of these discussions so far. You may not care of this site or this network is seen as a joke or a bunch of mindless scrapers, but I guarantee you there are plenty of us who do. – Shog9 Jul 21 '12 at 2:17
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    @Shog9 If you read my answer carefully you'd know that I'm not suggesting that copyright infringement is not a problem but I'm highlighting that 'zero tolerance' kind of attitude is also a problem in itself. It promotes wrong attitude towards addressing the issue. Also giving threats to community is not the right way to promote correct behavior. – Muhammad Hasan Khan Jul 21 '12 at 2:28
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    @Hasan: it's not a threat, and it's not about copyright. The sort of wholesale copying that sparked my reaction here is exceedingly poisonous - there can be NO tolerance for it. As I said, if you want to edit to correct these posts, great! But if not, they must be removed. – Shog9 Jul 21 '12 at 5:46

For clarification, legally we are not required to deal with copyright infringement claims. The community/moderators are not legally responsible for removing them. The issue is way more complicated than we can deal with. (We are not legal experts in copyright law of the state that SE is registered, we cannot decide what is fair use, what is in public domain, what kind of copyright applies to the content, etc.)

The responsibility to deal with copyright infringement is on SE, and they have a structure to deal with these. Copyright infringement claims should be submitted directly to SE, not to the community/moderators. For more information, please see content policy page, copyright section.

I just want to make sure we are not confusing the issue of quality and/or ethic with legal issues. What we have to deal with is low-quality answers and general ethic that we adopt as the community of site, not legal issues.

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    to the down-voter: My answer simply states that we (the community/moderators) cannot properly deal with copyright issues and are not legally required to do so. Is there something incorrect in this that would requires a down-vote? – Kaveh Jul 20 '12 at 6:42
  • I think there's another meta that talks about copyright. These issues are interrelated, but can be addressed separately. (I didn't DV btw) – ashes999 Jul 20 '12 at 15:12

Since there's pretty much agreement about this, we're going to go forward and implement this. This doesn't solve the copyright/plagiarism problem, but it solves the low-quality hard-to-distinguish-quotes-from-the-rest problem.

Some people have reservations about this for new people. Obviously, we will try to guide them and coach them to properly cite answers. This will be our general approach.

For users who have been around for a while, and who have accumulated a lot of reputation, we're going to be a lot more strict about this. You're expected to know "by now" because you've been such an active participant in the system, how to do things right.

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    next time please have a more clear criteria. Right now the question has 5 upvotes and 2 downvotes (I personally have not voted either way). Generally it is better to have the criteria clear from the start, e.g. "this policy is going to be adopted if the total votes is +4 and has at least 2/3 majority after 2 weeks." – Kaveh Jul 29 '12 at 10:14
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    @Kaveh all the answers are pretty much in agreement. These are acknowledged across the SE network as low quality; we're no exception. Anyone can edit and undelete their answers if they are properly formatted -- this is what we want. – ashes999 Jul 29 '12 at 20:25
  • what should count is the votes on the question. the answers may agree with some points of the policy but not necessarily with it. For example you can ask yourself why Marc's answer has +8 votes while the question has only +3. (My comment is for the next time when we are considering adopting a new policy). – Kaveh Jul 29 '12 at 20:29

While I agree that answer without citation, large copy paste, no personal commentary or copy right infringement are a problem but our attitude towards addressing these issues is not right.

Negative feedback such as down votes, closing a question and deleting answers doesn't serve as a good tool to encourage good behavior. It enrages people, creates bad feelings and shuns away new people from participation. Ultimately it will become a community of snobs who are not there to share knowledge but to pick on newbies because the post doesn't comply with so and so FAQ.

Increasingly StackExchange community has learned to act like police officers who are there to punish people and make them act according to rules rather than share knowledge and the problem really is in terms like 'Zero Tolerance' even if it comes before the words 'for no tolerance'.

According to scientific study if you give people the authority to punish, they'll misuse it to full extent and start depicting evil traits while dealing with others. It is human nature to derive pleasure out of showing someone face of the earth. And now that everyone has ability to down vote and vote to close with re-enforcing encouragement from official SE staff for doing so then its not going to make the situation any better.

This is collaboratively edited site. If you think the text is large copy paste or infringing copyright then why not just remove the offending part and keep the custom comments in it? It will probably take tiny amount of extra effort.

Deleting and voting down a answer or a question takes effort of clicking things and removing offending part takes almost similar amount of the effort. Why not spend time and effort in doing something that is less insulting for others? We can try to take an approach that is least insulting for people on case to case basis instead of making a general outright zero tolerance delete on site rule for cleaning the bad content

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    This isn't a response to posts that are largely copy-paste. This is specifically for those posts which copy-paste text from other sources, but don't make it clear that it's copied text or where it's from. – goldPseudo Jul 19 '12 at 19:31
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    Copu-paste is not just low quality, low irrelevance, it's also potential copyright infringement. That's not good enough for an SE site. – ashes999 Jul 19 '12 at 19:57
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    The problem (as I see it) is that we can't really help the user if we don't even know where the user ends and the quoted text begins. I have seen many cases where "helpful" edits or comments were (unknowingly) targetted at the source of the quote, rather than anything that the original poster actually wrote. And that's not even getting into the issue of users inadvertently upvoting a "well-written answer" without even knowing that it's completely cut-and-paste. – goldPseudo Jul 21 '12 at 1:55
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    Where are you getting this punishment angle? And you're contradicting yourself: you decry the deletion of the copied posts, and then suggest editing to... delete the copied text. Either one is fine, as is more nuanced editing to replace the text with choice quotations midst longer explanations that relate them to the question. You can get as fancy as you want with your cleanup, as long as you clean it up. That's what we're talking about here. Now, I'm not going to do careful editing - I don't know enough about the subject matter to do it justice. But you can. – Shog9 Jul 22 '12 at 4:24

I think "deleting on sight" is not a good policy, particularly regarding new users or other who less frequently visit meta. They might not be aware of this issue in the first place and would wonder why their post got deleted with no suggestion for improvement.

A more reasonable policy, IMHO, is to restrict the suggested policy to repeated offenders. The first time (and possibly the second time also) that a user makes a mistake like this, the moderators and the community should explain the issue and make suggestion to the user regarding how to address this issue. If the user doesn't reply/fix the problem or repeats it then deletion of the posts can be reasonable.

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    I don't think anyone is suggesting that we not leave a comment (with a link pointing to the policy) explaining the deletion. As far as I know, there's nothing stopping a user from fixing their post and flagging it for undeletion after the fact — we can even explain how in the policy post if necessary — so the only significant effect to letting users off with a warning is that the plagiarised content remains visible (and thus emulatable) longer. – goldPseudo Jul 21 '12 at 6:02
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    @goldPseudo, that may work in theory, but I think what happens in practice is that many new users will take the deletion more negatively than you expect and will just leave the site. – Kaveh Jul 21 '12 at 21:32

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