We should decide some guidelines about copying entire answers from external sources. A lot of questions will be much easier to answer by just copying, as a lot of subjects have been handled many, many times by different writers already.

The practice seems to be popping up here and there. I'll give two examples:

The examples are pretty different in that

  • one copies a major part of a work, the other minor snippets
  • one references just one source, the other multiple
  • one has source that is available online, the other not
  • one only has copied text, the other has a short introduction by the user

What should we do about this?

  1. Obviously, copyright is an issue. We should always see that it's respected, as otherwise the site will eventually be in a lot of trouble. We will need to make sure that for each instance of copying, either
    • the work is in public domain
    • the copyright holder grants permission
    • the copy is fair use (which I know next to nothing about)
  2. We should decide whether we want answers to show work by the user (besides searching for an answer somebody has already written).

Maybe SE has a policy for this already?


5 Answers 5


The two examples you provide are great case studies. I think this SE site is going to be more prone to this problem than any other in the history of SE. Here be dragons!

My personal opinion is that in the first example you gave, the answer is entirely inappropriate. Even if it's not an outright violation of copyright (which I suspect it is) it turns this site into an internet archive / plagiarizing machine. Your link is the most glaring example, but that user has several other answers that are mostly (or entirely) copy/paste content. A few other users have made such posts as well.

I think the second example you give is more difficult. Yes it has some of the same properties, but as you point out it is also significantly different. I appreciate the effort spent in finding related research, and it provides something I couldn't have learned just by googling myself. Part of the expertise being presented was knowing where to find and how to correlate those particular sources. Unlike the first examples, it is obvious that the user actually has expertise in the field rather than just being a proficient surfer. I think that particular answer could use some improvement visa-vi a TL;DR or summary text that helps put the different statements in the context with each other, but I don't think there is a fundamental problem with that kind of answer. I have done something similar in taking an idea from a commentary and appending it to an answer of my own.

In between these two cases there are some more borderline examples where the majority of an answer is copy/paste and from a single source, but the tone seems to be more in line with your second example.

The major exception not covered in your question is bible passage quotations. It looks like those are pretty generally encouraged!

Unfortunately I don't think that voting alone is enough to police this type of problem. Unless there is some kind of policy or guideline in place, this will continue to happen with abandon. In spite of all our best intentions, reputation marks WILL be skewed by people's proficiency as surfers and willingness to plagiarizer. For proof I could cite a hundred answers across SE site where copy/paste answers get run-away votes. It happens to me. I spend untold hours working on custom answers to people's problems over on Unix.SE. My best work get's +1 comments from guru users, but few votes. One day a really dumb question came along (ironically involving a story about the Pope). I responded with a quick copy paste from Wikipedia to set the record straight and it quickly became one of my top answers. It was so bad that I ended going back and basically scrapping the OP's question so that the question didn't give Unix.SE a bad name.

TL;DR I think we need an official policy (or at least a FAQ point as a guideline) about what is appropriate use of copy/paste from other site. Using this guideline as a basis, we can then comment on posts that are out of bounds and if they are not corrected, flag them for moderators to deal with those users. Such comments and links to the guidelines will also help people know how to vote appropriately.

  • 1
    I very much agree, especially that voting alone will not be enough. The Unix.SE example is very enlightening, too. Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 20:25

If your answer meets one of the following criteria:

  1. Is so general it can be posted to any question on this site and it will be a good answer.
  2. It contains only a single scripture verse and no other commentary
  3. It contains a single, or a couple of quotes from a source or two and no commentary

Its really not an answer and it shouldn't be posted. Take a few more minutes and actually write something that fits the question and shows some thought on your part.

If you see answers that fit these criteria do one of three things:

  1. Edit them so they aren't so awful.
  2. Leave a comment asking the poster to expand.
  3. Flag them so they can be cleaned up/deleted etc...

Yeah, I think in both those cases, especially the first one, the answers should be summarized and put in their own words with sources.

The quotes are OK in the second link about John the Baptist. But the problem is the answer doesn't have anything original in it.

The answers ought to be downvoted on principle or at least commented to that effect.

On the other hand, we had a person on the Gardening.SE website in it's beta period who did nothing but search and paste answers without even quoting or giving sources. I edited most of that person's posts and I think they just sort of gave up once we made it clear we don't appreciate those shenanigans. At least these posts are sourced.


Being the poster of the second post mentioned I would like to explain the reason behind this and how I view it when other users do it.

A first reason is the language. English is not my native language, so writing my own posts may produce lots of grammatical mistakes.

A second reason is the research behind each quote. All sources I quoted are well known theological books and their writers did great research. Finding information for a question, reading them, and then writing something in my own words will lose some of the information and may not cover all required points.

Of course in some cases, information in a source is insufficient or is found in a different context from that of the question. Then I try to sum them up and write a post with my own words as I have done in some posts.

So, I am in favor of copying external sources if the original source is referenced and if the source exactly answers the question.

  • I do feel your pain, being a non-native English speaker myself. Your citation technique has been good, and I think answers like the one I link to would be fair use. I still personally rather hope to see answers that the user has mostly written themselves. I've done a lot of work on some answers myself, and am hoping that others would too. Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 17:59
  • 1
    @Sotiris: Don't worry too much about your English. This is a community site and one thing people can do is edit to fix mistakes. When I see people making an effort to contribute content I don't mind editing to cleanup. I have edited literally thousands of posts on SE sites, often fixing English issues. Some of your posts are borderline with 100% copied content from a single source. I don't want to knock the value of referencing sources, but be careful about just dropping somebody elses content in.
    – Caleb
    Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 21:23

references are great, but i'm more likely to upvote the person that actually gives some meat to their answer rather than providing a link and a quick summerization/quote of the source.

i think it jsut needs to be up to the community to upvote the best answers, ie the ones that actually have some real context to it. it's also up to the askers to accept the best answer, or at least the one that helps them the most.

  • 2
    Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. Look at the votes on Wikipedia copy/paste answers ... they always go way up. I am not just complaining about other answerwers, I have had this happen to me. I put countless hours into custom answers on Unix.SE and get some credit for it, but some of my highest rated answers are the ones to stupid questions that I just highlighted the appropriate paragraph from Wikipedia. I think we nee something of a policy that commentors can link to to help enforce this ... people just don't know when to vote.
    – Caleb
    Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 15:59
  • @Caleb That is so true, too true! I feel it doesn't make very much sense to try to gather rep, because you'd have to employ quite populistic tactics to be effective. Still it feels a little unjust at times... Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 17:48

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