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I've just been downvoted for "plagiarism", in that I subsequently edited my own answer to include a reference that was already present in someone else's.

It so happens that in this particular case I was already aware of the reference when I first made my post, but I'm not sure that's relevant. In fact I didn't use it originally because while constructing my answer, and searching for earlier usages, I'd discovered an older one I wasn't familiar with. I just wanted to post my half-complete answer while I looked into a possible connection.

Is there a general consensus on EL&U etiquette for this situation? Even as I ask this, I'm aware it might be thought inappropriate to post an answer that might well be revised/expanded shortly afterwards, quite apart from the possibility of replicating another's references.

I've no wish to defend any particular stance in this area too strongly, but I will just say that unless an answer seems to consist almost entirely of the same content as one single other, I'm inclined to think there's nothing wrong. Even to the extent that a single new answer formed entirely by combining two or more existing ones may actually be desirable.

To my mind the primary aim is to end up with a single answer that's unequivocably "correct" and better than all others. If that can be achieved by combining two "half-right" answers, and the existing posters haven't arranged among themselves to do this, I don't really see much of a problem.

Am I out of touch with the zeitgeist here?

  • In the specific case, the answers are totally different, and they only have a reference in common. As far as I know, a down-vote is given for an answer that is wrong, in some way; if the answer is edited to remove what is wrong, the down-vote should be removed. – kiamlaluno Jul 17 '11 at 17:05
  • @kiamlaluno: Lofty ideals about reversing 'obsolete' downvotes, though I'm sure many don't bother. But are you implying any level of plagiarism is okay so long as none of the copied stuff is actually incorrect? I certainly wouldn't go quite that far myself, though I think I may lean further in that direction than some. – FumbleFingers Jul 17 '11 at 17:16
  • So, are you saying that it is plagiarism for the simple fact that two different answers make reference to the same poem, and the reference is not the full answer? – kiamlaluno Jul 17 '11 at 18:24
  • In this case I just saw the TS Eliot appear and downvoted it (I have removed that vote now). I agree with @Callithumpian's answer here, that when an answer builds on top of one that is already given, I think it is decent and helpful to the reader to attribute the original user. I don't think that is appropriate in this case as the answers simply come across the same material at two different angles. – z7sg Ѫ Jul 17 '11 at 20:40
  • @z7sg: Well since you're here now (or were 25 mins ago), here's my public apology for not acknowledging the prior link. But I think the real issue is how far 'borrowing' should reasonably be taken even if it's all acknowledged. – FumbleFingers Jul 17 '11 at 21:10
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I think "borrowing" bits from other answers on this site in an attempt to make your answer more complete is ok—especially if the bit being borrowed has spurred your own thinking on the question and you wish to include it in your answer as a springboard for further insight.

In such cases, simply giving a nod to the other user within the body of your answer (e.g. "As @so-and-so points out,") is good etiquette. This will not only alert the original answerer, but also direct users to the other's presumably good answer. I think this is a good rule to follow even if you were planning on including the information in your answer but were beaten to the punch line, so to speak.

If you recall, you and I had a similar situation at the question What does “pax” mean in the context of the apartment rental? I found an antedating of the usage which you rolled into your accepted answer. At my request, you kindly credited me. Collaboration of this sort, with internal citations, is a good thing and should avoid any claims of plagiarism.

  • Yes, I do recall the 'pax' question, which I felt was good 'training' for me. On other occasions I've even gotten others to include points from my own answer which I've subsequently deleted. I certainly agree in hindsight it was thoughtless of me not to acknowledge the earlier-posted link in the question that sparked this issue for me (it's irrelevant that I was already aware of the usage). But what if two existing answers contain everything between them, and the posters are either unavailable or not interested in combining for a single better one? – FumbleFingers Jul 17 '11 at 17:24
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    In cases, it's been that I've offered that my input be rolled into an existing one (to further delete the other) - whether I've noticed something because of that post, or we just covered different aspects. To me, this covers the 'good' of the community by providing the best answer, rather than contributing to and knowing of lingering half answers, so long as yours is the best. I think the idea is to be altruistic in this sense, and do good for the community, not just for you in the community. – Grant Thomas Jul 17 '11 at 18:12
  • @Mr. Disappointment: Good points. I'm seriously thinking of changing my Profile to read Anyone who wants can copy as much as they like from my answers and use it in their own. I'll only be miffed if I think you've added nothing of value. – FumbleFingers Jul 17 '11 at 21:17
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The difference between an acceptable answer, and one that is not acceptable depends from how much has been copied from the answer given from the other user, and how much text is added to the new question; if I repeat what I said from another user, and I add "This is what I think." then the new answer should be deleted.

I would make a distinction for some cases.

  • If I write in my answer what reported by a dictionary, and somebody else before me reported what found in another dictionary, and the definitions completely, or partially, match then I didn't plagiarized the previous answer. It would be if I say to report what I found in another dictionary, and then I write the same answer already given, instead of writing what I found in the dictionary I am referring to.
  • If two different users each write an answer, but the answer to the question is the combination of both the answers, then writing an answer that combines both of them would not be plagiarism. By writing an answer, I don't mean the new answer is simply a copy-and-paste of both the previous answers, except that it can contains the same references used by the previous answers.
  • In some cases, it could happen that two different answers have the same reference, or are very similar without one user copying for a previous answer. For example, a user could be the first to write an answer, but the user is distracted from something else, or needs to attend another task; when the user completes the answer, and post it, somebody else wrote a similar answer, using the same reference to a book, a magazine, a dictionary, or an online resource. Despite the fact the timestamp shows the answer is the one written for last, the user didn't see the other question. – kiamlaluno Jul 17 '11 at 22:55

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