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Lately there are a number of answers to questions that are mostly copy-pasted quotes from references:

This is not a particularly new phenomenon (it has been done from the beginning of ELU), it just seems it has been noticeably common lately.

There are multiple competing principles here:

  • having authoritative references for any claims (you can trust the answer from an authoritative source)
  • having explanation (whether the text is on SE or not, the OP gets a good answer)
  • not having LMGTFY answers (we want value added here, not just empty links to somewhere else)

All of these have their own controversies. And then they each pull in different directions. (Plagiarism is not one of the issues: copying is wrong but quoting is OK).

The question is: do any of these principles take precedence over the others or does it depend on judgement?

I find some of the answers given above (and others) to be the 'right' answer; there is no better answer that the authoritative reference could give.

But usually I also find these kinds of answers particularly unsatisfying, and I feel if giving a quote from the web is the answer then the question should be closable as GR and the answer should really be a 'LMGTFY' comment or direct link to the reference (and if not closed, shouldn't the answer text give the direct link anyway? (of course, both text and link should be given but if one rather than the other then the quoted original text is better) )

And then there's the question of whether it is generally available on the web, say behind a pay-wall or only published on paper.

So, to simplify, should answers like these be welcomed, tolerated, or deprecated? Or does it depend?

  • I think a similar question has been already asked, but I cannot find it, right now. – kiamlaluno Apr 30 '12 at 15:21
  • @kiamlaluno: I think Martha mentions it: Google is not GR. – Mitch Apr 30 '12 at 16:36
  • I was thinking of a question about how much quoted text should be part of an answer. I am sure it was already asked, at the beginning, but I cannot find the question. I am looking for the questions asked by some users, but I didn't find it, so far. – kiamlaluno Apr 30 '12 at 16:47
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    @kiamlaluno: copyrights is an entirely different question than general reference. I don't think the two questions are even closely related. – Marthaª Apr 30 '12 at 18:29
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    @Marthaª I am referring to, "there are a number of answers to questions that are mostly copy-pasted quotes from references." We already discussed about that, but I picked up the wrong question. This is not a question about GR, but about answers quoting a source. – kiamlaluno Apr 30 '12 at 18:52
  • Please see my answer below. Why are questions that are easily solved with a trivial google search even sticking around long enough to have competing answers in the first place? – user20276 May 5 '12 at 0:58
  • This brings me to another question, why on this site do I see 5 and 6 duplicate answers for many questions all with upvotes? That isn't useful at all, I was under the impression that situation doesn't meet the quality standards of SE? – user20276 May 5 '12 at 0:59
  • @NathanC.Tresch: Yes, trivial google searches that could have answered the question make it very closable as GR. But I'm leaning towards thinking of answers as inappropriate when the answer is trivial because it is just from a reference -and that is all-. – Mitch May 5 '12 at 1:30
  • @Callithumpian: hm...I guess that question is pretty much the same as mine, only a slight nuance different. – Mitch May 5 '12 at 13:10
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It really does depend.

For example, the Baker's Dozen question has a highly-upvoted answer which is an extensive direct quote from Wikipedia... which is also utter and complete balderdash. It illustrates the problem with relying on Wikipedia, but also the problem of relying on votes to determine the correct answer: the geometry-based explanation is just so neat and pretty that a lot of people have fallen for the scam, as it were.

The other direct-quote answer to the Baker's Dozen question is (I believe) from the OED, which many people can't access, so it can't really be called "general reference".

The diaeresis-vs.-hyphen question is not one that can be answered by a general reference source, because it's a matter of style and opinion. A good answer would have to explain the history of usage and the pros and cons of continued use. It's possible that one of the language blogs has discussed the question, but that cannot be considered general reference; for starters, most people don't have the first clue about where to find such a blog, and then if they do find one, they have no way to determine how authoritative it is.

The etc. question is, again, a matter of style, and thus subject to interpretation/opinion. A good answer can quote from books giving usage guidelines, but none of those can really be considered general reference, because none of them are 100% authoritative.

Infective vs. Infectious is a case where the dictionary fails because it doesn't give the connotation, or at least isn't very clear about the appropriate contexts for each word. So as long as the questioner makes it clear that he has already looked in the dictionary, such a question should not be closed as general reference.

That leaves the "freeer" question, which has (quite rightly IMO) been closed as general reference: if the questioner had bothered to look in the dictionary, he would have seen that the word is actually spelled with one fewer 'e', rendering his question moot.


Note also that Google Is Not General Reference: what makes a basic question too basic is the fact that there is an authoritative source that is designed to answer that type of question. If there is no such source, or if it is not considered authoritative (blogs, Wikipedia/Wiktionary, whatever random web page happens to come up in the first page of search results), then the question should not be closed as general reference. (It can still need to be closed, for example as "not a real question", and/or it may need a downvote for lack of research effort, but we need to be careful not to misuse close reasons.)

  • Suppose the question is just fine, but the -answer- itself is just a link or a quote of the link. What is your assessment of the -answer-? – Mitch Apr 30 '12 at 16:37
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    If the "answer" consists of just a link, then it's not an answer at all, and should be downvoted and/or flagged. If it's just a quote (properly attributed, but with no additional contribution from the answerer), then it becomes a judgement call: is the quote, in fact, a complete and correct answer? If you don't know, ask (in a comment) for clarification; if you do know, vote accordingly (and perhaps explain your reasoning in a comment, though this is optional). – Marthaª Apr 30 '12 at 16:44
  • (I just voted to delete the "freeer" GR) – Hugo May 23 '12 at 7:12
4

It's hard to express quantitatively, but here's what I think about answers that are little more than a quoted reference: there's generally an inverse relationship between the acceptable brevity of the answer, and the amount of research it took for the answerer to find it (or would take for others to find it).

In other words, if the question is easily, readily answerable using a number of sources ("Is it freer or freeer"?, e.g.), then a short answer doesn't do much for me.

However, if it's a little-known word, hard to find even in reverse lookup dictionaries, but someone manages to find the answer after much research (or else knew the answer from prior experience), then a short answer is fine; it "pulls the thorn out of the paw," so to speak. I'll point to Robusto's scansion answer as Exhibit A.

All that said, it may be hard for some users to discern between a moment of brilliance where brevity is appropriate, and a LMGTFY-GAFD/T answer that looks good upon first read. Everyone has their own unique perspective, which is why answering your last question ("Should answers like these be welcomed, tolerated, or deprecated?") is so difficult.

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If the answer is easily found by a trivial search it's not even a suitable question for a Stack Exchange site in the first place. Any question who's answer that can be easily found in the dictionary should be closed as not constructive, or, the asker should re-phrase the question and explain why the dictionary answer wasn't enough, so that he;'s calling for something more than an answer which can be trivially found. That was we wont see 5 competing answers that say the exact same thing and were added once an hour for half a day as much.

  • Qu’est-ce que c’est que “who’s answer” et “wont” en anglais? – tchrist May 5 '12 at 15:04
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If the answer to a question is very straightforward and easy, as long as the question doesn't get closed, sometimes a link is the best possible answer. Especially if the resource preserves history of all revisions and doesn't delete anything of what you are referencing now and in this moment, like Wiktionary.

Also, part of the purpose of this site is to teach how to use references and so on; in this sense, going to Wiktionary before and after StackExchange, both for consultation and editing, is a direct continuation of this site's purpose and activity. See also my answer on how to reciprocally improve StackExchange and Wiktionary entries.

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    No, a link is NEVER the best possible answer. This goes completely against the SE diktat, or if you prefer, standard protocol. Links alone are crap answers. Users should ALWAYS cite their sources, and then copy and paste the relevant dictionary entry, or paraphrase the definition if they want. – Mari-Lou A Nov 16 '15 at 11:22
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    A link might be better than an answer that consists of a list of synonyms, or a single word, and filler words that meet the 30-character-limit required by EL&U, but it is far from being the best way. – Mari-Lou A Nov 16 '15 at 11:28

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