I found a previous question on similar answers and how downvotes should be used. I'd like to ask whether it's acceptable to give answers based on prior answers at all. A question on plagiarism would indcate that it isn't, but that generally focuses on enhancements to prior questions.

A side note right at the outset: it happens that the two answers which generated this question are from the same well-established user. That's unfortunate because it could be construed that this meta question is an attack on Barrie. I don't want this to get personal. I want to examine the practice and the consequences. However in order to make sense of the examples it's necessary to identify the answers concerned.

Example 1: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/70270/why-does-be-have-more-than-three-forms — Barrie's answer appeared 11 minutes after mine and presents what is basically a summary of my second paragraph. I can't believe that a single sentence was prepared simultaneously with a formatted table.

Example 2: What does it mean that Republicans in Congress “need to get off their hands and stop rooting for failure”? — Barrie's answer appeared six minutes after mine and says more-or-less the same thing, although again not having taken the time to find a link.

Now, after several hours, the difference in timing cannot be distinguished and in the case of Example 2 we have two almost-identical answers with identical timestamps. Consequently the previous question's discussion on voting is hugely relevant: which answer to vote for/against if it's not possible to tell them apart?

While (currently) my prior answers have more votes, Example 1 has a comment which extols the "bulls-eye" nature of the answer — which was copied from mine!

Is this practice really acceptable? Should I simply have flagged the answers?

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    Tip: you can hover your mouse over "2 days ago" in "asked/answered 2 days ago" to see the actual UTC timestamp of an older post.
    – Hugo
    Jun 9, 2012 at 20:39
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    This is what even I felt once. However, I feel, Barrie is a very knowledgeable person and wouldn't be fool enough to do so. Perhaps, while typing his answer, he doesn't see whether a new one has been posted. Though I feel one should always check (just in case the content is similar).
    – user20934
    Jun 28, 2012 at 10:58

4 Answers 4


Just a hunch, but I don't believe Barrie's doing any copying.

More than once, I've been working on an answer, only to notice the StackExchange message: "1 new answer has been posted; click here to load." Sometimes this newly-posted answer is very similar to mine. At that point, I have a choice: I can either abandon my answer, or I can post it anyway. I've done both; usually, I'll keep my answer if I feel that it adds something to the whole conversation.

I've noticed that Barrie's answers are usually concise; I think he values brevity. My theory is that he's not trying to garner easy points by plagiarizing someone else's work, but that he'll post a brief answer if he think it does a better job of answering the question.1

Because his answers are short, it may seem like he's copying off someone else's work, particularly if his answer shows up 15 or 20 minutes after another. But looks can be deceiving. We don't know how much time may elapse between when an answer is started, and when it is submitted. I know that I usually proofread, spellcheck, and verify my answers before I post them, and touch up the formatting as well – all this can take time. For example, I noticed that Barrie used two sets of smart quotes in one on his answers; perhaps he was double-checking dictionaries and changing 'quotes' to ‘quotes’ when your answer popped up.

1By saying "better," I don't necessarily mean that he thinks his answer is superior to the other. He may think it's better synergistically, that is, that the two answers combined – one brief, the other more detailed – may be better together than if one of them stood alone. Maybe he feels like he's supporting the earlier answer by providing independent concurring research.

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    +1 Note also that you can open the question page, go do something else, then return to write or finish your answer and post it. All the while you have not seen any new answers unless you click on the "show new answers" button. You might have disregarded it, or you might have Javascript disabled, or whatever. Sep 8, 2013 at 1:26

Different users will have different attitudes. Personally I don't mind how much someone else copies from one of my answers. I don't really even care whether they acknowledge me as the original author or not. If it's a better answer I'm perfectly happy to have contributed, recognised or not.

All that really matters is we want as many questions as possible to have one "correct" answer most people can agree on and upvote accordingly.

It's also important to bear in mind that people compose answers at different speeds, so the exact time of posting doesn't necessarily imply who wrote any replicated text first.

Also note that in many cases a short clear-cut answer is preferable to a longer one. I didn't actually vote on Why does 'be' have more than three forms? - but if I had, I'd have probably gone for Barrie's answer because it's short and to the point.

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    I unreservedly agree with this, Fumblefingers (there's a sentence I never thought I'd type). The purpose of this site is to generate high-quality answers, not to give 'credit' to one user or another. The fact that people compose answers at different speeds is secondary, but would be enough to dispose of suggestions of plagiarism. Jun 7, 2012 at 20:41
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    @Tim: Yeah - we have indeed disagreed on a few issues, but I've always felt it's "nothing personal". The pursuit of high-quality answers is a shared goal. But if people aren't happy they won't even be here to contribute, recognise, and upvote those quality answers on the main site. So whilst I'm announcing here that I don't mind my answers being plagiarised, I'm not saying everyone should feel free to pinch anyone else's text without so much as a by-your-leave. OP doesn't like it; I don't say he shouldn't feel that way, just that it's not how I see things (or you, ty for solidarity! :) Jun 7, 2012 at 21:50

Do you have evidence of actual copying? For neither of the two examples is there any indication of plagiarism.

Even then, what is 5+12? There's not too many ways to say it.

So, no, I don't think you are being singled out to have your answers stolen.

As to the explicit question (i.e. not about the particular examples but the general idea), copying answers or parts of them is not exactly wrong here, we're a community trying to come up with the best answer, but I agree that it is 'uncool' to cobble together other people's answers to make one. That somehow doesn't feel right (because the individual gets the credit not the copied source). So as liberal as one would like to be towards the truth, it's probably better to lie with the reader using the collected set of answers to come to the right conclusion. An 'accepted' answer is not the 'right' one (how could the OP know what the right answer is since presumably asked because they don't know). The answer that the OP accepts is just the answer that helps them out the best (and sometimes it's hard to choose the best one out of similar ones).

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    Sometimes it's irritating when the "accepted" answer isn't the one you think is best. But as you rightly point out, one can't expect the OP to be the best judge of "truth" on issues he lacks knowledge of. Good point that sometimes there are only so many ways you can say something, which accounts for some apparent convergence. Jun 8, 2012 at 2:34

We shouldn't "copy" prior answers. But it could happen by "accident."

When I answer, I check the other answers before answering. Then I type my own answer (having done the check after completing research). This may take ten minutes or more (I'm not a fast typist). Then I will release the answer to make sure that gets posted. (I don't do a final recheck because I've been known to "lose" answers this way.)

It's possible that another, similar answer will have been posted during the time I spent typing. That is particularly true if I and the other answerer referred to the same quote or cliche. It doesn't happen often (to me, anyway), but has been known to happen.

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