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I have come across a user who more than once has been caught out by experienced members of this community and asked to cite the reference which he/she copied their answer verbatim. Out of sheer curiosity and guided by a sense of intrigue I visited the user's page and discovered to my bemusement that other answers which received reputation points, have been copied and pasted from unlinked, unmentioned and unacknowledged sources, almost to the last letter.

Is this not a form of plagiarism? I appreciate that perhaps 75% of all answers would not exist if it weren't for OED or Wikipedia, (mine included) but at least no one takes false credit; well, they shouldn't...

What to do? Name and shame? Or flag their answers?

Edit
By name and shame I am referring to leaving a comment on their answer and asking the user to post the link or mention the source. In leaving a comment, you are in all intents and purposes, publicly shaming them.

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    One down-vote. Why? I asked what is ELU's policy and suggested two actions. Should I have said, copying/plagiarism is permissible and to be encouraged? If I were the author of a concise grammar explanation and discovered that someone on the Internet were using my words without supplying any reference and in the mean time gaining a positive reputation, I would be highly irked, to say the least. – Mari-Lou A Sep 7 '13 at 20:55
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    Hi! 1. I understand your frustration, but there is no need to challenge down-voters. Although adding an explanatory comment can be helpful, people are free to vote down as it pleases them. And it doesn't help anyway. 2. A down-vote on Meta does not mean "your question is bad", but rather "I disagree with the suggested course of action and/or analysis". And I'm sure you can think of reasons why people might disagree. P.S. The down-vote was not mine. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 7 '13 at 21:21
  • Related: Is it acceptable to copy prior answers? – TrevorD Sep 7 '13 at 23:48
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    Mari-Lou: Perhaps ironically, when I saw the start of your comment ("One down-vote. Why?") I thought someone was suggesting a course of action, and explaining it – in other words: I'd vote the answer down, and here's why... Anyhow, I think one way to handle it is to downvote the answer, and leave a comment that says: "If you include the link to your source in your answer, I'll gladly remove my downvote" with the link in your comment going to the source that was copied. It calls them out, but offers a chance to fix. – J.R. Sep 8 '13 at 0:25
  • @J.R. The "problem" is that this person has been more than once been told to include the source in her/his answer. I could understand a slip up; a is-it-worth-the-time-and-effort moment; a few lines from an online dictionary; a succinct line which summarises an answer; but this is chunks of text copied verbatim, repeatedly, from well established sources. I don't understand why the user keeps on doing it; in the meantime s/he earns a respectable number of reputation points on ELU thanks to someone else's work. – Mari-Lou A Sep 8 '13 at 2:32
  • @TrevorD I had already read both the links you posted and saw they were unrelated to my question. This is not about copying an old answer and posting it as your own on a new (dupe) question, or copying someone else's posted answer or comment and not mentioning their names. My question is about plagiarism, maybe it's not a creative piece of literature but if the author of the piece (for example) is David Crystal or Mignon Fogarty and you copy a passage from their work; I'd call that stealing. A strong word, perhaps, but that is my honest opinion. – Mari-Lou A Sep 8 '13 at 2:43
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    @Cerberus 2. A down-vote on Meta does not mean "your question is bad", but rather "I disagree with the suggested course of action and/or analysis" That is exactly why I queried the down-vote. Two courses of action were suggested, and in my question I asked what is the policy of ELU. If someone down-votes they ought to explain why in this case. Do they think the question is trivial? Is there no official policy? Are they saying they often plagiarise and would like to continue to do so without interference?! Why can't I challenge a down-vote, if it doesn't make any sense or it is confusing? – Mari-Lou A Sep 8 '13 at 3:36
  • cont'd; So many questions, I realize that, but I am asking the community for guidance. I think I have enough sensitivity and good sense to know not to take upon myself a course of action without first asking what is the official procedure, if any does exist. – Mari-Lou A Sep 8 '13 at 3:38
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    @Mari-LouA: As to "stealing", I'm sorry, I didn't mean to eh quibble, that was just my opinion; the background is that "stealing" is like a core word of the copyright lobby's propaganda. I did not think you would want to inadvertently adopt their lingo. Of course your opinion is yours to shape and express. Those down-votes, I have no idea, let's hope the algorithm will pick it up if you have a serial revenge voter on your back. As to being shocked, well, I like your "there are more important things in life" better! – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 8 '13 at 3:57
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    RE: this person has been more than once been told to include the source... All the more justification for a downvote on the so-called plagiarized answer, then. By leaving an accompanying comment, others who are giving this user perhaps undeserved rep points would get clued into the game, and perhaps become less likely to upvote someone else's writing. Then again, the user is presumably doing research to find the answer, and some may think that in and of itself is worthy of an upvote – so don't be too surprised if some upvotes keep coming. – J.R. Sep 8 '13 at 9:25
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    RE: more than once been told... Some people need to be told things several times before they modify their behavior. I learned that as a parent. :^) – J.R. Sep 8 '13 at 9:27
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    Mari-Lou: Oh, very well – at your insistence. Of course, I can't just copy-and-paste my earlier comment, for two reasons: (1) that would be plagiarizing my own work, and (2) I must polish my thoughts some, if I'm to provide a "cannonical" answer. :^) – J.R. Sep 8 '13 at 10:17
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    If you see this happening, please flag it as well so the mod team can keep an eye on the situation – simchona Sep 8 '13 at 15:20
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    @J.R.: I believe copying one's own work without attribution is normally not consider plagiarism, but rather laziness, hehe (I mean in academia). Which is perfectly fine. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 8 '13 at 16:24
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When the O.P. here innocently inserted a comment asking, "One down-vote. Why?" I thought I was reading the start of a pretty good suggestion.

I expected the rest of the comment to read something like this:

One down-vote. Why? If this person is not a new user, and this user has been exhorted more than once to include the source, then I believe that's enough to justify a downvote on the plagiarized answer.

However, downvotes can be mystifying by themselves, so I cannot recommend this course of action unless an accompanying comment is also provided, one that says something to the effect of:

If you include the link to your source in your answer, I'll gladly remove my downvote

with the link in your comment going to the source that was copied. That would call the user out, yet offer the individual a chance to fix the problem. Done repeatedly, this might lead to a longer-term change of behavior, where the sources get cited upon first draft (which is what I think most folks would ultimately like to see achieved).

By leaving an accompanying comment, others (who are giving this user perhaps undeserved rep points) would get clued into the game, perhaps becoming less likely to upvote someone else's writing. Then again, presumably, the user is doing research to find the answer, and some may think that in and of itself is worthy of an upvote – so don't be too surprised if some of the upvotes keep coming.

In the end, upvotes and downvotes are a tool each member uses at their own discretion. Individually, they can sting, they can frustrate, they can reprove, and they can encourage. Collectively, though, they are a mechanism which on the whole encourages people to submit quality work, and discourages people from submitting shoddy work, thereby maintaining an overall high quality for the site.

If I was aware of a chronic plagiarizer who consistently misrepresented copied-and-pasted passages as their own eloquence – perhaps inadvertently – I might start using my right to downvote (and comment) as a way to let others know what was going on, and to encourage better netiquette. But I'd also use my privilege to upvote as a way to acknowledge the pertinent research after the source was properly cited.

It would be interesting to see if those comments got upvotes as well; if so, that might indicate some measure of community support or appreciation for calling attention to the offense.

Lastly, if I was deciding to do this as a new course of action, I wouldn't barrage the user with a flurry of comments on Day 1. This can be fixed one question at a time, over time – that would be my approach. Gentleness is in order, I believe, even if plagiarism itself can be a grievous offense in some situations.

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    Excellent content and advice, as always. – Mari-Lou A Sep 8 '13 at 10:22
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    My comments to the user that I thought Mari-Lou was referring to got up-votes. But I also edited the answers to include the sources, so I'm not sure it was the comments themselves that triggered the up-votes. From a somewhat indignant and exaggerated inclusion of sources in his latest answer I concluded that he had taken my advice to heart. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 8 '13 at 16:21
  • @Cerberus "From a somewhat indignant and exaggerated inclusion of sources in his latest answer I concluded that he had taken my advice to heart." Good! And maybe he'll realize he can earn rep points just as easily by crediting someone else's work. – Mari-Lou A Sep 8 '13 at 16:28
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    @Mari-LouA: I'm sure he will! But you what people are like when they feel criticised: they need to defend themselves first; acceptance comes later, if it comes. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 8 '13 at 16:48
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From the main site I saw this: https://meta.stackexchange.com/a/156086/232334

Hi User, it looks like you just copied most of this content from this blog . Can you edit your post and give attribution to the author? Plagiarism isn't really welcomed on Stack Overflow, and it's always nice to give credit where credit is due. Good luck!

Here's an example of the concept in action: https://stackoverflow.com/a/4293312/814064

  • 1
    I found the user, Jim Mort's comment enlightening: "Plagiarism seems to be mostly an artifact of western culture and European cultures. In other cultures, it's not immediately obvious that copying content verbatim is bad." It was something I had not considered, is copying an author's original work acceptable or forgiveable in some countries more than others? – Mari-Lou A Sep 10 '13 at 4:59
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What I do is add the source, which can be lot of work to determine if many websites have copied the same text from one another, and/or add a comment "please mention your source if you quote verbatim". I don't think it is serious enough an offence to warrant flagging or any further action; it is merely a breach of etiquette that should be discouraged with a soft hand. I think I know which user you have in mind.

One thing to consider is whether the text copied contains mainly basic information about grammar or vocabulary, or a longer, creative text; plagiarism in the former case seems rather unimportant and barely worth our time, while the latter would really benefit from an added reference as above.

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    I disagree that "it is merely a breach of etiquette". In many countries it is fundamentally a breach of copyright, which may be ameliorated by citing the source, and may or may not be excepted depending on the amount of material copied and other factors. – TrevorD Sep 7 '13 at 23:06
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    @TrevorD: Well, how is a minor breach of copyright not merely a breach of etiquette? It's most likely fair use anyway, in those countries that have it. Copying a few lines without quoting the source is, if it even is a breach of copyright, really insignificant and not killing any puppies. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 7 '13 at 23:09
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    Breaches of copyright can be actionable: breaches of etiquette are not actionable. I didn't say "minor", nor "a few lines". The question said that some [previous] answers have been copied verbatim. I inferred (rightly or wrongly) that that involved copying rather more than "a few lines" - and that it was persistent and continued copying. In any event, whether "a few lines" matter can depend (1) on the content of those few lines and also (2) on what proportion of the whole original item was copied. I do not regard copying other users' answers as 'fair use' - it is blatant plagiarism – TrevorD Sep 7 '13 at 23:28
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    @TrevorD - Minor point, perhaps, but I don't see the O.P. mentioning "copying other users' answers;" only sources such as Wikipedia, online dictionaries, grammar blogs, and the like. – J.R. Sep 8 '13 at 0:23
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    @TrevorD: This is not a major publication, no careers would be made or broken by copying text here, and no money is made. The majority of answers with copied text are fairly short and often basic. As I said, I have added sources to some of the answers of the user that the OP (probably) has in mind. I don't think anyone would go to court and win over such a case, at least not in most countries. It would be fair use or de minimis or what have you. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 8 '13 at 1:19
  • As to plagiarism, that is not actionable as such in any country, as far as I know. It is also unrelated to fair use: it is considered bad form and against university rules to copy even a single line of text without attribution, although you won't be fired for small breaches. As to etiquette, some breaches can be actionable, like pushing someone roughly, stalking, begging, making noise at night, slandering, voyeurism, exhibitionism, calling the Queen a whore, etc., while some cases of copying someone else's lines are not actionable. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 8 '13 at 1:31
  • But isn't it at least annoying that the same user repeatedly violates this etiquette? And may I ask your opinion on this; what if the source was a published text, for instance,a well-known grammar book. If no mention of the author/s were made, would this then qualify as plagiarism? Obviously, this would be impossible to discover unless one happens to have the said published work on hand and could compare the answer to it. – Mari-Lou A Sep 8 '13 at 3:13
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    @Mari-LouA: Sure, it is a bit annoying, and it is all plagiarism, independent of the source, whether it is a printed grammar book or a website. What I meant is that a question on SE is not a "major publication", in which this would be more important. At any rate, I usually add the source and/or post a comment when I notice it. Isn't that what you suggest in your update as well? (And something as minor as a definition of five words, like "bend, stoop; curve; lean, incline", is barely worth the name plagiarism: it is so basic that I wouldn't even bother posting a comment.) – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 8 '13 at 3:27
  • @J.R. As regards the O.P. mentioning "copying other users' answers, there was an ambiguity in the Q. where I misunderstood the intended meaning - see my response to Mari-Lou in the Q. comments. – TrevorD Sep 8 '13 at 11:01

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