The purpose of this question is to clarify how plagiarism is defined for the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange, and how the community can respond appropriately to plagiarism when it is discovered.
Stack Exchange questions and answers are written by you, the members of the Stack Exchange community. Your work is valuable to the community, and you get credit in the form of reputation for the value that you create. Like many institutions, such as schools, journals, and news organizations, Stack Exchange does not permit you to improve your reputation using other peoples’ work: whether intentional or accidental, doing so is called plagiarism.¹ ² The English Language & Usage policy on plagiarism closely reflects the general policy on plagiarism for all of the Stack Exchange network.
“ Stack Exchange does not permit you to improve your reputation using other peoples’ work: doing so, whether intentional or accidental, is called plagiarism. ”
In English, the word plagiarism means theft of ideas. Its ancestor, the Latin word plagiarius, means a kidnapper. Metaphorically speaking, plagiarism is theft of a person’s literary children.³
When writing a question, above all, it should be your own question, and when writing an answer, it should be your own expert answer. Do not post questions or answers from elsewhere on the Internet.
The help center describes good questions as “based on actual problems that you face”.⁴ The Stack Exchange blog adds that unless you have “demonstrated a practical reason” why you yourself need the answer, it’s “not a real question”.⁵
The Stack Exchange plagiarism meta-question explains that your answer should be your own work, not someone else’s. “A post that consists only of copied text is not your work.”⁶
“ When writing a question, above all, it should be your own question, and when writing an answer, it should be your own expert answer. ”
This does not mean that you cannot use sources to support your work. In fact, Stack Exchange encourages you to provide support, and using sources is a good way to do that. You should always give credit to the other people whose ideas you are using. This is called attribution. When you use sources, only use what is needed to support your work. If you use direct quotations, always put them in quotation marks or in a quotation block.⁷ A well written attribution identifies the author and the work, and provides a link to the work whenever possible. It is a good idea to either quote or summarize each supporting idea, not just link to a source. This protects your work from “link rot”.⁸
When correcting possible plagiarism, above all, fit your actions to the situation. Bear in mind the Stack Exchange “Be Nice” model,⁹ which tells us to assume good intentions.
Gauge the value of the person’s work. A short conclusion (such as “no”) supported by a long quotation may still have some value. A post that contains no original work at all (a paste-only post) is often a sign of a non-expert answer, and may have no value, but this is not always true. Examples of quote-only posts that nevertheless have value might include a quotation that required in-depth research to locate, or that was laboriously reproduced from a print-only source.
“ Fit your actions to the situation. Bear in mind the Stack Exchange ‘Be Nice’ model … assume good intentions. ”
When you become aware of plagiarism in your own post, edit your post. When you see evidence of plagiarism in someone else’s post, there are several options to consider, depending on the situation.
Edit the post (no reputation needed to suggest a peer reviewed edit, 2 000 reputation needed to make an edit without peer review). For example, you can add missing attribution, or remove unnecessary quotations.
Comment on the post (50 reputation needed). Explain the problem respectfully, perhaps with a link back to this article. Note this step can be taken as part of a closevote if you have sufficient reputation points (see below).
Downvote the post (125 reputation needed). Consider reversing your downvote when the author corrects the problem.
Cast a closevote, if the post is a question (3 000 reputation needed). Because there is no predefined close reason for plagiarism, use the close reason “Off-Topic > Other” and include a respectful comment (see above).
Cast a deletevote (10 000 reputation needed). Take this step when the post (including associated answers, if it is a question post) has no “lasting value whatsoever”.¹⁰ By this is meant the value of the author’s own work, not including the value of any plagiarized work.
“ Most problems with posts, including plagiarism, can (and should) be resolved by the community without moderator intervention. ”
If these responses do not resolve the problem, flag the post for moderator intervention (15 reputation needed). Because there is no predefined flag for plagiarism, use the flag “in need of moderator intervention”. In the flag explanation box, give as much detail as you can so a moderator can check it out properly.
Alternatively, if you have the authority to make a copyright complaint on behalf of the owner of the plagiarized content, see the “Stack Exchange Network Terms of Service” for information about how to submit a complaint under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).¹¹
The role of moderators
Most problems with posts, including plagiarism, can (and should) be resolved by the community without moderator intervention. When comments and votes do not resolve the problem, such as when there is a dispute, moderator intervention becomes necessary. A moderator might delete plagiarized content and might warn the author against plagiarism. If the problem continues, the author might be suspended.¹².
1. “Plagiarism” at English Wikipedia
2. “What Is Plagiarism?” at Plagiarism.org
3. “plagiarism (n.)” at Online Etymology Dictionary
4. “What types of questions should I avoid asking?” at English Language & Usage
5. “Let’s Play The Guessing Game” at blog.StackOverflow.com
6. “Users are calling me a plagiarist. What do I do?” at meta.StackExchange.com
7. “Simple blockquotes” at English Language & Usage
8. “Link rot” at English Wikipedia
9. “Be nice” at English Language & Usage
10. “Access To Moderator Tools” at English Language & Usage
11. “Stack Exchange Network Terms of Service” at StackExchange.com
12. “Users are calling me a plagiarist. What do I do?” at meta.StackExchange.com
I have a few quibbles with this answer.
Is this effort even necessary? Has there been some increase in plagiarism lately on ELU? Or some particularly egregious cases? Anything that requires explication of the general policy?
This one is merely an issue of style. File it in the category of How to get over ourselves. Can we drop the references in the preamble about how valuable we all are and how we’re like real institutions of value like “schools and journals”? Because we’re not all that. It’s simply enough to say that SE does not allow users to garner reputation based on the unattributed work of others.
Plagiarism can be “intentional or accidental”. In a word, no. All the cited analogs — appropriation, stealing, theft, kidnapping, immoral and unethical behavior — require mens rea, the intent to do wrong. People make mistakes. A false accusation of plagiarism is serious, an analog of libel per se, if you will. Be nice is hardly a sufficient caution to the zealous.
I’ve got a couple of problems with plagiarism.org, the site, not the cite. First of all, this is a site set up by iParadigms LLC, a company pushing plagiarism detection software, which makes me suspicious of the scope of their definitions. Secondly, they’re sloppy:
The expression of original ideas is considered intellectual property and is protected by copyright laws, just like original inventions.
Intellectual property is that which can be protected by intellectual property laws. (In the US, that’s copyrightable material, patents, trade secrets, trademarks, and service marks) Not all expression of original ideas can be so protected. And inventions cannot be copyrighted.
Etymology: a) Who cares? and b) perhaps it would be best to avoid the etymological fallacy on ELU.
When writing a question, above all, it should be your own question,…. Dear God, would it be too much to ask that essays associated with ELU avoid dangling participles? But beyond that distraction (which perhaps is mine alone), it’s almost impossible to imagine a question that involves plagiarism. Suppose I ask
Instead of my saying “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”, can I properly say “It was the bested of times; it was the worsted of times”?
Will anyone actually accuse me of plagiarizing Charlie D? Certainly some questions are so profound that credit accrues to the asker. For instance If you’re in a spaceship, can you tell the difference between the absence of nearby masses and free fall toward a nearby mass? Has anyone ever asked such a question on ELU?
You should always give credit to the other people whose ideas you are using. This sounds very noble, but taken literally it’s neither necessary nor practical. “Other people” have constructed the accepted body of work for various fields, and we don’t call it plagiarism when we refer to that knowledge without attribution. When I say that the general quintic has no solution for its roots in terms of its coefficients, no one expects me to cite Galois and Cayley.
The best current practices for minimal attribution and avoiding link rot seem out of place as they have nothing to do with plagiarism.
As you note, the help center does describe a good question as one “based on actual problems that you face”, but from the context it’s clear that this is not as opposed to “problems that others face" but to requests for chatty, open-ended answers. The Stack Exchange blog does tell posters to demonstrate a practical reason for their questions, but from the context it’s clear that’s not as opposed to asking questions for others, but to requests for answers to trivia quizzes or memory jogs for half-forgotten words.
[I]f you have the authority to make a copyright complaint In the US, you probably don’t unless you’re the copyright holder or his agent . Copyright cases are notoriously fact-dependent. Which means that many times the only way to determine infringement is to ask a jury. If you file a DMCA takedown notice, you file it under penalty of perjury, so make sure you know what you’re talking about.
Also note a problem particular to ELU — quoting dictionaries. It’s almost impossible to copyright a word definition. Definitions are close to factual statements, which can’t be copyrighted, and in any case, lexicographers have been stealing from each other as long as there has been lexicography, making claims of ownership impossible to maintain.
Lastly, I don’t see that the guidelines for dealing with plagiarism and the unsubstantiated claims about moderator forbearance are specific to plagiarism. Comments, downvotes, closevotes, flags, etc — these are all mechanisms available for any problematic post.
What is plagiarism?
Answer: I do not consider my answer to Origin, meaning, and derivation of 'boof' as a verb in U.S. slang to be an example of plagiarism.
It wasn't plagiarism on the first draft because I clearly stated who the author of the Vox article was.
How Do I avoid it?
Answer: I believe I did everything by the book
In the opening introduction, I wrote (unedited)
I could have summarised the article below but it's late and I would have made a poor job out of it.
The Vox article, written by Alex Abad-Santos, briefly outlines the history of boof:
I formatted the excerpt correctly, using block quotes, to show that I was not the author and the answer was not "mine". I did everything to attribute the article correctly and unequivocally, I posted the links to several sources that were cited and I even supplied the date of the Vox article, which I considered highly relevant.
Two days ago (October 2 2018, 15.56) I edited and posted a reference to a famous cult movie and posted a link.
The civil exchange between @Knowtell and myself was then completely deleted, presumably, by someone in the mod team. I myself had flagged four comments for deletion–in the meantime, two other users had intervened–but I did not flag Knowtell's two comments nor my replies.
How do I address it when I see it?
Answer: Leave a comment informing the user she or he has violated the guidelines
I have since added several other references but this did not deter the user who repeated her accusation a second time (October 3, 05.43) and posted another link referencing MetaEd♦'s position.
The second link is his answer to her meta question. Which I'll quote almost in its entirety. [Emphasis not mine]
The Stack Exchange plagiarism meta-question explains that your answer should be your own work, not someone else’s. “A post that consists only of copied text is not your work.” 1 So, when writing an answer, it should be your own expert answer. Do not post answers from elsewhere on the Internet.– MetaEd♦
I will now quote the opening introduction of the Stack Exchange Meta answer which MetaEd♦ linked to. Did you miss it? Look again.
[Formatting not my own]
What exactly is plagiarism?
In the context of Stack Exchange sites, any copying and pasting of any amount of text or code that wasn't written by you is plagiarism if you try, explicitly or implicitly, to pass it off as your own work. For a more detailed definition, see the Wikipedia article.
I am willing to post on Meta and personally ask the community of Stack Exchange whether they consider my answer, before the recent additions and edits, to be an example of plagiarism. If the general consensus or any one of the mod team agree, then I will immediately delete my answer because neither the first draft nor the second are examples of plagiarism and I will not modify them out of sheer principle.