(Please bear with me—this is quite a long question.)

The site-wide Help page on referencing states that:

Plagiarism - posting the work of others with no indication that it is not your own - is frowned on by our community, and may result in your answer being down-voted or deleted.

When you find a useful resource that can help answer a question (from another site or in an answer on Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange) make sure you do all of the following:

  • Provide a link to the original page or answer
  • Quote only the relevant portion
  • Provide the name of the original author

On various other sites, there has been quite a bit of discussion regarding what does and does not constitute proper citation of sources (see, for example this question on ELU by tchrist, or this one on Islam.SE by Community Coordinator Shog9); but I can’t seem to find much on here, which is odd given how many quotes we throw around here.

I have always thought that the general guidelines and rules laid out in the answers to those two questions were fairly site-wide and universal on SE, as well—in essence, that anything you quote from anywhere absolutely requires an attribution that includes the three pieces of information listed in the quote above.

While perhaps not exactly authoritative, the following bit of Andrew Leach’s answer to tchrist’s question also seems to be quite widely adhered to, and to make good sense (emphasis in italics mine):

This post used to mention “unattributed material may be deleted”, which — while not inaccurate — isn’t the whole story and is open to misinterpretation. Plagiarised material may be deleted summarily without warning. If you mark a quotation as a quotation, then it’s obviously not plagiarised. In this case, it’s unlikely to be deleted without warning. However, if a citation isn’t added after a reminder, or an edit to add one is rolled back, then the quote or the post containing it might be subject to deletion. Each case will be dealt with individually.

As far as I have understood from various comments made by moderators (and perhaps SE staff too? Not sure), a large part of the strictness in enforcing attribution is to show that SE is a place that does not tolerate plagiarism and that we are committed to avoiding copyright infringements and DMCA notices. If we get too lax in our enforcement (especially if a notice is posted in a comment or a post is flagged for moderator attention and nothing happens), then we reduce the credibility of the network as a whole responding to claims of copyright infringement with assertions that we do our best to avoid them.

Now, I’ll admit, I haven’t actually been paying particular attention to how good we in general are at properly sourcing our quotes, and I certainly haven't noticed anything on here that resembles actual plagiarism; but a moment ago, I came across this July 2015 question, which has three answers that include quotes. All three answers also have the following comment by Mooz, made on the day the question was asked:

Good answer, however, you need to give proper attribution to these quotes. I.e, what book(s), chapter(s), author, etc.

The highest-voted and accepted answer had a proper citation edited in after that comment was made, but the other two did not; the quotes in those answers remain unattributed now, seven months later, despite the comment.

The first of these two answers is by a high-rep user, Mike Scott (who seemed, from a quick glance at his rep graph, to also have been a high-rep user in July 2015 when he made the answer) and quite short:

There is no suggestion in the book that it is controlled by anyone. All Gandalf says about it is:

Something has crept, or has been driven out of dark waters under the mountains. There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world.

There being no attribution in the answer (aside from the words “in the book”, which do not meet the criteria listed above), I flagged it for moderator intervention with the following wording:

Unattributed quote, even after a comment requesting attribution. I believe moderators are instructed to delete on sight in such cases?

I have previously flagged similar cases on other SE sites, and the most common course of event has been that a moderator commented that the lack of attribution constitutes a legal liability for SE and subsequently deleted the answer in question. The flag I raised here, however, was declined with the following message:

the source for the quote is not described well but it isn't plagiarism

This puzzled me, so I came here to Meta to find some previous discussion on the topic of plagiarism and lack of attribution—but couldn’t find any. (I was about to flag the other unsourced answer for the same thing when I noticed the flag decline, so I didn’t.1)

I cannot say that I can agree with the wording of the flag decline that this wouldn’t fall under the SE definition of what constitutes plagiarism—that seems to go against both the spirit and the letter of all previous discussion on the topic on SE—but there is of course a certain amount of leeway in how strict each site is on enforcing attribution, and how users and mods are expected to react when unattributed quotes are found.

Of course, with downright, deliberate plagiarism, I have no doubt that moderators and users here would agree with deletion-on-sight (for example, if someone repeated copies entire posts from fan forums and posts them as their own answers on here).

I also feel quite confident in saying that neither moderators nor users would feel that a new user who posts a quote with an inadequate attribution (“this is what the third book says: [quote]”) should be punished with immediate deletion of the entire answer. A comment like Mooz’ above is clearly the way to go there.

The edge cases are what’s interesting here. In this case, for example, Mike was—at the time of posting—a high-rep user of approximately four years, who should presumably be aware of the attribution requirements; and even if it was just a slip-of-the-mind that he forgot it here, a comment was made requesting attribution. On the other hand, it is relatively clear from the question (and the other answers) where the quote is from,2 and the very fact that Mike is a high-rep user with an excellent score average on his answers could imply that in fact an attribution was/is not expected here in an answer like his.

So what exactly are the policies here on SFF on unattributed materials (or what should they be, if we don’t currently really have any at all)? How much attribution do we expect for quotes where it’s reasonably obvious what’s being quoted—and what is ‘reasonably obvious’? How about quotes repeated in multiple answers—do they each require attribution, or is once enough?


1 Another reason I didn’t flag the third answer is because the edit to the accepted answer that added attribution was proposed by the same user who wrote the third answer and gave a somewhat flippant answer to Mooz’ comment—and the proposed edit was made one minute before the flippant comment answer. So I suspect he either accidentally added the citation to the wrong answer or that there is no need to add the same attribution to the same quote if it appears in multiple answers on the same page.

2 The question itself actually never mentions in so many words which book/movie it’s talking about, except in the tags; and the attribution in the accepted answer had not yet been added in when Mike’s answer was written; so to someone not overly familiar with Tolkien’s writings or the movies, it wouldn’t be that obvious.

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    "Plagiarism - posting the work of others with no indication that it is not your own..." I think putting it in a quote block makes it quite clear it wasn't his own.
    – Kevin
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 21:01
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    @Kevin I don't think anyone would read that and think it meant to come off as his own words either, no. I simply used the term ‘plagiarism’ because it's what I've mostly seen used in the other discussions on the topic on other sites to refer to all facets of (at the very least non-accidental) unattributed quotes. The term seems to enjoy a bit of a duplicitous definition on SE. Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 21:06
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    I can't really see what the problem is that you're trying to address. OK, so someone included a LotR quote without explicitly saying it was a LotR quote. Is there even the slightest chance anyone might have taken it for anything other than a LotR quote? "All Gandalf says about it is:" - if Gandalf is saying something, it must be a quote from Tolkien. This site is full of quotes from books, films, etc., and I've never seen anyone trying to pass one off as something else or vice versa.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 2:10
  • @randal'thor It's not so much a matter of passing something of as their own (that, I think, would be dealt with rather swiftly and uncontroversially), but I recall seeing others mentioning that not consistently enforcing attribution requirements puts SE in a bad position legally, increasing the likelihood of any DMCA notices being escalated and possibly having unwanted consequences for the site as a whole. This was, I believe, a big part of the motivation for the discussion on ELU, at least, and the reason mods gave for the delete-on-sight policy. Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 2:15
  • But of course, on ELU the quoted material is usually of quite a different kind, and even if unintentional, the risk of making quotes look like they're your own words is greater with a dictionary definition than with a Tolkien quote; which is why I didn't just want to assume that the same level of strictness in attribution enforcement would automatically be required (or even relevant) here. Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 2:18
  • Hmm. Perhaps you should edit your question to mention these legality issues? I hadn't thought of that as a possible problem, and don't know enough about SE legal issues to be able to comment. As a SE employee, Shog9 would be able to advise better on such issues.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 2:21
  • @randal'thor Oh, I thought I had mentioned that in the question. Must have gotten lost in all the jumping back and forth between sections I did when writing it. Will add a bit. Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 2:23
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    Copyright is an entirely separate issue, and not one you can or should be concerned about. We have to comply with DMCA regardless of how well you attribute your quotations. Worry about being respectful to others - readers and authors - and let us deal with DMCA. We kinda have to anyway.
    – Shog9
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 2:39
  • Bad, very very bad. Always use citations and references.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 8:43
  • 2
    The book title should be given, but requiring page numbers seems too old-fashioned to me, nearly any valid quote from a book can be located just by typing part or all of it in quotes on google books (the quote Janus mentioned is easily found this way), and if it can't, the book will usually have an ebook edition that's searchable (and sometimes doesn't actually offer page numbers, making it difficult to cite in the way Janus is asking for if the person citing is getting it from the ebook).
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 23:44
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: A DMCA issue is not nullified by a citation. The citation would make no difference whatsoever. You should probably edit those concerns out of your post, as they are misleading. Concerns about 'plagiarism' are a little baffling too, if someone is answering a question about a fictional universe with a quote it obviously comes from that fictional universe. Citations here are really only useful so we can double-check the work and for the asker to look at any wider context that might be interested in.
    – Shamshiel
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 3:26

2 Answers 2


Is this worth arguing about? Just edit the damn thing.

Heck, you could've pulled the citation off of the same quote in another answer if you'd cared to. Anyone could've: the author of that answer, the person who commented on it, some passing reader... I don't even own a copy of LotR, I didn't even bother reading the other answers, and still it took me about 10 seconds to find the exact citation on Wikipedia.

Why leave cruft around when it's so easy to fix?

Plagiarism is a huge problem when it's misleading, when it becomes difficult or impossible to figure out who actually wrote something. This particular case isn't all that hard to figure out, but it could've been easier - and can trivially be made easier.

So what are you gonna do, call the moderators and write a two-page essay every time you find a careless mistake? Or just fix it.

Don't let "the rules" stop you from doing what's right, doing what's useful. The rules exist to serve the community, not to tie its hands and force it to the ground.

  • 2
    I think you've misread the intention behind my question. I'm asking about general policy here, because (unlike other sites on the network I'm familiar with), I couldn't find any discussion or consensus on the topic; I'm only using the post quoted here as an example, because I think it happens to be a good one. I'm not trying to argue about anything, just to gauge what best practice on this SE site is/should be. I do intend to keep doing what is right and useful; that was never in question. I don't understand why you answer in what seems to be a rather hostile tone. Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 20:25
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    The question of what your policy should be is a good one. But... Half of your post here is about the ins and outs of a specific answer. The discussions you reference elsewhere (particularly on Islam) were motivated by a rather massive quantity of really badly referenced quotations, including numerous answers that were nothing but quotes with no indication of that fact... And on Stack Overflow, widespread dishonesty (answer-stealing) motivated the help topic. So... What's the situation here? If you're gonna define a policy, you need to look at the big picture not some one-off dispute.
    – Shog9
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 20:29
  • 1
    For the record, doing what's useful is essentially my motivation for writing this question. It's obviously not useful to flag a case like this to the moderators if the consensus is that there's nothing wrong with the post (or that there is, but that ignoring a comment informing the poster that attribution is missing is not grounds for deletion)—it's a waste of both the flagger and the moderators’ time; but it is useful, in my view, to have a Meta discussion that lets users know that this is how site policy is. Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 20:33
  • What's useful depends on the situation, @Janus. Is the example you reference a common one here? Does it provide a template for a reoccurring issue on the site? You can't define a useful policy in a vacuum.
    – Shog9
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 20:35
  • 2
    I realise that the policies enacted on other sites came about as reactions to a problem, and I don't think we actually have a problem here (though, as I say, I haven't been looking out for it either way here); but isn't it a good idea to define a policy on here in advance to help nip any problem of this type that may arise in the bud? If something is known to have cropped up as a problem elsewhere, why not be proactive and know upfront how we want to deal with it if it starts to become one here, too? Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 20:36
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    No. Deal with the problems you have. When possible, learn from other sites but don't waste time on problems you don't have at the expense of problems you do. If you run a town in Minnesota, you spend a lot of time worrying about snow removal and very little time on hurricanes; the situation in Florida is a bit different.
    – Shog9
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 20:39
  • Good question. Without being overly confident, I would say that yes, it's probably quite common that answers about specific works like LotR or Harry Potter quote excerpts from those same works without giving more attribution than “the book”; basically a similar situation to the one in the answer I used as an example. I suppose what I'm looking for is some discussion of whether that's actually an issue or not. Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 20:40
  • 3
    So dig up some examples, try to make them represent the severity and scope of the problem, then ask what to do about them. Answer might still be "edit", but maybe not - and with a better understanding of the scope of the problem, folks can provide more nuanced guidance on how to approach it.
    – Shog9
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 20:41
  • So what are you gonna do, call the moderators... Is it wrong that, in head, I set this to the Ghostbusters theme?
    – Praxis
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 5:25
  • 2
    @Shog9 It’s massively ironic to hear you clearly channelling Gandalf with “No. Deal with the problems you have. [and all the rest]”, given Gandalf’s famous advice (complete with Lord Dunsany hat-tip, no less!) of “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” from book VI chapter 9 of The Lord of the Rings by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien CBE FRSL.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 2:51

What Shog9 says is excellent advice when you don't know, or there is no policy:

Don't let "the rules" stop you from doing what's right, doing what's useful. The rules exist to serve the community, not to tie its hands and force it to the ground. Shog9

All the examples you give are for a misleading lack of attribution, but stating that your quote is from the book/film/work in question is OK.

But as a citizen of SFF (SFFizen) you should demand better, and edit in the attribution if you can find it. That's why you have the ability to edit (when you have the rep) - to help self-moderate the site.

In terms of what you should edit in, the three bullet points you mention are good for online resources.

  • Provide a link to the original page or answer
  • Quote only the relevant portion
  • Provide the name of the original author

The golden standard for books should be the above but instead of proving a link, try to provide book name and/or page number and/or edition (if relevant).

The golden standard for film would include the name of film, when in the film it occurs (as accurately as possible) and optionally a link to the script or video clip

This is the golden standard though, if you can't source it just grab what you can.

As for what should be flagged as plagiarism it should be malicious or deceitful. Some one is trying to pass off sometimes else's work as their own.

Flagging should always indicate bad behaviour not bad content.

To clarify:

Bad behaviour is normally a result of repeated minor incidents of bad content (never attributing but making it obvious it's a quote from elsewhere) or it could be a single event (deliberately passing off someone else's work as yours) If you can't fix it all yourself, then flag it.

  • 1
    Page numbers are next-to-useless and actively misleading if a book has more than one edition and/or is published in multiple formats. (Thus why I personally never include page numbers.)
    – Shamshiel
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 3:28
  • @shamshiel I was tempted to stipulate the edition as well but that seemed too far.
    – AncientSwordRage Mod
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 6:43

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