(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.