As some users that follow ELU as well may have noticed, there has been an update in the help section about how to reference material written by others (link from ELL):

When you find a useful resource that can help answer a question [...] 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

In some recent topics on ELU meta, the consensus seems to be that the third point means that just providing a link is certainly not enough, the source of the link has to be explicitly mentioned.

Moderators are instructed to delete posts that violated this rule immediately on sight.

That would mean that an answer like this (link from ELL) should be deleted on sight, because it does not explicitly state the author of the cited source.

Mind you, this question clearly does not claim to consist only of original work, texts that are quoted from elsewhere are clearly marked, and the source is very clearly indicated. However, the site that the link refers to is not mentioned.

Note that the "standard" way of including references as used in that answer does not comply with the new rule!

On ELU, there seems to be some feeling that "normal" users can decide to report such terrible infractions or not (and I think one can see why some users would opt not to mark useful answers for destruction), but moderators should delete as they are told.

That would mean that users are actually encouraged not to help moderators — if you want a useful answer to survive, better fix it before a moderator sees it!

What do moderators and users on ELL feel about this new strict rule and how should it be implemented on ELL?

Should we indeed insist on explicitly mentioning that link to a word(1) is a link to the merriam-webster definition of the word, and insist that users include that text?

Should we, if users fail to include in plain text what the link says, flag the post for deletion?

Extra food for thought: after I flagged an ELU answer, a moderator told me that a picture attribution was fine, (partly) because the source was mentioned in the image's [ALT] text. If an [ALT] text is fine for attribution, then why isn't a link target?

(1)This is a link to the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary.

A sad result...
The answer on ELL that I edited to comply with the new rules has now been deleted by the owner, which I think is a loss to the site. If compliance to the rules offends users so much, we may indeed need to think about how strictly they should be applied and how much moderators should be urged to "delete on sight"...

  • Whose rule is it? ELU's or SE's? Sep 3, 2014 at 18:11
  • @StoneyB: the Help Centre text is the same on every SE site I checked, I would assume it is SE. The "delete on sight" seems to be an ELU-interpretation of the general SE rule about posts violating the "reference" rules. The "A link is no attribution" I have mainly seen on ELU - and it is the main one I am wondering about.
    – oerkelens
    Sep 3, 2014 at 18:39
  • 1
    The attribute policy doesn't state that every link needs to say in plain text what it points to. Your "link from ELL" nonsense is either misguided or pointlessly snarky. Sep 3, 2014 at 20:52
  • @oerkelens I think there is a mix-up of plagiarism, citation, and attribution. But if we really wanted to be exceedingly formal at all time, then yes, all attributions should be made in plain text. Sep 4, 2014 at 6:20
  • @DamkerngT. So you imply we do not want to be exceedingly formal at all times? I for one would certainly like that. From the ELU meta-discussion it seems that there are those who do want that though, which is why I asked how ELL thinks about it :)
    – oerkelens
    Sep 4, 2014 at 6:54
  • @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 The policy can be read that way, and is very much interpreted that way by some in the ELU meta-discussion. That is exactly why I ask what ELL thinks about it :) My "link from ELL"-nonsense is exactly what is advocated in this elu metaquestion.
    – oerkelens
    Sep 4, 2014 at 6:56
  • 2
    @oerkelens You are reading too much into that. A link is a link. Links do not constitute copying and thus do not require attribution. The attribution is required if you copy something from the linked resource. Sep 4, 2014 at 13:00
  • @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 I may well have been reading too much into some things, but the interpretation that every link needs plain text attribution was certainly not just my invention, it was literally stated by a moderator on ELU meta. Consensus seems to be different by now, but the question is not what I read into things, rather how things are and will be implemented by community and mods. Which is why I asked "what's up with this"; you can hardly expect "you read it wrong" to be a satisfying or sufficient answer :)
    – oerkelens
    Sep 4, 2014 at 13:05

5 Answers 5


In cases like this one, edit.

There's no need to delete Manish Giri's answer, on sight or otherwise. Writing Source instead of the actual name of the source is undesirable and should be fixed, but he's made a good-faith effort to link directly to the source and provide proper attribution. What's more, he's added words of his own, so it's not an example of plagiarism or a link-only answer.

I do agree that plagiarism should be deleted on sight rather than "fixed".

  • Edit? I am willing to edit, but I am not willing to edit every post made in good faith by people using the tools provided by this site in order to avoid their posts being deleted. Will ELL moderators delete the mentioned answer if it is not edited?
    – oerkelens
    Sep 3, 2014 at 18:41
  • I did edit the mentioned answer. I would like to note that 1) this was much more work than I would usually be willing put into an edit, 2) I think the overall quality and usability of the answer has certainly not improved and 3) replacing the "source" text with the plain text of the actual link would probably have been enough but in the case of longer links really diminishes legibility of the answer. So, is it necessary that from now on all answers be treated in this way, or be deleted?
    – oerkelens
    Sep 3, 2014 at 18:58
  • @oerkelens Amazing! What a hammering one gets while trying to put forth a well-compiled answer. I feel you should have deleted it straightaway, what with this requiring more work than you would be willing to put in an edit. Just so you know, the only reason I used source with a hyperlink was because the reference being used was not one of the conventional dictionaries I usually cite (Merriam-Webster, Oxford, etc). When that is the case, I have always made it a point to mention both the reference name in plain text, as well as a link back to the source. Sep 3, 2014 at 21:48
  • 2
    @ManishGiri - That was indeed a good answer and I've undeleted it. Snailplane, I'm not sure why you deleted your answer here, but I think it's an important part of the conversation, so I've undeleted it. I've also upvoted it, because I think there is indeed a dividing line between plagiarism-only answers and an uncited link, which seems to be at the crux of what I think is a giant misunderstanding. If someone copies Grammar Girl word-for-word and that's an entire answer – left as though it was composed by an O.P. even though it wasn'tthat would be cause for instant deletion.
    – J.R. Mod
    Sep 4, 2014 at 9:30
  • 1
    @J.R. That's fine. I had two reasons: one, I thought I had upset Manish Giri, who joined chat and was quite unhappy with his post being targeted. (Manish Giri, I hope you stick around!) Two, I hadn't realized the full context of the discussion until I'd gone to Meta ELU. I didn't realize that oerkelens was deliberately misinterpreting the policy in as extreme a manner as possible to make a rhetorical point, and after I realized that I felt my answer wasn't entirely appropriate.
    – user230
    Sep 4, 2014 at 10:44
  • 1
    I'm glad the misunderstanding is out of the way and I apologize for my part in adding to the confusion. I also apologize specifically to @ManishGiri for giving them the impression that I accused them of wrongdoing. I meant quite the opposite!
    – oerkelens
    Sep 4, 2014 at 13:08

Moderators are instructed to delete posts that violated this rule immediately on sight.

This is not true. Moderators on all SE sites are instructed to delete copy/paste plagiarism on sight.

That is not the same thing.

  • I agree it is not the same thing. However, I took the word from the mod's mouth: Andrew Leach said on ELU meta: "moderators are instructed to delete on sight without further warning any content that is not properly attributed." The answer to my remark on ELU shows that Andrew's remark has been interpreted to include all posts that do not fully comply with the new policy.
    – oerkelens
    Sep 4, 2014 at 9:05

Since it would be bad for the website and for its users, including the moderators, to delete good answers for debatable reasons, perhaps this is a good candidate for civil disobedience.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_disobedience :

enter image description here

Of course editing it is even better, if you have the time and the energy.

  • 2
    Since the policy is silent on image links, your answer fails to actually disobey it. Nice try though. Sep 3, 2014 at 20:52
  • 1
    @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇: Dammit!! Just you wait, I'll get back at them...
    – Cerberus
    Sep 3, 2014 at 20:57
  • The thing is that I don't see why anyone should edit a perfectly fine answer that attributes quotes in a way any internet user understands, just to add plain text attributions. I will not waste any more time on doing that, but it would worry me if indeed moderators are urged to delete (potentially useful) answers. The strange thing is that users are now told to edit, while moderators are told not to edit, but to delete on sight.
    – oerkelens
    Sep 4, 2014 at 6:59

Wow! The sky is falling!

In my mind, this appears to be an overreaction to RegDwight's exasperated comment on a deleted ELU question.

We get new users all the time. In the case of newer users leaving unattributed content, I think the best reaction would be to leave a comment that gently prods a new user to reference quoted material. Something like this would work fine:

Could you kindly cite the sources you've quoted? The Stack Exchange doesn't want to violate any copyright issues. Thank you.

The post can also be flagged for moderator attention.

Where the content is easily traceable, anyone should feel free to edit the post and add the citations. As I am fond of saying, If you have the credit, make the edit. (As for the "I don't have time for that" argument, don't worry about it. We are supposed to be a community; someone else can pick up the slack, the fate of SE isn't resting on your shoulders alone.)

In the case of repeat offenders who are continue to violate the policy, in my mind, they are susceptible to time in the penalty box if they keep "forgetting" to cite quoted material.

I am not going to start deleting content "on sight" because a simple reference needs to be added. Cooler heads must prevail. The better solution is to get the improperly quote material cited, not to dump someone's carefully crafted work into a virtual garbage bin.

As for the comment by Reg that seems to have started all this, I think it's important to note the first part:

This entire answer seems to be a verbatim quote from Cambridge Dictionaries. Mods are instructed to delete on sight without further warning any content that is not properly attributed.1

I'm guessing that, had the answer had any redeeming value, the whole "delete on sight" remark would have been worded differently.


1Comment by RegDwigнt ♦ Aug 4, 2014 at 19:09, ELU Question 188721.

  • I really hope that the transformation from "posts with no attribution" to Andrew's "any post without proper attribution" was an unintended one, but it certainly sparked some discussion. And as I said in my comment on Matt Ellen's answer, some users do see Andrew's version as "the rule".
    – oerkelens
    Sep 4, 2014 at 9:36
  • @oerkelens - Context is everything. I've seen Reg at work for a long time. My guess is that he was pissed about that question, pissed about that answer, and hastily typed a harsh response. I cannot believe he was trying to exhort moderators across the Stack Exchange to immediately delete any answer that linked to a source without a plaintext citation.
    – J.R. Mod
    Sep 4, 2014 at 9:38
  • It is not Reg's remark that I question, I fully understand it and stand behind it. I think it is Andrew's remark that suffered from some (understandable) contextual manipulation.
    – oerkelens
    Sep 4, 2014 at 9:41
  • 1
    @oer - Well, I have a lot of respect for Andrew, but, in this case, I think he has either overreacted, or else not chosen his words carefully enough. There is no need to become a community of zealots pointing our fingers at every unattributed quote as if were were all auditioning for the next version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
    – J.R. Mod
    Sep 4, 2014 at 9:50
  • 1
    @oerkelens (and J.R.) I have adjusted both my ELU answers -1- -2- which will hopefully avoid further misunderstanding. Do note, though, that ELU Meta doesn't necessarily apply to ELL. The sites are different. Sep 4, 2014 at 11:11
  • 1
    @AndrewLeach — I am glad that it is indeed a misunderstanding. Of course, ELL and ELU are not the same, but since at least part of the userbase is shared, I thought bringing it up on ELL was not a bad idea. Thank you for your clarifications :)
    – oerkelens
    Sep 4, 2014 at 11:31

@ManishGiri I never meant to attack your answer. I fully agree that your original post was absolutely fine. I strongly disagree with the new, strict, and in my eyes pedantic application of attribution rules as SE has changed them. I picked your post as an example of why those rules (and their strict application!) is harmful. I never meant to attack your style of attribution, I think it is fine!

The above comment is still visible on September 10 2014. I chose to express my opinion as follows:

@oerkelens then why did you deface the post? The link's caps, its length, the irrelevancy of its title weakens the post. Your excuse to edit people's posts, who are capable for deciding themselves, is teetering on fanaticism. You say you want clarity, you say you want clear guidelines, you claim that people's unattributed posts will be deleted on sight when it's patently clear they will not (others on ELU have also claimed likewise) and yet, before waiting for a clear unequivocal answer, you take it upon yourself to post ugly long links. You need sensitivity and sense to edit people's posts.

Oerkelen's response:

@Mari-LouA: 1) It is quite clear that the original post was not properly attributed according to the current rules. 2) If my reference (which is exactly as the source wants it it be) is too ugly, feel free to edit it. 3) I am honestly getting tired of being called a liar by people who refuse to have a look at the post where a moderator made the exact claim about deleting posts. That moderator has since amended that statement after agreeing it conveyed the wrong message. I have not repeated it since. 4) I think this discussion belongs on meta or chat.
[emphasis mine].

I have since deleted my comment, which I have reproduced faithfully here. I agree this issue should be reserved for meta. (I don't visit chat)


Please note the contradiction between "I fully agree that your original post was absolutely fine." in the first comment left for @Mannish Girl, and then the following response to my observation:
"1) It is quite clear that the original post was not properly attributed according to the current rules." [emphasis mine]

If it is true then the first comment should be deleted as being possibly misleading.

  • If you would take the effort of reading up on the discussion and how it evolved last week, maybe you would have refrained from falsely accusing me. About the contradiction: there is none. The original post was, and I personally still think so, absolutely fine in my opinion. I strongly disagree with the current consensus that a link is not a reference, and that the name of any quoted source should always be readable in plain text. However, that is the current consensus, and the current rule. So a link saying "source" is fine by me, but wrong according to the rules.
    – oerkelens
    Sep 10, 2014 at 7:59
  • I have protested (quite loudly) against two things: 1) the deletion on sight, which has since been retracted, but was literally stated at the time I was drawing peoples' attention to it, and 2) the notion that "a link is not a reference". Although some people agree with me that by 2014, a link is a reference, general consensus disagrees. Instead of calling me a liar or getting upset that I put these rules in practice, first understand I disagree with both — and the first has indeed been retracted.
    – oerkelens
    Sep 10, 2014 at 8:03
  • About the comment still being visible, I had planned on removing it when the addressee had reacted by either accepting or rejecting my apology. I have had no reaction yet, but if my apology there constitutes an insult flag the comment for removal. I have noticed before that apologies seem to attract very negative reactions on SE because people seem to focus on the reason for the apology. I say "sorry for doing X" and people attack me for doing X, even if they have no clue as to what X was or why or how it happened.
    – oerkelens
    Sep 10, 2014 at 8:07
  • Maybe the comments under J.R's answer give some insight in where the delete on sight came from, by the way. I really see no reason to start the discussion all over again when it has been done, resolved, and all involved seem happy with the outcome.
    – oerkelens
    Sep 10, 2014 at 8:10

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