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I got a flag quite recently pointing out that an experienced (rep >2k) user had included a quoted text in a post as an example, without specifying the source, or giving either attribution or context.

I left a comment, but could take no other action, because while we clearly regard example attribution as highly desirable, I do not see any policy authorizing deletion for that reason alone.

In another case a user left a similar unattributed quote, and a second user complained in a comment, whose comment was flagged as "unkind". I have declined that flag, it is perfectly appropriate to use a comment to point out how a post could be improved, and proper attribution normally is an improvement.

I am aware that there have been related discussions here and here. But there seems to have been no clear consensus on how posts with examples and quotes not attributed at all should be handled.

To be clear, when a user quotes a text to ask about an English-language usage or to demonstrate such a usage, that is what I mean by an "example". When a user quotes or links to a reliable outside source to support a contention as to what proper usage is, that is what I mean by a "source". I think that these two cases should perhaps be treated differently. But in either case, attribution is needed. But should lack of attribution result in deletion?

Second Phase

I hope we are all agreed that proper attribution of quoted examples and sources is at least highly desirable, and many think it should be required. I think all agree that users other than the poster are free to add or improve attributions, but are never expected to do so.

But I also take it that there is a range of views about just how it can be obtained, and in which cases different measures are justified. I want to lay out some different cases and give my thoughts on them, and hope for some reactions and alternate views. Then I am going to point to an example that came up recently and mention what has been done, and see if people think it is a good model.

Second Phase — Types of Situations

Situation New User not-new User Exp user prev warned about attribs
Quest. includes example with no attribution at all (1) (2) (3)
Ans. includes example with no attribution at all (4) (5) (6)
Ans. includes source with no attribution at all (7) (8) (9)
Quest. includes example with link-only attribution (10) (11) (12)
Ans. includes example with link-only attribution (13) (14) (15)
Ans. includes source with link-only attribution (16) (17) (18)
Quest. includes example with title-only, no pub or link (19) (20) (21)
Ans. includes example with title-only, no pub or link (22) (23) (24)
Ans. includes source with title-only, no pub or link (25) (26) (27)

Second Phase — suggested actions

For the New User, cases (1), (4), (7), (10), (13), (16), (19), (22), and (25), I suggest that we request a proper attribution, explaining what that is, and do nothing more. However, after a given user has been asked to provide attribution but has not done so, I suggest that we put the post on hold until proper attribution is provided, by the OP or another user.

For the somewhat experienced user, cases (2), (5), (8), (11), (14), (17), (20), (23), and (26). I suggest we also request attribution, but after 2-3 requests, we put posts on hold, with a comment explaining why. For no attribution at all, cases (2), (5), and (8), two requests should b be enough, hold after that. I think anyone with at least 10 posts (not comments) but under 1,500 rep might count as somewhere expedience.

And for the experienced user who has been notified at least once of the need for attribution, posts lacking it, particularly cases (3), (6), and (9) (no attribution at all) could be deleted with a comment, which the poster of course, can read and act on.

All the above is only a set of suggestions. I am quite prepared to hear that some people think these ideas are not the way to go.

Second Phase -- Example

Consider the thread Is this sentence an inverted structure or a shortened form: "Not that grief ever ends. You learn to exist with it." as an example.

The initial version quoted an example with no source at all. I posted a comment saying:

Please provide proper attribution for the text that you quote. That means title, author, and publication, or as many of those as are available. If the source is long, such as a book, please include a page number or other location also. If the source is online, please include a link also. See Marking and Attributing Examples, Sources, and Other Quotes.

The OP posted a link-only source in revision 4. Another mod deleted my comment. I followed the link and edited the info into the post.

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    Absolutely agree that something needs to be done. This type of thing has been on my mind for a while. (I even helped make it clear in the Help Center that questions need attribution too).
    – Laurel Mod
    Aug 25 at 3:27
  • For repeated offences, I would think locking or closing a post is a preferable option than deletion. New users should rightly be given some slack and guidance. But when a user, who's been a member for almost three years, believes that it is up to respondents to do the research and I quote: “I mean if you need to google it anyway why bother". Well...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 25 at 14:26
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    I just added "Marking and Attributing Examples, Sources, and Other Quotes" to the "Contributor's Guide".
    – David Siegel Mod
    Aug 25 at 16:40
  • Btw @DavidSiegel my recent meta post (Are you a mobile user, your spelling is really off sometimes :P)
    – DialFrost
    Aug 27 at 3:35
  • @DialFrost thanks for the pointer -- I never use a mobile for Stack Exchange.. I have always been a poor typist, but in recent years I have developed vision problems which make it much worse. Sorry for any problems this causes others.
    – David Siegel Mod
    Aug 27 at 9:58
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    Oh :(, you only missed out a few characters that MarcInManhattan fixed :P So you're fine!
    – DialFrost
    Aug 27 at 10:33
  • Quick question, why is it called 2nd phase if there isnt a 1st phase? And what category would I fall under? Maybe somewhat experienced?
    – DialFrost
    Sep 6 at 1:46
  • @DialFrost I was thinking of the initial question and responses as the first phase, not so labeled because I didn't know there would be a 2nd. As dor levels, they sare still very vague, no one but me has even agreed that there should be any, much less where the boundaries night be. But you are surely not a new user on ELL.
    – David Siegel Mod
    Sep 6 at 14:29
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    @DialFrost re. a recent edit: correct attribution is not embedding a naked link under the name "source". We need to know the name of the publication / book / website/ newspaper, and when possible, the author. Links rot, sites change names and locations, even well-known dictionaries have been known to shut down. Just having "source" is not an improvement on a naked, albeit aesthetically ugly, link.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 6 at 16:03

3 Answers 3

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To quote @J.R

When you ask your question, tell us where you found your sentence. Don't be mysterious about it. When possible, include a link as well. Don't just copy a sentence as though it appeared out of thin air. […]

Why do we ask for this? Several reasons:

1. It's a courtesy to the community. Perhaps your quote interests us, and, before we answer, we want to learn more about its origin, and read more from where it was taken.

4. Words change in meaning over time. We can easily be led astray when deciphering a single sentence if we make erroneous assumptions about when it was written. Is this contemporary, or did it come from the classics?

7. Often, the key to unlocking the mystery of a confusing sentence lies in the sentence that comes before it, or the paragraph the comes before it. Context matters, and it's rare to provide too much of it. Make it easy for the community to find all the context they may needed to solve your poser.

Often we will want to know, out of sheer curiosity, and sometimes we will need to know, because your question might be unanswerable without this critical information.

This is why sources need to be cited, it is an act of courtesy to users and visitors alike. It's being considerate but it also helps the OP get the best possible answer. It's a win-win situation.

It takes one minute of effort to post the title of the source, the author (if it's easily traceable), and the addition of a link is the cherry on the top. Instead, we find hi-rep users or moderators who either edit the question and supply the source or include that vital piece of information in their answers. They will tell the OP (who already knew) and to the community the source's origin, the author's name, and explain the literary technique used when relevant.

When the sentence comes from a literary piece of work, the source must be included if not, it is plagiarism as the sentence will appear to many as if it comes directly from the OP. In fact, we get people asking for advice when they are writing a story.

If the sentence comes from a movie; we need to know. If the sentence is from a school textbook, this information must be communicated. Please don't say "I read this in a book." Does the sentence come from a dictionary? Tell us which dictionary and why you are confused. And finally, if it is a piece of homework–IMO there is nothing wrong with that–tell us where you found the question, or if it was written by a teacher. Sometimes teachers and exam practice books make do mistakes. …oops!

So, you found a sentence or phrase... (Why you should cite your source)

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    About "I read this in a book.": Users should include enough detail for someone to find the source of a (publicly published) quote, image, etc from the attribution.
    – Laurel Mod
    Aug 28 at 16:35
  • The archives yielded 12 results for "I read in a book" I thought worse...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 29 at 19:13
  • If a user quotes someone else's writing something like, "I found this sentence on the Internet: ... [quote]", they are disclaiming ownership, so it's not plagiarism. And yet, the original writer isn't credited. In your view, are these posts worthy of close/delete action from Mods, or let the community deal with it?
    – gotube Mod
    Oct 29 at 20:52
  • @gotube When the citation is not correctly attributed, it is in my mind, disrespectful above all to the original author/s and it is still dishonest. So what if the user says the extract comes from the Internet? What prevents them from providing the link or naming the source then?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 30 at 1:10
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Certainly we should remind the poster to include attribution. If he or she doesn't do so, then--although I don't think it should be required of us--it would be useful to add that information ourselves if we're able to do so without much trouble. I assume that you're asking about what a mod should do if neither of those things occurs.

If it is clear that the quotation satisfies all of the following, then I recommend that it be allowed to remain:

  1. It is legal (e.g., it doesn't violate copyright law).
  2. It doesn't violate any user restrictions (e.g., the original author doesn't require attribution).
  3. Deleting the quotation would significantly weaken the post.

For example, if a user quoted the U.S. president's "state of the union" speech or Macbeth without attribution, then that certainly wouldn't be ideal, but I don't see any major harm.

If it is not clear that the quotation satisfies all of those points, and the poster hasn't added attribution after being reminded to do so, then I recommend that the offending text be deleted. If the post can't stand without that text, then the entire post should be deleted.

(By the way, thank you for raising this issue, DS; your moderatorship looks promising!)

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I don't consider lack of references a cause for any action on its own, either for examples or sources, so long as the quote isn't represented as the OP's own words.

The lack of references reduces the overall quality of the post and will contribute towards deletion for low quality, but if that's the only issue, it's probably fine.

If the lack of attribution makes a question difficult to answer, or if an answer has a dubious claim with no attribution, then drop a comment, maybe downvote. If it's impossible to answer a question without the attribution, then close vote.

Deleting a post only for lack of attribution is overkill. Deletion is for irredeemable garbage like spam, comments in an answer, and one-liner answers when there's already an upvoted full answer.

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  • There's an argument about this here on SO meta
    – DialFrost
    Aug 27 at 3:37
  • 5
    @DialFrost Comparing Stack Overflow's workload and the sheer volume to that of ELL's is like comparing daisies to orchids. Answers should always be deleted if they are spam, plagiarised and completely off-topic. Some answers may be deleted by a mod if they do not answer the question but I'd prefer if it were left to the community to decide. Some upvoted answers may not need to cite any sources but appear tangential (to stricter standards) but they can still be very helpful to the community regardless of whether an upvoted/accepted answer already exists.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 27 at 11:13

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