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Background: adding attribution to answers

To my mind, there are several good reasons to attribute sources for answers, especially when an answer is simply a direct quote from another site:

  • It makes it clear that I personally don't necessarily have the experience or expertise implied in the quote. If I post an answer starting with a quoted text like "As I've observed while leading parties up the north face of the Eiger...", I want to make it clear to other users that this is not my experience, and I shouldn't be treated as an authority on the basis of this answer.

  • It provides more extensive resources to the reader: the whole text of a web page is usually too much to paste into a stackexchange answer, so it's useful to provide a link to the whole thing for anyone who wants a more in-depth answer.

  • It helps people to evaluate reliability on the basis of the source. I'll put more faith in an answer quoted from a bylined OutdoorGearLab article than one quoted from an anonymous user on Yahoo Answers.

  • It's courteous to the original author to provide them with credit for their work.

Conversely, I honestly can't see any downside to citing the source for an answer.

With this is mind, if I come across an unattributed answer obviously copy-pasted from another site, I'll usually edit it to add a link the source. The Help Center says "Common reasons for edits include... To add related resources or hyperlinks", and I can't think of a more directly related resource than the site from which an answer's text was quoted.

Is this a good practice? And what if the author doesn't like it?

I hadn't given much thought to this practice until today, when I noticed that one user on outdoors.se has been going through and systematically reverting any such edit I made to their answers. Here's an example:

What is the safest way to purify water (edit history of answer)

The same thing happened on How can I keep my backpack safe? and What are some good tips and techniques for packing a backpack?. In each case, the attribution link is deleted and nothing else is changed, with no comment to explain the motive for the edit.

I have two questions:

  1. Is there some negative aspect to adding attribution which I've overlooked? Could an attribution-adding edit be construed as making an answer worse rather than better?

  2. What should I do in a case like this, where a user systematically reverts what seem to me like clear, undeniable improvements? Post the attribution links in comments instead, to avoid "territorial disputes"? Flag for moderator attention? Ignore the whole thing? (One thing I'm not considering is rolling the answer back to my edit, because this seems likely to cause an edit war.)

I've asked the user via a comment what their rationale is for this behaviour, but I'd be grateful to get some insight from more experienced members of this community too.

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    I suggest politely commenting to the OP, and if that doesn't work, flagging for moderator attention. Plagiarism is serious, but people who have never written for a living don't understand this. – ab2 Mar 11 '16 at 14:00
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    You're totally correct in modifying these, don't let this user get you down. – Chris Mendez Mar 14 '16 at 14:00
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Many thanks for doing this - the two options are to comment to the OP to add the attribution themself or to add it in for them. I commend you on doing it yourself - it helps us avoid outright plagiarism.

With this individual, I have left some comments, and I'd suggest in future just flagging if they continue to avoid attribution - then a mod can deal with it.

Please do continue your edits with other posts though - it is very welcome.

  • Thanks, I was hoping was some moderator input on this one, in part so that there's a "word of mod" answer to link to if it happens again :). In future I'll just flag it if I come across attribution being actively removed. – Pont Mar 11 '16 at 15:35
  • @Pont: Thanks for spearheading this one. – DudeOnRock Mar 16 '16 at 0:25
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There is a word for quoting from a source without attribution. The word is plagiarism From Merriam Webster

transitive verb: to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own : use (another's production) without crediting the source

intransitive verb: to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source

So yes, if an OP quotes directly from a source, citing the source is mandatory, and not adding the link to the source (if it is a source on the internet) is careless at best. If the OP does not quote, but paraphrases or summarizes, the source should also be cited.

Many times, on this site, people give answers based on their own extensive experience. That also should be cited as such.

A problem may arise when the person knows, from personal experience, the contents of his/her answer, but is not good at expressing him/herself in English. So he/she finds an article, reads it and says to himself, yes, that is about right, and then copies it. In such a case, the answer-writer should still attribute the answer and add that it jibes with her extensive personal experience.

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    Thanks for your thoughts -- good point about non-native speakers who may find it difficult to express themselves in their own words. In my question, I was trying to avoid the term "plagiarism", partly because it often carries connotations of deliberate wrongdoing, and a lot of people online seem genuinely unaware that citing their sources is a desirable (and in many cases required) practice. I'll admit, though, that it's harder to take a charitable view in a siutation like this where someone is deliberately and actively removing attribution. – Pont Mar 11 '16 at 15:44

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