Question: If you attribute and reference content sources in an answer you provide, does that attribution alone protect someone from having their SU account suspended for a violation of Plagiarism.


Some Additional Info & Thoughts. . .

It's understandable that someone should not quote content entirely and assume referencing it alone will be a good answer or acceptable whatsoever based on community standards—that makes perfect sense.

Same Question Still: Does referencing a source alone per any content you copy to help someone protect your account from being suspended per a "current" SU violation of any rules?

As per How to reference material written by others the definition of "plagiarism" reads as such:

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.

Based on this definition it seems that attributing alone means you do not plagiarize and thus someone would source reference content they get from others to protect from such accusations which would lead to an account suspension at least.

Important: I think the community and others that just want to know could benefit from some accurate clarity on this subject that all moderators and/or community manager, etc. would agree.

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    Relevant Meta.SE Q&A: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/160077/… – Michael Frank Oct 5 at 2:17
  • @MichaelFrank, that thread doesn't really address the case referred to here. The material was attributed, but an entire article was copied verbatim; it was a question of whether copying a large amount of someone else's work constitutes plagiarism even if attributed. – fixer1234 Oct 5 at 2:42
  • In that case, you have the answer in your own question: Plagiarism - posting the work of others with no indication that it is not your own. – Michael Frank Oct 5 at 2:51
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Feels like you're grabbing this by the wrong end... Surely your goal should be to write good and useful answers... Not just avoid being suspended. Suspension is reserved for situations where you're doing something harmful and all other attempts to get you to stop have failed... So, strictly-speaking, you can avoid suspension by ensuring that the last attempt at communication prior to suspending you doesn't fail.

But... That's kind of a sad goal to set for yourself.

Strive to write good answers. If quoting others helps in that goal, do it responsibly. If you find yourself unable to do more than parrot the words of others... Perhaps ask yourself if you'd be better off studying a bit more before trying to answer. Aim to contribute in ways that enrich the site - the world, even - and avoid contributions that create more work for others. Listen when others suggest improvements, and take those suggestions to heart.

If you do all of this, then you won't have to worry about suspensions. But more importantly, you'll be doing something good.

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    Whatever happened in the past, the fact that you're here now suggests you have a chance... So use it! – Shog9 Oct 6 at 2:55

The obvious answer to your opening question is "no, attribution is not necessarily sufficient to avoid a suspension". Accounts can be suspended for plagiarism. There are really three better and more relevant questions to ask:

  • What constitutes plagiarism (a more complete definition)?
  • Should plagiarism be handled the same whether it is obvious/blatant (e.g., failure to attribute), or more of a "technical violation" (e.g., attributed but a non-obvious variant such as listed in the Wikipedia article)?
  • Should first offenses (especially of a technical nature and apparently unintentional), receive the full hammer of justice or something less, like an educational warning?

What constitutes plagiarism here?

Plagiarism isn't a simple concept. A key part of the definition is wrongful appropriation and representation as one's own original work. So it might seem like attribution and making clear that it isn't your own original work should be adequate. The complication is that it doesn't apply just to the words, it extends to the thoughts and ideas.

In a school setting, students are supposed to learn concepts and how to think about something. So teachers are looking for the student to express their own thoughts; it is the only way to assess learning. The student can support that by quoting others, but the objective is to express their own thinking.

In that setting (and others that involve creation of original work), there is a large range of copying that may not be obvious to others as being problematic. The Wikipedia article includes a list of 10 student practices that educators found problematic in their setting. It includes things like:

Providing proper citations, but fails to change the structure and wording of the borrowed ideas enough.

Relying too heavily on other people's work. Fails to bring original thought into the text.

Taking passages from their own previous work without adding citations.

The list also includes matters of attribution accuracy, such as:

Melding together cited and uncited sections of the piece.

Citing some, but not all passages that should be cited.

Learning how to write properly, and cite properly, is important in a school setting. It's also important in one's employment if that employment involves creating original work. The Stack Exchange strives for the highest level of quality and is very cognizant of fair use and plagiarism, we don't want the site to get a bad reputation or have to deal with outside authors who claim we lifted their work.

Handling blatant vs. "technical" violations

That said, we are not an academic institution. In fact, there is virtually no "original work" posted here (and it probably wouldn't be considered a good answer if it was because it would be hard to validate). Nobody gets upset if an answer repeats, without citation, material from the author's own previous posts (even though that could be considered plagiarism).

We can argue as to whether some of the practices educators find problematic are even all that relevant here. My own feeling is that we should separate, and handle differently, blatant and obvious plagiarism from practices that are more in the nature of technical or non-obvious violations, especially for a first offense.

Practices like "melding together cited and uncited sections of the piece" should be handled more like English mistakes. The same would apply to a large collection of mixed quotes, where there is an attempt at attribution, but not every quote is properly attributed. If it's discovered, we can educate the poster and get it cleaned up. If the poster has made an honest attempt at attribution, they should not get suspended for plagiarism.

Matters like quoting too large a portion of a work are a gray area. How much is too much? Where does fair use end? These are, to some extent, legal questions and matters of opinion. If we provide clear guidelines to posters, we have something that can be known by posters and enforced uniformly. Without posted guidelines, enforcement will appear arbitrary and capricious.

Suggestions

  • Create guidance in the help section that clearly and in detail spells out expected practices.
  • Most people know that posting someone else's work as your own without attribution is plagiarism. Perhaps there should be some discretion for handling a new poster (warning and education for the first offense if it appears to be simple lack of awareness), but this kind of blatant plagiarism is what most users would expect to be associated with a suspension.
  • If the poster makes an honest attempt at attribution and otherwise avoiding blatant plagiarism, but still manages to violate a more technical rule, this should not result in suspension, at least for a first offense. The focus should be on educating the poster and fixing the post.
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    @PimpJuiceIT You have already been referred to the help centre "Do not copy the complete text of external sources; instead, use their words and ideas to support your own." – DavidPostill Oct 5 at 20:18

Based on this definition it seems that attributing alone means you do not plagiarize

Why did you not read the remaining parts of the help page?

When you find a useful resource that can help answer a question (from another site or in an answer on Super User) 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

...

And:

Do not copy the complete text of external sources; instead, use their words and ideas to support your own.

Please pay attention to the quoted text in bold.

It clearly says attribution is not enough when referencing material written by others ...

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    Good answer, and the Help page does specifically mention not copying the complete text on a page about answering, and it does follow a general definition of plagiarism. Certainly, if someone follows that advice, they can avoid plagiarism. However, the first bolded part says to quote only the relevant portion. It's possible that the entire thing could be relevant. The second is protective advice (you generally can't plagiarize if you follow it, but not following it doesn't necessarily constitute plagiarism). (cont'd) – fixer1234 Oct 5 at 21:44
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    The bottom of that Help Center page includes a link to a Meta SE thread. The answer there links to a Wikipedia article on fair use. According to that article: "For example, reprinting a copyrighted book without permission, while citing the original author, would be copyright infringement but not plagiarism." (cont'd) – fixer1234 Oct 5 at 21:45
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    So it may be that the SE has provided advice on how to avoid plagiarism, but non-compliance with that advice may not always constitute plagiarism. OTH, the available guidance does sort of suggest that regardless of whether it is actually plagiarism, it might be treated that way on SE (i.e., a simplified, safe rule). So there's still loose ends. – fixer1234 Oct 5 at 21:45

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