Raphael has posted comments on several questions of this user giving references for the questions. This in combination with the following quote from Gilles' answer suggests that we may want to have some policy regarding OP acknowledging the source of question.

Acknowledging the source of a question is required by academic traditions.

What do you think? Do we need a policy regarding acknowledgement? If yes, should we require it or should we only encourage it? (and how?)

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think the problem so much is not giving references. These questions (and many others) are blatantly homework questions and we are answering them for the lazy students, ultimately doing no one any good. $\endgroup$ – Dave Clarke May 31 '12 at 6:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Dave, the issue of permitting homework questions is discussed elsewhere, encouraging honesty and acknowledging sources is a separate issue which I think deserves its own discussion. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh May 31 '12 at 7:29
  • $\begingroup$ OK. Sorry. I thought the other discussion was about the homework tag..... Guess I need to look deeper. $\endgroup$ – Dave Clarke May 31 '12 at 7:30
  • $\begingroup$ SO, Math 1, Math 2, Physics $\endgroup$ – Kaveh May 31 '12 at 17:23

I think that acknowledging the source should be encouraged, not required, and only when the source of the question is important. For instance, standard or otherwise generic content doesn't need references (even though it may appear in a specific work). In other words, if there's a useful citation for something, we should encourage users to cite it... the same standard as in academia, just less stringent and much less actively enforced. My point: encourage citation, but not everything requires citation, nor can all (pieces of) writing be plagiarized.

  • $\begingroup$ In any case, in an anarchy like this one the "require" part is a bit difficult to enforce... $\endgroup$ – vonbrand Feb 25 '13 at 17:47

When I wrote that acknowledging the source of a question is required by academic traditions, I meant just that: there is a standard of behavior which is followed by many participants of this site in their professional life, and which requires attribution of ideas. I did not intend to mean that this standard should be followed by this site's community.

I like the policy of crediting sources for ideas, and I intend to follow it (like I've followed it in my online participation outside this site). However, I'm reluctant to make this an official policy. Not that I don't encourage others to do the same — I do — but I don't think it should be required to credit every idea. Certainly most of the things that I write on Stack Exchange are not original ideas of mine, and only a tiny minority of my posts give credit for an idea. I only give credit when an idea is still associated in my mind with a particular source; after a while, it becomes fully internalized, and I take it for my own. I would dig deeper if I was writing an academic paper; in a more informal setting, I don't want more friction.

Although there is no official policy, there is a de facto policy of refusing plagiarism on Stack Exchange (see Should I flag plagiarism for moderator attention? and Plagiarism should be addressed specifically in the FAQ). Plagiarism means copying text without attribution. It does not apply to ideas.

In summary, I encourage to give credit where it's due, but I'm reluctant to make this a policy (all the more as it would be very difficult to enforce).


In general, material cited or conciously taken from others' work has to be attributed properly. It might not be always possible to catch people not doing it, but some cases are more clear than others (for instance if publishing-ready graphics are used without attribution, or screenshots of PDFs). We have to trust users to know best what parts they have to give attribution for, but I think it is fair and even our "duty" to ask when there is doubt, in order to keep the standard as high as possible.

Tl;dr: In the cited case, consider my comments a (soft) moderation measure.

In that particular case, I have made the following observations.

  • A person has been creating a multitude of accounts, all with closed and downvoted question of the same style.
  • Those questions are extremely homework-dumpish.
  • The person does not seem to digest the answers or hints at all.

I also managed to figure out where the questions came from, and they are indeed copied from exercise sheets of an undergraduate TCS course. Therefore, I reasoned that

  • the person tries to cheat and
  • the person abuses our site.

As our methods of dealing with this are limited (in particular I would not expect suspensions to be effective) and former attempts to convince the person to change their behaviour failed, I decided to expose the person's misbehaviour by linking to the exercise sheets and annotating them with their due date, demonstrating that the person is trying to get us to do their homework in an objective way. I hope that other members of the site see this information and draw their own conclusions -- I can't force anyone to not help this person cheat.

Note that the person told me of their university affiliation in an email to me (to my private address!) and the exercise sheets are available publicly, so I am neither abusing my position nor disclosing private information.

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    $\begingroup$ In the future, should I announce similar measures publicly in a meta question? $\endgroup$ – Raphael May 30 '12 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ IMHO, such comments doesn't need a meta-discussion. Taking more serious actions about an abusing user is more tricky, it is sometimes better to be dealt without public announcement, and sometimes it is better to be dealt with publicly so other users are aware. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh May 30 '12 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Raphael I consider your action in this case a private initiative (and I would be opposed to such an action taken as a moderator — I'm fine with a community member who happens to be a moderator doing it). There is no need for announcing this in public. On the contrary, I would recommend that you keep a low profile; this gives the affected student a chance to mend his ways. $\endgroup$ – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' May 30 '12 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ I think you're certainly entitled to your opinion as a user, but would advise caution in using your position as a moderator to try to express it. I don't think it should matter whether somebody asks a question to cheat; that's not our problem, and, ultimately, not anything we can stop. You can of course promote your methods, but I don't think they should be enforced, even it they could be, which they can't. $\endgroup$ – Patrick87 May 30 '12 at 23:47
  • $\begingroup$ What does "tl;dr" mean? $\endgroup$ – Dave Clarke May 31 '12 at 7:09
  • $\begingroup$ @DaveClarke: web slang for too long; didn't read. $\endgroup$ – Raphael May 31 '12 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Patrick87: Once we are aware, I think we have some "professional" responsibility to not help people cheat. This is pragmatic, too: we certainly don't want to be perceived as "the platform which helps students cheat" by teachers. $\endgroup$ – Raphael May 31 '12 at 9:00

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