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I have seen an increasing number of questions where the author takes a scan/screenshot of part of their textbook and includes this image in their question. Typically, the image contains some exercise they want us to solve, but it could be anything, such as an algorithm or theorem or statement from the book that they want help understanding.

When the core of the question is only contained in an image, one big disadvantage is that question can't be found easily by search. None of the text in the image will be searchable. If the substance of the question is present only in an image, and not in text, then it makes it very hard for others to find the question. That's bad for others who might be interested in the same question, because it means they can't benefit from the knowledge here. And, it's bad for the site, because it means the site loses a chance to attract people through Google search. A significant fraction of our community probably comes from people who searched for something in a search engine, found a link to a question here, and decided to participate more in the site. Questions whose content is buried inside an image are not indexable and will not help attract traffic to the site. So, it seems like these kinds of questions are at odds with the StackExchange goals.

My question to the community. How do we feel about questions where the technical substance of the question is contained solely or primarily in an image/scan, rather than in text?

Should we establish a site policy that discourages or forbids questions of those form? Is there a consensus among the community that those kinds of questions are problematic? If so, how should we handle them? Should we establish a site policy that questions whose technical content is found only in a scanned image will be closed? Should we establish a site policy that, as a general rule, question-authors should be re-typesetting the information in text or Mathjax/Latex, rather than including it as an image? What do folks here think?


References: I've found some discussion of this sort of issue on the main Meta site (Meta.SO), e.g., How to handle images containing text (vs text)? and Allowed to post scanned page from text book on SE and Using only an image as an answer?. The reaction there to this sort of practice seems to be uniformly negative. Do we agree? Should we establish a site policy against this practice?

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TL,DR: me too.

Posting a scan of the text in a textbook or worksheet is a low in laziness. (I'd say a new low but I've seen that before on SE.) That right there can justify a downvote.

A scan of a figure can be ok, as long as it has accompanying text that explains the problem. For example, this is an appropriate question:

the text in book reference says blah but as I understand the figure (scanned below) it means something different, what gives?

But scanning text is not appropriate. It's not just a matter of plagiarism (which can be an issue, but it's generally considered ok to redistribute the substance of an exercise without attribution when the exercise is a simple application of a concept) or copyright (I think citing one exercise with the purpose of asking help solving it generally falls under the citation exemption of copyright law) or laziness (laziness that doesn't affect other people is fine). Posting text inside an image is not good because it is not searchable, whereas Stack Exchange posts are meant to be useful to future visitors, and that usefulness starts with said future visitors being able to find the post. Also, people who are blind or have very bad eyesight cannot read images.

Even without a site policy, I think you can apply the same rule as for external links. A question must be self-contained: information provided in external links should be incidental to the question (e.g. background explanations that a subject expert would not need). It's legitimate to close a question as incomplete (which falls under unclear what you're asking) if it requires the linked information to make sense (though if possible you are encouraged to edit the question to add the linked information, in preference to closing, if you can). You could say that a question is only worth its actual content. Similarly, a question is only worth its searchable content, so information in images must be accompanied with enough search fodder in text.

I don't think we need an official site policy, let alone a special close reason. Either edit (if you find the question interesting enough to bother) or vote to close as unclear, and leave a comment.


By the way, why I don't think this is a site-specific policy as such (it's implied by the goals of Stack Exchange), I (as a moderator) am now applying the policy that a question that crucially relies on scanned text is not welcome, and I close such questions as “unclear what you're asking” with an explanatory comment linking to this thread and offering to reopen when the text has been typed in.

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    $\begingroup$ I tend to give newcomers the privilege of doubt and sometimes transcribe their images for them after leaving a comment. Repeated offenders shoud be downvoted/closed without mercy, and maybe even reported to SE staff for plagiarism (we site mods are explicitly not tasked with pursuing copyright violations). $\endgroup$ – Raphael Nov 9 '13 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ Just to note, @Raphael: plagiarism (a matter of etiquette) is not the same as copyright violation (a matter of law). We do have specific protocols (dictated by US law) that we follow for copywrite violations, but they do not apply to many instances of plagiarism. Plagiarism is seen as rude pretty much everywhere (at least, in the western world) and I would strongly encourage you to enact and enforce policies to prevent it. There's even a pre-written mod-message for repeat offenders if you need one (though it is aimed more at folks who post answers from other sources without attribution). $\endgroup$ – Shog9 Nov 10 '13 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Shog9 IANAL, but I think almost all copyright violations that could be done in these sort of questions might be allowed under fair use (under US law). This is also an issue also within legitimate questions and answers; showing a diagram from a published paper, etc. $\endgroup$ – Realz Slaw Nov 10 '13 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ Out of curiosity, how does StackExchange legally handle disputes based on copyright? I only bring this up because deciding violations of copyright vs. applications of fair use may not be a responsibility that we should be taking up (unless it is quite obvious, such as posting a link to an entire book that is not freely available). The responsibility may belong to the operators of SE itself. I'll search around for an actual source, but I believe I have read that posting scans of individual questions constitutes fair use. $\endgroup$ – mdxn Nov 10 '13 at 23:15
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    $\begingroup$ @mdx, you can search on Meta Stack Overflow; there are good descriptions of how copyright disputes are handled over there. Basically, this is handled by Stack Exchange staff, not by site moderators. In fact, Stack Exchange specifically asks that we not make decisions based upon copyright, but that we leave it up to there (and there are good reasons for this stance). So, indeed, this is not a responsibility that we as the CS.SE community are being asked to take up. Plagiarism, on the other hand, is within our remit and is suitable for the community to handle. $\endgroup$ – D.W. Nov 13 '13 at 22:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Raphael We've had an uptick in scanned texts lately, and I'm losing my patience, so I'm now closing them and telling the asker to do their own typing. It's one thing to latexify for a newbie (LaTeX is hard, and it's poorly documented on Stack Exchange), and I have no problem doing that, but posting a scan is pure lazinesss. $\endgroup$ – Gilles Nov 20 '13 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Gilles could you take a look at this one? The asker has three times replaced the most significant portion of their question, which was originally typed, with a website screen grab. I've twice rolled back and twice asked them not to do this but I've got bored of that, now. Ta. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jan 5 '14 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby Done. Please flag such cases in the future. $\endgroup$ – Gilles Jan 6 '14 at 0:05

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