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This question came up from the discussion here.

Just for clarity, my complete question is this:

  1. If a web page contains content that correctly answers a question or pretty much gives the answer, then, just linking to the web page is considered improper while copying the content and pasting it as an answer is considered OK? How is this desirable? Is this not directly promoting plagiarism?

  2. Also, later it is mentioned that copying the content is not fine but explaining the answer in your own words is OK. How can you identify whether content is simply copied or "created", especially if the web page answers the question? (Because it would be unfair for someone to gain rep for no work of their own.)

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4 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Answering a question for which you found the answer on another site doesn't mean to copy and paste what reported in that page. Links are used to backup your answer, such as when you give the link to the documentation page for a function, or a framework.

What you can do is:

  • Showing an excerpt for that page with the most important points
  • Making a summary of what the page says, using your own words

In the first case, the excerpt can be considered under fair use; in the second case you are using your own words, so there should not be any problems with that.

Apart from what said in the linked page:

  • If the question is about code to write, and the linked page describes how that code should be written, you can add the code you would write basing on those suggestions
  • Add your own comments about what said in that page, such as underlining what the common errors are, and pointing what the OP needs to carefully check
  • Add your own expertise about the topic

How can you identify whether content is simply copied or "created", especially if the web page answers the question?

Having the link to the page, it is rather easy to see what part has been copied, and which part has been written by the author of the answer using her/his own words. The fact the linked page contains the answer for the question doesn't make more difficult to understand what part has been copied, and what part has been re-written using different words.

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Links can break. If you only provide a link then the answer might outdate. And since this is a Q&A site trying to be useful not only to the asker in the moment but for everyone in the future, this is not desireable.

And just copying an answer from another source is very often not a specific answer to a question. On SO we try to exactly answer questions and by doing it in your own words you can answer the question precisly and in a proper length for SO.

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The reason why you should not only put a link to an external source is quite obvious. If the referred to link goes down (or if the sourced article is changed) your answer is rendered useless. Providing a link as well as a brief of what the article contains will make the answer more useful despite of external events.

Use quotes, your own words, or summarize the article. Be sure to give cred to the author of the article or to the article itself (by linking to it) and you are good to go, and your answer will be useful for a greater period of time.

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There's nothing wrong with supplying a link. The problem is with supplying only a link.

If you don't have the time to create a one-paragraph summary of the essential idea, or at least a one-paragraph explanation of why the linked content is a good solution, then put the link in a comment, not an answer.

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