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I am seeing a lot of people do this.

Several answers come flooding in to a question, one of them is clearly correct, several are not or are missing vital information. Users who have posted these sub-par answers suddenly see the better one, and quickly make sure to change their answer to include a reworded version of the clearly better answer. Sometimes the new version is a little bit clearer or has an extra link in order to one-up the other user, but doesn't add anything relevant.

I encounter this frequently when 4-5 answers all show up at once, one is clearly right, sometimes straight up shaming the other answers, gets a couple immediate upvotes or a comment along the lines of "+1 for being right", and then suddenly one or more users with the bad answers totally revamp it to match the correct one, often within the "grace period" (how long is that?) where it will not be marked as edited. So all within a few minutes.

I know that the revision history is available to anyone interested, but it's unlikely to be scrutinized. The slippery slope here is that there's no proof - but sometimes it's really obvious.

What is the correct approach to dealing with this? Just let it be? Call them out politely?

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I am not sure if this is correct behavior but in my own answers I often provide a solution as quick as possible to get the question asker on his way as quick as possible. Then I start editing and refining the answer with explanations and further readings about the subject. This often includes information that other answers also incorporate but took longer to type. I justify myself for this behavior because I put a lot of work in these answers and sometimes even spend multiple days refining and editing them. –  Jan Apr 10 '11 at 19:01
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When I do that, I give credit where it's due by linking to the answers I refer to, and I upvote those other answers as well. Dunno if that's acceptable too though. –  BoltClock's a Unicorn Apr 10 '11 at 19:01
    
@BoltClock: I'm referring to copying content from other answers to the exact same (unanswered) question in order to win the accept rep, usually before OP has a chance to see any of the replies. –  Wesley Murch Apr 10 '11 at 19:08
    
@Madmartigan: I know. I do that, while also linking to the other answers. –  BoltClock's a Unicorn Apr 10 '11 at 19:10
    
@BoltClock: Just so I'm clear: You link to other answers on the same page, to the same question? –  Wesley Murch Apr 10 '11 at 19:13
    
@Madmartigan: Yeah. Maybe unnecessary, but it's just a habit of mine. –  BoltClock's a Unicorn Apr 10 '11 at 19:14
    
You might want to support something like an "asked & edited 1 min ago" indicator, in Add an indication that a post has been edited in the 5 minutes grace period. –  Arjan Apr 10 '11 at 20:41

4 Answers 4

What is the correct approach to dealing with this? Just let it be?

This can be very irritating sometimes, especially if you have put a lot of research into your answer. However, usually, the right choice is to do nothing.

Firstly, you don't know whether they stole from you, or researched it themselves; secondly, everyone has a shot at posting an answer, and offering a solution explained in their own way. If they manage to put it better (or just easier for the OP to understand), they will "win" over your answer even if you came up with it first. That's the way SO works, and it's for the best: It guarantees the best possible outcome for the OP.

If it's clearly, blatantly stolen from your answer with no alteration or improvement, there's nothing wrong with a downvote.

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Did you mean "especially if you have put a lot of research into your answer"? The other thing to note here is that typically these "forged" answers offer nothing to improve the original good answer, which has already covered all the bases and has little room for improvement. Sometimes they do, but often they don't. –  Wesley Murch Apr 10 '11 at 19:12
    
@Mad yeah, I just corrected it, sorry. It's true that real plagiarism usually doesn't come up with a better result. But in my experience, they usually don't get as heavily upvoted as the original... that experience can be misleading though, as there is a clear voting bias favouring higher-rep users. If it's clearly and blatantly stolen from you, there's nothing wrong with a downvote IMO. –  Pëkka Apr 10 '11 at 19:14
    
This makes sense. I guess if someone took the time to give OP a better answer, even if it is supposedly "copied", then all the better for OP and anyone reading the post later. I suppose in the case where it's clearly obvious that the answer is copied in order to win rep, SO users are usually savvy enough to recognize it [citation needed]. –  Wesley Murch Apr 10 '11 at 19:22
    
I unchecked this answer for now per @clairesuzy's comment to leave open for a bit. This is the best answer IMO so far, but I'm not exactly sure that a downvote is called for even if the content is clearly "stolen" as you say. I would think that detracting merit from any right answer, plagiarized or not, would not have any benefit except your own sense of "revenge". Can you explain the reasoning? You may be right, but I'm not familiar enough with the proper behavior on these sites yet. If the content is clearly, blatantly stolen, wouldn't flagging a mod be more appropriate? –  Wesley Murch Apr 11 '11 at 6:43
    

The end result is that the asker and anyone who views the question will have better answers, so I don't see it as much of a problem. It is a little poor form to just copy someone else's answer, but if you can make it better, I don't think it is that bad.

The community will vote up the better answers, if you see this happening, vote for the answer that you think deserves it. I know that a lot of people vote up the first when there are similar answers, and there is nothing wrong with that either.

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How about if the "copied" answer does not make anything clearer, it's simply reworded in hopes of being selected over the other nearly identical answers? –  Wesley Murch Apr 10 '11 at 19:16
    
If the answer is correct and there is two people who explain it differently then I think that is also fine. In fact that is better than one answer with one set of wording. –  jzd Apr 10 '11 at 21:14
    
By and large I agree, though it is definitely a problem in the sense that reputation is designed to benefit those who contribute content, and if you are the one who is bringing that content to the table and others are getting rewarded for it, it doesn't encourage the right behavior. –  Daniel DiPaolo Apr 11 '11 at 19:18

If you even recognise that content from another answer is laid out a little better than yours (it means you know your stuff) AND you take the time to clarify your answer accordingly, surely that only benefits the person asking the question.. and along the way you've learnt something too ;) - I always vote up too btw even if I get the "essence" but someone else puts it better

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Sometimes the only way a user recognizes that the other answer is better is because it has 10 upvotes while yours has zero, especially in the case where you were dead wrong to begin with –  Wesley Murch Apr 10 '11 at 20:04
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if you're dead wrong.. stop editing and admit it or delete, if you got the essence right.. use your 5 minutes that's what most others do.. and yes sometimes there really is no option but to defer to the person with the higher rep (usually more upvotes!), even if they're right or wrong –  clairesuzy Apr 10 '11 at 20:10
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"if you're dead wrong.. stop editing and admit it or delete"... agree with this, but not everyone adheres to this principle, which is partially why I asked this question to begin with. –  Wesley Murch Apr 10 '11 at 20:20
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yea it's life, it's better to let truth surface by itself sometimes - oh and I see you accepted an answer to this question already, which runs true to reason you even asked the question? You feel like people are "stealing" but in fact they're possibly not they just didn't refresh at the same time .. they really might know an answer! lots of people do - see sometimes accepting too quick causes just the effect you are talking about and it doesn't always lead to the "correct" answer ;) –  clairesuzy Apr 10 '11 at 20:33
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@madmartigan, if someone is dead wrong then people should be voting that answer down. That will force the user to delete it or make them lose the rep. Either way it pushes it down to the bottom of the list. –  jzd Apr 10 '11 at 21:16
    
@clairesuzy: Now that you make me think about it, you are absolutely right. I am probably too quick to accept an answer, and a lot of people are and that's what makes people shoot off quick answers and refine them later instead of just taking the time in the first place. I feel like people are expecting me to select an answer as soon as the first "correct-enough" one pops up. This is my first week using SO after creating an account a while back for a single question I had, so I am still learning how to use it correctly. Thanks for the feedback, this really helps. –  Wesley Murch Apr 11 '11 at 3:20
    
I'm still learning too, but I have seen what you're talking about where a higher rep answer almost always gets a few upvotes before any other answers even get a chance to be considered, I even think I read somewhere here about being called the headstart disadvantage, better answers can "win" the vote count over time - but I've read so much lately I forgot where it was. I learnt that a polite comment (not accusation!) left on the duplicate pointing to your, or the first, answer can help, in one case I've encountered already.. I did "shame" a duplicate answerer into deleting their answer –  clairesuzy Apr 11 '11 at 9:50

If an answer lifts the content of another answer word for word, and doesn't explicitly acknowledge the other answer, it is a violation of the CC BY-SA license that all applies user-contributed content on Stack Exchange. In other words, it's illegal.

In principle, if you see this happening, you can flag the offending answer and explain what's going on, and a moderator should at least remove the offending answer and possibly reprimand the user. However, it can be difficult to prove plagiarism if the offending answer was edited within the 5-minute window, because edits within that window do not show at all, even to moderators; the database is directly updated with the new content (and so an older answer could be plagiarizing an answer that's a couple of minutes newer). It helps to have a distinctive style.

If an answer lifts an idea from another answer, that's fair game as far as the law is concerned. It's against academic standards, but academic standards generally don't apply to Stack Exchange. I certainly hardly ever attribute the answers I write on Stack Exchange when I use a piece of knowledge found on Stack Exchange or elsewhere — mostly because I hardly ever remember where I learnt a particular detail. But I would definitely not do this on the very same question — both because I'd remember the origin of what I read 30 seconds ago, and because duplicating an answer would be useless. Exploiting the five-minute edit window to read other people's answers and incorporate them in your answers is definitely antisocial behavior, and worthy of flagging, but hard to detect and prove.

There are, of course, legitimate cases where answers on the same question have content in common. If I'm writing an answer, I don't always check the answers posted in the meantime. If I see a poorly-worded answer conveying an idea that I'd have thought of anyway, I might write a better answer with the same idea. I've occasionally been attacked for not giving attributions in such cases; I just ignored the attacks. If I see an incomplete answer and I want to significantly expand on it, I'll post an answer citing the incomplete answer.

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That is interesting. I don't think we need to get the law involved here though, that can only make things worse! I can't think of a single case (on Stack sites sites at least) where that would be worth it. –  Wesley Murch Apr 12 '11 at 13:06

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