I recently noticed this answer by a new user with an ad link in their profile, which copied the post below it verbatim besides removing the phrase "So to sum this up" at the beginning.

The explanation I gave for the flag in the flagging dialog was:

New user who just copied an earlier answer verbatim (and trimmed out a few words). This is the third time I've seen this kind of thing happening... wtf?

To my surprise, the flag was declined with the following message:

Trivial answers are often similar. If you have some good evidence (such as unusual format or variable names) then please flag with specifics or post on Meta. Otherwise, just downvote and move on.

This looks like a template reason, but searching for the response above on Google or on Meta doesn't throw up any other occurrences of this decline reason. I'm also perplexed by why a mod would've given this response when I have mentioned in the flagging reason that the answer (of several sentences and a code block) was copied verbatim.

Anyway, since there's no way that I can give more specifics than I already gave, I figured I'd take the other course of action offered and post on Meta.

I'd appreciate if somebody could

  1. Either confirm (as I think is the case) that I was right to flag the post and that declining the flag was a mistake, or else provide some explanation of what was wrong with the flag.

  2. Take appropriate action upon the offending post.

  • This honestly looks like a new user tried to edit the other post to remove some of the garbage and visual defects, and somehow ended up posting it as another answer. – animuson Dec 6 '12 at 21:54
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    @animuson Nah - the fixing of formatting problems was done by editors later, probably when the answer was in the review queue. – Mark Amery Dec 6 '12 at 21:55
  • Yes, but a new user probably wouldn't have known that those 4 additional spaces on each line actually formatted it as code (and hence removed them). That's the only thing I really noticed that went in the wrong direction. – animuson Dec 6 '12 at 21:56
  • btw, declining is the only way to leave feedback to the flagger. So even if the mod wanted to approve the flag in good faith, this is the only way to send that message. – Mysticial Dec 6 '12 at 21:59
  • @animuson Well, the grammar of the first sentence also went in the wrong direction, and the line breaks that were added are not intentional formatting - they're the product of copying and pasting the text of the previous answer directly into the answer box! Try it yourself and see. :) – Mark Amery Dec 6 '12 at 22:01
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    The user also is clearly a spam user, probably trying to improve PageRank. liveadpost.com – Pekka supports GoFundMonica Dec 6 '12 at 22:01
  • @Pekka Spammy McSpamsalot ... profile links to a robo link-farm site. – McGarnagle Dec 6 '12 at 22:03
  • By the way, I know this comment potentially deserves its own meta thread but while people are looking this way can I just quickly ask: did this pattern of new users copying existing answers verbatim exist before the review queue? I wasn't on SO back then so I have no knowledge of how things were, but I've seen four of these answer-copying cases in the short time I've been here and the sad thing is that thanks to the review queue they were all voted higher than the answers they copy-pasted. – Mark Amery Dec 6 '12 at 22:05
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    @Mark I think this has happened a couple of times before, but not terribly often. – Pekka supports GoFundMonica Dec 6 '12 at 22:09
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    of spammer tricks I've seen, particularly "efficient" was one with having spammy user name, eg computer programming tutorials. When they post innocent looking garbage, writing flag message becomes really tricky: in 500 chars, I have to 1) explain why post isn't valuable, 2) point that purpose of posting appears to be bringing reader attention to spammy user name which in turn 3) leads to spam link in their profile. Pretty cumbersome – gnat Dec 7 '12 at 11:50
  • @gnat: Or just flag and say "this guy is a spammer." That works too. – user1228 Dec 7 '12 at 14:42
  • @Won't not always, as indicated by this very question "user with an ad link in their profile, which copied the post below it verbatim..". And by this one: "...user linking to a site with same name as the user, the link was also in the profile. Additionally the answer seemed rather content-free. I was surprised to see the flag declined..." Y'know I'd rather spend some time polishing my "summarizing skills" than waste it on reviewing my old declined flags and re-trying – gnat Dec 7 '12 at 14:54
  • @gnat: First off, OP never flagged the answer as SPAM. He flagged it as plagiarism. That's very important. As for your other example, it was handled by the community before a mod even saw it. [Edit: the flag history doesn't say that casperone handled it] I don't know why the last spam flag was declined [edit: casper said he fat fingered it], but the first six spam flags on that answer were marked as helpful. Again, Community, not any mod. So, again, as I said, flag and say "this guy is a spammer" when the guy is a spammer. – user1228 Dec 7 '12 at 15:05
  • @gnat: I'm not sure why you're having problems with this. Its honestly very simple. If you see a user, and that user is being spammy, let us know. That's it. Full stop. No need to overthink it. No need to write paragraphs of instructions. No need to sit in a park on a bench feeding pigeons with a sour puss on your face as you ponder the life, the universe, and spam flags. Just flag the bastard and say "this dude is a spammer" and we'll take care of it! I swear on the life of my unborn children! I SWEAR I WILL! I SWEAR!!!! – user1228 Dec 7 '12 at 15:25
  • @Won't well with 2K+ helpful flags, 100+ of them for spam and three marshal badges across SE network I hardly qualify as someone having problems don't you think? Maybe this is because when flagging I tend not to underthink it – gnat Dec 7 '12 at 15:29

In this particular case, the message you left for a moderator was... wanting. Here's what I mean by that.

This is your message:

New user who just copied an earlier answer verbatim (and trimmed out a few words). This is the third time I've seen this kind of thing happening... wtf?

Let's dissect it:

  • New user - Irrelevant to the flag.
  • who just copied an earlier answer verbatim (and trimmed out a few words). - Not verbatim, then, is it? And as Will has already mentioned, there are a good amount of flags we see where someone claims a user has 'copied' their answer, only to find out the question lends itself to really trivial answers that look a lot alike.
  • This is the third time I've seen this kind of thing happening... wtf? - This makes your entire flag sound like a rant, which in a good number of cases does not help your case. It's also irrelevant to this particular flag (since this user has not done it three times).

More than anything, custom flags are about sending us as much information as possible in the fewest amount of words (you only get 500 characters -- make them count).

Here's how I would have suggested your flag be phrased:

This user has copied another user's answer word for word (link: https://stackoverflow.com/a/11557689/16587 ). Profile looks like spam as well.

With that flag verbiage, every word is actionable, there's evidence, and it goes deeper into a, "Hey, this might not even be an actual user."

  • "you only get 500 words" - 500 chars, not words. I just tested at your own answer: Flag -> Other -> enter 1234567890 -> message under text box says 490 characters left :) – gnat Dec 7 '12 at 15:26
  • @gnat Quite right; words should have been characters. – George Stocker Dec 7 '12 at 15:27
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    Thanks for this. I figured the 'copied verbatim' thing would make the flag fly through regardless of the other points but as you say, there is plenty of extra info I could've included if I'd taken a minute. Thanks for making clear that including detail in mod flags is welcomed - I have always striven for lightness-of-reading at the expense of detail until now (figuring that the mods would have to look at the posts anyway and including detail that they will immediately see for themselves would be more a nuisance than help) but it sounds like that is not the desired approach. – Mark Amery Dec 7 '12 at 15:31
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    @MarkAmery When there are hundreds of flags in the queue (as there often are), we prefer not to have to go hunting for evidence. Stack Overflow is somewhat special in that regard. One exception is if the user posts the same answer repeatedly, since we're already alerted when that happens. – George Stocker Dec 7 '12 at 15:33

It clearly looks like a copy/paste to me. I see no evidence of spam, but it is a drive-by poster (unregistered, only visited once).

I deleted the answer.

  • Thanks. The post was not 'spam' in the SO sense of being 'an advertisement with no disclosure', but the user has a spam link in their profile. – Mark Amery Dec 6 '12 at 22:39
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    Profiles get a lot more leeway. However, I'll go ahead and delete the account, since the user doesn't seem to need it anymore. – Robert Harvey Dec 6 '12 at 22:44

(Prescript: You didn't use the word "spam" in your flag. If you think someone is a spammer, please let us know that. This answer expands on the decline reason.)

We get hundreds of flags a month claiming that a user has "copied" another user's answer within the same question. More often than not, it turns out that the question is answered trivially by slightly modifying the OP's posted code. So you end up with many very similar answers that look like they are copied verbatim. And if both answers are copied from the question itself, they look even more similar.

Should we go around and delete all these similar, trivial answers? Figure out which out of the group is the first and delete the rest? Or delete all of them except for the one with the most additional information below the very similar code block? Maybe all but the most highly voted? Or all but the answer by the user who could most use the rep?

Of course, during this mass deletion of answers, we're going to end up with a lot more auto-answer-banned noobs, because new users tend to dip their toes in the water with these easier questions. But, hey, screw them for answering trivial questions with code that's very similar to another user's answer, amirite? [Note: This is what some people believe moderators actually think] That's obviously not a solution.

We have to accept the fact that people answering the same question can sometimes give the same answer. As we don't want to discourage people from answering, so we must allow some level of answer duplication. But where is the point where similarity becomes plagiarism?

My simple answer is I don't know.

I'd prefer to not assume the worst. In fact, I'd prefer not to assume at all. So, if trivial answers are similar, I'm not going to delete. I'll let you downvote and leave constructive comments, if you choose to do so. However, if you have some good evidence (such as unusual format or variable names) then please flag with specifics or post on Meta. We like to make decisions based on good evidence rather than just a hunch. Much less chance of fat fingering that way.

(Postscript: Again, the word "spam" does wonders when used in a mod flag. If you see it, use it.)

  • Is there a special flag that's dedicated to spam answers? That would be useful. – BoltClock's a Unicorn Dec 7 '12 at 15:03
  • @BoltClock'saUnicorn: FR that immediately. Will bounty. – user1228 Dec 7 '12 at 15:07
  • -1 just because there simply wasn't any ambiguity about whether the user's behaviour was legitimate here, so most of this answer (while interesting) doesn't seem to me to be relevant to this case. Here it wasn't just the code which was copied verbatim, it was also the multiple sentences of fluff text around the code, so your suggestion of providing evidence like unusual variable names seems weird. Should I perhaps have actually written in the flag "Here it wasn't just the code which was copied verbatim, it was also the multiple sentences of fluff text around the code" to make the point? – Mark Amery Dec 7 '12 at 15:37
  • @MarkAmery: There was enough ambiguity that I didn't want to act based on that flag alone. And your proposed update doesn't help the situation. If you did suspect the user of spamming, then you should have simply stated so in the flag. Again, we have tons of "this guy's answer is similar to another!" flags which are mostly BS. If you can't get across the fact that the guy was a spammer and not a plagiarist within a flag then you're going to continue having this problem. – user1228 Dec 7 '12 at 16:23
  • @Won't But the problem was not that he was a spammer, it was that he was copying somebody else's answer. The 'spam' aspect of all this was just a link to an ad site in his profile. There'd be no problem at all with him having that link if he was also providing a legit, non-copy-pasted answer. I don't understand why you're telling me to mark this as spam when that was just a somewhat-relevant side detail and not the thing that was actually a problem. – Mark Amery Dec 7 '12 at 16:30
  • @MarkAmery: Look at the title of your question. Spammer. Look at my answer--similar answers will happen, and we must allow them, and its a judgement call that I make on the side of caution. The real problem was the spam. The similar-answer aspect is a large gray area, whereas the spam aspect is not. Therefore, the more meaningful flag would have been "he's a spammer." You simply cannot expect us to make the 100% right decision (or, from your perspective, agree with you 100% of the time) on a flag that requires a judgement call on a flag that has a large grey area. It is unreasonable. – user1228 Dec 7 '12 at 16:37
  • @Won't Can I just be clear: are we having a huge communication failure here or do you really think that the single link tucked away in his profile was more important than the fact that he copied somebody's answer, including both code and several full sentences of prose, word for word without adding anything to it? Because that's what it appears to me that you are saying, but that seems to me to be completely absurd. – Mark Amery Dec 7 '12 at 18:42

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