A recent question on the English Language and Usage site brought up a part of the site attribution policy that I think is unclear.

https://meta.stackexchange.com//help/referencing lays out the basic quote, link, name original author policy.

But does this apply when someone is asking a question about a joke, in a situation where it is unclear who the original author of the joke is?

The post in question goes like this:

Here is a question I've encountered:

How can you lift an elephant with one hand?

The answer provided is:

It is not a problem, since you will never find an elephant with one hand.

Now, if I actually want this sentence to mean that can I lift an elephant with a single hand (meaning my own hand), how would I say that?

I don't see any benefit to telling the OP that it is required to edit this edit this to add where the OP encountered the question/joke.

Adding this information is unlikely to give any useful context.

Attribution sometimes serves the role of giving credit to the original author, but a Google search indicates that this punch line could be attributed to a number of people, with no clear original:

Sure, I guess you could just go with the oldest. But who knows, that might be copied from something even older. And do we really need to require OPs to go on a citation hunt like this?

I think the standards for attribution for material that is being asked about in questions should be lower than the standards for attribution in answers. In a question about a joke like this, it's clear the OP is not trying to take credit for the material. This is not "joke theft" or plagiarism. Telling the OP that a citation is required in cases like this seems to me to be a reflexive overextension of the site plagiarism policy that has no real benefit.

I thought about posting this on the ELU meta, but I decided on here since the citation/plagiarism policy spans the network and my understanding is that the users of a single site cannot decide to be more lenient on unattributed quotations than Stack Exchange as a whole allows.

  • aside from my answer. I am curious - why did this even come up?
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Apr 12, 2017 at 2:32
  • 1
    @JourneymanGeek: there was a difference of opinion about whether or not the question needed a citation. Someone left a comment saying it should have one, and I thought the comment was unnecessary.
    – user306255
    Apr 12, 2017 at 3:12

3 Answers 3


Our current plagiarism rules are focused on answers rather than questions, so its not really covered by the letter of the rules.

I doubt that there's any real value to forcing people to cite sources for everything in this context. In some cases sources are useful for context. For answers, they kind of help/force users to add/consider the answers rather than grinding through google searches and cynical copy-pastes.

At the end of the day though, where other considerations are not in play (for example - citing the source of an actual work quoted verbatim in part is good practice) - I think it really comes down to "does adding a source add anything to the question?"

In most cases, probably not - and a request for a source for a quote should be about context in most cases. In this specific case, the OP might have actually heard this (frankly terrible) joke in conversation, asking for a source or citation feels unreasonable.

  • This is a good answer. Indeed, in this case "citing the source of an actual work quoted verbatim" is exactly the issue.
    – MetaEd
    Apr 13, 2017 at 22:24
  • Is it though? It's quoted from memory, and one would not really think adding the source improves the authoritativeness or answerability of the post.
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Apr 13, 2017 at 23:10
  • But it's not quoted from memory, is it? The OP acknowledges copying it from another post. If it were just a joke the OP knew, I wouldn't have asked for the source.
    – MetaEd
    Apr 13, 2017 at 23:20
  • 1
    "Here is a question I've encountered:" does not indicate its from another post. It does indicate a lack of originality and that OP's not the author. But what does the source add to the question here?
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Apr 13, 2017 at 23:30
  • For the post in discussion, I'm weighing in on this answer. The OP explicitly denies authorship, and only claims he's encountered the subject. He could very well have heard it told by an anonymous stranger at a pub showing off to someone else. So, what, then is the proper attribution? "Anonymous. 7 Jan 2017. Overhear in pub." What context, or understanding of the question is enhanced by an attribution of "Jefferson, Thomas. ca 1776. Letter to nephew."? @​sumelic has provided possible sources, but are they attributed as well? Can we follow the attribution trail to the original source?
    – user351780
    Apr 14, 2017 at 1:47
  • @GypsySpellweaver Correct, the OP does not claim authorship, but it's a written, not an oral, source. It is obviously someone else's words. The quoted riddle is identical to one found on many online "joke" or "riddle" sites, right down to punctuation marks. And copypasta without attribution is plagiarism. See Shog9's answer at “What does Stack Overflow mean by plagiarism?”:
    – MetaEd
    Nov 20, 2017 at 21:56
  • “simple: plagiarism is posting someone else's words (code, prose) without making it clear that you are posting someone else's words”, and he goes on to say the correct remedy is proper quoting and attribution. This has never been about finding the original, and I doubt you could -- the quoted text is all over the Internet. The attribution policy would be satisfied by identifying the OP's own source, whatever it was.
    – MetaEd
    Nov 20, 2017 at 21:56

I'm more than happy to be proven wrong on this one, but I would say that it's a bit of a grey area and in some instances, it's not clear if jokes are in the public domain or not.

For example, your elephant joke (sorry, someone else's) has been rehashed time and time again that it might not even be possible to find out who the original author is. Now I'm not going to say copyright law doesn't apply, but doesn't seem a little on the nose, a bit too ironic trying to source find the person who came up with chicken who crossed the road joke?

Provide a source where you can and do not break copyright law, but for a joke like that, you might not be able to. It's a case by case basis I would think on this subject.

  • ...which in this instance would involve linking or mentioning the source of the quoted material. No, we don't expect the poster to research the first teller of these jokes which are going to have been oral and unrecorded the vast majority of the time. Here, though, they're obviously quoting the exact phrasing and answer of someone and apparently in a print work ("answer provided"). I don't really understand @sumelic's resistance to the idea, except at the senseless extreme of needing to provide first use.
    – lly
    Apr 12, 2017 at 3:52
  • @lly: what is the point of requiring OPs to mention the source in cases like this? Who does it benefit?
    – user306255
    Apr 12, 2017 at 5:21
  • @sumelic As Daniel-James says, it's about providing a source where you can. The point is, that's the professional/collegiate thing to do, which is how Stack Exchange rolls.
    – MetaEd
    Apr 13, 2017 at 22:30

This is not a case of repeating a remembered joke or folk story. The content is a direct quotation: the asker acknowledged copying a post from somewhere. The asker properly blockquoted the copied content, just did not identify the source.

Giving proper credit to a directly quoted source is part of what it means to be professional/collegiate. Direct quotations should always be attributed. The attribution should identify the source, and credit the original author if known. A link to the source site would be a plus. The attribution policy does not carve out exceptions for some types of content – there is no “joke exception” when copying content directly from another publication.

Other responses have brought up plagiarism and copyright. There is no question of plagiarism here, because the asker disclaims authorship of the copied content. It is merely a missing attribution. There also ought to be no copyright issue. The excerpt from the original site would probably be deemed fair use. But – using it without giving proper credit could lead to a takedown request. That (in addition to professionalism) is a good reason to always identify the source of a direct quotation.

(I was the one who requested that the asker identify the source. I'm a mod on the site.)

  • 1
    Tbh, I'm of the opinion asking for a source here is not particularly passing the common sense test. There's no benefit from it and a takedown request in itself would be a joke
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Apr 13, 2017 at 23:15
  • I sort of agree with this answer, if something is quoted, a cite should be provided. Of course a simple fix would to use italics I think instead of a quote block but that's just me (also don't think in this case it's worth asking) hence the "sort of agree" but I got lots of experience writing professional and educational papers so doing a citation is nothing to me.
    – Ramhound
    Apr 14, 2017 at 0:02
  • I think too much is being read into the use of markdown by the OP. The palette of tools available to posters in our markdown set is rather limited. Markdown is a format control, not a grammar element. The choice to use block quote formatting could have been replaced with code block formatting. That wouldn't have made it code. Professionalism is a standard, not a straight-jacket. In this scenario to give credit where credit is due. However, in this case, to whom does the credit belong. Even @​sumelic didn't know where to give ultimate credit. I daresay that the origin is lost to its source.
    – user351780
    Apr 14, 2017 at 1:59

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