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An answer on Stack Overflow was recently brought to my attention as possible plagiarism, but I determined that the source of the suspected plagiarism was actually written and posted by the answerer elsewhere and later copied over to Stack Overflow verbatim.

The question Do we have a policy about self-plagiarism? seems to cover the opposite scenario, where someone might want to copy their Stack Exchange answer onto another SE question or elsewhere on the Internet.

Is this an acceptable practice?

I am assuming:

  • That the answerer has permission to post the answer here, either because they never gave up the rights to the content or they have retained enough rights to also post it here.
  • That the answer is at least minimum quality and makes an effort to answer the question (that is, it's not simply a rant from the answerer's blog, or random ponderings with nothing to do with the question asked).

In response to Anne Daunted's question, no, they did not disclose that they were copying over content that they had previously written and posted elsewhere. It got brought to chat as a possible plagiarism to be flagged. I investigated and declined to flag, commenting instead that it looked ok enough to not be flagged for summary deletion by a moderator. Instead, I decided it would be best to leave it to voters to decide how useful it is.

While this question is inspired by something that happened on Stack Overflow, it belongs here because it is relevant to every site, and there is no obvious reason that such a policy is or should be different across the network.

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2 Answers 2

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Yes, this is acceptable. Attribution isn't even necessary in this case; the related Help Center article only deals about content written by other people. To prevent confusion (like in the case you mention) it's good (but not obligatory) to have some indication that the content was posted before.

Except in cases where the author somehow sold their copyright to an external party, they will always be allowed to post their content somewhere else. This includes reusing an answer you posted to one Stack Exchange question on another one (on the same site or a different one). Of course, it's almost always better to tailor the answer to the question at hand, or instead (if appropriate/possible) flag/vote to close the question as a duplicate.

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    just to clarify, why do we need licenses if no attribution is necessary (even within the site)? Sep 24, 2019 at 16:35
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    Attribution isn't necessary for the author. That's because public copyright licenses (like CC-BY-SA, which Stack uses) exist to allow others to use content according to specific terms & conditions, but they don't limit the licensor. In other words, the person who owns the content isn't limited in how they can use their content just because they publicly licensed it, and they thus don't have to follow the license themselves if they don't want to (eg. they can omit attribution).
    – zcoop98
    Nov 24, 2021 at 20:47
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    It's the same reason that you can take anything you've personally written on Stack and post it to your own website (or anywhere else) without any licensing strings attached– it's still your content, to do with as you please.
    – zcoop98
    Nov 24, 2021 at 20:48
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No, this is not acceptable. One's own published work should be treated in the same way as any other external source: selected, relevant portions quoted with proper attribution, & not copied wholesale. There's an expectation that answers on SE constitute original work.

If proper attribution is not given "readers will be deprived of the citation trail—not giving proper attribution is bad scholarship even when not infringing copyright" [Scortchi, from a comment on a Stack Overflow moderator question]. Moreover, SE users, including moderators, will not, in general, be able to confirm the identity of another SE user with the original author; nor should they be put to the trouble of trying to.

After all, what are the positive arguments for making an exception here? If it's all right to lift an answer in its entirety from your own published writing, then why not from someone else's (assuming you're not infringing copyright, & give due credit)? What would be the harm in letting readers know where you first published something you're repeating verbatim in an answer on an SE site?


† From https://meta.stackexchange.com/help/referencing:—

Do not copy the complete text of sources; instead, use their words and ideas to support your own. In particular, answers comprised entirely of a quote (sourced or not) will often be deleted since they do not contain any original content.

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    If the complete text of a source is your own writing, and it actually answers the question, then the justification for that "referencing" help center quote falls apart. They are ideas of your own and they are original content written by yourself...
    – Cerbrus
    Mar 21 at 9:19
  • @Cerbrus: So we have an answer, by assumption a good one, copied from another source that is clearly indicated for the benefit of readers who want to follow up. I can see arguments for allowing that, & arguments for insisting that content on S.E. should be original to S.E.; you seem to be suggesting that all that matters is whether the person who posted it happens to be the same person who wrote it. I don't see why that matters at all. Mar 21 at 10:02
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    Because the whole reason you need to reference your sources is if you're quoting other people's work, as explained in Glorfindel's answer.
    – Cerbrus
    Mar 21 at 10:04
  • @Cerbrus: Obviously I dispute that, but it's an orthogonal issue. What are the grounds for saying it's all right to lift an answer from somewhere else if you wrote it (whether you reference the source or not) but not if if you didn't write it (given proper attribution to the original author)? The content's the same - what's the disservice to readers or the harm to the S.E. site in one case but not the other? Mar 21 at 12:12
  • That's just how copyright works... You can't copy another person's work without the required attribution, but your own work is yours to do with as you please...
    – Cerbrus
    Mar 21 at 12:14
  • Cerbrus: So you're saying it is all right to lift an answer from somewhere else provided you give the required attribution when it's another person's work? Mar 21 at 12:44
  • No, because then you're not using your own words. "Do not copy the complete text of sources; instead, use their words and ideas to support your own." If the "other source" is "yourself", then you're already using your own words... That's the two issues here. Copyright, and writing your own content.
    – Cerbrus
    Mar 21 at 12:46
  • Copyright. 'How to reference material written by others' wisely declines to mention copyright. It's up to copyright owners to issue DMCA takedown notices to the company should they wish, & up to the post owners to challenge those should they wish: it's not incumbent on other users, including moderators, to act as copyright police. Good job too! Who owns the copyright (it's not necessarily the author)? Does the poster have permission from the copyright owner to reproduce the material? Does the amount of quoted material toghether with the aim of the post constitute fair dealing/use? ... Mar 21 at 14:09
  • ... Isn't it presumptuous to assume the copyright owner cares about infringement in this particular case? These are questions of fact & of law we'd be'd guessing at the answers to. Writing your own content Well, that's my question: if it's good content, properly attributed to its author, why should we care? Mar 21 at 14:10
  • I shouldn't have to tell you that plagiarizing content is bad, regardless of if the author is aware, or cares. That's what copying content without attribution is... Plagiarism. That's why you need to provide attribution. Unless it's your own content, then you don't. How is this difficult to understand?
    – Cerbrus
    Mar 21 at 14:14
  • If you re-read my answer & comments, you'll find nothing to imply that I think plagiarism is acceptable if the original author is unaware or doesn't care. There is plagiarism that isn't copyright infringement, & there is copyright infringement that isn't plagiarism: our concern with other users' posts is only with regard to plagiarism; because neither is it our place to act in the interest of copyright owners, nor should we presume to know what those interests are. Mar 21 at 15:49
  • @Cerbrus: While plagiarism is indeed bad, what's sometimes called "self-plagiarism" (I don't like the term) is not good. I'll try to elaborate on the reasons in my answer when I get chance. Mar 21 at 15:58
  • Don't bother, we're already repeating ourselves here.
    – Cerbrus
    Mar 21 at 15:59

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