Recent cases of wholesale plagiarism like the four instances collected in this question (one, two, three, four) make me think, maybe there should be a clear policy on plagiarism in place in the FAQ?

A FAQ entry, say under the headline "Can I use other people's work?", could highlight the essentials:

  • When quoting someone else's work, basic academic rules apply: always add attribution

  • This applies to small snippets of code as well

  • Do not do wholesale copying of content from copyright protected sites; link to them instead, and describe what the source says in your own words.

  • Plagiarism will be punished (I hope!)

(Or something to this extent.)

Not that I think this will keep a malicious plagiarist from doing their thing. But it may not be clear to some people that quoting without attribution is always evil. There may be innocent mistakes here, also in light of the fact that linking has limitations for low-rep users.

As Tim Post puts it in the comments:

It would also help avoiding protracted arguments when taking action. "But I was just trying to be helpful! You're punishing me??" and we can say "Umm, did you read this?

A concrete example where the OP doesn't seem to see much of a problem in unattributed quoting, and adds the source only after being asked to do so, is here: What are the diffrences between utf8_general_ci and utf8_unicode_ci?

  • 11
    Moderators will delete on sight any post that is a straight copy lift, no excuses (attribution isn't always a viable excuse unless the source is the right creative commons release)
    – random
    Commented Mar 20, 2011 at 19:33
  • @random What to do in cases like this one programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/41949/… ? Please see the edit timeline Commented Mar 20, 2011 at 20:39
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    @Wether hmm, that is just quoting - that is okay and as far as I know, tolerated by copyright law around the world
    – Pekka
    Commented Mar 20, 2011 at 21:02
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    Now I am somewhat confused about quoting, copy lift, attribution .... but I think I have to live with it or go to law school. mmmm ... I'll live with it Commented Mar 20, 2011 at 21:05
  • @Wether I think there are pretty clear standards, but I don't know the specifics either. There is a certain threshold of how much you can quote so it's still "fair use" - as long as you attribute the content to its original author. If you quote without attribution, or copy the whole thing, you're out. It would be interesting to see the legal groundwork for this, maybe somebody can come up with it
    – Pekka
    Commented Mar 20, 2011 at 21:16
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    @random - That may be the policy on SO. I agree that plagarism is deplorable, regardless of the license. But, to be clear, moderators don't have to execute judgement on copyright or memorize creative commons licenses: See the mod blog post Your Role in Copyright Enforcement. Commented May 31, 2012 at 0:30
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    Mods deal in morals, not DCMA or copyright, copy lift refers to former @kev
    – random
    Commented May 31, 2012 at 0:43
  • 'copy lift' was a new term for me, and I assumed that the reference to Creative Commons meant you were talking about legal stuff. Commented May 31, 2012 at 1:00
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    Related: What to do when plagiarism is discovered?
    – Pekka
    Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 16:12
  • @Pekka: Thanks for the bounty! Though I don't really deserve it, I'm as "authoritative" as you are (maybe less... you have more meta reps :P). Commented Dec 28, 2012 at 21:12
  • Very recent case. Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 18:30

6 Answers 6


I've added this to the help center: https://meta.stackoverflow.com/help/referencing

Don't hesitate to suggest improvements, corrections, etc.

  • Why doesn't it show up when searching? Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 8:56
  • Probably because it hasn't been indexed yet.
    – Shog9
    Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 8:57
  • Hmm... posts on Stack Overflow are indexed in less than a minute so I just assumed help center use the same search behind the scenes. OK, fair enough! Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 8:59
  • Would it be helpful to link to the two meta FAQs? Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 8:59
  • Probably. I added one, @ben.
    – Shog9
    Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 9:04
  • Yup, appear now in search result. Hooray! :) Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 10:49
  • Nice. Some improvement suggestions here: meta.stackexchange.com/a/214138/138112
    – Pekka
    Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 18:11
  • Can you add an official ruling (or guidelines) on using text from comments? It might sound trivial, but there are a lot of questions where the answer is stuck in a comment. And many questions have been raised to discuss the ethics of this.
    – James
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 0:51

Blame Pekka for this answer, he put me up to it ;-) . Enough cats, Pekka?

Yes, we need something linkable. The FAQ is an ideal place for this, but there are lots of other similar things that can go there as well. We don't want to bloat the faq, too few people read it already. Still, this particular case I support for FAQ-ness.

Even if it doesn't get to /faq, we can still have an MSO for it. After all, we only really need it for linking--whoever should be reading the faq doesn't read it.

I've prepared a draft below of a faq Q&A MSO post. It is presented in a fun form, so that offenders don't just tl;dr it.

Can I copy stuff?

enter image description here

I am an inherently lazy cat. Can I plz plz copy stuff for my SO answers? You can see how much I like being lazy, and how much I like copying.

protected by Tim Post♦ Jun 6 '12 at 7:00

This question is protected to prevent "thanks!", "me too!", or spam answers by new users. To answer it, you must have earned at least 10 reputation on this site.


You can, but only if you follow some rules. Let me explain:

As you can see, one of the two cats is being lazy by copying the other's pose. Probably the larger one, since kittens are too cute to be evil.

Now, who looks cute? That's right, both of them. So one of them went through all the trouble to cook up this fantastic pose, and the other just copies it and laps up the extra kibble it is awarded.

enter image description here

Of course not. That's why, you must attribute stuff you've copied:

enter image description here

Anything you copy must be attributed.

Basic rules:

  • When quoting someone else's work, basic academic rules apply: always add attribution

  • This applies to small snippets of code as well

enter image description here

  • Do not do whole-sale copying of content from copyright protected sites; link to them instead, and describe what the source says in your own words.

enter image description here

Otherwise, we will find you. And when we do.... :

enter image description here

Attribution for images (no hypocrisy here):









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    (I really hope posting this is OK. I was slightly bored, and Pekka had asked me, so.... Mods, delete if you wish. ) Commented Jun 6, 2012 at 7:18
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    Man, this is magnificent. This is way more than I expected.
    – Pekka
    Commented Jun 6, 2012 at 7:21
  • 3
    @Pekka: You wanted cats, you got cats :) Commented Jun 6, 2012 at 7:22
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    All the cat pictures are of course properly attributed to their copyright owners from whom permission was obtained?
    – Bart
    Commented Jun 6, 2012 at 7:34
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    @Bart: Umm, nope. Irony irony. Actually, I did keep the links in an HTML comment at the bottom. They're all blog/flickr/etc images, so IIRC no copyright as long as the links are there. I may visibly attribute them soon. Commented Jun 6, 2012 at 7:38
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    I'm pretty sure that them being on Flickr does not make them copyright free. Although they might have a CC license. All my photos on Flickr are explicitly copyrighted for example. I seriously don't mean to rain on your lovely cat-parade, but having had my fair share of photographs stolen from me, I tend to be fairly careful about this stuff.
    – Bart
    Commented Jun 6, 2012 at 7:42
  • 2
    Well, the situation with cat picshurz is a bit special - seeing as they're being systematically and commercially exploited by sites like icanhazcheezburger et al. To me, this post falls under fair use - either way, it's definitely not plagiarism, as there clearly is no intent of pretending that the pictures were taken by oneself.
    – Pekka
    Commented Jun 6, 2012 at 8:00
  • 1
    @Pekka I understand (and IANAL), but it sounds a bit like "we can do it, because everybody does it". Ah well, I just was amused by them appearing like this within a question about plagiarism (not saying the pictures fall under plagiarism btw). :) I'll leave it at that.
    – Bart
    Commented Jun 6, 2012 at 8:08
  • 1
    @Bart: If you look carefully I (intentionally) plagiarized stuff from Pekka's original post as well. Commented Jun 6, 2012 at 8:09
  • 3
    If it's from @Pekka, that's just fair use. ;)
    – Bart
    Commented Jun 6, 2012 at 8:09
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    Ok, you cats make sure you share my upvote nicely ... NO FIGHTING!
    – user50049
    Commented Sep 1, 2012 at 14:39
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    Finger pointing at kitten with hands up - classic.
    – AndrewC
    Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 0:19
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    Man, do you think that your hyperlinks is the right way of attribution? Who are authors of the images (their names), and did they give permission to use their images? You reuploaded images to imgur.com, and even if original page did not have line "YEAR Copyright by somebody", the images were copyrighted by default
    – osgx
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 21:09
  • 5
    @osgx I have to agree, this post is a prime example of how not to do it.
    – Lukas Graf
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 22:44
  • 1
    Um... neither of those "two" cats copied the pose of the other. It's just one cat. Blame whoever edited the photo, don't blame the cat (unless it was the cat who edited the photo). Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 17:27

I don't think it would deter the practice, but it would give Moderators a handy reference when writing a nice, succinct message to a user explaining to them why an action was taken.

For the blessed few users that actually read the FAQ, it would be a big help in showing them how to cite snippets borrowed from other questions or answers, or other sites.

I wouldn't call this a terribly rampant problem, in fact it is minuscule compared to the issue of those who republish SO content without attribution on other sites. However, I think adding this wouldn't hurt anything, and would make the lives of moderators a bit easier when dealing with the issue.

  • 3
    Yeah. It's not a rampant problem and the beautiful thing is, plagiarism can be detected years later, with devastating effects to the perpetrator's (literal and symbolic) reputation. It's how we got rid of a defense minister recently. But as you say, it would be nice to have shoved a note to that effect into every user's face once, just for the sake of form.
    – Pekka
    Commented Apr 8, 2011 at 15:38
  • 2
    @Pekka - It would also help avoiding protracted arguments when taking action. "But I was just trying to be helpful! You're punishing me??" and we can say "Umm, did you read this?"
    – user50049
    Commented Apr 8, 2011 at 15:41
  • yeah, that's what I mean. Nobody will be able to say "but I didn't know!"
    – Pekka
    Commented Apr 8, 2011 at 15:42
  • 1
    Now that you're on the other side of the fence, any thought about adding a page to /help? Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 13:57
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    @Gilles Hmm, I don't think it's unreasonable to say that /help/licensing could use a lot more clarification on how to attribute properly, and that it's mandatory. I'll raise it later this week.
    – user50049
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 14:25

This does need to be addressed in the FAQ, and it also needs to be explained. But first, let's review the problem:

The problem I see is that a typical plagiarism accusation goes something like this:

  • User A posts answer he copied from site A.
  • User B leaves comment:

This is plagiarized from [link here].

  • User A then indignantly replies:

Well, it is a good answer. What is the problem with you? I try to help. why u downvote?

  • The conversation then degrades from there.

The problem is that the people who commit plagiarism don't understand that what they are doing is wrong because that person's education system failed them.

Thus, when we leave comments that just say, "this is plagiarism", the person doing the plagiarism has absolutely no freaking idea what we're talking about! :)

Therefore, the solution is to use comments to educate these individuals and kindly show them the way. I've said before that people who are angry, who have been insulted, won't learn anything from us. But if we patiently explain that plagiarism is frowned upon because it uses other people's work without their permission and without giving them credit, then that person is more likely to reflect and think about the issue on a deeper level.

So, while adding something to the FAQ will definitely be helpful, there are two major requirements that we must adhere to, assuming we all want this to be a success:

  • The FAQ entry must not just say "don't plagiarize", but it must also constructively explain why one should not plagiarize. It should also list the alternatives, like paraphrasing and using proper attribution. The key is to educate.

  • If we are to leave a comment on a post with a link to the FAQ, we must also explain and educate. Link only comments in [Whathaveyoutried] format don't educate in the same manner as a polite, friendly comment.

While we're all a bit sickened by remorseless and indignant plagiarism, this is the best method that I know of that will turn a so-so contributor into a better one. Good Stack Overflow users aren't always good users on day one, sometimes we have to mold them into good users.

  • Don't those (moral) reasons vary from person to person? For example, I have no qualms with using other people's work, nor with them using mine. I do, however, value attribution as it allows one to follow a direct chain to the original content. Now if you mean elucidating the legal reasons (Stack Overflow could be taken down by a DMCA notice thanks to your negligence), that makes sense.
    – DylanYoung
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 22:18
  • Yes, the last part. This is mostly about the fact that, on Stack Exchange, plagiarism is not acceptable. My own personal opinions about plagiarism don't weigh in here at all. My goal is to convince people how to prevent it, (using clear FAQ language / comments which clearly explain) and not really convince anyone it's good/bad. Hope this helps clarify...
    – jmort253
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 13:25

The text is now in the help center. Yay!

Seeing as most cases of plagiarism are seen from ESL users, this FAQ section should be made extremely clear, with the most simple language possible. The Alice in Wonderland citation example is cool, but I fear it will hopelessly confuse a user struggling to get to terms with the very basics of the English language.


How to use material written by others

Never use others' work without attribution

Plagiarism - posting the work of others with no indication that it is not your own - is not welcome in our community, and may result in your answers being down-voted or deleted.

When you find a useful resource that can help answer a question - from another web site or in another answer on {SITE_NAME} - make sure you do the following:

  • provide a link to it
  • quote the relevant portion only
  • name the author.


According to this biography, Hemingway indeed saw combat when he was a teenager. It says:

After the United States entered the First World War, he joined a volunteer ambulance unit in the Italian army. Serving at the front, he was wounded, was decorated by the Italian Government, and spent considerable time in hospitals ....

[other sources, quotes, explanations, etc. necessary to complete the answer]

Do not duplicate external sources in their entirety; use their words and ideas to support your own. And always give proper credit to the author and site where you found the text, including a direct link to it.

If you have been accused of plagiarism, see here how you can fix the situation.

If you suspect a contribution to have been plagiarism, see here on how to report it.

  • 1
    I like this. Integrated (mostly).
    – Shog9
    Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 18:39

StackOverflow has stated, and this IS in the FAQ in the "People can edit my posts?!" section, they have said "All contributions are licensed under Creative Commons" Thus, if you post in StackOverflow, people are free to copy/change your work.

If you post something that includes code, and someone goes and copy your code, they are free to do so.

This is the licence that StackOverflow content is under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

and it clearly states, and I quote:

You are free:

to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work

to Remix — to adapt the work

to make commercial use of the work

They do have conditions though, mainly being

Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).

So you are free to copy the work, and use it commercially, etc... As long as due credit is given, otherwise, it very much is plagiarism, and the verdict is that this SHOULD be addressed in the FAQ, and told around the StackOverflow community.

  • 4
    This is all correct, but I'm not sure what it has to with the question? Also note that I'm not only talking about intra-site plagiarism, but with copying stuff from external sources, too.
    – Pekka
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 18:05
  • Interesting. Does that mean specifying a method of attribution in the answer binds the user of the material to attribute it in that manner? Is there a profile option for specifying how you would like attributions to be made in general?
    – DylanYoung
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 22:23
  • @DylanYoung yes in general, but here on SE the terms of service make you agree that the attribution method is a link to the post. You can add your own separate license but that only means reusers can choose either.
    – Nemo
    Commented Jul 21, 2018 at 11:47

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