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In recent days, the word of genealogy blogging has been abuzz with discussion of the damage done when copy on one web site is appropriated for use on another. I could provide a series of links for you to sample the conversation but have chosen not to do so for reasons that I trust will become apparent. At the same time, the "rules" and "practices" of SE are apparently being used to encourage just such offences.

In surveying a number of resources generally related to cemeteries, I noted one that struck me as being particularly related to a question posted in the early days of this community. It seemed to offer a rich array of resources that would complement and extend the suggestions originally provided.

I decided to add a new answer to the old question in the hope that it would (a) move the question up the active list to (b) attract new views (c) perhaps draw another answer and even (d) prompt someone to ask a new question. Within a few hours, it had done the first three and we live in hope of the last.

However within 12 hours, my new answer had been converted to a comment with the advice that I should include the essential parts of the answer here, and provide the link for reference. Set aside for the moment, that this was what I had done -- the essential part of the answer was that there was available a rich site with a broad range of information maintained by an acknowledged expert -- and let us assume that there were a paragraph or two on that site that was directly and specifically addressed to the question. Is it a required part of achieving a "good SE answer" that I take the intellectual property of another person and reproduce it (with attribution) to boost the content here?

Not only would that be a breach of statute law in several jurisdictions in which this website is published, it also would be unethical behaviour that every genealogist producing and distributing content should condemn.

It is one thing for SE to remove any answers that provide only a link to an external source of expertise. That would be a principled, if remarkably short-sighted, position. It is quite another to encourage, even to require, posters to "borrow" content from that external site in order to be permitted to include a link in the answer.

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    For what it's worth, the link you provided was phenomenal. I absolutely love this resource and likely would not have found it without you pointing to it, but I do see why the post was converted to a comment. – Canadian Girl Scout Jul 11 '13 at 20:07
  • This is an excellent point. SE does not like mere links or other types of remote reference. It much prefers material to be copied, and I have also fallen foul of this. Ideally, any lifting of material (if legal) should be complemented with appropriate attribution. However, I haven't seen anything in the rules, and few posts appear to have done this. – ACProctor Jul 19 '13 at 13:17
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I believe you are confusing two separate issues:

  1. The purpose of having a Stack Exchange site, and
  2. What constitutes a good answer written by an expert on the subject.

If copying the work of others is seen as a major source of content for this site, then you're doing it wrong. I'm not talking about the nuances of Fair Use and plagiarism. I'm talking about the end goal of why we have this site in the first place. It's not to answer one person's question however you can get it, but to actually make the subject of "genealogy" better on the internet by creating something of lasting value that helps the thousands of people who come after. If a link and a blurb copied from elsewhere is deemed good enough by those vetting the expertise here, you're not curating good content. If copying stuff from elsewhere is "an essential feature" of how this site is built, then there's little net value in having this site in the first place.

But let me back up a bit —

This site was created to become THE world's foremost authority on genealogy. When a users asks a question (or arrives at this site through search), they should have a reasonable expectation of receiving a well-vetted, expert answer to their question. That's why we are here.

What Stack Exchange is not is a list of links showing people where to find things on the Internet. If you were to seek out the leading expert in genealogy to ask a question, the last thing you want to hear is "read page 147 in Family Tree Magazine." A link may "answer" a user's question, but only in the most superficial sense; it doesn't really add to the substance of the site, nor does it make the Internet better. A link just adds another hop between users and the actual information they are looking for. That's why links are not considered answers on Stack Exchange.

On Copying Other People's Content

There are some true "teachers" on this site, driven by the motivation of sharing what they know and making the world of Genealogy better on the Internet. But we've all had that teacher who just sits in front of the classroom day after day, reading from the textbook from bell to dismissal. If all you have to offer is reading from the works of others, you're going to find this a very unsatisfying experience. Great teachers are driven by the urge to get better at what they do by passing on what they've learned to others, and that's a major motivation behind this site.

But even the greatest teachers and researchers will cite the work of others. If there are great works that go deeper beyond what is called for by the post, sure, cite that work as "further reading." All we ask is that such links be accompanied by original expertise of your own.

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When I deleted your answer, I never required you to plagiarize content. First off, plagiarism is a no-no (duh) and will be deleted on first sight. Perhaps I did not make it clear, but the proper thing to do is to summarize some essential parts that answer the question and link to the respective pages (or the site in general) for reference.

Your answer also brought up another problem: the question might be a tad broad. I see two pages (at least) on that site that would answer the question and one of them is rather long. So, you could either summarize some parts into an general answer (a general question gets a general answer), or you could ask the OP for more specifics and write a more specific answer summarizing relevant parts and perhaps quoting to. All proper attribution rules apply.

Although I recommend summarizing, there's nothing wrong with quoting. There are quote marks and fancy blockquote formatting to show, "this is not my work, I copied it from X".

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I wouldn't consider as plagiarism what I did here: Can I post cousin-bait on this site?. Would you?

I quoted (not extensively) and attributed the quotes to ensure it was clear that I was drawing attention to somebody else's work. The material quoted was sufficient to stand usefully on its own if the blog posts referenced ever become unavailable for any reason.

If I wanted to draw attention to a useful resource without going to the effort of making the material resilient against link-rot, or where the resource is so extensive it can't be meaningfully summarised in my own words or by quotes, I would do what I did here: How might I conduct research on a Chinese village? Specifically, P'an Yu, Guangdong Province, China.

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  • The construction of your contribution on cousin-bait was masterly. It was also a question not an answer. The situations are not analagous. – Fortiter Jul 11 '13 at 23:54
  • On the other hand, genealogy.stackexchange.com/a/3570 seems to be a very similar situation to the one I described. Modesty should (but does not) prevent me from drawing attention to the edit made to the other (short) answer to the same question. – Fortiter Jul 12 '13 at 0:35

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