If anyone remembers the How it Works beta, it had a major issue with people copying from online sources without citing. I am worried this is starting here as I've already seen 3 answers copied directly from Wikipedia. Personally, I think it degrades the quality of the site and I don't want this beta to fail the way How it Works did.


I've been seeing a lot of block text copying from other web sites. Even though it has usually been cited, it is still an issue because the answer is simply copied and pasted, and so, there is no value to coming here versus going anywhere else. I'd like to suggest that all posts should:

  • be written in your words
  • keep direct quotes as small possible (to prevent block copying)
  • be cited
  • It seems we were both worried by the same thing. I, too, have posted a meta question regarding just this. Commented Oct 11, 2011 at 19:50
  • @GPierce I apologize, I typed this out without realizing you already addressed this.
    – Jacob
    Commented Oct 11, 2011 at 19:51
  • It's quite alright! I'm just happy that I'm not the only one concerned by this! Commented Oct 11, 2011 at 19:52
  • 4
    Is this question concerned about people answering with copying, or that people are asking question that primarily elicit such answers?
    – Grace Note StaffMod
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 13:22
  • 2
    @GraceNote: There is very likely a strong correlation between the two: people asking questions that can be easily answered by copying, and people answering as such in kind. Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 19:50

5 Answers 5


I find it sometimes premature to "speculate" about a site in its opening days, but I have to comment about your assertion…

Your observations and concerns are spot on. This History Stack Exchange — while it is still really early in the beta — has exactly the problems faced by the (now defunct) "How Things Work" Stack Exchange.

The downfall of the How Things Work site was that it was little more than regurgitated content. Users would find and post common "How Things Work" questions… followed by users competing to be the first to cut-and-paste the "standard" answer from a well-known source.

Even as a complete layman, I know exactly where to find the answers to about 80% of the questions on this site. This is what we call a "General Reference" problem. It's that feeling you get when a 12-year old asks you how to spell "trivia." You want to grab them by the collar and say "Look it up, you lazy—"

I honestly don't know what an expert historian does all day, but I'm quite sure they don't sit around quoting encyclopedia articles. There must be finer points of history to discuss:

  • Help with research
  • Analyzing documentary evidence
  • Exploring apparent bias

…that would be a start.

If the history experts on this site don't have problems to solve that aren't already well-documented in "General Reference" sources, this site has already failed. We don't need a site that adds another level of indirection between the question and the cited answer. That's why the "How Things Work" site was closed down.


Yes, I think it is a serious problem. Wikipedia and other sources are just too damn good: many questions that most people would think of can be looked up.

But how about this. Suppose there is a rather specific question:

Why did Columbus think he had landed in Asia? Didn't he know that Asia was much farther to the west?

  1. It can easily be looked up in the Wikipedia article on Columbus. However, you need to scroll down and probably read some parts that do not answer the question before you find the part that answers it. That could be one advantage of having a ready-made, very specific answer on this site.

  2. Another advantage could be that it could be explained more succinctly, leaving out details from Wikipedia that are not really relevant for the answer.

  3. A third advantage could be that the answerer would give some relevant background information that may not be present in that very section of the Wikipedia article, or anywhere else in the article.

Because an encyclopaedia is a very different textual genre, it is far less efficient than a mini-essay that answers a specific question if all you want to know is the answer to this question.

This was my playing the Devil's advocate. I'm not sure what I think. But these are the arguments I can think of that would warrant questions that can be looked up on Wikipedia.

  • +1.I have had that problem on SciFi.SE, when a mod for some reason accused my answer of being copy/paste from Wikia. In reality, it was a 20-minute effort of mashing together severals sources and formatting the resulting article to the point of being a clear answer to the specific question, in my humble opinion several times more useful than raw info available from Wiki/Wikia. History has proved me right - the answer was upvoted 65 times, likely one of top 5 most upvoted answers, and 7 votes higher than the obviously-popular question (so you can't write down the upvotes to only Q's popularity.
    – DVK
    Commented Dec 21, 2011 at 15:49

Unless we start asking for cited sources and interpreted answers from the texts you are either going to get:

  • Pasted text from another site, with a citation on it
  • Wikipedia
  • lmgtfy synopsis of something

In other stack exchange sites I am involved with either you get an interpreted answer depending on experience, code samples from that something that should work or "well I tried x and or y and x did better because". Yet with the History site we tend to want to know what the original sources are, or in some cases people note them with a short answer. That usually works, but if the source is online and you type is that ok? Is there a limit that copy-paste can be? I know if I had something that took me 10 minutes to type was there already I might consider using it, but it's not my words and so I really wouldn't, but the temptation is there. With so many sources online now it's tough to ask people to crack open a book and type something, but if that is what we really want I think that might be made more clear. I try to do some of both when the question permits, some areas of history I know well and can cite situations clearly, others I need to refresh my knowledge but then I might be copying from a book.

I think Robert might be onto something though, if we want to act like actual historians (and I don't know either what they do all day) do we act as historians and give answers or as teachers and try to get people to do the research and give them just enough to start their own investigations?


I can't bring myself to agree.

I agree that we need to curate out trivia. Before you ask on H:SE, ask google. I've said elsewhere that if I enter your question into google and the answer is one of the first five results, I'll probably downvote and probably vote to close.

I think where we disagree is on a specific category of questions - questions where the researcher (answerer) understands the question more deeply than OP. Sculpture and shield is a good example. Researcher recognized the iconography of saints, posted links to wikipedia. The answer wouldn't be any better if the answer were an essay on the history of hagiography or a Chicago style book citation of a book found only in a library.

Wikipedia provides answers - not ultimate answers, but quite frankly good enough answers - they're in a very sweet spot of cost/benefit/alternatives analysis. Wikipedia is not a venial sin, it is merely the first/next stop on the journey that you're pursuing through history. Sometimes Wikipedia is enough to foreclose a red herring, sometimes it provides a whole new cluster of terms & connections to research.

H:SE needs to find the right sweet spot - and in my opinion, that sweet spot is that H:SE provides skilled interpretation. SE excels at providing the context to permit OP's to leverage existing resources. H:SE is a little different because we don't have practical problems, but H:SE does provide context & interpretation to permit people to pursue research that they find interesting.

  • Ha! Thank you for the compliment. I actually just typed "builders' square and spear" into Google and went exploring until I found the answer. Then I built a reply from what I found. I do Google better than most I suppose, but I learned much more about the iconography of Saints than I started knowing. Commented Dec 21, 2013 at 22:28

I'm concerned about everyone primarily worrying on the answers, since I feel the problem is really in the questions and questions alone.

If your question could be answered by a quick and easy search, then it should be closed. If answers to such questions simply cite Wikipedia, you can't blame them: after all, that is a correct answer to that question!

That said, please notice that even @Cerberus have a good point: sometimes, despite the answer will just be a "copypasting a source", actually finding that source could have been non trivial.

  • 2
    That's an important point. I like being helpful and all, but I will cheerfully downvote anyone who comes to this site to ask me to look something up on wikipedia because they're too lazy to it themselves.
    – Rose Ames
    Commented Jan 31, 2012 at 22:43
  • Sorry, but I cant agree. While a lot of questions here arent really interesting to historians, there is a flip side. you could ask a question easy to answer yet interesting to a historian. Because the easy answer would be bad, even if it quoted popular-education books. Truth is, history is such a vast subject, that it has extremely narrow specialistarions. If you think there are historians dealing with "middle ages" you are wrong. There are historians specialising in "slavic culture on terrains of modern Poland in 8th-11th century".
    – K.L.
    Commented Feb 15, 2013 at 13:45
  • Thats why you could answer a specific question in a broad "medieval historian way" and be wrong to some extent. Or, you could get an answer from a properly specialized historian who would provide you reference to findings, iconography, contex, other historian works and articles, books and his own interpretation, probably suggesting what research could be done on the field...
    – K.L.
    Commented Feb 15, 2013 at 13:47

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .