Long-time occasional browser, first-time poster here. I recently asked How much did it cost to attend events at the ancient Roman colosseum? and have gotten (so far) two answers, upvoted by the community, that provide information but don't present sources. Is this level of sourcing to be expected? I don't want to sound ungrateful and I'm definitely not complaining; I'm just trying to understand community norms. (I also understand that the question is new and this is a weekend.) How do I know if an unsourced answer from an anonymous person on the Internet is correct -- votes?

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    I'm going to let our users have a chance to answer this, since they run the site, I just run the mop. However, I do think it is perfectly reasonable for you as the asker to demand decent sources before awarding a checkmark, no matter what anyone else here says.
    – T.E.D. Mod
    Sep 25, 2016 at 19:23
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    @T.E.D. thanks. I'm definitely going to wait to see what else (answers or edits) comes in before awarding the checkmark. I realized after asking that I didn't know what to expect for sources (or other support), which is why I asked this meta question. Sep 25, 2016 at 19:24

5 Answers 5


Community moderated site, so you get to help determine the answer. Personally I strongly prefer sourced answers. Sometimes I fall short of my own goal, but I think sources are important.

  • Sources help to avoid perpetrating history myths. History is, in general, more complicated than what we (I) learned in school. School teaches a simple mythology where Washington chopped down cherry trees and colonists shot redcoats out of the woods. Reality is more complicated, and sources force us to go beyond the simple.

  • As @Colyn1337 says, sources help when the answer sparks enough interest to spur further research. Sometimes I read an answer that is intriguing. Sometimes I read an answer that is wrong. Either way, the source helps me to understand.

  • Sources are invaluable in reconciling apparent conflict. Several people have pointed out that I have a ... certain bias... with respect to economic questions. Sources enable others to reconcile my answers with those of others (whose bias is perhaps more mainstream). I'm not wrong, but the sources help to put my answers in the correct context.

  • History is about assembling narrative from sources; if we omit sources, I'm not entirely sure we're practicing history.

I support your request for sources; you are part of the community and we collectively determine the conventions/standards for our community. (Sorry to be trite, but this is something I believe in).

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    Additionally, sources themselves have biases (e.g. accounts of the war from Greek vs Persian side). Without having the source cited, we can't evaluate reliability and bias of where information came from.
    – DVK
    Oct 4, 2016 at 5:01
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    @DVK That is really the kicker here. 'RndGirl on HSE said X' is worthless in principle and insofar as that maybe a brilliant contribution, based on robust scholarship, argumentation and expertise. But RndGirl is perhaps just this little guy in a hut making up stories. Without external refs that are fairly easy to check/look for how others have evaluated them, it comes down to mere trusting that RndGuy doesn't just write a convincing sentence structure of the 'beauty is veracity' type, which we would have to deconstruct and research all over again from all the bits found therein. Aug 23, 2019 at 16:50

As the guy with the mop, I will say that I frequently find myself needing to delete heavily negatively-voted answers that have no sources listed or linked, and multiple comments and/or flags complaining about lack of references.

So just on the superficial objective level, I can tell you that good answers here tend to have linked references in them for non-trivial assertions, and bad ones tend not to. A person who wants to maximize their upvotes and reputation would be well-advised to take that as a model.

Personally, I will generally not upvote any answer with no sources whatsoever, except in exceptional circumstances. Exceptional circumstances occur though. For instance, I'll confess on that particular question I (mis?)used an answer upvote as a 10pt hug to a longtime user that I'm tickled to see actively participating again. (Hi Rose!)

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    Hi back @T.E.D!
    – TheHonRose
    Sep 28, 2016 at 19:57
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    That bold phrase is so very well written and so very expressive of what I believe to be the definition of quality that I think it should be incorporated in community standards/documentation/whatever. Linked references for non-trivial assertions. What an aspiration.
    – MCW Mod
    Sep 29, 2016 at 12:52
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    @MarkC.Wallace Indeed. Sep 29, 2016 at 13:50

I think sources should be added so interested parties can do further research. Otherwise history SE will become the SE version of yahoo answers.

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    re: "Otherwise ..." Bite your tongue! (er, fingers?)
    – T.E.D. Mod
    Sep 25, 2016 at 19:25

I would suggest that sources are desirable but not always essential or possible. For one thing, sources/historians disagree - sometimes violently. I was one of those who answered the question mentioned, but only stated that I understood X to be the case (and could be wrong!) I suspect most if not all of us "know" things from long ago studies and half-remembered reading. To insist on sources for every answer would, IMO, waste the collective expertise, knowledge and wisdom of the community. It is always possible and acceptable to ask for sources for a specific reply, but I think to insist that every assertion is referenced would severely reduce the number of responses. Good question nonetheless.

Edit One further point - a lot of "references" are to Wikipedia, which is just that - a Wiki source. It is not written on tablets of stone and, if I were writing an academic paper, I might use it as a starting point, but would certainly not rely on it

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    Thanks for answering (both here and there). I hope you don't feel I was criticizing your answer; that's not my intent, and you were clear in qualifying it. I just had an impression that this site (and the field of history) had a stronger reliance on sources, so I wanted to try to find out what the norms are here. I meant "expect" more in the sense of "anticipate", not "demand". Sep 26, 2016 at 3:14
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    @MonicaCellio Not at all, I certainly did not take it as a criticism! We learn by interacting with others, and if someone proves me wrong - well, you've helped me learn something! And sources in history are not straightforward - for every contemporary source stating "The King is a saint! " you will almost certainly find at least one other saying "The King is the Devil!" grin
    – TheHonRose
    Sep 26, 2016 at 3:33
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    I use Wikipedia references a lot. In general they are not there to be authoritative references, but rather to be a place you can go to look up more details on what I'm talking about, so I don't have to regurgitate those details in my answer. They also serve as basic-level proof that I'm not making up this stuff myself.
    – T.E.D. Mod
    Sep 28, 2016 at 16:22

Maybe it's just my imagination but there seems to have been an increase in the proportion of unsourced answers (which is why I'm 'resurrecting' this question). Actually, I could have picked any one of several questions on meta to do this (including this one which I answered) so some people might be thinking 'Oh no, not this again'.

Aside from commenting 'sources please' on answers without, there doesn't seem to be much we can do other than raise awareness and keep arguing the case for sources.

Personally, it's highly unlikely that I'll upvote an answer without sources, especially if the question is on something about which I know little. Why? Because without sources it becomes more difficult for me to inform myself and to assess the quality of the answer. If it's on something I know a fair amount about, I'll often be able to recognize where the information (probably) came from (but it should still be sourced for those who have no more than a superficial knowledge).

It is very unlikely I'll downvote answers for not citing sources but, if any new users are reading this, putting sources in your answers is much more likely to get you votes - and you'll soon be on your way to privileges.

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    "It is very unlikely I'll downvote answers for not citing sources" Why?
    – yannis
    Jan 30, 2018 at 13:56
  • Good question. I know I can do it anonymously and won't get retaliated against as long as I don't put a comment - but not justifying a criticism is wrong and not constructive. If I put a comment explaining my downvote, some people argue, others retaliate. I think this a flaw in the system - potentially getting punished for trying make criticism constructive. Jan 30, 2018 at 15:02
  • If there are no sources or other support and I don't know one way or the other, I don't vote. But if I know an answer is wrong, I downvote. I hope you do too, and that you just meant you don't downvote unsourced answers just for being unsourced. Jan 30, 2018 at 15:10
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    Just as an option for you to consider, you can flag a question for not containing sources and I will put the citations required post notice on it. So you don't necessarily have to post a comment if you are wary of the usual interactions that ensue.
    – Semaphore
    Jan 30, 2018 at 17:00
  • @Monica Cellio. I flag answers which I know contain false info but these are almost always short and / or don't answer the question. False info should be deleted. Some answers are 90% OK but contain something false - these I just comment on without downvoting (seems wrong to downvote when 90% is OK...). Jan 30, 2018 at 22:03
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    @Semaphore. Thanks for the suggestion, I wasn't aware that you guys would do that. Very useful! Jan 30, 2018 at 22:04

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