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The information page for this Stack Exchange site says that sources are not required, and moreover that questions are not supposed to ask for sources.

Nevertheless, a Wikipedia-like witchhunt over sources is developing here where posters are badgering other posters for sources, downvoting and demeaning answers without sources and so on. In other words, its often not about whether the answer is accurate or not, but how many "sources" they have. Also, these same people are badgering not just answer posters but question posters for sources, as well.

An example of this is the user Mark Wallace who is one of several self-appointed source police who visits every post demanding sources from people in comments.

I think we need to make clear that this is NOT the Wikipedia, and that sources are not required, perhaps with a notice right on every page. Otherwise, there is going to be a constant badgering of participants.

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Thank you Mr. Durden for raising this in meta. I haven't been entirely comfortable with the conflict in the comment stream, but I haven't been sure how to address the underlying issues. Your question in meta helped me to clarify those issues and my vision for what I want SE to be.

Are sources required?

I think your summary is absolutely spot on:

It is about the philosophy of the site, whether we are going to make it clear that sources are not required. . .

You assert, ". . . information page for this Stack Exchange site says that sources are not required . . ". I'm not sure which information page you are looking at; with my tongue in my cheek, I'll point out that it would have been easier to respond to that if you had provided a source. My best guess is that you're referencing "Links to external resources are encouraged. . . ". That is somewhat less conclusive than the way you phrase the admonition, and it appears to be a stock/default phrase on the corresponding page of many help centers.

I don't think sources are required; I'd be a hypocrite if I believed that, since several of my answers are unsourced. I think sources improve almost any answer. I think sources are vital, possibly even critical when addressing contentious topics. Sources and methods are and essential distinction between history.stackexchange.com and politics.stackexchange.com, or discussion.stackexchange.com.

One of the things that makes history history - is that when we hit a disagreement, we analyze sources to see how strongly they support our arguments. If we don't reference sources, then my opinion is just as good as yours, and we're merely discussing things. I'm not interested in trading opinions. I think there is ample evidence in the help center that H:SE is intended to be a Q&A site, not a discussion site. There is no way to assess the quality of an opinion. There are common methods to assess the quality of research and analysis.

At the core, I think this disagreement originates in the first comment that I saw from you - you said something along the lines that one must deploy logic first, and then seek out evidence; I replied that I thought the obligation was to employ research first, and then test the research against logic. That fundamental disagreement is echoed in your comment to @litlnemo above "What people need to do is THINK..." I think there are contexts in which your approach is appropriate. I am afraid that I don't think that it is appropriate for H:SE.

You cite Soviet history books as an example of invalid answers - I completely agree with you. That is precisely why I want to know the sources that inform your answers; I need to be able to critically examine them. @Anixx has cited Soviet documents to support his answers. I believe @Anixx has a first rate mind and is a better researcher than I am, but when he cites Soviet sources he applies a different critical frame than I do. I apply a different standard of scrutiny to answers that cite Soviet sources than I do when he cites other sources. The fact that he cites his sources enables me to evaluate the answer. You don't give me that opportunity - because you don't cite any sources and are hostile to the notion, I have to evaluate all of your answers against a very skeptical standard.

I've read enough of your answers to know that they are thorough. The problem is that without sources, I can't tell whether they are trustworthy, accurate or reliable.

Self appointed police

Guilty as charged. As the SE about page states, "It's built and run by you . . ." We collectively curate this site. We vote up and down, we comment, we review. We discuss our shared vision of what the site should be. I believe that answers with sources are better. I believe that when an answer touches on contentious topics, sources are essential. When claims are astonishing, sources are essential. If we collectively decide that sources are not required, then I'll back off. (I think the current guidance is probably good, although if someone were to suggest some language that we could insert specifically on the H:SE page, that encouraged sources, I'd support that)

Here is the crucial point - if the community tells me to shut up and stop demanding sources, I will. The community has taken me to task in the past, and I have changed my behavior.

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    "You cite Soviet history books as an example of invalid answers - I completely agree with you. That is precisely why I want to know the sources that inform your answers; I need to be able to critically examine them." Excellent answer. I fully agree. – litlnemo May 1 '14 at 23:10
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Sources are extremely helpful for people who come across the question later. Even if the asker is satisfied without them, it's a really good idea to list sources for those who want to dig further into the topic later.

If you don't give sources, your answer might be perfectly correct, but it is difficult for others to judge its validity for themselves, and, honestly, it's just "something some guy on the Internet said." Truth is stranger than fiction, and sometimes some very true things sound unbelievable. No wonder people want sources for them!

Now, your unsourced answer might still help someone out or give them an idea where to look further, but higher quality answers, it seems, contain sources. Because as a reader of the site or a question-asker, I would want to see them.

Edited to add:

Tyler said: "The information page for this Stack Exchange site says that sources are not required, and moreover that questions are not supposed to ask for sources."

I'm still newish here, but this seems like a misunderstanding to me. I can't find anything on the about page that says whether sources are required. The page does say that questions "asking for references" are discouraged because of a tendency to lead to discussion rather than concrete answers. I do not interpret that as "we should not ask answerers to provide sources." I interpret it as "don't post questions like 'what's a good book about WWII'" or something like that -- it's likely to lead to a lot of opinion and discussion rather than good answers.

However, even then I think it could sometimes be appropriate to ask for reference material here, if the question is narrowly focused and the answer isn't necessarily obvious from basic research. Something like "I'm having difficulty finding sources for the assertion that [something]; I've tried searching [somewhere] but all I find are people saying they heard it from someone else. Does anyone know of a source that is at least secondary if not actually primary?" That seems to be a legitimate question here to me -- it's more concrete and useful.

  • I know sources are useful. My post is not about desirableness of sources. It is about the philosophy of the site, whether we are going to make it clear that sources are not required, or whether we are going to make it like Wikipedia. One way or the other a decision should be made. – Tyler Durden Apr 30 '14 at 14:34
  • Also, sources are highly overrated as a source of "validity". You can find many books full of sources and footnotes that are downright misleading and false. Try reading some Soviet history books. They sound really plausible and are full of "sources". – Tyler Durden Apr 30 '14 at 14:37
  • I think your statement "your unsourced answer might still help someone out or give them an idea where to look further..." is the key here. What people need to do is THINK and search for themselves, not blindly go trusting random things just because some joker published it. – Tyler Durden Apr 30 '14 at 15:07
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    "Also, sources are highly overrated as a source of 'validity'. You can find many books full of sources and footnotes that are downright misleading and false." The point Mark made above addresses this well. If we know your sources we can judge their validity. If we don't, all we know is that it's your opinion. Anyway, I think it's appropriate if the site doesn't require sources -- but it's also appropriate if the answers that get voted up tend to include solid sources. Asking for sources isn't badgering -- sometimes it just means you want to know more! – litlnemo May 1 '14 at 23:13
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    I think this is a great example of why sources are useful. The OP said "The information page says that sources are not required, [and ]that questions are not supposed to ask for sources.". Since he cited his source (the information page), it allowed others users to check and see that he has misunderstood the sources. – Avner Shahar-Kashtan May 4 '14 at 7:24
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The Witchhunt vs civility

I've split this out into a separate answer. The first answer deals with the issues where I think that there is a useful discussion. I think it is entirely possible that the community will agree with you that my emphasis on sources is overwhelming and should be curbed. I'll be content with that.

There is a second issue where I think there is less ground for compromise. Your second paragraph accuses me of a witchhunt, and borders on ad hominem. That is not my intent. I admit that I would have liked to find a more civil way to respond to some of your comments. Your comments to Mr. Geerkens, cross the line into ad hominem. @American Luke cited the admonition that we must always be respectful.

Comments like,

The term "PTSD" has no definite meaning.

Is an insult to every veteran who is struggling to reintegrate into civilian life. You've privileged your personal opinion over that of experts and invalidated the experiences of people who have sacrificed more than I have, and more than I have any evidence that you have. If I remain silent in the face of that, I feel like I participate in an injustice.

I have no intent of conducting a witchhunt. I do intend to continue to participate fully in curating a site that is respectful and civil.

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I list for reference below your top 5 answers on this site:

  1. Roman Era Clothing (Egypt & Carthage)
  2. How did Richard I Sail Through the Strait of Gibraltar?
  3. Spain's Tributary Empire vs Portugal's Seaborne Empire
  4. German WWI Retreat
  5. How Common were Horses at the Beginning of the 20th Century?

It is my opinion that answers 1, 2 and 5 are wholly fabricated and without any supporting evidence what-so-ever. I believe that all rep you earned from those answers was obtained improperly, basically through deception. However, it is possible that I am wrong. If you had actually presented supporting evidence in the way of sources, then I could read, and assess, those sources with the possibility of learning something new, and correcting my opinion.

Alternately, as is appropriate for some questions, if you had argued from first principles a particular point of view, then one could assess your argument and make a judgement on validity. Your axioms and assumptions could be assessed in terms of how suitable they were for the point being made. Again a sound and knowledgeable assessment could be made of your answer.

However, you spout unsupported and occasionally ridiculous facts, and suborn votes from innocent readers of the site. Shame on you! You thus leave regulars no choice but to wish more of their colleagues would harass you for sources, and not just Mark Wallace. (Thank you Mark - I'm glad it is not just me.)

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SE says sources are not required - well, I guess that may work well enough on some other parts of SE but it doesn't work with history.

Any historian (and I don't just mean professional ones) knows that sources are essential because:

(1) the reader has the right to check whether what he/she is being told is true. People who don't cite sources seem to expect others to just believe what is in front of them - in other words, don't be curious and don't ask questions, just take it on faith. That may be fine for religion but it most certainly isn't for history.

(2) the reader also has the right to check that the source has been properly used, that statements / facts / figures have not been taken out of context, that other relevant statements / facts / figures have not been omitted.

(3) the reader may want to explore the sources further in order to learn more or to pursue related issues which were not within the scope of the original question.

I'm not saying that people who don't cite sources are trying to mislead others, rather that there may be things that have been (unintentionally) overlooked or misinterpreted.

It's also very frustrating when someone comes up with what seems to be an interesting answer but doesn't give sources to help the reader to pursue his / her interest further.

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