I've been fixing tag wiki plagiarism lately. Recently I've been getting a lot of "reject" reviews (though only a very small number of actual rejections--accepts are still largely cancelling them out). I think it's time for me to explain what I've been doing and get input from the community.

We have lots of plagiarized, or otherwise improperly cited tag wikis. By lots, I mean at least hundreds, and probably more.

I've been fixing some of them lately. How I have been doing it depends on the specifics of the problem. I've seen three main subtypes:

  1. Uncited copied content in full tag wiki.

  2. Coped content in excerpt.

    Excerpts are usually seen without the full wiki accompanying them, so citations in the full wiki don't cover the excerpts. Excerpts with copied content that don't contain a citation in the excerpt are plagiarism. Excerpts also don't support formatting and are supposed to provide a very quick introduction to what the tag is about; for these reasons, copied material, quoted and cited, is undesirable too (though potentially acceptable).

  3. Copied content in full tag wiki that has enough of a citation that it's not represented as our work (so not actually plagiarism), but where the citation is wrong (e.g., points to the wrong site or the wrong page on the right site) or worthless (e.g., consists just of the name of a site or company but is not a link at all).

All subtypes are common.

My goals in submitting tag wiki edits to fix plagiarism are:

  1. Reduce the amount of plagiarism on the site.
  2. Efficiently fix plagiarism, by focusing on it specifically; for example, I often fix a not-very-good plagiarized tag wiki so it is a not-very-good, not-plagiarized tag wiki. My goal is not to make every tag wiki beautiful, but just to get rid of the plagairism.
  3. Find and submit edits to a significant (not necessarily majority) percentage of all plagiarized tag wikis on Ask Ubuntu.

So far my general workflow has been:

  1. Go through the list of tag wikis I reviewed, and find instances where I rejected for plagiarism, or accepted a tag wiki that I shouldn't have because, on reflection, it was plagiarism. For each of these, check if it was ultimately accepted; if so, fix it.
  2. When I find someone who submitted a plagiarized tag wiki suggestion, go through their other suggestions and look for plagiarism.
  3. When I find someone who has frequently approved plagiarized tag wiki edits, go through their list of reviews to see what else they approved. If it's plagiarism, fix it, then return to step 2.

This is (roughly) an algorithm. It is not a moral analysis.

  • I've found that this seems to yield plagiarized tag wiki edits extremely quickly and efficiently, especially compared to looking and searching through tags themselves.
  • It has the result that my own tag wiki edit suggestions (submitted to fix plagiarism) come in blocks where I edit posts last edited by the same user for a while, before moving on to another user.
  • While the revisions I'm editing belong to the same user for an extended time, I have not actually seen evidence yet that only a small group of users are responsible. At this point, I simply don't know. I'm not sure if I'll continue working on this problem long enough to find out.
  • To sum up: I focus on users because users are the glue that connects plagiarized tag wikis to other plagiarized tag wikis. This is not about the users. It's about fixing plagiarism in tag wikis. As long as we have plagiarized tag wikis, the Ask Ubuntu community as a whole is offering and promulgating plagiarized content.

So far my specific workflow, at the level of an individual tag wiki, has been:

  1. If I suspect plagiarism, I paste two or three short-to-medium sections of text into two search engines. This usually reveals if it's plagiarism, and what the original source is likely to have been. It at least reveals reasonable sources. I make sure to keep in mind that it is possible for other sources on the Internet to copy material from an Ask Ubuntu tag wiki; I don't assume that duplicated content necessarily means we're the offending party.
  2. If citation is appropriate, I add it (or if there is a citation but it's wrong or not up to par, I improve it).
  3. If citation is not appropriate (as in tag wiki excerpts), and I am familiar with the topic, I rewrite.
  4. If citation is not appropriate and I am not very familiar with the topic, I research it until I feel comfortable rewriting, then do so.

When I rewrite material, my goal is to create something of comparable usefulness that is not plagiarized. My goal is not to create the most wonderful tag wiki ever. If the original tag wiki does not comply with tag wiki guidelines, in ways other than being plagiarized, I often don't fix that.

When I started doing this, my suggestions were accepted. The initial group of reviewers consisted largely but by no means entirely of moderators on the site.

Subsequently, a slightly overlapping but largely different group of reviewers started revewing them, and now they get lots of "reject" votes with reasons like "This edit does not follow any of our tag wiki guidelines..." and occasionally a custom reject reason about how the previous revision was better.

So: What should I be doing?

The reason tag wiki plagiarism exists is that it's quick and convenient and existing review mechanisms are insufficient to catch it much of the time. If I replace every plagiarized tag wiki with a well-written, excellent, totally helpful resource, I'll replace a very small number of tag wikis--possibly smaller than the number of plagiarized tag wikis that get submitted and accepted during the same time. Even if no new plagiarized tag wikis were accepted, I would still fail to make a perceptible dent on the plagiarism we already have.

Besides the plagiarism, sometimes my revision isn't better. Sometimes, what I write about a topic is not as good as what's copied improperly from the work of someone deeply familiar with the topic who writes about it frequently. This usually does not deter me--it seems to me that it's worth replacing plagiarism with something that approaches the value of the original, plagiarized version, even if it falls short in some ways.

It seems to me that there are three ways to deal with existing plagiarized tag wikis:

  1. Fix them efficiently. (As I'm attempting to do.)
  2. Leave them. Slowly replace some of them with very high quality tag wikis. (I see this as a bad option; as a community, we would be continuing perpetually to publish works we know are plagiarized.)
  3. Make a list of them so moderators can nuke them, removing the offending tag wikis entirely. (This would result in hundreds of tag wiki excerpts disappearing overnight, and might be considered undesirable.)

But I should not assume my perspective on this is shared by everyone in the community. So what do you think? Should I continue what I've been doing? Stop entirely? Continue but with some changes?

  • 2
    Hasn't this already been talked about here: meta.askubuntu.com/questions/3582/… Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 4:24
  • @AbrahamVanHelpsing That's related, but this is a very different question. Here I am asking if the specific pattern of actions I am taking is something the community approves of, since I have encountered what is possibly opposition to that pattern. Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 4:30

3 Answers 3


The gold standard for editing applies:

Will your edit make it better?

The problem here is you and I seem to have different ideas of what is better. In my worldview, we're here to help. We don't have to provide double-blind studies for every answer and, again, in my view we don't need to provide academic-level bibliographies and citations.

Don't get me wrong, research, citation and evidence are all great but I'd favour a helpful post, comment or wiki over a well-cited or original unhelpful one. The reason your edits have been rejected is they made something less helpful in order to make them original.

  • An official description like "Wireshark is a network protocol analyzer for Unix and Windows", should not be blindly obfuscated to make it original. If you can make them better, that's fine.

  • Fair use gives protections and exemption from copyright. Small segments for descriptive or educational purposes are almost always going to pass a fair use test. This is regardless of license on the original content.

  • If you see uncited quotes, fix them up. It does make them more helpful. Wang a link at the bottom, pack the quote in a blockquote (with >). Be conscious of the original content's license but most of these things are tiny extracts from large bodies of text and all for a mildly educational purpose. Fair use makes the world go round.

Just a quick note on copyrights...

Anything you contribute to the site needs to either be original or yours within fair use (eg fair use or public domain). You need to be in the position where you can allocate Stack Exchange Inc a complete license to the work.

That means you cannot rely on importing external CC-BY-SA or GPL-style work if you are not the copyright holder as you're not in the position to give SE Inc the license they demand.

  • My concern in removing plagiarism is not copyright. Plagiarism and copyright and related, but separate. There is a fundamental integrity issue here, when a work consists entirely of uncited, copied text. It is hard for me to imagine even a single such sentence being tolerated in an academic context. Also, I don't undrestand why you are sure verbatim-copied tag wiki excerpts that don't cite a source constitute fair use. That is inconsistent with my understanding of that legal concept in the United States; to qualify for fair use, a source must almost always be cited. Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 14:38
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    However, since I am not a lawyer and do not feel comfortable giving legal advice on Ask Ubuntu, I cannot say for sure that you are mistaken. Besides that point, what you've described is what I had been doing in full wikis. Ultimately, I think my ideas about what is acceptable may differ from those of the community as a whole. (I'll have a better idea if/when further answers roll in.) Given this, and since there are many ways to contribute, I may devote my energies elsewhere within Ask Ubuntu. Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 14:38
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    @EliahKagan There is nothing in fair use law (that I can see) that stipulates attribution. This differs hugely from an academic approach but plagiarism and copyright infringement are not the same thing. As I'm trying to highlight we want the best. If that means an attributed (or not) work from elsewhere, that's better than a poorly worded original work.
    – Oli Mod
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 15:10
  • I searched for another post today and found this--which I thought I accepted long ago! I think in practice attribution frequently makes or breaks fair use defenses in the US--this is based on things I've heard lawyers and librarians say but (disclaimer!) filtered through me and I'm neither. Yet that was no excuse for my huge wrong overgeneralization that "a source must almost always be cited"--I knew better when I wrote that, or darn well should've. I fear we're falsely asserting copyright on works we copy from others and don't cite--but that's not really what my post here was about. Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 23:06

Your work is appreciated, most of the suggested changes make sense. Though I rejected one yesterday because the change is not helpful.

"Network" is a very important part of the text which was not visible anymore in the new text. I have edited the tag now, you can open its wiki and excerpt history to see the changes I made.

I also saw that some of your edits (including this Wireshark one) explicitly contain the word "FOSS", but in my opinion that is not the most important part of an excerpt. Most programs in Ubuntu are FOSS anyway, you only need to add "proprietary" or "closed-source" to non-FOSS software like Nvidia drivers. Not every reader (new users) here know what FOSS means as it is pretty specific to the FOSS community.

See also the linked blog posting on the right of the wiki editing controls on what a tag wiki should contain: http://blog.stackoverflow.com/2011/03/redesigned-tags-page/

  • 1
    @EliahKagan The word FOSS did not affluence my decision to reject your suggestion, I just mention it because it occurred to me. The main reason I rejected it was because information was lost when removing "network" and "packet analyzer" is ambiguous.
    – Lekensteyn
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 11:36
  • @EliahKagan I provided that link to point out what a wiki should contain, I do not (and cannot) ask you to write such wikis. A plagiarised wiki that contains is better than an edit that makes the wiki more confusing or even contain incorrect information (it is immoral though). Adding the source, correcting spelling/grammar errors and maybe a link to the project (for more information) seems sufficient to me.
    – Lekensteyn
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 11:40
  • Thanks for clarifying. (1) As far as I know, packet analyzer only ever means one thing, and is exactly as precise as what was there before. (2) I guess we disagree somewhat about plagiarism; I think a plagiarized tag wiki is worse than none, and the only reason I suspect editing may be better than moderator-driven mass deletion is that users may have started relying on or expecting these tag wikis. (3) Do you really think tag wiki excerpts should frequently be edited to add quotation marks and (unlinkable, no formatting) URLs? Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 11:46
  • @EliahKagan (1) it can refer to software or an individual/organization. (2) fully plagiarized is indeed bad, but a short excerpt that describes the use of a tag is not too bad. Tags exist for users who want to find a related question, or make their questions better locatable. (3) If only those changes are made, it is pretty minor which is possibly the reason why some of your edits are rejected. I still accepted most of your link-only edits because attribution is important.
    – Lekensteyn
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 11:59
  • So far only 1 of my tag wiki edits has ever been fully rejected. Reject votes on others (albeit overpowered by accept votes) are why I posted. I didn't post this question because my edits weren't getting through, but rather, because some community members think some shouldn't and I want to present my case while also giving them/you an opportunity to explain and advance their position. ...Are you saying "packet analyzer" can refer to an organization?? Also, even if that were so, how would that make the way I used it ambiguous? ...Yes, I know you've accepted most (we don't totally disagree). Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 12:05
  • @EliahKagan When accepting/rejecting edits, I also consider whether an edit is significantly improving or not. In this specific case, I felt that the modification was too minor even if it would fix plagiarism. Never mind "packet analyzer", I thought of these reasons while rejecting your edit (since these were the only new words besides "FOSS").
    – Lekensteyn
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 12:15

Summarizing what we chatted about the other day…

First, fixing plagiarized wikis is a good thing. Please keep it up.

However, that doesn't mean they all need to be replaced urgently. You've been doing a lot of them in quick succession. Pace yourself, take the time to write proper replacement text. If you don't know what the tag is about and can't tell from Wikipedia, ask others to chime in (the Ubuntu chat is pretty active).

Why I rejected some excerpts

Most of your suggestions are good, but not all of them. In particular, several of your excerpts are markedly worse than what you replaced.

Wireshark is a FOSS packet analyzer.

You replaced the opening sentence from the project description with the one from the Wikipedia article. I'm sure that was accidental, but this shows that you are somewhat overeager in your fight against plagiarism (more on this below). Your edit is bad because it eliminates the mention of networking, and it introduces “FOSS” which is obscure (most people don't know or care what this means) and useless (almost all Ubuntu software is FOSS, so it is only remarkable when software isn't FOSS).

IcedTea is a successful project to create a working, FOSS build environment for OpenJDK. It also adds functionality to OpenJDK, including a powerful web plugin. The icedtea packages in Ubuntu provide this Java browser plugin.

First, why “successful project”? This is the kind of wording that tends to make me reject as advertising blurb. Second, that's more information than is useful in an excerpt.

p7zip is a command line compression utility from the 7-Zip project.

This one isn't bad in itself, although “from the 7-Zip project” is too much information at this point (why would I care about the project name?). The old text included the information that 7zip utilities exist on other operating systems, which is useful information (many people convey archives between systems).

Sweet Home 3D is an interior design application for visualizing furniture placement. Items may be placed on a plan of a home, and then viewed in 3D to convey an idea of how a design under consideration may really look.

Again, too much text. The old version was terser and more readable.

Not everything that is not original is plagiarism

Plagiarism is when you claim to have written something that was actually written by somebody else. Tag wikis and excerpts are not normally shown with an author, so there is no strong claim that the person who contributed the text is the author of the text. In particular, it is perfectly acceptable to acknowledge the source not in the text itself, but only in the edit description.

Futhermore, there is no implicit claim of originality when writing a tag wiki (as opposed, say, to a research paper). This somewhat raises the bar for plagiarism, since a mere lack of visible acknowledgement is not a claim of originality and hence does not automatically constitute plagiarism.

Furthermore, a good excerpt is often a short, descriptive sentence. There are only so many ways to formulate the essential facts about a tag. As we saw earlier, you came up independently (I presume) with the first sentence of the Wikipedia article for Wireshark. Not everything that someone has said before is plagiarism.

Furthermore, project descriptions are intended to be disseminated and republished. They are advertising material. Many of them are not suitable for tag wikis because they are overly promotional or do not fit well in an Ubuntu context. But if you find one that is, feel free to copy it: you're doing good both by Ask Ubuntu and by the project.


Removing plagiarism is good, but don't go on a witch hunt. If you've found the ideal text for an excerpt, go ahead and write it. Do not put an acknowledgement in the excerpt itself, the edit comment or the tag wiki body is sufficient. The most important thing is to have useful content in tag wikis.

  • Thanks for posting this. I may reply more later, but I want to emphasize that my excerpt for wireshark was not the same as the Wikipedia article. It was similar, which may support your point, but as we discussed, it is not the same. I would appreciate it if you would correct that, as you are accusing me of something--albeit, a mild something--that you know I did not do. Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 0:54

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