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I have come to believe that math.SE needs a formal policy against plagiarism. I think this should include:

1) An explanation of what plagiarism means in the context of mathematics: roughly it means the use of others' words, calculations, results or ideas without appropriate attribution. It should be defined behaviorally, not intentionally (as we have access to others' behavior, but not their intentions).

2) A system of responses against plagiarism on the part of the community and the moderators. As a first attempt, I suggest the following system:

a) First a user gets a warning that their behavior constitutes plagiarism. A warning should make reference to at least one specific post, with the idea that there should probably have been other instances of problematic behavior that could be pointed to as well.

After a user has been warned, they should be contacted by a moderator to ensure that they have received and understood the warning. I'm not sure whether any formal response from them is necessary.

b) If a user continues to plagiarize after being warned, they next get a suspension of at least one week in duration. Moreover, at this time the user must engage in off-site communication with at least one moderator and display a willingness to stop their problematic behavior.

c) If a user continues to plagiarize after being suspended, they next get expelled from the site. Moderators will try to ensure that this same person does not reincarnate under another username, at least not in an obvious way.

Comments and suggestions welcome.

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    $\begingroup$ Why is a specific policy on plagiarism needed? That is, can you expand on how you "have come to believe that math.SE needs a formal policy"? $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 9 '10 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ I'm confused, too. Presumably this isn't just an exercise in policy-making, but you're seeing a need for such a policy for some reason? Usually plagarism is reserved for situations where precedence (academic publishing) or where verification (journalism) is a priority. On the internet you could argue people just want to know things -- unless they specify otherwise it's not clear people are interested in how the ideas were generated. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Budney Nov 9 '10 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ There has been at least one user who has repeatedly passed off both questions and answers taken from other sources as his own. Many other users have expressed concern about this, and I too feel it is a concern. I have not been more specific so far because I am looking to avoid an ad hominem discussion. I honestly think that perusing the site a bit would make these concerns clear. @Ryan: I agree that this is a new medium where the rules are up to us to determine. One certainly could argue as you suggest: are you in fact arguing that way? $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Nov 9 '10 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ I could say more here, but I'd like to hear from other people, since this is supposed to be a community issue. If I'm the only one who feels this way, of course let's drop it. $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Nov 9 '10 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Pete: this is a genuine case of not seeing a motivation. I systematically do not peruse the site, though. I have at least 8 ignored subject tags, and I have it set so that threads with ignored tags are not displayed. So there's the possibility that I'm missing a lot. That said, there's a difference between not bothering to attribute a source (especially if nobody asks) and telling people it's your own creative work when it isn't. The latter isn't cool, the former IMO is fine. If people ask for an attribution I wouldn't want to label someone a plagarist if they just don't know a source. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Budney Nov 9 '10 at 22:02
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    $\begingroup$ There are about 3000 registered users. The issue that is relevant for the 2999 not currently suspected of any specific plagiarism is, as Ryan's comment suggests, filtering using tags, ratings and titles. Developing policies to restrict the one or two plagiaristic users does not much help the other 99+ percent. Rating users better (e.g., upvote to downvote ratio) is one approach. Dealing with sources or their absence is important but independent of the Q&A itself: I think a separate "sources" or "references" file should automatically be part of each question, to accumulate links etc. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 9 '10 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ Note that the two recent newly discovered examples of plagiarism noted by Jonas Meyer were posted on Aug 9 and Aug 11, which was before the user was suspended for such on Sep 9 (cf. Kaestur's comment here). I'm not aware of any similar such behavior since he returned and promised to stop doing such. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Nov 9 '10 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ @All: Look, this question is very difficult to answer. Now if you think that i am doing so, then you should ban me for every question. For e.g $\mathbb{Q}(\sqrt{2}) \cong \mathbb{Q}(\sqrt{3})$ are all questions which are found in decent books. And if you search all the questions of mine as well as other users you should be able to find it. $\endgroup$ – Chandru1 Nov 10 '10 at 3:48
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    $\begingroup$ If the case is about people using plagiarism as a way to "game" the reputation system, then perhaps a more effective way to deal with the problem is to subtract say 1500 reputation from the problem user(s), rather than a suspension. $\endgroup$ – Dan Petersen Nov 10 '10 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ Presumably users want to see questions and answers with positive attributes rising to the top, not a negative discussion and intense focus on the (alleged) attributes of particular individuals. Setting up "policies" on homework, supposed plagiarism, etc turns the energies of the user population from mathematics to (hostile) metadiscussion, and this is a failure to use the rating and tagging system. Unless the rating/tagging/FAQ improvement options have been exhausted, introducing taxing policies should be done only in extremis. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 10 '10 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ Why isn't this implemented? It seems like a great idea, and wouldn't be hard to add. You can already flag posts for whatever you like (so including plagiarism). Why not have a small piece of text somewhere in the FAQ explaining that if something is not your own words, you should try to say where you found it. $\endgroup$ – Eric Naslund Mar 23 '11 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ I have bumped, after noting two examples today. *sigh* $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Oct 28 '11 at 14:18
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SOURCE is a dimension of the questions independent of the Q & A, and underlies much of the discussion of homework and plagiarism. It can be dealt with directly, for all postings and to the benefit of all users, instead of developing special, elaborate and negative policies to address what apparently amounts to a couple of old postings from the beta test.

Sources are a separate matter from the mathematical Q&A. Solid answers do not necessarily provide sources, and knowledge of relevant sources does not necessarily answer a question. There is a spectrum of source quality ranging from

  • bibliographic-quality compilation of first historical source, plus accessible sources in the literature, online equivalents, all with chapter and page numbers, publisher information, etc etc.

to

  • original source

  • accessible non-original source

  • unverifiable source ("heard it from my friend")

  • source unknown or not given

  • erroneous source

  • possibly fabricated source

  • provably fabricated source

To focus only on the last one or two categories (numerically and proportionally an extremely small subset of the postings) would be to suppress improvement of the whole site, for all postings including the 99+ percent that do not contain fabricated material. Thus:

There appear to be users with the interest and energy to operate as a Citizen's Homework Patrol or a Plagiarism Emergency Assault Team. Directing their energies (and those of all users) toward the more positive, objective, goal of requesting and finding better sources for all postings -- instead of the negative and often hostile metadiscussion with accusation of particular users and assertions of wrongdoing -- would be a great improvement to the site. It is also within the current technology to add source-informative tags, to help with filtering and upgrading postings ; I have suggested [sourced] and [unsourced], and [reference-request] already exists. Beyond what is currently available, I think a couple of features would be very useful:

(1) if a separate SOURCE file is automatically opened for each question as a repository for references, links, historical comments and the like, that would be a systematic improvement usable for every question.

(2) if quality-of-sources becomes a rating, either from users or automatically generated as the density of links and citation-like text, it can be used to filter and select postings, which again would help all users with all questions. Plagiarized postings would sink to the bottom in such ratings, but well-sourced postings would also come to the top, and this much more important aspect is not addressed at all in requests for an anti-plagiarism (or anti-homework, pro-patriotism, etc) policy.

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    $\begingroup$ You are converging to a rating system and a tagging system that no one is going to be able to use. It reminds me of the awsome idea of web ontologies... $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Nov 10 '10 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Mariano: if additional rating dimensions are provided (e.g., difficulty/advancement level, sources, etc in addition to the existing "overall quality up/down"), all that is needed is for any users interested to rate those attributes, and any users who want it to use those attributes for filtering. The ratings would be informative given a small number of votes, just as in the current system. Users could make ratings they don't care about invisible. How would this create unusable complexity, rather than more flexibility and simplicity? $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 10 '10 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ Also, what these suggestions are actually converging to is (1) clean separation, e.g., in an optional and editable questionnaire for each posting, of the mathematical Q&A from the Q&A-independent (and person-dependent) metadata such as sources, is-it-homework, is the question "answered" in the eyes of the asker, etc, and (2) the addition of statistical metrics, forcing no user to change interface but allowing new options to become visible and usable to those who want them. Such metrics are quite anti-ontological -- Google rather than AI -- and create new information but not new complexity. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 10 '10 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Mariano: especially in light of the above elaborations, I would like to know what specific complexity you anticipate with the rating or tagging suggestions. It seems to me that from the user's point of view they can use the default (i.e., the existing) interface and have additional options should they care to use them -- but many users can and would utilize the more refined filtering and rating mechanisms. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 11 '10 at 0:45

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