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Concerning Are 'tree waterfalls' possible?

Some time after answering the question myself, I found LazyReader's answer had been deleted. However, I felt the answer had intrinsic merit, so I edited the answer to address the issues brought up in comments and voted to reopen. I was delighted to see it reopened.

One hour later, Nathaniel edited his answer to (IMO) cherry pick information he liked about LazyReader's answer, extend it a bit, and repost.1 This started a bit of a spat between us because I'm not a fan of cherry-picking anybody's answers without permission. Nathaniel challenged me to cite policies.

From "The Editing Process" we read:

All contributions are licensed under Creative Commons, and this site is collaboratively edited, like Wikipedia. If you see something that needs improvement, click edit!

And from "Expected Behavior" we read:

Provide better answers of your own. Last but not least, edit and improve the existing questions and answers! By doing these things, you are helping keep Stack Exchange a great place to share knowledge of our craft.

But, although the disfavor of cherry-picking has been acknowledged in comments for years, there isn't a specific policy per se that I can find that specifically admonishes against it.

Question: Is it permissible on WorldBuilding.SE for one user to take any part of another user's answer and use it to formulate a new answer or to edit an existing answer with it, without the original respondent's permission? If so, to what extent is cherry-picking allowed?


1While Nathaniel inadvertently followed some of the Help Center's "How to reference material written by others" section, I do not believe Nathaniel's edit logically extends his own original answer in that the portion of LazyReader's answer he cherry-picked could be equally applied to everyone's answers for the same purpose. In other words, I believe he simply wanted to take what was the obvious Earth-biology example and include it in his own answer. I'm tempted to say that this isn't intrinsically part of my question here on meta, except that it represents IMO the worst-case example of someone cherry picking someone else's answer.

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  • $\begingroup$ Just to address the footnote here: my answer is about the possibility that water could flow up into a tree canopy if the groundwater is under sufficient pressure. The video link from LuckyReader's answer shows exactly that water can flow up a tree trunk due to groundwater pressure. So it's exactly relevant to my answer. I'll let this community decide what it wants about the rest, but honestly I don't think I've done anything intellectually dishonest and I find a lot of this complaining petty. $\endgroup$
    – Nathaniel
    May 12 '20 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel Your answer has benefited considerably from information in someone else's answer to the same question. This meta posts examines whether or not that's ethical. I personally consider it immoral. You didn't find the information on your own, or even in an answer posted to another question, you took it from a direct competitor without permission. That's worth examining here. $\endgroup$ May 12 '20 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ I credited the other answer from the start, and I find the idea that I should need permission to cite something absurd. $\endgroup$
    – Nathaniel
    May 12 '20 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel Had an instructor that grades on the curve handed out an essay exam, what would you expect that instructor to do? Had you done your own research, said instructor would give you credit. Had you looked at answers from past exams, the instructor might give you credit. What you did was look at your neighbor's exam, copy that kid's notes, and tried to dodge the consequences with an approbation. Having been an instructor, I'd have failed you on the spot because, approbation or no, what you did was stand on the other student taking the same test to lift yourself higher. $\endgroup$ May 12 '20 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, but it's not an exam, is it? It's a Q&A on a website that's pretty much mostly just for fun. I cited with attribution and added to the original material. In pretty much any context that's acceptable. I don't think you'll get any further trying to convince me, and if your aim here is to set policy it's not me you need to convince anyway. I'd greatly appreciate an end to this conversation at this point. $\endgroup$
    – Nathaniel
    May 12 '20 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ reading answerer to be regarded as competitor sound weird, unless thats the kind of Q&A in this site is. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    May 13 '20 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ If a user wanted to write an answer and did an online search for references that led back to the same question they were answering without realizing it where they found a link to a video in an existing answer that provided them the reference they were looking for, wouldn't that be personal research? $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    May 13 '20 at 12:23
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    $\begingroup$ Some yellow, if not outright red, flags showing up in these comments! 1. This is NOT a competition; 2. This is not a school exam paper; 3. The underlying collaborative structure of open editing means that, in this context, what Nathaniel did was ethical, and actually encouraged, and he even credited his source, which is good practice. --- If I'm factually wrong on any of these points, I'd appreciate some education! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    May 13 '20 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas This isn't cherry-picking comments. Comments are open game (looking at your deleted answer). I am greatly bothered by the idea of cherry-picking someone else's answer to the same question. SE's premise is to improve existing questions, not rob someone of their idea. My belief that Nathaniel's behavior was both unethical and immoral stems from that premise: the correct behavior would have been to improve LazyReader's answer. $\endgroup$ May 16 '20 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ I can understand where you're coming from, though I don't believe that's what Nathaniel did. I would agree with you wholeheartedly if LazyReader's answer focused on trees rather than tepuis or if he had copied verbatim from lazyReader's answer. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    May 16 '20 at 18:59
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The bottom line is that we're not here to compete with one another; we're here to write good answers (and ask good questions!).

I'm struggling to see where there's been any misconduct here. LazyReader's answer linked to the video, but prior to JBH's edit, it was rather tangential. The main point of the rather succinct first version was that tapuis involve a potentially relevant mechanism. The video itself was presented as an afterthought. Only after JBH's edit would I say it became an important component, and even then, tapuis are the focus of the answer.

There's nothing wrong with expanding on a point someone else has made. Collaborating is basically what we do. Taking someone's answer as a jumping-off point is totally fine - particularly if you credit them, as Nathaniel did. If someone thinks they can present an idea better than someone else, go for it. That's always been Stack Exchange policy. If you weren't allowed to do so, we'd have to delete probably a third of all of answers network-wide.

I think the comparisons to cheating on an exam or trying to get an advantage in a competition are misplaced. We're not playing a zero-sum game here. And it's not intellectual misconduct to agree with someone else's idea when it's kinda key to your own answer - Nathaniel opened his answer by postulating that it seemed unlikely, and indicating that that assumption might be wrong seems the right thing to do, ethically.

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  • $\begingroup$ I concur. In specific: I've seen many instances in the past where a member will make a comment and this in turn becomes made into an answer by someone else (this actually happened to one of my comments just today!) I'm not crying foul, as I've also taken the hint from a comment or another answer on occasion to make my own answer. I'm actually quite happy with the [resulting answer][1] that Logan R. Kearsley posted! (Was an answer, but is better as a comment.) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    May 13 '20 at 4:48
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    $\begingroup$ To add to that, there's a lot of times when I'll have parts of an answer or not enough time to pull off a full answer, so I'll leave a comment briefly discussing my thoughts and hope that helps someone. $\endgroup$
    – Halfthawed
    May 13 '20 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas I strongly believe anyone who comments on questions without answering is just giving away free food for thought to others so they can use it in their answer. My belief is mostly based on the fact that I used to do the same back in 2016 when I didn't have the time to post a fully researched answer but still wanted to help $\endgroup$
    – user75689
    May 15 '20 at 22:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Kyu As one of the most frequent commenters in the StackExchange network, I can say that that has always been my intent in answer-like comments. I have what I think is an important part of an answer, but not the time (or possibly talent or knowledge) to develop it into a full answer. So I post a comment hoping that someone will "steal" it and incorporate it into a full answer (before the mods delete it). $\endgroup$ May 23 '20 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ It's also worth noting that implications of plagiarism are largely misplaced here as well. Most answers on SE are not original ideas conceived on the spot just for an answer to an SE question. At best they are only original within that specific thread, but the vast majority of these were not original and are often themselves uncredited copies of others work from SE or elsewhere. It is true that in many cases this is because the poster was unaware of the other work, but the fact remains that the ideas in any answer are rarely original independent work (though the text and form may be). $\endgroup$ May 23 '20 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ In fact, most good answers in SE are an integration of many ideas and information into a form that provides a thorough and illuminating explanation. There's no real expectation that the ideas are solely the poster's, no should there be. $\endgroup$ May 23 '20 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ tl;dr: overly concerned and unrelated guy #3 gets mad at guy #2 for taking guy #1's one line answer with a picture and a link, and guy #2 incorporates that into their answer that's almost as highly upvoted as guy #3's own answer, which is actually how you're supposed to use SE. - It's permissible because #1's answer 'should have been a comment' (except it's exactly where it needs to, and should, be imo) ... so it was definitely up for grabs. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    May 29 '20 at 0:36
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    $\begingroup$ Having someone take one of my one-liners and becoming my spiritual successor is how I win the internet imo. My preference is actually w/o attribution, or at least something you'd have to dig for, because if anyone ever does bring it up, eventually someone would say, actually... it was this guy. - But answers are supposed to stand on their own; don't at at what somebody said and make me have to go find it; I hate that type of petty attribution. If you want to cite something, add the link to Wiki. If it's not on a Wiki page... it's not worth taking about. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    May 29 '20 at 0:37
  • $\begingroup$ Overly concerned guy #4 posts two essay comments repeating what every single comment above them already said parroting the answer just because they also wanted to say something. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    May 29 '20 at 0:47

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