Let's review Stack Exchange's official guidelines for citing sources:

When you find a useful resource that can help answer a question (from another site or in an answer on Literature Stack Exchange) make sure you do all of the following:

  1. Provide a link to the original page or answer
  2. Quote only the relevant portion
  3. Provide the name of the original author

Lately, I've been seeing questions and answers that (in my mind) violate rule number two. Instead of quoting from the sections of a source relevant to their points, they quote the entire thing. I've seen questions and answers where a plot point that could be summarized in two sentences is explained by a quote that takes up half a page, wasting space and time. I've also seen answers that quote an entire article rather than the relevant portions of an article (e.g. this answer).

The phrase "Quote only the relevant portion" is a little vague. As a community, what does that phrase mean to us? When does a question or answer quote more than "only the relevant portion"?

Keep in mind that this isn't a debate about formatting. In some cases, quoting too much from a source may not fall under fair use and thus violate copyright.

  • The "Quote only the relevant portion" rule is an official Stack Exchange rule; we have to enforce it. What's up to this community is what enforcing the rule looks like. (Hence the reason why I created a meta question; I'm hoping to get guidance from the community.)
    – user111
    Apr 21, 2017 at 4:04
  • 1
    I imagine the downvotes are not due to voters' disagreement with SE rules, but that users don't feel that this is an issue here, at this point. (I myself am not sure, and so have not yet voted on this question) || If you feel that my posts run afoul of this guideline (and I suspect you might), please do let me know (here, in chat, wherever), and I'll see if/how I can fix my own posts.
    – Shokhet
    Apr 21, 2017 at 4:57
  • @Shokhet I'll try to round up more examples tomorrow. But this definitely isn't an isolated thing.
    – user111
    Apr 21, 2017 at 5:24
  • 1
    More examples would definitely make this a better post.
    – Shokhet
    Apr 21, 2017 at 13:29

3 Answers 3


Once again, I think you're worrying far too much about a non-issue.

"Quote only the relevant portion" is deliberately vague, because what's "relevant" is subjective by nature - trying to pin down an exact definition of "relevancy" for quotes here is a bad idea. We don't need a clearly formulated "rule" to follow on this; common sense should suffice.

  • If you think a question or answer contains more quoted text than is necessary, leave a comment to say so and suggest that the OP edit some of it out (as you did in the linked example).
  • In very clear cases, you might even edit out some of the quoted text yourself. If the OP rolls back your edit, you could then take it to meta - it is possible in specific cases, if not in general, to judge "how much quoting is too much quoting".

We're not going to get any good general definition of "relevancy"; we just have to use our own good judgements on a case-by-case basis.

Also, worrying about "fair use" and copyright is a red herring: I've never heard of this becoming an issue on any Stack Exchange site, and I suspect the amount of text which would have to be quoted to make it worth anyone's time would be much longer than the character limit for a SE post anyway.


TL;DR: Prefer quotation to summarization, and prefer longer quotations to shorter, to avoid mispresenting your sources, and to make it easy for readers to evaluate your argument.

Risks of summarization

When you use a source to support your argument, there are three approaches:

  1. Summarize how the source supports your argument in your own words.

  2. Summarize how the source supports your argument using a mixture of your own words and short inline quotations.

  3. Quote the relevant parts of the source and, separately, explain in your own words how they support your argument.

The first two of these approaches come with the risk that, because the evidence is mixed with your interpretation of the evidence, the reader might confuse the two, and so get a misleading impression of how strong the evidence is. Or, worse, you might be tempted to word your summary so as to give a misleading impression because it better suits your argument.

Here are three examples of these pitfalls, based on questions here at Literature Stack Exchange:

  • When historians like David Hume retold the story of King Cnut and the tide, they mixed their summaries of the source (a brief 12th-century account by Henry of Huntingdon) with their guesses or deductions about the king’s motive. This created a version of events in which Cnut was trying to rebuke his flatting courtiers, something that does not appear in the source.

  • William Quillian summarized Richard Ellman as saying “that [James] Joyce considered Shakespeare a ‘second-rate’ playwright (after Ibsen) and Hamlet a ‘rude and barbarous’ play (à la Voltaire)”, giving the impression that the quoted phrases came from Ellmann or maybe even from Joyce as quoted by Ellmann, but in fact neither phrase appears in Ellmann, and both are misleading summarizations.

  • Paul Fry misleadingly summarized Jerome McGann’s argument about the textual history of Keats’ poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, claiming that McGann wanted “to infuse Keats’s text with a pleasing political correctness” and that McGann argued that the 1820 version was suppressed by a “historical conspiracy”, claims that do not appear in McGann.

I am inclined to believe that the Hume and Quillian cases were accidental distortions, but in Fry’s case it seems likely that he succumbed to temptation.

Summarizing your sources instead of quoting them requires the reader to take your summary on trust. Someone who wants to check your work has to get hold of your source, which is likely to be difficult and expensive if they don’t have access to a university library, and tedious and time-consuming even if they do. This is why the temptation to distort your summary arises: because you know that it is unlikely that anyone will check up on you.

To avoid these risks, I recommend that you prefer quotation to summary where possible. It won’t always be possible, because the relevant part of the source might be too long to quote in full, but even in these cases you should try to supplement your summary with a quotation of your source’s key point or conclusion. This makes it easier for readers to check your argument, and helps keep you honest.

The conventional advice

So why, given these risks, does writing advice often recommend summarization over quotation? I think this is because the advice is usually offered to two groups of writers:

  1. Students, because the purpose of writing essays is to demonstrate your command of the material, which you do by putting it in your own words. The risk of misleading summary is low, because the intended readership is the instructor, who ought to know the material well enough to identify and correct the student’s mistakes.

  2. Scholars, because the purpose of writing articles is to make an original contribution, which necessarily has to be in one’s own words; because the readership consists of other scholars who can be presumed to have the skills to follow your references, and the necessary access to books and journals via university libraries; and because when articles were printed on paper, it was important to economize on space, and this continues as a tradition even though this economy is no longer necessary.

Here at Literature Stack Exchange we are not in either of these cases. We are not trying to demonstrate our command of a subject to an instructor, nor make an original contribution to scholarship; we are not a community of scholars whose claims can be presumed trustworthy; and we are writing for a general readership who may not all have the skills to follow references, nor the necessary access to university libraries.


I would like to propose two guidelines for quotes:

  1. Only quote when the exact wording of the source is important. Otherwise, paraphrase the source and link to the source that contained the original argument.

  2. Consider using inline quotes instead of blockquotes, as blockquotes take up a lot of space, particularly when there are a lot of them.

These guidelines help avoid plagiarism. But they also lead to well-written content. When you quote from a text, you should only quote from the parts that you are going to use to support your argument. If you quote but don't analyze, then that's a waste of space; you could have just paraphrased.

If your citing an academic article or an outside piece of literary analysis, paraphrasing also forces you to put the argument in your own words: an important skill that shows you understand the article your citing.

  • 3
    I don't see why this answer should be downvoted. Those are sound advices; these are taught in English courses, and are in line with good writing practices of articles and essays. One shouldn't think of those as binding rules, but simply as guidelines that are meant to make a question or answer better - more readable. Apr 24, 2017 at 6:49
  • Of course, if you follow these guidelines you're pretty much guaranteed to avoid copyright infringement (with a few exceptions, such as the tricky heart of the work part of fair use). But that's almost secondary to how following these guidelines is a surefire way for anyone to improve their writing.
    – user111
    Apr 24, 2017 at 7:27

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