I am not having much luck getting my intentions across here on meta so I will make this ridiculously short. This is related to the Unprofessionalism bullet-point in my longwinded answer to the 90 day opinion poll.

What guidelines do/should we have with regards to which types of images are fair game for me to edit out of questions and answers?

For the sake of discussion, here is the same question asked at Meta.SO (with links to Sketpics.) There has also been handfuls of comments and chats regarding the topic. At this point I just want to know how I should act so I can go edit (or not edit) appropriately.


7 Answers 7


I have been leading my own crusade against many of the pictures - not about their relevance, which I am more relaxed about, and happy to defer to others - but about their credit and licensing.

If someone has a question about whether a particular photograph has been faked, it seems to my (non-lawyer) eyes to fit under the criticism = fair use clause.

However, if someone has a question about ants eggs, inserting a random photo of an ant (or frame from a South Park episode) isn't fair use. In such a situation, the copyright owner must give permission to copy it. (Public Domain and Creative Commons licenses being the easiest way to get such permission.)

Simply having such permission isn't enough on a community site - we need to have a reference to that permission, so other editors know that it is okay.

Finally, out of common courtesy, whether the license requires it or not, there should be a link back to the copyright owner - not merely to another web-site that have misappropriated an image themselves, but the copyright owner (and perhaps the original artist if they differ).

In summary, every image should be associated with a link to the ultimate source and to the appropriate license, or an explanation of why it is okay to use without such a license.

  • Good point. I hadn't really thought of the legality with regards to "appropriate" but it totally fits. :P
    – MrHen
    Jun 14, 2011 at 21:36
  • The ultimate source of a photo is often a SD-Card or something similar. For a drawn picture a harddrive or SSD. Other copies aren't more or less ultimate sources - they shouldn't differ. Every user should either have made the picture himself, and be giving the license to use it here implicitly by publishing it. Or it has to be used with an open license, which needs to be cited/named. Or a license or permission has to be gained. Jun 16, 2011 at 0:45
  • @User unknown, clearly I didn't mean ultimate source in the sense of which directory on your hard-drive! :-) I have seen cases where credit has been given to a forum where a random anonymous web-user has pasted an image they found on a photographer's web-site. The link should go to the photographer's website in this case - credit and Google juice belong to the photographer not the forum. That is what I meant here.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Jun 18, 2011 at 10:28
  • Further, I don't think it is sufficient to implicitly grant a license by publishing your own picture. Explicitly state it is your own picture, so the next editor doesn't delete it due to lack of licence info.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Jun 18, 2011 at 10:28
  • Why should a next editor delete my photo? Shall we act as a license police, hounting for IP-violations, and in doubt, suspect everybody guilty? I don't think so. Everybody has to act honestly, but I will not suspect anybody. Jun 18, 2011 at 21:32
  • Sometimes or maybe often, you might find or know the source of an image - think: xkcd. But often you will not, and I will not - maybe the original poster of the image doesn't know it. But if he doesn't own the permissions to use the image himself, he should somehow gain the permission - maybe from wikipedia, maybe from xkcd. And if there isn't a license (in a random forum), then it might, in most cases, not be permitted to reproduce the image. Jun 18, 2011 at 21:50
  • @user unknown: To your first question - Yes, we edit people's posts for a number of different issues - spelling, grammar, clarity, missing references, offensive language, cliches. We do this to make our community site better in quality than the average web forum. I'm not the only one to either remove images, or (much, much better, wherever possible) provide appropriate credit to the original artist.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Jun 18, 2011 at 22:45
  • As for not suspecting others: Random forums frequently steal the work of artists and photographers; it is not uncommon that people have a culture that copyright doesn't matter. I am arguing that we should respect photographers and artists by not having such a culture. In this case, "suspecting others" is merely suspecting that they are not used to such rules. Just to be clear: XKCD and Wikipedia (your examples) both have explicit share-alike permissions suitable for Skeptics.SE WITH ATTRIBUTION.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Jun 18, 2011 at 22:49
  • Well, I made drawings and photos, which I uploaded to one of the SE-pages. I didn't mention that these are my drawings or photos. You would delete them in suspect, I could have used them without permission? Jun 29, 2011 at 20:14
  • @User, All you need to do is add "original work" or similar indication. I don't think I am asking too much. When a major newspaper contacts you for permission to reproduce them, you'll thank me! :-)
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Jun 30, 2011 at 3:28
  • Oh, I'd probably comment before deletion. In any case, undoing the edit if it turns out you do have permission is trivial.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Jun 30, 2011 at 3:28
  • You believe in newspapers, trying to contact the copyright owner of internet stuff? I only heard of cases, where they took what they want without asking. However, it isn't so easy to ask me something, if you find useful stuff. You have to register, to make a comment. Don't you need some initial reputation for comments? I think so. For a fast business like newspapers, waiting 12 hours for a response ins't acceptable. But I admit, this is pure speculation, and while many papers wouldn't ask, some could. However: Asking in a comment before deletion or reproduction should be the way to do it. Jun 30, 2011 at 14:29
  • Ouch. Let me retract my throwaway line about newspapers.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Jun 30, 2011 at 14:35

I was going to write something along these lines, but I looked back over the Meta.SO discussion you linked to and Adam Davis said it far better than I could:

What is the underlying purpose of the image on SE?

To enhance an answer by

  • Providing additional information
  • Clarifying written information
  • Providing an alternate view of the same information
  • Attracting attention to a particular point or issue within the post

What is the appropriate action to take when an image is not fulfilling this purpose?

There is a difference between an image that isn't best fulfilling one of the above goals, and an image that is offensive, distracting, or not a reasonable part of the answer.

If the image doesn't detract from the post, then I don't see any reason to do anything. The author will be upvoted or downvoted accordingly.

If the image is not an answer, or not a valid part of the answer, then it may be reasonable to edit it out or flag it as abuse.

If it is offensive, remove it, flag it, and move on.

My best guesses: An image should provide context or information that is impossible or not easy to convey with mere words. Graphs, screenshots, diagrams and their ilk seem like a useful tool to have around. Comics, witty graphics, or iconic imagery doesn't seem to fit this well.

This is an exceptionally harsh viewpoint. While you may learn best from textual representation of information, many people learn better from a visual representation.

Restricting images to only that information which cannot be provided textually is completely inappropriate.

The best posts use images sparingly to enhance the answer where images may provide additional value to readers who learn better via imagery.

Images are not something to be avoided, and in fact a lot of existing answers could be better if they had diagrams and images to emphasize important points.

And in the comments:

I'm not particularly interested in living in a sterile lifeless world. Let people add supplementary images to their posts if they like. I'm certainly against forming a policy that strictly prohibits images that have limited value to a post. When you read articles, blog posts, and so forth from good sources, you'll often find they use color and imagery in ways to enhance the post, where the color and imagery do not actually add particular educational value, they do add design value. Again, sterility for sterility's sake is to be avoided.


As I said in another discussion point, I try to use images in my answers, because it should help people remember the answer. A neurological study supports this:

A striking characteristic of human memory is that pictures are remembered better than words. We examined the neural correlates of memory for pictures and words in the context of episodic memory encoding to determine material-specific differences in brain activity patterns. To do this, we used positron emission tomography to map the brain regions active during encoding of words and pictures of objects. Encoding was carried out by using three different strategies to explore possible interactions between material specificity and types of processing. Encoding of pictures resulted in greater activity of bilateral visual and medial temporal cortices, compared with encoding words, whereas encoding of words was associated with increased activity in prefrontal and temporoparietal regions related to language function. Each encoding strategy was characterized by a distinctive activity pattern, but these patterns were largely the same for pictures and words. Thus, superior overall memory for pictures may be mediated by more effective and automatic engagement of areas important for visual memory, including medial temporal cortex, whereas the mechanisms underlying specific encoding strategies appear to operate similarly on pictures and words.

Humans have a remarkable ability to remember pictures. It was shown several decades ago that people can remember more than 2,000 pictures with at least 90% accuracy in recognition tests over a period of several days, even with short presentation times during learning (1). This excellent memory for pictures consistently exceeds our ability to remember words (2, 3). In addition, various manipulations that affect memory performance do so differentially for pictures and words. One such manipulation is the levels of processing effect, which is the advantage for later retrieval of more elaborate or semantic processing of stimuli during encoding (4, 5). This levels effect is greater for words than for pictures because of superior picture memory even after shallow or nonsemantic encoding (6). One theory of the mechanism underlying superior picture memory is that pictures automatically engage multiple representations and associations with other knowledge about the world, thus encouraging a more elaborate encoding than occurs with words (2, 5, 7). This theory implies that there are qualitative differences between the ways words and pictures are processed during memory.

I also use pictures for some levity. All too often, skeptics are portrayed as dried up, old humourless husks of human beings. That is an image that I am actively fighting (since skeptics are humans, and humans come in all types). Thus the use of pictures is a two pronged attack on woo for popularizing and helping people remember skepticism.

My two coppers.


I don't think it's a good for skeptics.SE to ban what do very little harm while lightening the mood of the site, for the sake of professionalism. We are a community of volunteers that work together to seek out answers, out of fun and interest. Unless these images are harming the answers or our community, then I definitely don't think we should disallow them. Professionalism to this degree belong in the corporate world, or in academic circles and not in in a group of volunteers.

I also don't think we should try to push away images that aren't properly references, there's a legal mechanism in America called DMCA which has the exact purpose of taking down copyrighted material that the copyright holder feel is being used without permission, while protecting the site owners from an actual law suit if they comply. I don't see a reason why we as a community need to impose a higher standard than what the law has already put in place for this very issue.

It should be up to the SE team to solve these issues by decree or otherwise. Until that happens, we should only advocate that people references image sources, but not remove those that don't have proper references.

  • 1
    Yeah, but I guess that is one of my underlying contentions. I don't really feel like playing around in an unprofessional environment. I am interested in building Skeptics around real skepticism and attracting high level skeptical experts. I don't really care about uninteresting, obvious "skeptical" questions that just pick an urban legend out of a hat.
    – MrHen
    Jun 15, 2011 at 21:20
  • 2
    @MrHen - I don't see why high level skeptical experts would feel deterred by images that aren't way out there. If anything I would think they (if anyone) can - like the rest of us - look past simple puns to the actual points being made. So I'm not sure if that argument actually hold up in practice. I'm not saying we should plaster images all over the place, but if they don't remove value by being there (some images that were horrible has been removed in the past), then I don't think we should add more reasons to alienate users, which is what rules do.
    – Kit Sunde
    Jun 15, 2011 at 22:48
  • @MrHen - My answer wasn't at all about obvious skeptical questions, so I'm not sure why you are arguing against that. However I do disagree with you on that point also as I see skeptics.SE as a resource, not just as a place for serious and hard inquiry. Simple skeptical questions exist because there's probably people that believe some simple nonsense, and if someone comes to skeptics.SE I would want them to be able to hit search and find the answer to everything (within reason..), though I'm not sure if the general skeptics.SE community shares my thoughts on that.
    – Kit Sunde
    Jun 15, 2011 at 22:51
  • Well, this part: "We aren't a research journal, we are a community of volunteers that work together to seek out answers, out of fun and interest." I don't have a problem with Skeptics being a resource for people with honest questions. This can be that too but that honestly isn't why I am here. Unfortunately, it seems that Skeptics is mostly entertaining that side of the topic... which is fine, if that is what it wants to be... but meh. I am not here for "fun." I am here for answers and thought provoking questions.
    – MrHen
    Jun 16, 2011 at 0:04
  • 3
    @MrHen - Thought provoking questions & answers and fun aren't mutually exclusive.
    – Kit Sunde
    Jun 16, 2011 at 5:50
  • @Kit: Heh, true. :)
    – MrHen
    Jun 16, 2011 at 12:54
  • I'm a little skeptical about the censorship that's going on around here. What gives? No aiming for fun, no urban legends to pick apart, certainly no pictures. Just straight-up, pocket-protector in place, pull your socks up staid science.
    – user2466
    Jun 16, 2011 at 22:12
  • @boehj: That isn't a remotely accurate depiction of what is going on around here.
    – MrHen
    Jun 17, 2011 at 22:40
  • @MrHen: Regarding the censorship, well, there's no before & after for the comments. So you can't see what's happened in this very thread. You'd have to take my word for it that blunt censorship of comments and pictures is going on. As a way to mitigate those probs, mods should say why a comment was deleted each time they do it.
    – user2466
    Jun 18, 2011 at 2:13
  • @boehj: Ah, okay. Then I completely misunderstood what you meant. My bad.
    – MrHen
    Jun 18, 2011 at 3:18

I'd like to mention the image in this answer as an example of an on-topic image.


Okay, to take a full stab at this, here is a more detailed reasoning. To provide some context, I just finished reading Jeff Atwood's blog entry on Informavores. The large carry-away is the note on information scent:

So if you've ever wondered why users behave like animals online, now you know. There's real science behind it in information foraging. Instead of hunting for food, users hunt for information, ruthlessly, and without compunction. In practice, what this means is that users pursue "information scent". Users will click the back button nearly instantly when they don't catch a whiff of the right information from the current page.

The purpose of the Stack Exchange network is to answer questions that people need answered. It isn't to stroke a curious spot; it isn't to idly wonder what-if. Our target audience is someone asking the internet a question. Our competition is everyone else attempting to answer the same question.

In my opinion, people asking skeptics-style questions are not interested in pretty pictures. They actually want the exact opposite. Graphical information that isn't actually relevant to the question is lacking information scent. We have very little time before our audience makes a judgement call and walks away.

This is why editing questions is important. Questions need to confirm, as quickly as possible, that the topic on hand is relevant to the question our visitors are carrying with them. If we match up, we get a chance to charm them with our answers. Not charming pictures; charming information. If the pretty pictures help generate a positive information scent, let them stay. If they are chaff, they should be edited out.

This leaves a large discussion about what images provide this information scent and which do not. A few of the answers here give some credence to the value of images:

As I said in another discussion point, I try to use images in my answers, because it should help people remember the answer. A neurological study supports this.

To enhance an answer by

  • Providing additional information
  • Clarifying written information
  • Providing an alternate view of the same information
  • Attracting attention to a particular point or issue within the post

I think these are helpful in determining which images are useful. I explicitly do not think "Because they are fun" is a valid point. "Fun" is for people who browse the site idly looking for interesting things. Those people are important but they are not our target audience. Our targets are people who need answers and they are impatient and need them as quickly as possible. "Fun" does not help information scent. A picture that provides no use other than "fun" is wasted processing time for our visitors.

That isn't to say "fun" is bad; the point is that "fun" should be secondary. Once we have them hooked we can bring out the fun. Even Jeff's blog has a picture of an animal doing its thing. But Jeff's blog is a blog. The "useful content" to "fun" ratio is different for a blog than it is for a Q&A site. The "useful content" to "fun" ratio of a question with two paragraphs and a picture is crap.

That being said, naturally different editors and authors will have their own style. But Skeptics.SE isn't here for you to test your blogging/writing skills. It is here to answer questions and answer them more accurately than anywhere else on the internet. "Fun" is important but it isn't so important that we should sacrifice the practicality of the SE format.

And this isn't to say that a site full of useful (and efficient) information is unfun. It is the exact opposite. A visitor popping in to find the answer to a question wants... the answer to the question. The answer to the question is "fun". Going into a book store for a book and getting bombarded with "fun" isn't fun. You just want the damn book.

The idea that removing unneeded images will reduce the "funness" of the site is losing focus on what makes SE valuable to the internet. We are not daycare for idle minds who also happen to find Skeptics questions interesting. We are here to answer questions and provide information. The best way to convince people we know what we are talking about is to increase our information scent. "Fun" pictures don't do that. Accurate and accessible information does that.


Only entertaining pictures without relevance to the question or answer, not helping to understand, should be banned as off topic.

Especially disturbing are pictures edited into the question by a second party. Not everybody likes a fat, dumb dog sitting in his question.

Schematic drawings, photos and other pictures clearing stuff should be encouraged.

Pictures take a lot of bandwith and should be avoided if just decorative, like greetings and other bloat in questions and answers.

See this meta discussion about bloat, too.

  • Oh - big downvotes without comments? I don't understand your downvotes, please clarify! Do you just like random-funny dog photos? Well - cats, I would understand, but dogs! On a skeptics side! Come on! Jun 18, 2011 at 21:36
  • Your opinion is just unpopular. I am your sole upvoter right now because, apparently, people really want their pictures.
    – MrHen
    Jun 21, 2011 at 17:14
  • I already earned my badge for giving in after 3 downvotes - this one I will stand through. :) I like pictures much - if they clarify something. Jun 21, 2011 at 20:55
  • 1
    Pictures took a lot of bandwidth. In 1998. :-)
    – Sklivvz
    Mar 2, 2012 at 19:56
  • If you use UMTS/GRPS, it can still get expensive. Of course, there sometimes are images which are chosen with taste, good intent and self disciplin ;) - not just to attract attention from visitors. Mar 2, 2012 at 20:21

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