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I have been contemplating this topic because of something that happened a number of years ago. Do you have any suggestions on alternative ways to handle the following case:

A student in one of my community college classes (Introduction to Public Speaking) wrote a moving self-introduction for his “icebreaker” speech. The student was a homeless person who had resolved to become a college graduate and his brief autobiographic speech offered the class a rather poignant insight into what it actually meant to be homeless.

The following year that same student was in another of my COMM classes and the students were required to deliver a persuasive speech based on one of the three classic rhetorical modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, or logos. The aforementioned student’s speech topic attempted to persuade his classmates to help the homeless by appealing to their emotions. A great deal of his speech was clearly “lifted” verbatim from his icebreaker text. To his credit his speech introduction did include the following sentence: “Last year I wrote a speech describing what it means to be homeless and today I would like to revisit that topic.” and he also correctly cited his own speech in the written outline.

When a student just re-uses all or most of a speech without acknowledging the prior work I consider that self-plagiarism. When a student copies verbatim text but gives clear attribution I consider that a lazy effort. However, in this case the precise phrasing and constructions used by the student had such strong emotional appeal I would be hard-pressed to find any way to revise the speech without lessening its impact.

Imagine having Martin Luther King in your speech class and requiring him to rewrite his "I Have A Dream" speech without using any repetitive phrases.

In this case his grade was based on the 2nd speech alone without factoring in the 1st speech in any way. However I did follow up and educate the student on the subject of self-plagiarism (amazing how few students are aware of this concept) and cautioned him to be avoid or at the least to be extremely careful when re-using his work.


Considering this particular student's overall performance I am fine with his specific work and the grade he received for this project. However I wonder what I would do if a similar case happened again and felt it would make a good question here. It relates somewhat to the opposite scenario in which a student desperately trying to avoid plagiarism contorts the phrasing of a source into an awkward and ineffective communication.

In the one case the underlying question is: Do you ignore or mitigate the duplication of the (correctly attributed) source to respect the effectiveness of the wording?

In the other case the question is: Do you ignore or mitigate the horrible wording in order to respect the avoidance of duplication?

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    I have never heard the term self-plagiarism for public speeches. Plagiarism mostly refers to copying verbatim portions of WRITTEN text (I may be wrong though). Otherwise, all politicians should be condemned by your definition of self-plagiarism. On the other hand since the student's speech is basically a homework the term pliagarism may be valid, but only within the university context. – Alexandros Feb 4 '15 at 11:38
  • @Alexandros: Students are often required to accompany their presentations with written outlines including citations for sources. This practice helps the students to plan and organize the speech and prevents the students from "just winging it". – O.M.Y. Feb 4 '15 at 11:52
  • I am feeling like I am trying to defend the student in my comments below and that case was simply meant to be an example of the bigger problem so I have expanded the question a bit. I hope what I wrote after the horizontal bar adds some clarity for what kind of answer I hope to find here. – O.M.Y. Feb 4 '15 at 18:00
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    "Imagine having Martin Luther King in your speech class and requiring him to rewrite his "I Have A Dream" speech without using any repetitive phrases." I'm trying, but I haven't succeeded yet. Could you tell me why one of the the leading orators of the 20th century is taking my speech class? That might help. – Pete L. Clark Feb 9 '15 at 2:22
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Let's split this into two different cases:

  1. Is re-using a speech self-plagiarism?
  2. Is re-using a speech appropriate in that specific classroom context?

Addressing the first question, the reason why self-plagiarism is an issue is that there is an expectation of novelty in scientific communication: re-using text from a previous manuscript is thus "cheating." There is no such expectation of novelty in speeches. It is thus just fine to re-use content in a talk, and there is not even any requirement to acknowledge that one has given the same talk elsewhere. Consider, for example, a person doing faculty interviews and giving the same talk at different places: this is perfectly normal, acceptable, and even desirable. Now, if you give the same talk to the same audience multiple times, they'll probably get bored and stop inviting you to talk, because you don't have anything new to say. Similarly, because talks are often tied to manuscripts, e.g., at conferences, it will necessarily be the case that they contain much new material. Still, these are byproducts of the nature of the communication, not ethical principals.

Now, to the second question: should the student have re-used the same speech in class? Here, I would say that it depends greatly on the educational goal of the class. If the goal is to workshop particular aspects of the content or delivery of a speech, then I think that it would be fine, since you can work on new aspects of a speech even if it is not new (or even yours!): for example, you might want to work on delivery and oration, and even just quoting Martin Luther King could be just fine for that. If, on the other hand, the goal is to learn how to create a speech, then it's failing to satisfy the educational objectives of the class. To take the analogy: even if Martin Luther King's best speech was "I have a dream," it shouldn't mean it's the only speech he can ever give. I wouldn't call it self-plagiarism, since novelty is not the default expectation in speeches, but it would be failing to follow instructions. Not knowing the exact nature and instructions of your class, however, I'm not sure which category it falls into.

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    for (1): consider also a lecturer giving several talks about the same topic (e.g. each year). (+1) particularly for linking self-plagiarism to the expectation of novelty. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Feb 4 '15 at 14:46
  • The objective for the particular class was to learn how to build a speech, using one of the classic rhetorical methods, that would effectively persuade the audience to a view and/or action. The speech was effective but it was not original (to the student) thus my dilemma: was the student using the best road or just the easiest road (which happened to be most effective)? – O.M.Y. Feb 4 '15 at 17:08
  • @O.M.Y. If the goal was to learn how to build a speech, then the student should have built a new speech, possibly on a new subject. Nobody is so poor of spirit as to have only a single speech in them, even if one happens to be their best. – jakebeal Feb 4 '15 at 17:24
  • @jakebeal. I agree and disagree. Building a speech involves building blocks and yes the student selected recycled building blocks. However the student also built a completely new product with a completely new focus. Continuing the builder's analogy would you require a contractor to use a different type of brick -- one that he has found to be high quality in the past -- just because the end product is a barbeque instead of a fireplace ? – O.M.Y. Feb 4 '15 at 17:38
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    @jakebeal. Write, rewrite, edit, rewrite, re-edit, rewrite, review, rewrite, throw it away and start from scratch, rewrite... Ah the glamorous life of a writer! :-D – O.M.Y. Feb 4 '15 at 18:05

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