Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Separating Boilerplate from Plagiarism

What separates boilerplate from plagiarism?

When I read about President Starcevich, at Kirkwood Community College, having plagiarized in a speech, I had to wonder where that line goes.  That’s not an attempt to defend or excuse President Starcevich; it’s just an acknowledgement that administrative communication spans a variety of genres, some of which would make plagiarism objectionable, and some of which would not.

For example, we have a standard “weather emergency procedures” memo that goes out every year.  It includes language that doesn’t change from year to year, and it goes out to faculty and staff.  Veterans probably barely scan it, but it’s helpful for newbies and relative newbies.  I think of the memo as boilerplate.  There’s nothing in it to suggest that a given author has a personal stamp on it.  We have a host of memos and formal documents for which the language is given, either explicitly or by longstanding habit.  I’ll admit frequently just acceding to pre-existing language on documents like that, seeing it as pointless not to.  I don’t consider that plagiarism, though someone with an axe to grind probably could.

At graduation, certain lines are scripted.  Lines like “Graduates, please proceed up the aisle and to your left, and give your card to the person at the microphone” are pre-written, often not by the person who speaks them.  That doesn’t offend my sense of writerly integrity, either.

On the faculty side, it’s not unusual for sections of syllabi to repeat from year to year.  Sometimes it’s actual institutional language, but in many cases, it’s a formulation that a professor found useful once and just never bothered to change.  Given the function of syllabi, that strikes me as entirely reasonable.

I make a distinction between documents like those, which are entirely functional and basically impersonal, and documents that are presumed to have an identifiable person behind them.  Speeches, articles, books, blog posts (!), and presentations strike me as requiring a high standard of authorial honesty.  I even custom-write the “welcome to the new semester” memo every single time, just because a boilerplate welcome strikes me as self-defeating.

College presidents generally don’t have speechwriters, but they do a lot of public speaking.  I’ve seen different strategies for handling that.  Some give basically the same speech wherever they go.  I’m not a fan of that one, since it basically conveys that the audience is irrelevant, but it does offer a certain efficiency.  Some have “set pieces” that they’ll swap in and out, depending on the occasion.  (I’d guess that Starcevich incorporated the story as a set piece, then forgot to attribute.  Joe Biden did the same thing in the 1980’s with a set piece he took from Neil Kinnock.)  Some actually write out every speech de novo.  Some wing it, whether out of confidence or out of a temperamental inability to stick to a script.  Some take refuge in brevity, though fewer do that than probably should.

I’m guessing that where people sometimes fall into traps is in mistaking which set of conventions to apply in a given situation.  A college president who used a speechwriter might raise eyebrows, while a prominent politician using a speechwriter is a non-issue.  Re-using the boilerplate from last year’s memo about getting grades in on time strikes me as fair, but re-using last year’s convocation speech would not.  If I got word that someone had plagiarized my blog in a speech, I’d be torn between a murderous rage and a certain pride.  If my successor reused language in a memo on snow day procedures, I really wouldn’t care.

College presidents need to keep in mind that faculty, as a group, are uncommonly well-read and verbally proficient.  They have trouble respecting leaders who are obviously neither.  Better to give a short, honest, pretty-good speech than to try to fake greatness.  They’ll see through it.  

The difference is when you're trying to pass something off as your own thought rather than communicating a "community" idea.

For example, many of my labs have dissection instructions in them which I'm sure sound 90-95% identical to the instructions used by almost every anatomy & physiology professor in the country. However, I don't put my name on them and make them sound like my own original thoughts. They aren't my own thoughts, and rewriting them to reflect my own thoughts isn't worth my time, because I don't really have any original thoughts on how to cut open a cat. (They also aren't even the original thoughts of the authors who earn kingly sums for publishing them in lab manuals.) There's just a finite number of words that can be used to communicate the same idea. When I define the term "cell" in class, I don't cite the textbook author; she holds no monopoly on that definition. That belongs to everybody.

Someone's point of view, someone's analysis, someone's experience -- those aren't community property, and those need to be cited. Appropriating them as your own is plagiarism.

/my $0.02
"Some take refuge in brevity, though fewer do that than probably should."

Ha! (Insert self-plagiarized comment number 17.)

My problem with his speech is that he used Powerpoint(R) and probably didn't distribute the slides in advance so the audience could read ahead and then grade papers until he finished talking.

Otherwise, I agree with your observations and share those of /my$0.02 above. (Lab instructions have many contributors, including students who sometimes give them the ultimate close reading.) However, I almost LOL'd when you wrote that it's not unusual for parts of a syllabus to repeat from year to year. I usually manage to get the new dates correct and do tweak many things, but rarely anything that is in the syllabus itself. However, that is not because I didn't read it; I did read it and decided that it is still just what I want to say.
Here's a gray zone: what about a strategic plan? While there is usually a main author, the document presumably reflects the views and goals of the institution. While I would not do this myself, I anticipate there are people who are tempted to copy/paste from good publicly examples of strategic plans for comparable institutions.

I would hope that such plagiarism doesn't happen (and I don't think it has in the plan for my own department). I view self-plagiarism of the prior strategic plan as being fine. In fact, I think that could be a sign of a good strategy in that it survived for 3 to 5 years and still made sense. (Self plagiarism is a feature in that case.)
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Ha! Michelle Yates @ 12:51AM spams an ad for a "guide" to help students "write" their dissertation to a discussion on plagiarizing speeches ... hoping to attract future higher ed leaders who can't write?
To what extent do new articles and speeches need to be new? Is it acceptable to take an old speech/article, or a part of one, and use it as a starting point for the new one?

What about in academic papers? An author who writes frequently on a particular topic may start his/her papers similarly, e.g. by providing a brief summary of previous research with citations. Should this material be rewritten every time or is it allowable to copy it from paper to paper (with minor tweaks) since the background material doesn't change often and isn't part of the "meat" of the paper?
@Anonymous 12:49pm, My research analogy to a speech is a research presentation (seminar or conference). Reusing old slides is typical and acceptable.

Reusing an article would not be okay in my branch of engineering. That would be in direct conflict with the terms and conditions that are required when submitting to a journal, i.e. the work has not been published before and is not under consideration elsewhere.

The literature review section in an introduction does run a self-plagiarism risk. I have seen cases of paragraphs in a row being the same, and that is going too far. Here's an example that was recognized by the community and editorial staff as being across the line.
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