|“Plagiarize, Let no one’s work evade your eyes!”
Lyrics from Lobachevsky by
Thomas Andrew Lehrer (1951)
The majority of scientific research is funded by the public purse and frequently, this research is called upon to inform both national and international policy. The need for probity is absolute if public confidence in science is to be maintained. Plagiarism is but one aspect of the betrayal that scientists can perpetrate on their colleagues and the public at large. During an undergraduate student’s education, the socialisation of unethical behaviour, of which plagiarism forms a large part, has significant repercussions for that individual’s professional conduct after leaving university.
In chemistry education, term papers are an infrequent form of assessment. A ubiquitous form of assessment in chemistry education is the laboratory report. Plagiarism of laboratory reports has probably plagued chemistry education ever since chemical laboratories were introduced into university teaching by Justus von Liebig in the early 19th century. In one of first reported assessments of plagiarism in the laboratory setting, Deal (1984) recorded that some 81% of students stated on questioning that they had observed either plagiarism of laboratory reports or falsification of data—I doubt that this statistic has improved. In this paper, I would like to discuss some of my own personal observations with regard to plagiarism in the laboratory setting.
Chemical laboratories play a fundamental role in the education of a chemist. As an educational medium they provide an environment that is intrinsically student-centred. Many experiments are problem-based which should help students understand concepts and theories. In the laboratory, students get to create things; and quite frankly, creating things is fun. It is the reason why many students choose chemistry for a career. It is therefore unfortunate to note that laboratory classes are failing to realise their potential. Byers (2002) commented, “All too often students see laboratory work as a form of assessment…[rather than an] opportunity to learn” (p. 29). It is natural for students to possess an achieving motivation in their studies. Within the context of the laboratory report, the simplest achieving strategy for students to adopt is one based on plagiarism. As educators, we can point out to students that in adopting such a strategy they are circumventing the learning process. However, we cannot teach students successfully if we do not know what students truly understand. As Ausubel (1968) stated, “If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to one principle, I would say this: the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly” (p. 18). Plagiarism, in most cases, artificially inflates students’ perceived knowledge. Students need to appreciate that they miss the opportunity to learn when they plagiarise.
It is, however, unrealistic to hope that students who engage in plagiarism would be easily persuaded to adopt a deep learning strategy to their studies. Chemistry educators are not without blame with regard to the level of plagiarism that takes place in laboratory reports. There are a number of aspects of traditional laboratory reports which make plagiarism particularly amenable: reports are formulaic; experiments are unchanging; pre-laboratory assignments and discussion questions are the same every year; and in almost all laboratory classes, reports are written at home. With the exception of changing experiments which in a laboratory class would prove to be prohibitively expensive, many of these aspects could be addressed.
There is an obvious technical solution that many of us have used for several years to detect plagiarism in term papers and that is Turnitin.1 However, this should be seen as only part of the solution. At the outset, students should be reminded about plagiarism and their acceptance of the University’s Honour Code. I would like all laboratory reports to include the following words or something similar to: “I certify that the work submitted here represents solely my own efforts. I am aware of the University’s regulations about, and penalties for, plagiarism.” Students should also be required to do the e-module on plagiarism (http://emodule.nus.edu.sg/ac) and sign a declaration to that effect.
We can also make changes to what we expect from reports. Laboratory reports are deliberately formulaic; it is important for students to know how to write a formal report. Clear guidance of what is expected from a formal report should be made far more explicit. Students come to university with many erroneous ideas of how a report should be set out. Many students believe that a good report needs to be long no matter how simple an experiment it is based upon. It needs to be impressed upon students that conciseness in scientific writing is greatly desired. Furthermore, it is not necessary for all reports to be written in this manner. Many experiments are suitable for a pro forma report to be employed. Not only would this reduce students’ workload (a frequent excuse of students faced with an accusation of plagiarism) as such reports could be completed during class, but it would also greatly facilitate the marking of reports by teaching staff.
Many examples of plagiarism are of reports from earlier years; such examples could be avoided if the experiments changed. However, the wholesale introduction of new experiments every year would be prohibitively expensive. That said, it is not unfeasible to introduce one new experiment into a module each year. However, expense is not an issue for pre-laboratory exercises and discussion questions. Thus introducing changes in these areas on a yearly basis, between different classes doing the same experiment, is warranted.
The impression among students that they must plagiarise to achieve high grades is reinforced by an overly pedantic attitude to assessment. Students are less likely to be tempted to plagiarise if they feel that making minor mistakes will not substantially affect their grades. The less formal structure of a pro forma report may encourage students to worry less about assessment and instead focus on the educational benefits of the laboratory class.
An important objective of laboratory classes is the training of students in key technical skills. Assessing students on these skills during the laboratory class or in a practical examination rather than basing assessment solely on written reports would focus students’ minds on learning these skills. The suggestion that laboratory data can assess a student’s knowledge of such skills is naïve, given the ease with which ‘perfect’ data can be fabricated.
In conclusion, I would note that plagiarism has long plagued chemistry education, especially in the laboratory setting. The ease with which material can be plagiarised in the internet age in no way excuses the perceived social acceptability of plagiarism. It is incumbent upon educators to in no way aid or allow plagiarism to take place. The introduction of relatively small modifications in how we assess students would greatly reduce plagiarism in the laboratory setting. A reduction of plagiarism benefits both students and educators in that students would be more engaged in learning. After all, to paraphrase Haldane (1923), it is our obligation as educators to induce students to think. The laboratory offers a marvellous medium to encourage this and perhaps by employing the suggested mechanisms for reducing plagiarism, students will come to the laboratory with a thirst for learning rather than achieving.
Ausubel, D.P. (1968). Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View. New York: Rinehart & Winston, Inc.
Byers, W. (2002). Promoting active learning through small group laboratory classes. University Chemistry Education, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 28–34.
Deal, W.J. (1984). Cheating. Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 61, No. 9, p. 797.
Haldane J.B.S. (1923). Daedalus, or Science and the Future. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.
1 The NUS portal to Turnitin can be found at http://www.cit.nus.edu.sg/plagiarism
Back to article