Academic Dishonesty in Laboratory Environments

Academic dishonesty is a serious problem in undergraduate labs. This is partly because the culture of lab courses sometimes fosters plagiarism. Lab exercises may remain unchanged for years, making it relatively easy to obtain lab reports from previous students. Since students generally work in pairs, the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable collaboration can become blurred. And sometimes lab work is simply not taken as seriously as other scholarly work. The main forms of academic dishonesty in laboratory classes are:

  • Plagiarism in laboratory assignments and reports. Among some students there is an academic culture that accepts a certain degree of academic dishonesty in labs. Students buy and sell lab reports from the previous year and some try to “help” junior students by “handing down” lab material. When such conduct is common, it becomes acceptable, and many students may not realize the element of dishonesty involved. In addition, in most cases the entire class is writing up the same report, so there is bound to be an enormous exchange of information.
  • Improper research practices (such as the fabrication or falsification of laboratory data). This usually takes the form of data fabrication or falsification, or presenting another’s data as one’s own without acknowledgement. Such dishonesty often results from students feeling pressure to come up with the “right” answer [5]. They worry about whether their results are the expected ones rather than trying to interpret or understand them. In some courses, a substantial portion of the grade may come from the quality of their results, increasing the pressure. Adding to the problem is a tendency among some students not to take careful lab practice and reporting seriously. When they then obtain poor results, they are more likely to fabricate or falsify their data.

Developing a Policy Outlining Acceptable Lab Practices

Think about your expectations with respect to data acquisition and reporting. For example, what degree of collaboration is acceptable, what kinds of general problems may arise and how should students deal with them? Addressing the role of lab partners is especially important.  Generate a list of acceptable and unacceptable practices in as much detail as possible, and use them to develop a policy for acceptable laboratory practice.

The policy should be clear and detailed but not confusing. Consider keeping the specific policy brief, but following it with a “Frequently Asked Questions” section where the details can be presented in clear language.

For example: A common policy in undergraduate labs is to have students work in pairs to gather data, but write up the reports separately. The policy might read: “Students normally will work in pairs and share data between laboratory partners, but must write up laboratory reports independently.” The guideline seems easy to understand and straightforward, but there is a grey area as well as many un-addressed issues, leaving room for misinterpretation. Some possible issues to clarify are:

  • May lab partners discuss the meaning of their data? May they interpret the data together? May they discuss their data with other students and use their interpretations?
  • If their data make no sense, can they use someone else’s or just make some up? If either is acceptable, must the change be documented and how should it be documented?
  • May partners (or other groups) plan the layout of their results together (meaning how the data will be presented)? Some students discuss in detail how to present the results, or one partner makes one copy and passes it to the next. The outcome will be identical “Results” sections in the two reports. Is that practice acceptable to you?
  • May they discuss the content and format of the report — what will be in the introduction, methods, results and discussion, what they will say in each section, how they will lay out each paragraph. What are the boundaries for this level of collaboration?
  • If one student is having trouble writing, is it acceptable for another student to give him/her a copy of his/her report as a guideline? Is it acceptable for a student to provide verbal help, such as “This is what I put in my introduction…”
  • Is it acceptable to purchase or in some other way acquire laboratory reports from previous years?

When your policy is clearly laid out, be sure that all students and TAs receive a copy. The best way to ensure distribution is to insert it in the laboratory manual.

Discuss the policy in class

A written policy is never enough, since many students will not read it. You must discuss the policy with your students, preferably during the first lecture. You should also instruct your TAs to discuss the policy during the first lab.

Your discussion should take place within the general context of ethics. Get students thinking about honesty and the importance of handing in original work. Include a discussion of scientific integrity—of the need for honesty in data acquisition and reporting and for keeping careful records. Emphasize that lab work is a crucial aspect of their scientific training.

Going over the policy in detail will help ensure that expectations are clear. Give as many examples as possible, and consider presenting the policy on an overhead for emphasis and to assist ESL students. If your TAs can assist with the presentation, that will reinforce their commitment to upholding the policy in the lab environment.

Use a Variety of Strategies to Reinforce the Policy

  • Have students sign a document at the beginning of the first lab stating that they have read and understood the policy
  • Administer an unannounced test so you are certain students understand the policy
  • Use role-playing to clarify any gray areas
    • Professor John Heddle of York University suggested using this format  to enhance the discussion of  academic integrity in his first year Biology class. This is a very effective way to get your message across, and can be fun and entertaining. For example, you might discuss acceptable practices, then do a quick skit where students discuss their data and how they plan to write their report. Then ask the class: “Did these students violate the policy? Why or why not?” This exercise can be conducted in almost any classroom—even a large lecture theatre.
  • Include a discussion of the consequences of  being charged with a breach of academic honesty
  • The week before the first laboratory reports are due, make a quick announcement in lectures,  reminding students to consult the policy as they prepare their reports
  • Be sure to provide students with a source of additional information and/or help. “If you are still unsure about the policy and have questions, consult…”.

Strategies for Decreasing Plagiarism of Lab Assignments and Reports

  • Create more lab exercises than needed for a year (for example have 15–20 for a 12 lab course) and rotate them yearly
  • For some labs, have students write up the report in class. The simplest way to do this is to have “answer sheets” that students fill in. The sheets can have the format of a formal report or may simply be questions to answer. Clearly state in your policy that students cannot use reports from previous years, and clarify how much students may collaborate with one another on this exercise. Paul Delaney [2] points out that these types of reports have the bonus of encouraging students to work hard and concentrate during the laboratory period and to always come prepared. The McGill website on plagiarism [1] adds that these less formal reports usually cut down on marking time for the TA.
  • If you use answer sheets asking specific questions, change some of the questions each year. Even small changes help.
  • Change some of the parameters in a given lab each year. Your ability to do this will vary according to the lab, but with a little thought and creativity, it should be possible. For example, if you are studying the effect of hypertonic solutions on cells one year, make it hypotonic the next year, or change the molarity of the solutions used. Even small changes will give students the sense that last year’s results are not useful.
  • For some labs, it may be possible to give each group a slightly different experiment. For example, each student could test the effects of solutions with different molarities and/or different solutes. In the case of experiments involving unknowns, give each group a different unknown. This way all results will be different, and students may even learn more by examining the data set from the entire class.
  • Include a mix of in-class and out-of-class (sometimes called informal and formal) reports. Change which labs require out-of-class or formal reports each year to decrease the use previous years’ reports. If you are incorporating new or changed labs, ensure that they require out-of-class reports.
  • For out-of-class reports, have students include a signed statement confirming that the report they are handing in has been completed within the course guidelines for academic integrity. [The McGill website [1] provides helpful suggestions for preparing this type of statement.]
  • Reduce the need to “police” by allowing collaboration between partners for some reports. [1] Obviously any intention to vary levels of collaboration from one report to the next must be accompanied by very clear guidelines.
  • Have a portion of the lab grade come from quizzes and exams.
  • Incorporate oral reporting or interviews into more lab courses [1,4]. Since oral reports require students to discuss and justify data and interpretation, they discourage dishonesty. Harris [4] suggests asking specific questions about the written work, such as ‘”What exactly do you mean here by …”’. A similar useful technique would be a post-report interview or even a written report or “metalearning essay” [4], where students are asked the following types of questions:
    • What problems did you encounter as you completed your experiments, and how did you solve them?
    • How do you feel these difficulties affected your results?
    • Were your results what you expected? Why or why not?
    • What have you learned about science and about how scientific information is gathered as the result of this work?
    • What future experiments would you perform in order to extend or improve your data?
    • What were the general conclusions you were able to draw from your data?
  • Reduce “hand-me-down” laboratory reports from previous years by collecting and destroying used lab books at the end of the year [3] and by returning reports directly to students rather than setting them outside the door where they can be stolen[1].
  • TAs are integral to ensuring that academic integrity is maintained in the lab [2]. TAs must have a strong presence in the lab, visiting each student group regularly and forging a positive relationship with each student. TAs should look at students’ data, ask if they have questions and whether they understand the data. Students who know their TA is aware of their data and progress are less likely to feel that they can “fool” the TA with a dishonest write-up. Students who respect their TA and are enjoying their lab are also less likely to want to be dishonest.

Strategies for Discouraging the Falsification of Data

  • Put less emphasis on the importance of obtaining “correct” results and more on a student’s ability to interpret and understand whatever results they obtain. Emphasize that students will not be penalized by presenting aberrant data if the data are properly reported and a careful discussion of the results is included.
  • Give marks for following procedures and carefully recording results, not just for getting “good” results.
  • Have students obtain the TA’s signature on all pages of their original lab notes and data, and submit those notes with their lab report. TAs, in turn, should keep careful records of attendance and of whose lab notes they have signed.
  • Have students write all of their observations in a hard-cover laboratory book with numbered pages. TAs can then initial the relevant pages and make note of the page numbers, in case they see something suspicious when marking. Lab books would have to be submitted with lab reports.
  • In courses where the integrity of the primary data is of great importance, lab books are available that create carbon copies of each page. The carbon copy may then be ripped out and handed to the TA before the student leaves the class.


References for lab work and academic integrity

  1. Academic Integrity at McGill University Website, “Reducing plagiarism on lab reports, assignments, and term papers.”
  2. Delaney, P. 2001. Honesty in the laboratory. In Voices From the Classroom. Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Newton, J., Ginsberg, J., Rehner, J., Rogers, P.,  Sbrizzi, S. and Spencer, J. (eds.). Toronto: Garamond Press and the Centre for the Support of Teaching, York University.
  3. Fifteenth Annual TSS Conference at University of Guelph, Ontario. 2002. “Fostering Academic Integrity” Forum #1 – Assessment Resource Material.
  4. Harris, R. 2002. “Anti-Plagiarism Strategies for Research Papers.”
  5. Turrens, J.F. and Davidson, E. “Data manipulation by undergraduates and the risk of future misconduct.”