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Fostering Academic Integrity in Science Laboratories
Paula Wilson, Department of Biology, Faculty of Pure and Applied Science
Volume 12 Number 2 (January 2003)

The following is excerpted from a longer article that is posted on York's academic Integrity website < www.yorku.ca/academicintegrity/sciencelabsabs.htm>. The full article not only offers strategies to reduce academic dishonesty in the laboratories, but it also outlines how one might develop guidelines for students on acceptable practices for research, collaboration and reporting, and how to detect and deal with breaches of academic honesty in this setting.

Fostering academic integrity within any course should include strategies to avoid or reduce academic dishonesty, together with strategies for detecting dishonesty and procedures for dealing with it. Below are a number of practical strategies to help reduce plagiarism and data falsification in undergraduate science laboratories. It is expected that not all strategies will work for all courses and subject areas, but rather it is hoped that all instructors will find at least some of the strategies helpful in designing or improving their particular courses.

Approaches to Avoiding Problems inside the Laboratory

  1. If possible, have more laboratory exercises than needed for one year (for example have 15–20 for a 12 laboratory course) and rotate them from year to year.
  2. For some laboratories, have students write up the report in class. The simplest way to use this approach is to have "answer sheets" the student fill in. The sheets can have the general format of a formal report but provide more structure, or they can simply be questions to answer, or tables to complete. If you use this approach each year, be clear in your "policy" to state that students cannot bring reports from previous years to class and state clearly to what degree students may collaborate with one another during this type of exercise.

    Note: 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.

  3. If you are using answer sheets that ask students to answer specific questions, change some of the questions from year to year. Even small changes are helpful.
  4. Within a given laboratory, change some of the parameters from year to year. How easy it is to do so will vary with the laboratory or with the level of the course, but with a little thought and creativity, it should be possible for at least some laboratories. 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 being used. Even small changes can give students the sense that last year's results are not going to be useful this year.
  5. For some laboratories, it may be possible to give each group a slightly different experiment. Using the example in 4. above, each student could be testing the effects of solutions with different molarities and/or different solutes. In the case of experiments involving unknowns, give each group a different unknown. In this way all results have the potential to be different, and students may actually learn more by examining the data set from the entire class.
  6. A nice approach for courses with 12 different laboratories is to have a mix of in-class and out-of-class (sometimes called informal and formal) reports. In such cases you can change which laboratories require out-of-class or formal reports each year in order to decrease the use of reports from previous years. If you are incorporating new or changed laboratories, make sure they are the ones that require the out-of-class report.
  7. For reports that are completed outside of class time, you might have students sign and include a statement claiming 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.]
  8. Reduce the need to "policy" collaboration by allowing collaboration between partners for some or all reports. [1] Obviously any intention to vary levels of collaboration from one report to the next must be accompanied by very clear guidelines.
  9. Have a portion of the laboratory grade come from laboratory quizzes and exams, written in a non-collaborative setting.
  10. Oral reports and presentations are common in smaller more specialized laboratory courses where larger projects are undertaken that require several laboratory periods or even the entire course to complete. A thesis course is an obvious example. However, it might be possible to incorporate oral reporting or interviews into more laboratory courses [1,4]. An oral report would require the student to discuss and justify his/her data and interpretation, making it more difficult to hide 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 "meta-learning essay" 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?
  11. Reduce "hand-me-down" laboratory reports from previous years by collecting and destroying used laboratory books at the end of the year [3] and by returning reports directly to students in the laboratory rather than setting them outside someone's door and therefore open to theft [1].
  12. Paul Delaney [2] emphasizes the important role of the TA in any effort to ensure that academic integrity is maintained in the laboratory. TAs must have a strong presence in the undergraduate laboratory, visiting each student group regularly, interacting with them and forging a positive relationship with each student. They should be looking at their data, asking students if they have any questions, if they understand the data that they are gathering. Students who know that their TA is aware of their data and their progress are less likely to feel that they can successfully "fool" the TA with a dishonest write-up. Students who respect their TA and are enjoying their laboratory experience are also less likely to want to try.

Suggestions to Decrease Falsification of Data:

  1. Put less emphasis on the importance of obtaining expected or "correct" and more emphasis on a student's liability 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 if they include a careful discussion about why the results may be aberrant/abnormal. Reflect this change in the marking scheme and make it available to students.
  2. Give marks for good laboratory practice, for following procedures and carefully recording results, not just for getting "good" results.
  3. Have a policy that requires students to obtain the TA's signature on all pages of their original laboratory notes and data, and to submit those notes with their laboratory report. TAs, in turn, should keep careful records of attendance and of whose laboratory notes they have signed, in order to prevent forgeries or other problems.
  4. Have students write all of their original laboratory observations in a hard-cover laboratory book with numbered pages. TAs can then initial the relevant pages and make note of the page numbers for each student, in case they see something suspicious when marking. Laboratory books would have to be submitted with laboratory reports.
  5. In courses where the integrity of the primary data is of great importance, laboratory 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

  1. Academic integrity at McGill university Website. Reducing plagiarism on lab reports, assignments, and term papers. < www.mcgill.ca/integrity/strategies/reports >
  2. Delaney, P. 2001. "Honesty in the laboratory " 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" #1 – Assessment Resource Material.
  4. Harris, R. 2002. Anti-Plagiarism Strategies for Research Papers. Virtual Salt. < www.virtualsalt.com/antiplag.htm>
  5. Turrens, J.F. and Davidson, E. Data manipulation by undergraduates and the risk of future misconduct. < www.cur.org/conferences/responsibility/ab_datamanipulation.htm>