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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.

Creating a lab culture that emphasizes academic integrity while clearly outlining acceptable lab practices and employing strategies to help decrease academic dishonesty can begin to address these issues. Concrete suggestions for how to accomplish this include:

Many of these strategies come from the few references that address academic integrity in laboratory work. Specific references are noted in the text with numbered links to the reference page, where all references for this section are listed.