Prevent Plagiarism on Reports

The following steps may help reduce plagiarism on lab reports and assignments. The first suggestion is a minimal step that should be taken for every course. TAs should note especially the suggestions followed by (TA).

  • Draw your students' attention to the relevant parts of the Handbook on Student Rights and Responsibilities (Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures). There is less academic dishonesty in institutions in which students are aware of official policies. (TA)
  • Explain to your students what plagiarism is. This is important for at least two reasons: It removes ambiguity (e.g., what constitutes appropriate citations or what level of collaboration is allowed). It also reinforces that you and the University care about academic integrity. Note that students often collaborate on lab reports and assignments, whether or not we encourage them to do so. Indeed, many students have educational backgrounds in which collaborative learning and joint effort were the rule. Therefore, the level of acceptable collaboration should be specified, preferably in writing on course descriptions and on instructions for assignments and lab reports. (TA)
  • Students can be reminded of the importance of honest work, and to aid in this, an academic integrity statement may be included in the assessment. Students can be required to acknowledge that they have read the statement.
  • Where possible, change labs and assignments from year to year, so students cannot simply copy from previous students' work.
  • Students in different tutorials or lab sections may submit identical work because they assume, perhaps correctly, that there is very little chance that the TAs will compare the submissions. Therefore, the assignments and labs given to different sections should be as different as possible. (TA)
  • Carefully determine an appropriate mark value for lab reports and assignments. Be aware that students may be less likely to plagiarize if making mistakes does not substantially affect their grades, but that they may be tempted to plagiarize on tasks worth very few marks, because students may not consider them worth their time. Therefore, reinforce the educational benefit to students of doing assignments and lab reports on their own.
  • Replace lab reports with questions that have to be answered in preparation for the lab. At the beginning of the lab, give a short, invigilated quiz to ensure that students come prepared.
  • Replace lab reports and assignments with tests or exams, which can be properly invigilated. Alternatively, computer-based tests can be tailored to each student for labs or for assignment problems -- e.g.
  • Replace traditional lab reports with questions or problems based on the lab that students have to answer before leaving the laboratory. Alternatively, require a minimal lab report (e.g., one page in point form), which can be used to ensure that students grasp the key issues.
  • Replace written lab reports with oral presentations to the instructor or to the whole class. If class presentations are used, students' participation in the discussion can be graded. Requiring students to answer questions during or after the presentation makes it possible to assess the depth of their knowledge.
  • Require students to complete lab reports during the lab. Although this may increase the stress during the lab session, students would have less work to complete at home. The work required to write up a lab in class can be reduced in a number of ways. Rather than write up all sections of the report for every lab, students can be required to write different sections (e.g., background, method, results, and conclusion) for different labs. The specific section to be written up by each student can be announced at the last minute, so students will be encouraged to prepare thoroughly. In addition, different members of each lab team can be required to write each section, and the sections can be rotated from week to week, so all team members gain experience writing each section.
  • If students work in pairs (e.g., as lab partners), requiring them each to submit a report or problem set may actually "force" them to plagiarize. Therefore, give them the option of submitting a joint report or assignment and receiving one grade. Another possibility is to require both partners to participate in all labs, but to have the partners take turns writing them up; in this case, students can receive credit for their own submissions. Alternatively, require some labs to be done in pairs and some to be done individually.
  • Assignments may provide students with practice doing problems, and students might not do problem sets if they were not graded. However, copied assignments do not provide any practice. Therefore, consider having midterms to induce students to practice on sample questions or on previous tests made available to the whole class.
  • If you discover plagiarism, report the incident to the disciplinary officer in the student's faculty, usually the Associate Dean (Student Affairs). (If you are a TA, you should report the incident to the course instructor, who has the responsibility to report it to the disciplinary officer.) It is helpful to submit a copy of the description of the lab requirements or assignment that students received as well as copies of the student's work and the source material, with plagiarized passages highlighted. (TA)
  • Assignments and lab reports should either be returned directly to students in class or be made available so students can pick them up from the instructor, a TA, or a secretary. They should not be returned via a "box in the hall," which is contrary to University regulations concerning confidentiality of students' IDs and grades and which can create serious problems regarding plagiarism, because students may copy "A" work to be used in the course the following year. (TA)

Students may be pressured into plagiarizing lab reports and assignments because of the sheer volume of work, especially during their first year, when they are faced with additional difficulties associated with adapting to university. Such pressure does not excuse plagiarism, but it may help explain it. Interestingly, some of the suggestions for preventing plagiarism would reduce the amount of work in labs, perhaps thereby providing an added benefit of reducing students' time pressure.

Although some of these suggestions might entail extra effort for instructors, some would reduce the difficulty and amount of grading. In addition, there are likely other, easy-to-implement strategies that would reduce plagiarism and thereby advance academic integrity at McGill. If we all take appropriate steps in our own courses, then students will understand that the University is serious about this issue.

See also Anti-Plagiarism Strategies for Research Papers
(Robert Harris).

Fostering Academic Integrity in Science Laboratories
(York University).

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