Thursday, December 07, 2006

There can always be plagiarism

This semester has not been one of my better semesters, and thus I'm ecstatic that there is only one week left. However, up until today there was one event (or, rather, lack of an event) that was making me very happy: I hadn't found a single case of plagiarism. I was, in fact, getting excited that I might break my streak of finding a case of plagiarism every semester that I've taught.

But today, while grading some lab reports, I found my first case of plagiarism. The lab reports were written in the style of a journal article (the usual abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and literature cited sections), and were based on a multi-week experiment that the students had designed and conducted themselves. The students had come up with their own questions, designed their own protocols, collected their own data, and done all the data analysis (including statistical analyses) themselves. This has to be one of the least plagiarism-prone assignments possible, as the paper consists of the students discussing, presenting, and analyzing their unique data.

But, this student managed to find a way to plagiarize. Specifically, a portion of the introduction had been copied verbatim from a published journal article, and a large fraction of the discussion was taken from another journal article's discussion (with the treatment names and organism names changed to match the student's experiment)1. While I identified the portion of the introduction that was plagiarized while reading the paper, I didn't catch the plagiarism in the discussion until I'd scanned it with (a competitor of

So, let this be an example that students can, and will, plagiarize just about any assignment, even if that assignment is intended to be based solely on their own work2.

Constant vigilance!

1 For those who remember my variability in plagiarism post, I'd say this student's plagiarism falls into category 2D.
2 And if you think that students aren't plagiarizing in your class, go take a peek at the data I cite at the beginning of this post.

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