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Plagiarism or not? investigation of Turnitin®‐detected similarity hits in biology laboratory reports

Published Web Location Commons 'BY-NC' version 4.0 license

In undergraduate biology laboratory courses, laboratory reports can be a useful tool for teaching scientific writing, integration of source material, and information literacy; however, these teaching objectives are at times undermined by students' plagiarism. Laboratory instructors often use similarity-matching software to detect plagiarism in laboratory reports, yet similarity hits detected with such software remain poorly characterized. In the upper division molecular biology laboratory course described here, Turnitin® routinely detected dozens of similarity hits in laboratory reports. To determine whether this abundance of similarity hits was indicative of widespread plagiarism, we analyzed similarity hits detected in 255 laboratory reports written by 135 students. Only a small minority of Turnitin® similarity matches were problematic, but over half of the laboratory reports contained at least one problem with incorporation of scientific sources (e.g., laboratory manual and scientific articles). We identified four common types of such writing problems: patchwriting, technical parroting, copying, and falsification of sources. In 18% of the laboratory reports, we detected an alarmingly superficial use of primary literature. Most of the source incorporation problems did not rise to the level of plagiarism. As a result of this study, we recommend changes in scientific writing instruction and a transition to laboratories providing more authentic research experiences. © 2019 International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 47(4):370-379, 2019.

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