The Perils of Plagiarism -or- How NOT to Write a Lab Report

By E. R. Greenman

I've assigned many lab reports over the years. With increasing frequency, I've both dreaded and tried to avoid grading them by being a horrible procrastinator. Eventually though, I do read them, and hope here to give some advice regarding writing lab reports to the student studying science.

First, students must try to understand that teachers don't assign work on a whimsy. At least I don't. The teacher hopes that by seeing examples and practicing that the student improves. This is evidence the teacher cares about the student's future. If that weren't the case, all students would pass, and no homework or other projects would be required--the student could just float along without learning anything. And that is what school should be about: learning. A lab report should show that the student has learned about the topic, has observed phenomena related to the topic, has collected data, and has the ability to see trends or patterns in the data and interpret them. That isn't just a science skill, that's a life skill. It is also essential to science, which after all, is the observation and interpretation of the natural world.

Second, do not assume that your science teacher is assigning the same paper your English teacher is. Science teachers do not ask for your opinion about why Poe wrote The Raven, for example. And do not insult science by claiming your opinion in an English paper (or any other liberal arts class) is a hypothesis. Your opinion about Poe's motives is just that. It is not testable, it is not repeatable, it is not science. Your lab report needs to include information that you know about the topic, a specific recounting of the methods you used to investigate the phenomenon, the data you gathered as you did the activity, and an analysis of the patterns or trends that your data show. Your conclusion should compare your analysis with what you already know (or others have observed) about that topic. If you are given a rubric and/or checklist of things that need to be in the report, use it!

Third, do not expect or rely on others to write your report for you. No matter how experienced online sellers of papers (the devil's disciples?) claim to be, they didn't do the lab you did. YOU need to recount what YOU observed. This will save you from submitting things like, "Of all my internal medicine rotations, cardiology was by far the most professionally satisfying. I have always believed in taking an interactive role with the patients and their families, and have been pleased to hear from my patients that I have an excellent bedside manner. Before I received the offer to work in the cardiology department of Cairo University..," in the conclusion section of a High School chemistry lab report about paper chromatography using black ink pens. Or maybe it won't, but regardless, you are doing yourself a disservice, you are doing your fellow students, who wrote their own report, no matter how well or poorly, and your teacher a disservice. Cheaters may think they win, but in my opinion, they simply are saying they are too weak to participate in the activity. They are losers.

Finally, I hope that students begin to accept that even if they start out not doing something well, they can and will improve if they put effort into the work. No one is born knowing how to tie shoelaces, but eventually most learn. It is this way with most things. Do not expect to excel in everything--use everything as a step to doing better in the future. If a person claims they don't need to know this or that, all they are doing is limiting what they might be able to do later. It is for this reason that teachers persist in giving assignments, in expecting work to be turned in (on time and with best effort) and in hoping that students will prosper in the future.

Background is from GRSites

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