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A quick question, which I'm asking out of curiosity rather than an actual problem.

Plagarism and how to detect/combat/punish it seems to be a common topic on this SE. When I was an undergraduate, 20 years ago, I don't remember ever plagerising a book or other student, or any of my classmates doing the same (at least not that I knew of).

However, I did a practical science in which we had 1 or 2 full-day lab workshops every week. It was very common for most of the students in these labs not to get the "expected" result, due largely to inexperience and poor technique. It was equally common for all the students to then copy, and subtly modifiy, the results of the few students who did get it to work. They would then independently use this in writing up the assignments by themselves.

Would this be considered a form of plagerism in a modern academic environment? If so, what should science students with poor practical results do to write up their assignments?

EDIT: after comments, I feel compelled to make clear these were undergraduate labs with previously verified results. We were not undermiming scientific process here.

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    This is collusion in the assessment regime. However, scientifically, this is even worse, because it creates hidden dependencies between allegedly independent measurements. For instance, Millikan measured the electrical elementary charge, and subsequent studies seemed to have been so strongly influenced by it that they only slowly drifted away from Millikan's measurement, although it was biased by a wrong model assumption. – Captain Emacs Mar 21 '16 at 17:44
  • What they're doing that's wrong is that they're falsifying data. It doesn't matter that the data are real. The data were taken by a different group, but this group is passing them off as an independent experiment, which never happened. – Ben Crowell Mar 22 '16 at 14:41
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Some universities seem to have started using the term plagiarism more broadly, to refer to almost any kind of misconduct that has something to do with sourcing. (See some of the references cited in this question for examples.) Especially in that context, copying someone else's lab results certainly might get treated as plagiarism by some schools.

But that doesn't really get to the heart of the matter; for instance, I don't see a difference between copying someone else's results and just making up numbers (say, based on calculations of what should have happened). The actual misconduct here is the fraudulent reporting.

But perhaps this is splitting hairs: this is unambiguously misconduct, it's just not clear that it's specifically plagiarism.

As for what students who get poor results should do, I think this is case where it's pretty clear that one should just ask the professor or TA. I expect the answer would usually be to write up the results as they are, with the inevitable conclusion that the data didn't match the theory. In some cases the course might have some "typical" results on file, and might ask students to write it up based on those rather than their results. (Which is almost the same as what students were doing anyway, but without the dishonesty.)

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Plagiarism is typically defined in terms of taking the work of another person and passing it off as your own (see, e.g., the Wikipedia page). It does not matter whether the material that you steal is words, data, pictures, etc.

Thus, I would classify the practice of copying lab results that you describe as plagiarism. It could also be categorized as other types of academic dishonesty as well, such as falsification of experimental results.

  • The Wikipedia link limits plagiarism to "language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions". I am not sure data/results qualify. Just because it is not plagiarism does not mean it is ethical. – StrongBad Mar 21 '16 at 17:48
  • @StrongBad If you look down below, you'll see broader definitions, including "words, ideas, or work products," which is the approximate sentiment that I hold. – jakebeal Mar 21 '16 at 17:51
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The definition of plagiarism and academic misconduct has not changed substantially over the years. In some cases there is more awareness and edge cases like self plagiarism are more well defined. Copying results has always been academic misconduct, although I am not sure that it would ever be labeled plagiarism. Modifying the results is not plagiarism, but is academic misconduct.

As for how to write up the results, it really depends on what the instructor wants. It could be the instructor wants the students to explain what went wrong, or maybe interpret the result in light of what is known. They might also want you to collect the data again, or be fine with sharing of data, or even have an example dataset that they will share.

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