Unsolicited Advice: Writing, part III – Passive vs. Active

I’ve been wanting to write a post about use of the passive voice in scientific paper writing. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in between learning to navigate facebook, welcoming my parent’s-in-law for an extended visit (halleluja!!!), planning and executing a birthday party for my now 11 year old, and picking up some evil cold somewhere (kids?)- even if I haven’t been writing about it yet. And after my last post about common (not having all the parts, and having too many parts) sentence mistakes, I’m reading my own sentences a little more carefully. I’m afraid the grammar police are going to swoop down on this blog with their evil red pen, and well while that’s necessary in paper writing it would just take all the fun out of blogging. So- I’m warning y’all – this is my blog and I’ll write what I want to how I want to… even while extolling virtuous scientific writing.

Anyway. (See, lots of broken rules there.. no subject and no verb between the capital and the period, nah na na nah na)

So, what’s the passive voice? The passive voice is when whoever is doing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Uh, er ok. See, kinda like this:

XYZ technology has been used to uncover active promoters and has been applied to my favorite organism (MFO) infections of Kangaroos.

In this sentence (which, more or less appeared in that review article I sweated over during the holidays) the subject isn’t easy to pick out.  You can recognize these passive constructions easily by looking for two things: 1.  Forms of the verb ‘to be’ (is, are, am , was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being)  usually 2) followed by a verb ending in -ed, called the past participle (sometimes though it doesn’t end in ed, so be forewarned). I’m sure you all recognize this because it appears extremely frequently in scientific writing.

What’s the alternative? Why- the active voice, of course! Ya ya ya, I know- that’s a fragment,… but it’s my blog and I’ll write like I want to, write like I want to write like I want to…(examples of converting passive to active)

We used XYZ technology to uncover active promoters of MFO during infection of Kangaroos.

or

XYZ technology uncovered active promoters of MFO during infection of Kangaroos.

In this active construction the subject and the actor are one, and they are right up front in the sentence. There is no mistaking that ‘we’ (the subject) are using XYZ technology to do the action in the first iteration… and that XYZ technology is the subject in the second iteration.

I didn’t take a formal course in scientific or technical writing, which, from what little I have read and heard teach that using the passive voice is proper in scientific writing. Use of the passive voice supposedly adds objectivity, rigor, and the forced use of ‘disciplined writing’ (see #2 letter by Simon Leather in the link).  I learned paper writing on the job from my various mentors, and I guess I get annoyed with papers that use the passive voice excessively.  I know that XYZ technique didn’t perform itself- and so it seems a little silly, formal, and unnecessarily indirect to ALWAYS leave out the folks doing the action. I personally think that using the active voice makes writing more direct and stronger, and I appreciate directness. So, I myself err on the side of the active voice.  I do recognize however, that writing everything in the active voice also might not strike the right balance at times in scientific writing. It would sound a little odd to have materials and methods sections written completely in the active voice….

We used kanamycin at a final concentration of 123 units in LB plates.

as opposed to…

Kanamycin was used at a final concentration of 123 units in LB plates where appropriate.

See what I mean…

I’m sure there is going to be a comment storm now, so let me know what you all think… are ya active voice, … passive voice.. a little of both… and if you use a little of both… do you do this by section?  Is the passive voice more appropriate in the materials and methods than in the results section… how do you balance these?

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25 thoughts on “Unsolicited Advice: Writing, part III – Passive vs. Active

  1. I try to use active voice where it isn’t awkward; otherwise I use passive. There has been a real move away from all passive voice, at least in my field, and a greater acceptance of using first-person pronouns. So I mix it up, and not by section.

    That said, I would consider your second active-voice suggestion (“XYZ technology uncovered active promoters of MFO during infection of Kangaroos”) to be stylistically undesirable. XYZ technology has no agency to uncover things itself, so it shouldn’t be a subject. Once in a while I’ll let myself get away with this because all the other constructions I can come up with are far more awkward, but otherwise I try to avoid it.

    I wasn’t in on the last comment storm, but I did read your post… If no one else said so, I wasn’t sure I agreed with your definition of what constitutes a run-on sentence. A million clauses is stylistically terrible writing, but it’s not technically a run-on, if I’m not mistaken. Instead, this sentence I’m writing here is a run-on, it has two main clauses that aren’t joined with a conjunctive.

    I’m enjoying these posts. I need to teach scientific writing to advanced undergrads this semester, and I’m trying to come up with good activities and lessons to do so. It’s hard!

  2. I use both, but if I’m not conscious about it, I have to admit that I use the passive excessively. I think the passive, when used sparingly, adds readability to background and discussion, but rarely has a place in the results section.

    Sometimes I just don’t think it matters which is used:

    “Preclinical data has indicated…”

    “Preclinical data indicates…”

    I’m not a big fan of writing “rules” just because there are too many exceptions for specific circumstances. The goal should always be to produce a readable and interesting document, not merely to write a discussion entirely in the active voice. But, as a generalization, I agree that less passive is better.

  3. Volcanista- No, lots of people said that I couldn’t write a proper run- on. I’m actually ok with that. But it did suck as a run-on example!

    Second- as for my second active voice suggestion- I myself prefer the first example, for the exact reasons you state. XYZ technology doesn’t do anything itself. But I do see how too many uses of the word ‘we’ can become tiresome.

  4. Matthew- I don’t like the first ‘preclinical data has indicated’ – I just think the had is unnecessary- so why crowd it up with that?

    And as for facebook- the jury is still out…. but you did warn me…. sigh…

  5. Now that I had to think about it, I think it would be very difficult to write a background/introduction section without using the passive, especially when word counts are limited. I try to use active in the results and discussion, but if I don’t pay attention I slip into passive and have to edit everything.

  6. When I first headed over to the UK for my PhD, I would always have red pen ALL over everything I wrote, from my advisor changing all my American active voice into British passive voice.

    When I first got back to the USA for my postdoc, I would always have red pen all over everything from my advisors changing all my British passive voice back into American active voice.

    In the UK, all formal writing is done in the passive voice. It’s, like, IMPROPER to be active voiced. My British husband always gets all squirmy helping edit my grants and papers, because it is really hard for him to accept the active voicedness of my current writing style.

  7. Arlenna, that’s really funny. My thesis adviser was British and would often criticize my “typically American” use of passive voice. His explanation was that passive sounds “colloquial.” I was never really convinced that either way was tellingly American or British.

  8. I tend to favor the active voice. Papers from my lab contain “we {verb} blah, blah” constructions a lot. Another interesting topic to address is the use of tense in scientific papers. I have very strong opinions about this, but I will let DrDrA hit the topic before I opine.

  9. C PP- I favore the ‘we (verb) bla bla bla’ as well. Big time. Not everyone loves that though. We’ll get around to tense- but if you can’t wait just get on it! I’m buried under NIH update, reviewing paper, editing own review, submitting one in revision… and keeping student in line for second one in revision… so tense is on the back burner for a little bit!

    And FYI- I am totally and completely jealous of any inaugural events you and Mrs. Physioprof may be attending. Have a Jameson for me?

  10. I favor the active voice now, it was drummed into me during grad school. I started as a primarily passive voice writer.

    I recently received a review (from a former advisor, i.e. pre-graduate school mentor) that cautioned using too much active voice as they thought it sounded too egotistical. I can assure you that I was not claiming that “we” discovered the world, or the internet or anything like that.

    I asked other colleagues for their opinion on this (and had them read the same paper) and was basically told to ignore that piece of advice.

  11. My field’s publications are nearly always and completely in passive voice. It makes for dull reading. I would really like to write a paper that at least has people doing something rather than everything magically happening by itself.

  12. The non-fiction writing guides out there seem to universally recommend active voice wherever reasonable, Strunk & White included. Their consensus is that active voice promotes clarity, which is a high goal in all technical writing.

    There is a tradition in science that passive constructions are considered more formal. What this is really about is the nature of truth and knowing. Passive constructions became en vogue at a time when the culture of science was keen on the idea of “absolute objectivity.” Modern scientists are much more likely embrace the idea that science is constructed by people, and that scientific truth reflects the biases of those people. Thus, we see a re-introduction of the actor into scientific writing.

    Personally, I think passive constructions remain popular mostly because sometimes the active voice takes a lot of courage. It can be easier to be vague.

  13. I think too much of either active or passive voice can be repetitive. I prefer active voice on the whole, but agree with Matthew that the goal is to produce a document that is clear and enjoyable to read. In the past, I’ve attended a few workshops given by scientific editors; in general, they suggest using active voice.

    OK, DrdrA, now that you have laid down the writing gauntlet, you are getting my next manuscript draft to red ink!

  14. Bugdoc- I’m all about the red pen. I was recently told that we are not supposed to use red pen on the students writing anymore because it’s too ‘aggressive’… huh???

    Yolio- I quite agree. I think that active voice takes more guts as well.

  15. If I may get out my psychologically-damaging red pen…. Preclinical data *has* indicated? Ouch.

    I agree that the use of the first person somehow seems more daring especially when it is first person singular. I did see a paper not too long ago that had only one author but used first person plural: we did this, we did that, we interpret the results…. Hilarious. Are we schizophrenic, perhaps? Or are we simply insecure?

    I would love to see a post on tense. I always struggle with it.

  16. Okay, maybe a somewhat digressive comment, though I haven’t read anything about the issue here yet, but here it is: passive voice at least avoids inconvenience about using “we” when it is actually “I” (or possibly the reverse).

    What are you thinking about using “I” in scientific papers? So many people think so much differently about this…

  17. Oh oh anonymous and assedsaside, that’s a really good point. “We” is clearly incorrect for a single-authored paper, but “I” just sounds sooooo arrogant. In those cases I would use much more passive. I had a really hard time making myself use “I” in my dissertation.

  18. Hum, I grew up at a place where “we” would outfit an “I” whatever the point. Found out this is mostly true for science too. Can’t really decide what to do about it…

  19. I (yes, I) had never thought about “I” as arrogant, though I can see the point now, especially if other people helped with the work but for whatever reason don’t have authorship. I’m uncomfortable using “I” because I cringe at sticking my neck out in print — NOT a good reason. I wish I would be as comfortable with “I” as “we.”

  20. Late to this party, but:

    (a) Matthew’s example of “Preclinical data has indicated…” vs. “Preclinical data indicates…” is a nice example of the present vs. the past tense (aside from the number disagreement that someone else pointed out), but has nothing to do with the active v passive.

    (b) My grad advisor was vehement in objection to overuse of “we” (where overuse was construed as anything over, say, one use per paragraph), but also preferred active voice. Sentences in our papers were constructed so as to achieve these aims: “Neither kangaroos nor bunnies hop in the same manner as frogs (Fig. 2A).”

    (c) Also looking forward to essays on tense. Tense is what it makes me, that’s for sure.

  21. Active voice is used in the papers published from my lab. The passive voice is general awkward to use in the results section as it in not as clear and direct (as you stated). I am not sure where this “convention” to use the passive voice came from, but Watson and Crick’s most famous paper contains the active voice “We believe that the material which gives the X-ray diagrams is the salt, not the free acid.” and if its good enough for them in 1953 its good enough for me. (Full disclosure, I am aware that they also used the passive voice in that paper.) One thing I have found at my institution is that the scientific writing center for undergraduates “helps” students on their papers by teaching them to write in the passive voice. It is most noteworthy that this center is run primarily by non-scientists. Maybe this is why everyone (myself included) grew up thinking it was the passive way or the highway, non-professionals teach us what they learned from books written by non-professionals.

  22. Lorax- My graduate student took a course in scientific and technical writing as an undergraduate and was told to ALWAYS use the passive voice in this type of writing. I’m trying to undo the damage.

  23. drdrA, please feel free to borrow my wall to bang your head up against while you take on that project. Also, I apologize about the blood splatters, consider it the wounds of two graduate students and a phalanx of undergraduates.

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