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. Continue reading


Unsolicited Advice: Writing, Part 2: Sentence Faux Pas (UPDATED*)

Comrade Physioprof started to cover writing with the simple sentence, but I’m going to take this one and run with it. The sentence is the ‘grammatical unit of language’, and as C. Physioprof has already noted contains a subject and a predicate (which is a fancy pants way of saying the terms that modify the subject), starts with a capital letter and ends with a period. Usually.

Pretty simple so far, right? I feel kind of silly even explaining it, but here’s the thing. There are two ways that people commonly go wrong with this simple concept in scientific writing that I see ALL THE TIME when I’m editing. Continue reading

Descriptive Science

Yesterday I cleaned my office. I’m now totally organized (insert *big* laugh here), and bare desktop is actually visible. Today, I tackled my mailbox. I’m following the rule that I don’t clean my mailbox out but every two weeks.  I find that nothing in there is really that important anyway, if it is urgent people tend to send email… and call if totally desperate.

Anyway. I get this little magazine called ‘Microbe’ which is a publication of the American Society for Microbiology.  I usually leaf through that thing briefly when it comes- and this morning I opened one that I found during the mailbox cleaning and came across a short guest commentary entitled ‘Descriptive Science’ written by Casadevall & Fang. Because I’ve had a front row seat the the effect of the technological revolution in microbiology, and I see a bias toward studying a small handful of factors that we already know about because we can make hypotheses about them… as opposed to scratching the surface on a vast trough of new knowledge- I care quite a lot about this topic. I’ll start by quoting directly and hopefully it will become clear where I’m going with this post:

The Instructions to Authors for Infection and Immunity state that “IAI will not consider papers that are… purely descriptive.”  When applied to science, the word “descriptive’ has acquired dismissive or pejorative connotations and is frequently provided as justification for rejection of a manuscript or grant application.

Ah, yes.  That second part is a big pet peeve of mine. Continue reading

Procrastinating Grant writing with Paper writing.

I know I’m not supposed to be exhausted on a Monday- but my older daughter visited me in the night for about an hour (3-4 am, if you must know)… claiming she couldn’t sleep, and she needed company while she couldn’t sleep- so she woke me up to fulfill that role. I had a big, big coffee after lunch, but I am seriously dragging myself around still.

I had great plans to work on my grant first thing this morning, but that train got derailed by a manuscript … 600 words over the limit… which landed heavily in my Continue reading

Letter to the Editor

Just to keep you updated on the paper rejection situation that was detailed in my earlier post, and in Physioprof’s post on Drugmonkey (and then Drugmonkey had one about quality of data). I had no idea that this topic would touch off so many useful posts and informative comments on this topic.

After thinking through the reviewers’ comments and writing a point-by-point rebuttal just for myself… considering everything that had been written in those posts above and all the comments Continue reading


I’ve been dreading this. The paper was out 65 days and the perky little rejection letter from the editor came this morning, reviews attached.

Its ok, these things happen and its just a paper. I’m not really upset about it that much and will turn it over somewhere else. I think some of the reviewer’s comments are kind of odd- ‘So what does XYZ GENE encode’, and , ‘What is its role in the ABC reaction?’- and crap like that makes me wonder if I am just an awful writer and can’t get my point across, or if the reviewer needs to go back to secondary school because obviously their reading ability is an issue. And then, of course- there is the desire by reviewers to say that a study is ‘preliminary’ if they don’t see every possible experiment in a single paper- which is also frustrating (more on this below). Continue reading

Live Manuscript

As I wrote a few days ago- I submitted that paper. Its been 18 days…. nothing happens very quickly- hurry up and wait. In the online submission system – when you log in to look at the progress of your manuscript- you have got a folder there marked ‘live manuscript’… I suppose when they send it back rejected another folder appears marked ‘dead manuscript’- or ‘dead manuscript, that might be revived after a miracle’ ? Maybe I’ll have one of those in a few days.

In the meantime though- I am continuously thinking about with the next series of experiments to follow that paper, and I’m drowning in literature. Would it be too obsessive to take my laptop to the soccer games tomorrow…? (my daughter doesn’t like me yelling encouragement from the sidelines anyway)… NO WAIT, don’t answer that. I vaguely recall saying something about real life a few posts ago. Forgot to mention that there are three soccer games, and one birthday party-… which, as luck would have it, overlaps the presentation times of my two students’ talks at the meeting they are attending. I am forcing the family…. yes, including myself…. to take a break on Sunday with moratorium on obligations, appointments and work.