As a scientist, you have a lot on your plate when it comes to writing. Above all, you have to clearly and concisely summarize your methods, results, and discussion. You have complex ideas to convey and detailed descriptions to effectively communicate to your reader. You are probably not focused on whether you are using active or passive voice. In fact, you may not even think about what voice you are using. Passive voice has long been accepted in the sciences and still is in some circles—passive voice is the best method to convey certain ideas. But more and more often, editors, journals, and scientists are accepting—even encouraging—the use of active voice.
If you are using the active voice, your subject is doing the action.
I analyzed the results.
If you are using the passive voice, the subject is being acted upon. Notice in the following example that who did the action is not clear.
The results were analyzed.
Passive constructions stress the action itself, not who performed it, and is useful when the “who” is not a critical component of the sentence. For example, it makes more sense to say, “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962” (passive) rather than, “Houghton Mifflin published Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962” (active). In this case, the emphasis is on when the book was published, rather than who published it.
Many scientists, however, use the passive voice too often in an attempt to make their writing sound more objective and detached. It is common to read papers filled with phrases such as, “the test tubes were filled.” But readers know that test tubes don’t fill themselves; someone must have filled them. The passive voice slows your reader down as she figures out who did the action.
Recently, scientists and journal editors have been encouraging smart and appropriate use of the active voice in scientific writing. Ann M. Penrose and Steven B. Katz note in Writing in the Sciences (2004) that, “although the ‘scientific passive’ has a long and venerable tradition, it is often easier and more direct to write in active voice, which is the mode preferred by many journal editors in the interests of brevity and clarity.” Biologist Ivan Valiela echoes similar concerns in the book Doing Science (2001), noting that passive voice has its appropriate uses, “but is overused in much scientific writing.” Many journals, such as Science, suggest using the active voice in their submission guidelines.
To fix many passive constructions, simply identify the person who did the action. In our test tube example, you would write, “I filled the test tubes.” Although we were all taught to avoid first person is most prose, especially scientific writing, the more accepted use of active voice has been accompanied by acceptance of personal pronouns to a limited extent. Don’t overwhelm your paper with “I”s and “we”s, but use them with the active voice when it makes your writing more clear and precise.
Science is exciting! Don’t bore your audience with obtuse, ambiguous, and detached language. Use the passive voice when appropriate, but we encourage you to switch your writing to the active voice and be precise. The older notion of science happening in a vacuum has been updated to acknowledge the role that humans play. Science writing should reflect that change as well.
Valiela, I. 2001. Doing Science: Design, Analysis, and Communication of Scientific Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Penrose, A.M. and S.B. Katz. 2004. Writing in the Sciences: Exploring Conventions of Scientific Discourse, 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Longman. Council of Science Editors. 2006. Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers, 7th ed. Reston (VA): The Council.