During the 20th century, researchers focused on writing objectively by describing their actions in the passive voice. Nature 1996: “Using the passive voice in scientific writing allows the researcher to stand at a distance from his or her work. By standing at a distance, an unbiased viewpoint is much more likely to be reached.”.
However, passive voice lends an impersonal tone, which is perceived to be formal, but can make the text wordy and difficult to understand ❌, and it weakens the story 😩
We now know that objectivity comes from how you analyse and present your data, not from how you write about them. Current Nature guidelines: “Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice (‘we performed the experiment…’) as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly.”.
Active voice is more than just clearer ✔: it is vigorous, it gives you persuasive power in fewer words than passive voice 😃
Passive: Measurements of reaction products were performed by mass spectrometer.
➥ Active: We measured reaction products using a mass spectrometer.
Finally, passive voice can be a helpful tool for developing a good story, and should be chose in specific situations:
1. The doer is not known or not important
2. The action or its recipient is the main topic
This material is based on the following resources with some additions and modifications from Gavin Lucas and Valeria Di Giacomo.
- Gopen GD, Swan JA, 1990. The science of scientific writing. Am Scientist.
Keep following us for more tips!