Take credit for your work

6 05 2013

passive voice ninjaIf science is the best way to reduce subjectivity when asking a question of how something works, then an inherently essential aspect of this is getting your message across to as many people and as clearly as possible. And as CB readers will know, I’m all about ‘getting the message out’.

As such, when asked by a stranger about what I do, I often respond ‘writer’, because perhaps next to maths, I spend most of my time writing. I tend to argue that without good oral and (especially) written communication skills, even the most brilliant scientist is functionally useless to the rest of society.

So being a writer means that focussing on what some would describe as mundane – spelling, grammar, writing style and clarity – is an essential preoccupation. I’ve written about grammatical and style issues before (see here and here), and in the spirit of providing tips to young scientists out there, here’s another suggestion.

Please, please, please use your own voice.

I’m talking about that archaic style of zombie writing that has plagued scientific writing since its inception – the passive voice.

Here are a few examples:

  • passive: The analyses were conducted … ; active: We analysed
  • passive: The data were collected in accordance … ; active: We collected the data according to

Some might think the differences are somewhat irrelevant, or even that the passive voice sounds somehow more ‘sciencey’ (technical). In fact, on the popular Science Writing blog, Melody Tang states exactly this:

In science writing, we need to write form object angle to explain science to others. Passive voice is helpful in constructing objective atmosphere of articles. As a result, in some condition of science writing passive voice is undoubted much better than active voice.

To me, that justification is utter nonsense and exactly WHY you shouldn’t use the passive voice. Using meaningless or subjective words like ‘significant’ or ‘conduct’ or ‘perform’ just because they sound more technical (i.e., so people will think you’re a lot cleverer than you really are) is bullshit, and using the clumsy, archaic and longer passive voice form for the same reason is deceptive at worst, annoying and unnecessary at best. I’ve even had a collaborator state quite assuredly that “you won’t get published in a British journal if you use the active voice”. What journals would those be? I’ve never had this experience, nor have I ever been rejected by using the active voice.

These deception and clarity issues aside, I’ve never understand why a scientist, who has sweated blood and shed tears to collect, analyse and present her or his hard-earned data, would then not want to take credit for that effort? Why apply the passive voice to hide your identity? Who are these mysterious scientific automatons who collect and analyse our data for us? “The data were collected …” – please! Take credit for your work and use the active voice.

I’ll concede one exception to the near-universal need for active voice – if you use, for example, data that you did not collect, then I suppose it’s ok from time to time (i.e., infrequently) to use the passive voice. However, one could argue that you can use the active voice as long as you identify the person(s) responsible.

CJA Bradshaw


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9 05 2013
Jim Croft

But isn’t it also a matter of style and balance, appropriate to the situation? Writing to a rule often leads to awkward prose. Too much active first person singular and an egotistical git is suspected. Too much passive voice and I think, pompous prat… ;)

9 05 2013
CJAB

Not much choice there – egotistical git or pompous prat.

9 05 2013
Michael McCarthy

With a well-considered blend of writing styles, one could aim for both! ;-)

9 05 2013
Daniel Hocking

Interesting. I still struggle with this. I try to use active voice but my background is in chemical engineering. In classes we were docked a point every time we used active voice in writing. I am mentoring a student in biomedical sciences currently and he is also required to use passive voice. In ecology active voice is generally the standard but I don’t know how universal that is. I agree with Mick that active voice is more succinct, which is enough to convince me to us it, even if it occasionally gets tedious.

9 05 2013
Michael McCarthy

If convention compels a particular style, then use that style – there’s no choice. Where there is choice, write succinctly. Active voice can help us write succinctly, but we should still write with as much flair as convention, precise wording and talent permit. And we can always work to overturn convention if the alternative is better.

6 05 2013
Michael McCarthy

I fully endorse Corey’s post. Direct writing uses fewer words, is easier to read, and is less ambiguous. I have a finite life, which is wasted on reading unnecessary words – indirect writing effectively kills me.

I try to teach my students this. Those in the workforce tell me that succinct writing is valuable. You can read more here on my teaching blog, including tips and tools for improvement:

http://mickteaching.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/writing-writing-writing/

Cheers,

Mick

6 05 2013
antilopine

Great post Corey, but you’ve made a mistake in the first line of the second last paragraph. He, he. :)
Sorry for being a pedant, but I thought you’d enjoy the irony.

6 05 2013
CJAB

Bloody hell, you’re right. Thanks. Fixed.

6 05 2013
George Butel

I see nothing wrong with the passive voice, although teachers of style tell us to avoid it. We’re not talking about fiction. Could it be that many in the profession consider the first person, even the first person plural, to be too egotistical, too personal? To be saying “I” adds an egotistical tone to writing, and, if you say “we,” then you have the additional built-in awkwardness of forcing the reader to wonder just who “we” is–which “we” are you talking about, which lab assistants, which grad students, which “we” it was doing a particular part of a project. Science these days is almost always a group effort, and “we” is understood. You don’t want to say “I” anyway: you want the group to take the collective credit. To state that “we” did something could almost be construed as implying that others, some “they,” could not do that something. The passive voice is suited for science: the whole point here is that anyone can do an experiment, given the proper materials, and that’s why you’re publishing it–to give anyone the necessary data to do the same thing, not to brag that “I” did this or that “we” did that. Politicians do the same thing person-wise, except, generally, it’s to avoid blame rather than avoiding credit.

6 05 2013
CJAB

I think it’s rather clear from the author list exactly to whom ‘we’ refers. In the case of papers that I write as sole author (not many, mind you – I give authorship credit where and when’s it’s due), I still use ‘I’. My opinion is that it’s disingenuous and arrogant to use passive voice because it deliberately de-personalises the science. Credit where credit is due, and blame where blame is due.

6 05 2013
Jim Croft

Meh… one finds the first person singular tedious… ;)

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