If 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 understood 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.