Today I am pondering the use of the passive and active in scientific writing. I’ve seen the first person being used more frequently in journals–mainly in method sections–and the collegial “we” has become much less passive and directly related to hypotheses.

Personally I approve. I see the need for the science to stand separate from the author(s)’ editorial voice. But I think it is beneficial to the comprehension of (a) the prose, and (b) the scientific process, if the author(s)’ procedural voice is immediate and active.

Found a link to these three letters on the topic which appeared in Nature about ten years ago. The first and third articulate pretty much what I think. The second is so bafflingly offended I have to laugh. I’m also confused by the thought that we scientists are so easily swayed by a few pronouns that we mistakenly over-invest ourselves into the work. Um, what?

A more technical and high-level examination of writing scientifically: tailoring what you say and how you say it to the readers’ expectations.

One Comment

  • I absolutely agree that there is a paronoid fear of pronouns amongst reviewers (I’ve worked in the US Geological Survey report process for years). One editor put it very well, saying that on the one hand, reviewers call for clear and concise writing, but on the other hand, they insist on stilted passive voice where use of pronouns makes the passage much clearer.

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