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I've had some discussions in the past with TA's who would tell my undergrads "Lab reports are written in the passive voice".

Aside from whether or not this is correct (let's come back to that in a bit), where does this come from? Some guidelines I've found that insist on the passive voice (e.g., http://guides.lib.purdue.edu/content.php?pid=232776&sid=1925925) claim that this is done to de-emphasize the role of the investigator, and thus provides a tone of objectivity.

Such arguments never seem to have attribution. Is this a commonly accepted reason, or simply a rationalization?

In effort to prevent this from becoming an opinion-based argument, can anyone point me to a major scientific journal's style sheet or instructions to authors that specifies passive voice for scientific communication? I've published in a number of them, and never came across such an instruction.

As to whether passive voice is correct in this context, I'm thinking of telling my students that there has been a historical tendency to use passive voice for scientific communication, but there seem to be recent trends promoting active voice. I'll point them to examples of both (the previous link and http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/scientific-reports/ for the counter-example), and tell them that I'll accept either style (It will alleviate boredom during grading, if nothing else). Does that sound like an acceptable approach?

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  • A lot depends on the field. In some lab science traditions, there is a set format for papers. The experimental equipment, for instance, is described in the past passive, unless it still exists, in which case the present passive is used. Similarly, there are formats for the prior work section, the results section, and the conclusions section, among others. Some are active, some passive, some impersonal, some involve the experimenter as agent, etc. If there isn't a style sheet published by the national society, get some linguistic grad students to analyze some representative papers for you. Jul 23, 2014 at 19:42
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    Looking a bit deeper, "Writing Scientific Research Articles, Strategy and Steps", by Margaret Cargill points out that Methods sections would look very repetitive if passive voice were never used -- "We did this. We did that. Lastly, we did that other thing." That seems like as valid a point as any. Jul 23, 2014 at 19:59
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    On the other hand, consistently using passive voice can produce a similar tone of tedious repetition: "This was done. That was done. Lastly that other thing was done."
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 23, 2014 at 20:10
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    See academia.stackexchange.com/questions/11659/…
    – user16723
    Jul 23, 2014 at 22:58
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    If we go back to Sir Isaac Newton's Opticks (1704), it definitely uses first person. I took a black oblong stiff Paper terminated by Parallel Sides, and with a Perpendicular right Line drawn cross from one Side to the other, distinguished it into two equal Parts. One of these parts I painted with a red colour and the other with a blue. The Paper was very black, and the Colours intense and thickly laid on, that the Phænomenon might be more conspicuous ... Sep 25, 2016 at 4:08

3 Answers 3

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The OP asks: In effort to prevent this from becoming an opinion-based argument, can anyone point me to a major scientific journal's style sheet or instructions to authors that specifies passive voice for scientific communication?

Passive Voice or Active Voice Use the active voice except where you have a good reason to use the passive. The active voice is the natural voice, the one in which people usually speak and write, and its use is less likely to lead to wordiness and ambiguity. Avoid the "passive of modesty," a device of writers who shun the first-person singular. "I discovered" is shorter and less likely to be ambiguous than "it was discovered." When you write "experiments were conducted," the reader cannot tell whether you or some other scientist conducted them. If you write "I" or "we" ("we" for two or more authors, never as a substitute for "I"), you avoid dangling participles, common in sentences written in the third-person pasive voice ... Although frequently misused and abused, the passive voice has proper uses in scientific writing. It may serve when the agent of action (the discoverer and the publisher in the examples below) is irrelevant in the context.

Penicillin was discovered in 1929.
Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859.

The passive voice can be used to emphasize something or someone other than the agent. Whether your write "antibiotics are produced by fungi" or "fungi produce antibiotics" may depend upon whether you with to emphasize antibiotics or the agent, fungi. Council of Biology Editors Style Manual: A Guide for Authors, Editors, and Publishers in the Biological Sciences, Fourth Edition (1978), p.21


The ACS [American Chemical Society] Style Guide: A Manual for Authors and Editors (1986) discusses verb tense, but does not distinguish active and passive voices. Nonetheless, the authors' use of the passive voice is pervasive in the model sentences offered, especially those typical of the "Experimental Section" or "Materials and Methods" section of papers.

Some bullet points under Writing Style (p.2):

• Use the active voice whenever possible. It is usually less wordy and unambiguous:

Poor
The fact that such processes are under strict stereoelectronic control is demonstrated by our work in this area.

Better
Our work in this area demonstrates that such processes are under strict stereo electronic control.
...
• First person is perfectly acceptable where it helps keep your meaning clear:

Jones reported xyz, but we found... Our recent work demonstrated... For these reasons, we began a study of...

However, phrases like "we believe", "we feel", "we concluded", and "we can see" are unnecessary, as are personal opinions.

• Try not to shift verb tenses within the same paragraph and section. However, the tense should change from section to section. Present and past tenses are correct in the introduction: "Absolute rate constants for a wide variety of reactions are available. Jones reviewed the literature and gather much of this information. Simple past tense is correct for describing your procedures: "The solutions were heated to boiling", "the spectra were recorded". Then use present tense to discuss your results and conclusions.

As SS pointed out in the Comments, beginning every sentence with I or We would be annoyingly repetitive. It's also unnecessary, as the CBE guide points out. I believe that the authors of ACS guide think this is goes without saying, since it is the default tense in many journals for the experimental section. When they speak of the past tense it is understood that this includes its use with the passive voice.

In the Grammar section of Chapter 2 we have:

Subject—Verb Agreements
...
Incorrect
Application of this technique to studies on the phytoplankton biomass and its environments are described. (The subject is "application", which is singular.)

Correct
Application of this technique to studies on the phytoplankton biomass and its environments is described.

We see this throughout the section:

Incorrect
The series are arranged in order of decreasing size.

Correct
The series is arranged in order of decreasing size. (Refers to the series as a unit.)

Incorrect
A Series of compounds was tested.

Correct
A series of compounds were tested. (Refers to each compound.)
...
Compound subjects contain the words "Each", "every", and "everybody" may take singular verbs.

Examples
Every rat injected and every rat dosed orally was included.

Everybody in the group and every visitor is assigned a different journal each month.

A series of compounds was tested.

Each flask and each holder was sterilized before use.


Passive Voice

Advantages of passive voice:

minimizes or leaves out the role of the person performing an action (for cases where you do not know who did it, do not want to mention who did it, or who did it is irrelevant)
softens the tone or makes the message less personal

Disadvantages of passive voice:

• makes the sentence wordy and awkward
• adds formality NCBI Style Guide (National Center for Biotechnology Information)


A dissenting "voice"

How can we account for the popularity of the passive voice? I suggest two major factors. The first relates to defects in our educational system.... The second factor has to do with a mistaken notion about science and its relation to "scientific" communication. The alleged objectivity of science has hypnotized many otherwise capable scientists, who regard anything subjective as tainted, to be avoided as much as defective instruments or contaminated solutions. The logic is simple. The active voice will necessarily require abundant use of the first person...to be avoided as unscientific; the only alternative is the passive voice which, by avoiding the first person, becomes the favored mode of expression.

With this point of view I must disagree in the strongest possible terms. I maintain that objectivity in science is a myth, and that if the devotee of this mythology would apply themselves to clear expression rather than to indefensible dogma, we would have a far greater general benefit.

I am reminded of a seminar in medical writing that I once gave to a group of residents. I pleased for fewer passive constructions and greater use of the first person. When I had finished, several residents mentioned that the head of the department, who reviewed all manuscript, positively forbade any use of the first person. Everything had to be in the third person, even when a resident was applying for a research grant. Such a blanket rule, as it spreads the illusion of objectivity, also encourages use of the passive. All I can do is to exhort my readers not to follow this example. Why Not Say It Clearly: A Guide to Scientific Writing, Lester S. King, M.D. (former Senior Editor and later Contributing Editor of JAMA) (1978) pp.31-32


Some guidelines I've found that insist on the passive voice...claim that this is done to de-emphasize the role of the investigator, and thus provides a tone of objectivity.

Such arguments never seem to have attribution. Is this a commonly accepted reason, or simply a rationalization?

I had a quick look at the earliest texts available online from the Proceedings of the Royal Society. These include letters and experiments written in the first person.

It may be that this pervasive passive evolved by natural selection and the guides came later. The passive voice is a good fit for scientific writing when the subject is unimportant and its omission doesn't lead to ambiguity. The perfect example (and perhaps the origin) is its use for describing the steps of a procedure intended to be replicated. Natural selection requires replication, and as for getting published, When in Rome...

As to whether passive voice is correct in this context, I'm thinking of telling my students that there has been a historical tendency to use passive voice for scientific communication, but there seem to be recent trends promoting active voice.

With regard to advice for students, I would prepare a handout and perhaps discuss in class the pros and cons of the passive voice as presented in style guides like the above, with examples illustrating both good and bad usages of both voices, along with suggestions for rewording the bad examples. I would emphasize that active is the default voice and that the passive has some merits, but it can be abused.

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  • Nice answer except for the advice at the end. Better left alone as subjective and context-dependent. There is a question somewhere about why the passive voice is used (I seem to remember answering it). My personal experience is that for undergraduate and even Masters students there are far more important structural features to emphasize in giving advice on writing reports and I personally never even mentioned this. With a PhD student you can take an actual fragment of the writing and discuss which voice would be better. At that level it’s worth the effort.
    – David
    Aug 15, 2021 at 17:00
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TLDR: As to the question of when the passive voice started being utilized in scientific articles, from a small sample of scientific papers, it looks like scientists had no compunction about using the first person until sometime in the second half of the 19th century.

Isaac Newton did not use the passive voice:

I lapped several times a slender Thred of very black Silk, in such manner that the several parts of the Thred might appear upon the Colours like so many black Lines drawn over them, or like long and slender dark Shadows cast upon them. I might have drawn black Lines with a Pen, but the Threds were smaller and better defined. [From Opticks, 1704.]

John Dalton also used the first person, although he alternated it with passive voice (possibly to avoid repeating the pronoun "I" too much):

I fill this with Water, and transfer into it 100 measures of hydrogen of known purity; to this a quantity of acid gas is added, so as to fill the tube nearly. The finger is then applied to the end of the tube, and it is instantly transferred to a jar of mercury. The whole is then taken, and exposed to the sun. [From A New System of chemical Philosophy, 1808.]

Louis Pasteur also used the first person:

We decanted them as follows:—One bottle, which we handled without special precautions, we uncorked by means of an ordinary corkscrew, and decanted into another bottle that had been well washed, as bottles are washed when they are to be used subsequently. This bottle was taken from a number that had been standing upside down on a drainer for a fortnight. We took no precaution to remove the dust which covered the exterior of the bottle of must, or to purify the washed bottle. [From Studies on Fermentation, 1876.]

On the other hand, Michelson and Morley used the passive extensively.

The reading of the screw-head on the micrometer was noted, and a very slight and gradual impulse was given to keep up the motion of the stone; on passing the second mark, the same process was repeated, and this was continued till the apparatus had completed six revolutions. It was found that by keeping the apparatus in slow uniform motion, the results were much more uniform and consistent than when the stone was brought to rest for every observation; for the effects of strains could be noted for at least half a minute after the stone came to rest, and during this time effects of change of temperature came into action. [From On the Relative Motion of the Earth and the Luminiferous Ether, 1887.]

So it seems that this convention of using passive voice in scientific papers to avoid first person started some time in the second half of the 19th century.

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Our Chemistry professor (20+ years in a US university) had mandated that we always use Impersonal Passive Voice for recording our experiments.

Let us take the example of Brown Ring Test that confirms the presence of a nitrate ion in a given solution.

Impersonal Passive Voice:

Fe2SO4 was added to the given solution. Concentrated sulphuric acid was slowly added such that the acid formed a layer below the subject solution. A brown ring was observed to have formed at the junction of the two layers, indicating the presence of the nitrate ion.

Passive Voice

Fe2SO4 was added by us to the given solution. Concentrated sulphuric acid was slowly added by us in such a way that the acid formed a layer below the subject solution. A brown ring was observed by us at the junction of the two layers, indicating the presence of the nitrate ion.

Active Voice

We added Fe2SO4 to the given solution. We slowly added concentrated sulphuric acid in such a way that the acid formed a layer below the subject solution. We observed a brown ring at the junction of the two layers, indicating the presence of the nitrate ion.

The guideline was to use Impersonal Passive Voice.

Hope this helps.

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    The question asks for history and citations such as journals' style sheets. This answer doesn't provide either of those. It simply asserts a rule based on authority and gives examples.
    – user16723
    Jun 26, 2016 at 20:47
  • For full-bore passive voice, shouldn't the final clause in the "Impersonal Passive Voice" and "Passive Voice" examples be recast from "indicating the presence of the nitrate ion" to "which was taken [by us, in the "Passive Voice" example] as an indication of the presence of the nitrate ion"? Otherwise, doesn't the wording strongly imply that the brown ring indicated (active voice) something?
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 27, 2016 at 6:58

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