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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?

  • 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. – John Lawler Jul 23 '14 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. – Scott Seidman Jul 23 '14 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 '14 at 20:10
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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 ... – Peter Shor Sep 25 '16 at 4:08
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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. – Ben Crowell Jun 26 '16 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 '16 at 6:58

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