As far as I know, it would be better to follow these two rules when writing an academic paper:

  1. Avoid using passive voice.
  2. Keep the object of interest in the subject position.

But often I encountered the situations where those two rules contradict each other. For example, in my research field, the typical first sentence of 'evaluation' section (same as the 'experiment' section in other fields) starts with 'We evaluated the system X..', but some people prefer to write it like 'The system X is evaluated..'. To follow rule 1, one should put 'we' in the subject position, but it contradicts rule 2 as the object of interest is 'the system X' rather than 'we'. In such kind of cases, which rule should come first?

  • 1
    I'd have said that the usual mantra is 'avoid using the active voice' if anything. But more people are discarding this over-prescriptive diktat. The passive can be very useful, or sound ridiculously long-winded. Jun 7 '17 at 12:03
  • In academic writing, the passive voice is sometimes okay.
    – user239725
    Jun 7 '17 at 14:01
  • Have a look here: academia.stackexchange.com/search?q=passive+voice
    – Evan
    Jun 7 '17 at 17:15

Until about 35 years ago there existed something called the scientific method which some of you might remember. One of its requirements was that experiments must be repeatable, which meant reports always used the passive voice.

If Dr Frankenstein said he or Igor or any other named experimenter did this, that or the other then the whole process would have been invalidated. You or I attempting to replicate the experiment would not have the services of either the good doctor or his trusty assistant, making it impossible to repeat the experiment as described. Clearly there would be many times when that was wholly irrelevant but another part of the scientific method was that a report must take account of all cases, not just those where the rules appeared irrelevant.

If by contrast this, that or the other was done it would matter not by whom; the whole thing could be replicated.

Similarly, We evaluated… cannot be replicated but The system X was evaluated… can, anywhere and at any time.

There are broadly two views about that, one of which is that the old way was horribly restrictive and the new approach is vastly liberating. The other is that the old method provided a solid framework for comparison of results while the new format is at best slap-dash.

Outside academia it might be reasonable to call the scientific method an over-prescriptive diktat but outside academia it matters not. Up an ivory tower, is it more useful to set standards or to set them aside?

It’s also true that passive voice rarely and active voice frequently requires writing skills which most people simply do not have.

  • 1
    I have never heard such utter horseshit regarding writing style. There is no way that using passive voice makes the experiment "more repeatable." What senile professor trolled you with that idea?. Passive voice does not remove the actor from the action, it just puts the actor last. The system was evaluated...BY US. If it's not by the authors of the paper, then who is it?
    – user8356
    Jun 8 '17 at 20:10
  • Or to put it more politely, I never heard that story. I don't agree that passive voice makes an experiment "more repeatable." It does not remove the actor, it just puts the actor last. "The system was evaluated...BY US." If it's not BY US (the authors of the paper), then who did it? And that can be described actively or passively. That is, "The plant's growth was monitored (by a video camera/computer/grad assistant)" OR "a video camera monitored the plant's growth." There is absolutely no difference in meaning, just in tediousness.
    – user8356
    Jun 8 '17 at 20:23
  • Thanks and no; never BY US except if identity changes outcome. Who is irrelevant; The system was evaluated the only point. Yes …growth was monitored by an assistant means the same as an assistant monitored growth but that fails to notice, changing narrative style is one of the easiest mistakes to make or to spot. Active or passive, stick with one… which means any instance that forces the choice of voice in one section, constrains every other. Sorry there's a tad more… Jun 8 '17 at 22:54
  • Active looks less tedious, but it emphasizes predicate over subject. Should readers wade through a video camera (or whatever equivalent, however lengthy) to reach the plant's growth or is The plant's growth… before the monitoring details less tedious? Where have I seen that before? Oh, yes: Keep the object of interest in the subject position. Jun 9 '17 at 16:16

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