Why Scientists Need to Give Up on the Passive Voice

Jacob Brogan in Slate:

VoiceWhen I teach courses on writing, I try to avoid arbitrary rules. Following the late style expert Joseph Williams, I hold that good writing is basically good storytelling. To tell a story well, we need to clearly identify our characters and then show the reader what those characters do. The passive voice makes storytelling more difficult because it hides the characters deep in the sentence—if it shows them at all. On Reddit, Kristin Sainani, an associate professor of health research and policy at Stanford University, took a similar position, arguing that the passive voice “obscures who is responsible for what.” The passive has its place (I used it to open the prior paragraph), but, more often than not, it disrupts the flow of a narrative, making it difficult for the reader to connect one idea to the next.

By contrast, Elliott argues that scientists should use the passive voice in order to highlight their results. She writes, “The main advantage of the passive voice, in my opinion, is that it allows the writer to put the important concepts, ideas, findings, principles, and conclusions first. …” In other words, the passive voice allows us to discuss discoveries rather than the scientists who discovered them. In theory, it plays an important rhetorical function, because it insists on the factual truth of discoveries by minimizing the role that fallible human subjects play in the equation. Ultimately, however, scientists may be doing themselves a disservice by downplaying their place in the scientific process. Sainani holds that there’s something slightly untrustworthy about passive constructions, writing, “It’s more accurate and honest to say, ‘We found that …’ since this emphasizes the role that the experimenters played in designing, conducting, and interpreting the experiments.”

More here.