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I have been composing the International journal for microbiology research. I learn that research journal should consist of active voice not passive, but I find that the previous researchers for related subject mainly used passive voice. How should I consider?

  • Examples:

    1. This genus is characterized by two types of conidia called α–conidia (fusiform) and β–conidia (filiform). [I think it is valid. Please correct me if I could change it to active voice]

    2. Diaporthe sp was reported causing dieback of rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) (Van Rensburg et al. 2006)
      [Van R et al 2006 reported Diaporthe caused dieback of rooibos (Aspalathus l.)?]

    3. A novel Phomopsis sp was reported as a weed (Carthamus lanatus) pathogen and may be used as a biocontrol agent (Ash et al. 2010). [Ash et al. 2010 clarified that a novel Phomopsis sp as a weed (Carthamus lanatus) pathogen may be used as a biocontrol agent?]

*** Note - 9/4/2013: Thank you so much, I appreciate the clarity from everyone.

I also did online research and learn this (may it help those who have the similar problem):

"Many writers are torn between whether they should write the paper in the active or passive voice. In the former, the subject performs the action; in the latter, the subject receives the action. Too much use of the active voice has the tendency to make the text monotonous because of too many first-person references. On the other hand, overuse of the passive voice can cause the tone of the paper to be dry, boring and even pompous. To ensure that the text is more lively and readable, it is best to try and strike a balance. Consider the following example:

We used eosin-methylene blue agar plates for the preliminary isolation of P. aeruginosa. The bacteria were Gram-negative bacilli, and motile. The results for oxidase and catalase activities were negative. Additional experiments showed that the bacteria did not ferment glucose, galactose, maltose or lactose (Table 2). Based on these results, we concluded that the organism had an oxidative metabolism.

Try translating this in to an entirely passive or active tone. You’ll notice that the creative mix of both voices makes this narrative not only lively and engaging but also states the results in a clear, confident and unambiguous manner."

  • I'm wondering if this wouldn't be a better fit on english.stackexchange.com – user102 Sep 3 '13 at 11:37
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    I think this is on topic here, and would also be on topic on English L&U… it's an important question related to academic writing, and it is not one limited to English (some other languages have active and passive voices!) – F'x Sep 3 '13 at 13:11
  • @F'x: I'm not saying it's off-topic here, I was just thinking that perhaps people over English.SE were more experts on the question. – user102 Sep 3 '13 at 13:23
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The choice between active and passive voice is mainly a matter of taste. As a writer, you are entitled to a certain degree of liberty in your stylistic choices. Even within the generally tight constraints of scientific and academic writing, there is no established dogma on passive vs. active voice, and you will find people advocating (some very strongly) both for and against the use of the passive voice.

Duke’s Graduate School Scientific Writing Resource has a good summary of the pros and cons of passive and active voices. In particular, it lists the position advocated in some high-level style guides, editorials, and other essays of note.

I think the current trend is toward a diminution of use of the passive voice. The reasons are summed up nicely by Randy Moore (The American biology teacher):

Most scientists use passive voice either out of habit or to make themselves seem scholarly, objective or sophisticated. Scientists have not always written in passive voice. First-person pronouns such as I and we began to disappear from scientific writing in the United States in the 1920s when active voice was replaced by today's inflexible, impersonal and often boring style of scientific writing.

The main argument used in favour of passive voice is that it promotes objective statements, rather than focusing on the actor. However, removing the mention of the actor in the text does not actually prevent subjectivity in the experiments: even if I write “the sample was smeared until it reached a thickness of 1 µm”, somewhat actually did smear the sample (and could have screwed it by going too slow or too fast). So the counter-argument is that passive voice does not promote objectivity, but only the appearance of objectivity.

The main argument in favour of active voice is that it makes for shorter, clearer, less boring text.


I love that anecdote from Rupert Sheldrake (School Science Review):

“The test tube was carefully smelled.” I was astonished to read this sentence in my 11-year-old son's science notebook. At primary school his science reports had been lively and vivid. But when he moved to secondary school they became stilted and artificial.

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First, follow the journal's style guide. It doesn't matter how well your paper is written: if it doesn't comply with the rules, you'll make the editor's job harder. Getting published is, in fair part, about making the editor's job easier. And you are writing in order to get published, right? The more like recent papers your writing style is, the easier you may find it to get published. So look at how the active and passive voices are used in similar papers to yours, in recent issues of your target journal.

Then, as far as compatible with that, follow your institution's style guide, as far as you must.

Then, as far as is compatible with those, write in professional, lucid, interesting prose. The choice between active and passive will depend on context and rhythm. I highly recommend the books from Tim Harford's article Three books you should read if you want to write, which are:

  1. Style: Towards Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams
  2. The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William Blundell
  3. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
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This is primarily a question about taste and tradition. The passive voice has largely been the norm but it has its obvious drawbacks, it is boring to read. Using the active voice is therefore recommended. Your need to get a sense of what is the "norm" in your field because you may encounter unnecessary resistance if your deviate. Unfortunately This problem May be larger for a younger less well known scientist.

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    The passive voice has largely been the norm — Really?!? This is obviously field-dependent, then. – JeffE Sep 3 '13 at 12:45
  • In academia as a whole, yes, it was the norm. – aeismail Sep 4 '13 at 15:19
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Web search for "active voice" and you'll find that a great many top universities (MIT, Stanford, Yale, Harvard, Cambridge, and several more) have taught their science students to prefer active-voice writing in their reports, papers and articles for more than 20 years.

Also, America's leading science magazines (Nature, Science, etc.) now clearly urge submitting authors to lean toward active-voice writing in the lion's share of each submission.

Further, the U.S. government's plain-language law (enacted in 2010 and fully on display at www.PlainLanguage.gov) now ranks among several laws worldwide that urge technical writers to "make it clearer and plainer."

Which always will include a predominantly "active" form of writing, with clear cause-and-effect linkages dominating. (Passive voice leaves cause and effect fairly vague.)

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