As I read in some papers, most verbs in a paper are written in the passive third person. For example: "This method was experimented; satisfying results were achieved..."

My question is, is this a must and all types of papers in all journals should be this way? For example, if I write "I experimented with the method", is this wrong and editors could reject the paper? If the answer is yes, what is the reason that the author has to write the paper that way?

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    Nope. Depends upon your field, journal, and even personal style. – Richard Erickson Nov 30 '17 at 21:11
  • First person quickly sounds like you're bragging, but that's a matter of taste. I usually only use the first person to emphasise that sth was wilful decision, i.e. sth that others could very well think differently or even know better about. – Karl Nov 30 '17 at 21:52
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    An influential physics paper had a cat as a co-author because the paper guidelines said to use “I” for papers with one author and “we” for papers with multiple. The author didn’t feel like rewriting the paper after learning his mistake. www.atlasobscura.com/articles/in-1975-a-cat-coauthored-a-physics-paper – Stella Biderman Dec 1 '17 at 0:36
  • I know of some mathematicians that write their papers in the first person singular. As an experiment, I once wrote a paper that way. It was harder than I thought, as I kept reverting without noticing to the usual "we". – Andrés E. Caicedo Dec 1 '17 at 2:27
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    I think a lot of academics are under the incorrect impression that academic writing is supposed to sound dry. They avoid figurative language, creative formatting, and varied punctuation. At the end of the day, you want to write something that people enjoy reading and that doesn’t violate any contextual rules or standards. All else the same, write something that is compelling. – Stella Biderman Dec 1 '17 at 2:56

Have a look at the style guide of the journal you're targeting. It has the only authoritative answer to your question.

Having said that, passive voice is not a "must" in the sense that active voice were unheard of in academic writing. Here is a paper written in active voice, first person singular.

Common preferences for either active or passive voice differ between disciplines. (I've heard that in mathematics the first person plural is fairly common, i.e. "we".)

Preferences also differ between authors. I find the first person singular active voice most authentic, simple, and lively. It is often emphasized, however, that passive voice sounds more neutral and objective.

When deciding which voice to use, consider the style guide first, then your discipline's customs (ask your peers!), and your personal preference last.

  • In mathematics, one often writes in a conversational or argumentative voice. Just like you would punctuate a lecture with flash forwards such as “we will later use this to prove blah blah blah” so do you do in papers.Some subfields of philosophy and CS are the same. – Stella Biderman Dec 1 '17 at 0:30

Papers may be written in whatever voice you choose :-)

Some journals might specify, but contra. @herring's answer, I don't recall any biomed journals requiring one or the other. Some "authorities" argue that this passive voice is less exciting or authentic. This is probably true in regular writing but makes methods sections a string of "I/We did X. Then we did Y. Then we did Z.", which is also jarring.

I suggest deciding based on what need to be emphasised in each sentence. Sometimes, the only important part of the sentence is the thing that was done. Use the passive voice there. For example, you might write something like:

After thawing, tissue samples were fixed in 4% PFC, dissolved in 1x PBS, for 15 minutes. They were then prepared for immunohistochemistry by washing them in 1x PBS (5 minutes), permeabilizing them (2X SSC for 5 minutes), and dehydrating them using a series of ethanol baths (70%, 95%, 99%, 100%; 5 minutes each).

Here, no one really cares who processed the tissue samples--it could be the first author, it could be the last author, or it could even be a robot or an external company. The reader cares about what was done.

Other times, the identity of the do-er is more important. These cases call for the active voice. Consider something like this:

Other Folks et al. (2016) collected data from a broad sample of cells. However, we hypothesised that this effect only occurs in a specific subpopulation of dividing cells. To test this, we used.... "

Because the text compares your work with someone else's, the reader cares about who did what. The active voice emphasises this, but maybe steals a little thunder from the actual action.


An editor for a linguistics journal removed all pronouns that referenced the researchers/writers in an article, and turned the sentences into passive voice sentences.

Scientific journals, especially those involved in reporting scientific experiments, tend to favor the use of passive voice.

Anyone writing papers or making presentations to people in the field of English (such as during MLA Conferences) should make sure to avoid the passive voice.

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