The passive voice: a vexed issue in scientific communications.

During my time as a teacher of English literature, there were two things that I told my students ahead of essays. First, use first-person pronouns. Second, use the active voice.

For many, this was a surprise. At school and college, they’d been told to avoid ‘I’. As such, they’d turned to unwieldy passive and impersonal phrasings. These complied with the no-‘I’ rule, and were assumed to convey the right impression of confidence and command to exam markers.

I tried to convince my students that, in essays on literature and culture, the active voice was generally preferable, where available. It was more precise, more elegant, and it allowed writers to claim responsibility for their ideas. That is, the active voice would allow them to distinguish between critical consensus and their own interpretative work.

Plain Words

In his classic Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English (1948), which puts the English language through military training, Sir Ernest Gowers commands,

Sir Ernest Gowers, who dismissed the passive voice in Plain Words.
Sir Ernest Gowers (1880-1966), author of Plain Words and opponent of the passive voice.

do not use the impersonal passive at all—with its formal unsympathetic phrases, it is felt, it is regretted, it is appreciated and so on—otherwise you will seem to your correspondent more like a robot than a human being.

When I started editing medical research, I was surprised to find that the passive voice was used almost exclusively, in my journal at least. I was prompted to rethink the relationship between the ethics and aesthetics of textual style.

Biomedical Editor provides some history of scientific writing and the passive voice:

More than a century ago, scientists typically wrote in an active style that included the first-person pronouns I and we. Beginning in about the 1920s, however, these pronouns became less common as scientists adopted a passive writing style.

Considered to be objective, impersonal, and well suited to science writing, the passive voice became the standard style for medical and scientific journal publications for decades.

I could see that medical authors might want to jettison the impression of subjectivity that comes with the active voice. They need to be serious and objective. But surely these authors should be required to mark their claims as their own? The passive voice seemed evasive and non-committal.

The Passive Voice and Hedging

Indeed, Biomedical Editor recognises that the passive voice can be a form of ‘hedging’, of ‘evading the risk of commitment’. The passive voice typically invokes ‘ambiguous actors’, which has clear ethical consequences in medical research. Or, as Duke University advises its students,

Our chief objection to the passive voice is that it sometimes seems to make authors forget to watch for dangling modifiers. Such oversights can lead to something more undesirable than lack of grammatical exactness; they can also lead to scientific inexactness.

So what are the arguments for the passive voice? Duke University is unconvincing, but Biomedical Editor suggests some occasions when the passive voice has practical applications:

  • The performer is unknown, irrelevant, or obvious.
  • The performer is less important than the action.
  • The recipient is the main topic.

Nonetheless, I’m more interested in the ethics of active and passive voices. As an editor, I normally evaluate the author’s decision to choose one or the other against the extent to which the author is obliged, in the interests of scientific integrity, to claim the method, findings, interpretation, or assumptions as their own.

Integrity and Style

One aesthetic problem of the passive voice in scientific writing—and I don’t think that aesthetic questions are superfluous in medical research, given their frequent overlap with ethical questions—is that it makes papers very boring to read.

In my editorial role, my primary allegiance is to scientific integrity, but as someone deeply invested in written expression, I also hope to alleviate some of that boredom.