Getting active

In April 2014 on April 14, 2014 at 8:00 am

Kirsti Active voice Steven Hromnak

Sarah: A few days ago, I wrote a post on the peculiarities of verb tenses and personal pronouns in writing about science. I should have prefaced the article with the disclaimer that I have not actually published anything in the pure sciences for many years. I’m delighted that the more in-touch-with-real-science Kirsti has now written a response. 

Kirsti: The tradition of writing in passive voice, or in the third person, as a scientist is still as pervasive as stereotypes of scientists themselves.  Most scientists might still say that a sentence like this:

All stems greater than 10 cm DBH were sampled along the 100 m transect,

is more correct than:

We sampled all stems greater than 10 cm DBH in the 100 m transect.

But things are changing.

Many journals – including high impact journals like Nature – encourage authors to write in the active voice because they suggest that,

“readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly. We have also found that use of several adjectives to qualify one noun in highly technical language can be confusing to readers.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Using active voice for scientific publications not only saves space and allows more articles to be published per issue, but it infers accountability. Who did the research? WE did the research. WE (the authors) do the stuff; design the study, collect the data, analyse and interpret the results, write the paper. Other people with specific expertise contribute too, and if significant enough, attributing an action to someone should occur in the paper too.

For example, in a results section, using active voice makes distinctions about who actually did specific parts of the work, like this:

We oven-dried (at 80oC for 50 mins) all ant samples, and Pacific Carbon Laboratories analysed stable isotopes 13C and 15N.

If those results were written in the third person, it might read something like this:

All ant samples were dried and weighed (at 80oC for 50 mins), and 13C and 15N were analysed for all individual ants.

This second example has no important attribution to who actually DID the stuff. Say the isotope analysis went wrong? You don’t know who to blame in the second sentence!

Sarah’s post about writing styles in science really piqued my interest, partly because I have been teaching bits of science writing at Monash University for the past 6 years. Here, we teach to write in the active voice. We critique examples in the literature of passive versus active voice, and active always comes out on top. We also review many of the journals’ instructions, which are now moving toward a requirement of active voice.

But I hadn’t really ever thought about it from a mental health perspective.

I’m really interested in reading Sarah’s third person perspective. My head tells me I won’t like it, but my heart totally understands the need to separate oneself from difficult concepts. Kind of telling yourself “it wasn’t really me there, and if I write about it like it was someone else maybe I’ll see things differently……”

Therapy. By writing.

I totally get that.

[image thanks to Steven Hromnik on flickr]


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