Practical tip: Passive vs Active Voice


Example of active voice:

"We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.)."
Watson JD, Crick FHC. Molecular structure of nucleic acids. Nature. 1953;171:737-738 (Quoted from BioMedical Editor)


passive vs active ppt

When should I use the passive OR when should the passive voice be used!

Passive voice is often used – some will say over-used – in scientific writing. The conventional rational for justifying the use of passive voice in scientific writing is that, as a writing style, the passive voice is more objective; it focuses more on the action than on the actor.

However, the advice of most experts today is to: AVOID using the passive whenever possible.  

Quotes from Nature and Science journal style guides:

Nature: "Nature journals like authors to write in the active voice ('we performed the experiment...') as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly."

Science: "Use active voice when suitable, particularly when necessary for correct syntax (e.g., 'To address this possibility, we constructed a lZap library ...,' not 'To address this possibility, a lZap library was constructed...')."

**Check with the author’s guide in the journal to which you are submitting.


It's your choice!

Think of your choice of using the passive or active voice as a style choice; ask yourself which style enables you to convey your message most clearly and effectively for each given situation.

  • Use of passive is often longer; uses more words and can be less clear.
  • Use of passive, particularly in scientific writing has been a tradition: a traditional audience may both expect and feel more comfortable with it. Know your journal style guidelines!
  • Use of passive may remove impression of bias (who did it, how many did it.)
  • Use of passive may present an "air" of greater objectivity.
  • However, sometimes the action IS more important than the actor (i.e. often in Materials and Methods, journal records, etc.)
  • Variety in writing style can increase readability BUT do not mix active and passive constructions in the same sentence!

Specifically, use the passive when:

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

Examples of good uses of passive voice:

  • Instead of "I poured 20 cc of acid into the beaker," write "Twenty cc of acid is/was poured into the beaker."
  • When the details of process are much more important than anyone taking responsibility for the action: "The first coat of primer paint is applied immediately after the acid rinse."
  • In active voice, “green plants” are the focus: “Green plants produce carbohydrates in the presence of light and chlorophyll.” In passive voice "carbohydrates" are the focus: “Carbohydrates are produced by green plants in the presence of light and chlorophyll.”

Examples of active verbs that can be used in Materials & Methods:

support, indicate, suggest, correspond, challenge, yield, show, demonstrate,


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