Writing in Science: Practical Tips Academic Writing Science Communication
Practical Tips: Passive vs Active



article use

British vs American


compare to/with


dates & numbers

dangling participle

eponymic terms


-ic vs –ical



like vs such as



faulty parallelism

passive voice


sentence structure


spell check
split infinitives


that vs which

unusual plurals


word confusion


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

When should I use the passive

OR when should the passive voice be used!

link to ppt

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."
Quoted from BioMedical Editor

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...')."
Quoted from BioMedical Editor

**You should check with the author’s guide in the journal you are interesting in submitting to.

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 in any 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,


Active and Passive Voice. [Internet accessed 10.05.2011] Purdue University Online Writing Lab. ©1995-2011. Purdue University, Indiana, USA. Available from: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/01/

Boyle T., Sullivan K.D. The Gremlins of Grammar. MeGraw-Hill, USA © 2006

Clear Science Writing: Active Voice or Passive Voice? [Internet accessed 05.05.2011] BioMedical Editor ©2006-2010. Available from: http://www.biomedicaleditor.com/active-voice.html

Comments on the passive voice from the journal Nature - three letters. [Internet accessed 05.05.2011] Rob's Writing Resources. University of Utah. Available from: http://www.sci.utah.edu/~macleod/writing/passive-letters.html

Cook C.K. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton-Mifflin USA © 1985

Day R. How to Write & Publish a Scientific Paper. 5th Ed. Cambridge University Press. © 1998

Passive Voice. [Internet accessed 05.05.2011] The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. ©1998-2010. Available from: http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/passivevoice.html

The Passive Voice. [Internet accessed 10.05.2011] Guide to Grammar and Writing. Capital Community College Foundation, Connecticut, USA. Available from: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/passive.htm

Olson R. Don’t Be Such a Scientist. Island Press, USA © 2000

Strunk W., White E.B. The Elements of Style. 4th Ed. Allyn & Bacon, USA © 2000

Tischler, Marc E. (compiler). SCIENTIFIC WRITING BOOKLET. [Internet accessed 05.05.2011] Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics, University of Arizona. Available from: http://www.biochem.arizona.edu/marc/Sci-Writing.pdf

Using the Passive Voice in Scientific Writing. [Internet accessed 05.05.2011] Gallaudet University, Washington D.C.. © 2011. Available from: http://www.gallaudet.edu/clast/tutorial_and_instructional_programs/english_works/grammar/writing_sentences/using_the_passive_voice_in_scientific_writing.html

The Value of the Passive Voice. [Internet accessed 05.05.2011] BioMedical Editor ©2006-2010. Available from: http://www.biomedicaleditor.com/passive-voice.html

Writing in the Sciences. [Internet accessed 05.05.2011] The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. ©1998-2010. Available from: http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/sciences.html


Questions? Suggestions? contact: elinor.bartle<at>uib.no