Active is better than passive or neutral

Q. Dear Nature Editorial Staff,

I run a research team, and for my sins, I also give lectures to undergraduates and graduates. One series of lectures that I give is entitled “Scientific Writing”, the series being aimed at providing some general pointers regarding the layout of scientific papers and the style of scientific writing. The primary audience are PhD students and undergraduates doing lab projects.

On the question of the use of active versus passive voice, my advice to the students is to always use the active voice (where possible) since it is clearer and, most important, shorter. However, most of the students find it almost impossible to make a simple declarative statement along the lines of “I found that”, preferring the passive “we found that”, or more often, the neutral “it was found that”.

I have always attributed this tendency towards the use of “we” or “it” in place of “I” down to a subconscious desire to avoid taking direct responsibility for a piece of research. Recently though, this malaise has spread to certain supervisors, who have taken to correcting dissertations written by undergraduates such that they are entirely written in the passive or neutral voice.

I wonder whether you might tell me the view of the Nature editors on the use of active and passive voices? I realize that you must receive relatively few single author manuscripts, but when you do, do you prefer the active voice? I’d be happy to be wrong in my own assumptions/asserttions about this (and will modify my lecture recommendations accordingly if required), but some up-to-date advice from the top journal would be appreciated.

A. Dear Dr Lecturer

Thanks for your interesting query. Yes, we agree with you that the active voice (“I” or “We” in the case of multi-author papers) is better and makes papers far clearer and more comprehesible, as described in our guidelines.

Unfortunately, many books and courses advise the opposite. An example is when one of my daughters was doing a practice science SATs test in primary school, in which a mark was given for saying that scientific papers/writing should be in the passive — answering “active voice” did not get you the mark. What can one do under these entrenched, embedded circumstances?

Active voice has been Nature policy for as long as I can remember; it is enshrined in our style manual and is specifically recommended to all authors as part of our standard acceptance procedure. However, if an author insists on the passive, we would probably allow it, as at the end of the day it is the author’s paper. We’d only make a rule ironclad if it affected the scientific content, I think. So you will see papers in Nature in the passive voice, but you can be assured that this is at the author’s insistence rather than Nature policy.

best wishes

Maxine Clarke



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    Linda Cooper said:

    I also have the pleasure of teaching graduate students how to write persuasive and clear scientific manuscripts. Indeed, one of the first editing tips we touch on is limiting the use of the passive voice. While the passive voice may be good for flow, a text that is heavily in the passive voice tends to be boring and dull because along with the passive voice comes the overuse of nouns, the weak linking verb “to be”, and the absence of strong verbs – verbs that tend to give a text energy.

    All of this to say, that I’m delighted that there are others in the field who feel that the scientific community needs to revisit their guidelines on when to replace the passive voice with the active voice.


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