The Benefits of Using the Active Voice in Academic and Scientific Writing

The Benefits of Using the Active Voice in Scholarly Writing | Tips on How to Get Your Research Published
It was once considered appropriate for almost all scholarship to adopt the passive voice. The goal behind this policy was to achieve objectivity, or at least the impression thereof, but scholars of the twenty-first century are well aware that nothing human, and certainly not passionate in-depth scholarship, is ever entirely objective. Perhaps that is why the use of the active voice has become so much more prevalent in recent decades, but there are other reasons as well. In short, the active voice suits our age of mass digital communication, and using it may even be a sound means of retaining human aspects of the scholar in an increasingly virtual communication network.

I should begin by clarifying exactly what I mean by active and passive voices. In the active voice the subject of a sentence is clearly stated and the main verb is active: ‘I investigated the relationship between changing weather patterns and the coverage provided by home insurance policies.’ In the passive voice, on the other hand, the object becomes the subject of the sentence and the main verb is passive: ‘The relationship between changing weather patterns and the coverage provided by home insurance policies was investigated.’ Grammatically speaking, both sentences are written in correct English, and they say the same thing, more or less, but not precisely. The first tells the reader exactly who did the investigating – the author whose name appears on the document – whereas the second does not and therefore fails to convey with precision and certitude who did the research. It might have been the author of the present article, but it could have easily been an assistant or a colleague, or maybe the researcher of another study who ought to be cited. Context helps, of course, but, unfortunately, it does not always resolve the confusion.
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The superior precision of the active voice is one of the main reasons why it is a wise choice for today’s scholarly writing, but there are others. In many cases the active voice can also be more concise because it uses far fewer words. The combination of concision and precision is why many academic and scientific journals will indicate in their author guidelines a preference for the active voice, particularly in abstracts. It is striking how many scholarly authors are unaware of this, however, and will choose the passive voice for an abstract even when the rest of a document adopts the active voice. In most cases the goal is to focus the reader’s attention on the object of research rather than the researcher, and perhaps there is also a sense inspired by tradition that a passive voice is a more scholarly voice. However, a scholarly voice is never vague as the passive voice can be, and using as few words as possible to explain your work as clearly and engagingly as possible is essential in today’s world of digital searches – a world in which you want the reader who encounters your abstract to be immediately hooked and move on to the main document. Generally speaking, only if a journal’s guidelines request the passive voice, which is very rare now, will it be the best choice, even in the sciences in most cases and particularly for an abstract.

The active voice is also an excellent choice for other short forms of scholarship, such as website articles and blog posts. Here you will definitely be dealing with a wider audience, and the general online trend is for an active voice. An active voice implies a human presence, so it is also a more human and more humane voice, in the same way that referring to study participants as people and individuals rather than subjects and, worst of all, by their disease or condition is considered more humane than doing just the opposite. The idea of an online scholarly presence is to share the process of research in any case, so being an active and passionate scholar very much involved in your work and presenting it in an authentic voice is highly appropriate.

There are, however, some scholarly fields, especially in the hard sciences, in which the passive voice is still the norm, so do read around your subject area to determine what the trends may be in your area of specialisation. If you discover that the passive voice is the right choice, use it as sparingly as possible and with great care, paying attention to what each sentence in the passive voice actually says and does not say, and adding the necessary explanation or rewording your prose for greater clarity whenever you think that such sentences might prove imprecise or confusing.

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