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Ten tips for scientific writing

Personal and impersonal voices

It is common in scientific writing avoid the use of personal expressions or statements in order to strengthen the impartial nature of the writing and give it a more formal structure.  For example:

  • Impersonal - 'The explanation for this anomaly may be found in…'
  • Personal -  'We/I believe that the explanation for this anomaly  may be found in...'

 

Passive and active voices

Scientific writing also tends to use passive rather than active expressions. Stating that A was affected by B uses the passive voice; while stating that B did something to A uses the active voice.  This provides a more definitive statement.  The following example shows a sentence written in both the passive and active voices.

The passive voice puts the emphasis on the process or phenomenon being investigated, rather than who is carrying out the investigation:

  • Passive - 'The research protocols were designed by the research officer.'
  • Active - 'The research officer designed the research protocols.'

 The passive voice is particularly useful when you want your writing to be formal and depersonalised.

Examples of when personal and active voice can be better

Using an impersonal style and the passive voice can occasionally result in inaccurate or vague writing: in those circumstances, it may be better to use the personal style or active voice to improve accuracy and clarity.  For example:

  Active Passive
Personal

'We decided that the light filter should be removed…'

This avoids ambiguity and makes the sentence sound more direct, but uses the personal and informal 'we'.

It was decided by us that the light filter should be removed…

This avoids ambiguity and makes the sentence sound more direct, but uses the personal and informal 'us'.

Impersonal

'The research team decided that the light filter should be removed…' is clear and direct.

It is important to think about the use of such expressions and make sure that the writing is clear and unambiguous.

'It was decided that the light filter should be removed…' gives no information about who made the decision.

So, if it improves the clarity and accuracy of the information - when permitted by the assignment brief - it is sometimes acceptable to use a personal style or active voice.

Table 8‑1: Combining active, passive, personal and impersonal voice