Girl, Interrupting

November 10, 2010

It’s not about you, its about the data!

Or why I think the passive voice is actually GOOD for science

There are advocates of ‘plain language for scientists’ for example Harvard Health blogs who suggest Med journals should write more like Micheal Crichton and Evidence Soup who wants medical journals to ‘stop with the passive voice, already’. The summary being that scientists write far too much in the passive vs. the active voice (in English that is) and science would be easier to understand if it were written in the active voice. There are also suggestions that ‘passive-voice science writing’ is elitist.

I disagree on both counts but first a quick grammar review, what is the difference between active and passive?

In the active voice the object receives the action of the verb as in:

“Cats eat fish (active).”

In the passive voice the subject receives the action of the verb:

“Fish are eaten by cats (passive).”

Which is great for cats and fish but what about scientists?

One of the arguments for ‘active English’ in science writing is that if English isn’t your first language, reading in the passive voice is more difficult. A couple of French, Bangladeshi and Dutch friends have confirmed this. On the other hand, an Italian scientist friend of mine told me it is actually easier to read in the formal passive voice, because it is closer to the way science is written in Italian. In her opinion, ‘plain English’ initiatives never help non-native English speakers, she believes it is mostly for those of us that already speak English. So I would say just from my unofficial straw poll that active English being easier for foreigners is still up for debate.

Regardless of which is easier to read, the passive voice is a construct of English, not of science and for better or worse English has become the de facto lingua-Franca of modern science, at least in the West. If we based the ‘language of science’ on the most abundant language in world-wide science, that would be Chinese, which may be preferable as Chinese has no verb tenses.

And English, well, is odd. English is written and indeed spoken in a complex combination of active and passive voices. This doesn’t only happen in science articles; this even happens in the Daily Mail. Take for instance the following excerpt from an article published in the Daily Mail:

EastEnders star Steve McFadden has been arrested and bailed (passive) over claims that he harassed a woman (active) believed to be the mother of his baby girl.

The 51-year-old actor was picked up by police in Haringey, north London, on Wednesday (passive).

After being questioned by officers he was released on bail to return to a police station early next year (passive) .

It is understood that McFadden – who plays EastEnders hard man Phil Mitchell – was arrested following a complaint by former partner Dr Rachel Sidwell (passive).

The pair have a daughter, Amelie Tinkerbell, now 17 months old
(active).

Now if you translate that all into the active this is what you get::

Police have arrested Steve McFadden. The court released McFadden on bail. The police and the court acted on claims that McFadden had harassed a woman believed to be the mother of his baby girl.

The police picked up the 51 year old actor in Haringey, north London, on Wednesday.

Police questioned Steve McFadden. The court released McFadden on bail to return to the police station early next year.

It is understood that the police arrested McFadden – who plays EastEnders hard man Phil Mitchell – following a complaint
by former partner Dr Rachel Sidwell.

The pair have a daughter, Amelie Tinkerbell, now 17 months old.

OK so this is ‘plain english’ but in the active version the story becomes all about the police not about Steve McFadden which is what the story is intended to be about – Steve McFadden is the object receiving the action by the police, who are the subject.

And this is the point! As scientists we teach our students to write about the data – which are the object of any experiment. Why? Because the science is about the data and the data are INDEPENDENT of who did the experiment (well except if there is fraud). Science is about the physical world around us which is exhibited by the data and not the person doing the experiment.

Explicitly, in technical science journals you will see things like:

‘The data were collected’
(passive) which is about the data.

Rather than ‘I collected the data’ (active) which is about YOU collecting the data in the first person
or if you prefer the 3rd person ‘The post doctoral researcher collected the data’ (still active) which, again, is about the person collecting the data.

And about the charge of being ‘elitist’ I would say no more than the English language is elitist. Let me repeat, data should be written about as if it is independent of the people doing the experiment. Science is and should be about the data and it is damn nigh impossible to write about data in the active voice because data don’t collect themselves. (N.B. Data is plural, unlike Data the Star Trek dude who is singular) Of course someone collects it and makes the figures for papers, but, again, science isn’t about the researchers, its about the data.

If you are a native English speaker I challenge you to speak only active English for the day. Or even write entirely in the active voice. In reality science papers, like most English writing is a hodge-podge of active and passive English.

Maybe advocates of the active voice in science writing really need to just teach scientists better English writing skills. I would argue that perhaps technical scientific papers are difficult to read because they are simply badly written regardless of voice.

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