Use of passive voice in scientific writing

While writing research papers, scientists, researchers, or scholars are faced with the challenge of sentence construction. Most grammar perfectionists advise the use of active rather than passive voice while writing. The “voice” refers to the relationship of the subject with the object and the verb in a sentence. When the emphasis is on the subject, the sentence is in the active voice; when the emphasis is on the object, the sentence is said to be in the passive voice.

First, passive constructions are functional when the agent or the subject is unknown, or when the agent is obvious or unnecessary. For example, the sentence, ‘Equipment was damaged during the experiment’ can be composed without referring to the person behind the action.

Occasionally, passive constructions also help evade responsibility. For example, the sentence, ‘The judgment was taken for this case’ can be written without citing who made the decision. This construction focuses on the investigation only, i.e. on the object of the sentence and not on the investigator or the agent of the sentence.

Alternatively, if we choose the active voice to portray the investigator and the investigation of a research, it would become monotonous and might make the content dreary.

Second, the passive voice allows one to convey a notion of objectivity. Thus we can say, ‘the experiment was completed, and the data was analyzed’ rather than ‘I completed the experiment, and I analyzed the data.’ This concept of reflecting objectivity in scientific writing might be the reason for scientists to settle on the passive and not the active voice and first-person pronouns.

Finally, passive constructions sometimes reduce the clarity of a sentence. This is obviously a negative aspect, yet it is apt for writing where researchers or scientific writers are unsure of their thoughts and the medium to express them. Currently, usage of the passive voice has become a trend in scientific writing where writers often modify their active sentences to passive ones.

The passive voice is especially useful in technical and scientific writing. It reduces the word count of sentences in comparison with those in the active voice, and sometimes contributes to a concise piece of writing.

While recognizing the value of the passive voice, it is advisable to balance the usage of the active voice and the passive voice in your writing. While a rigorous use of the active voice often makes sentences arduous and complex, it is also equally true that an overuse of the passive voice might make the writing just as difficult to comprehend.