Academic journal article Teaching Science

Prescriptions and Proscriptions. the Three PS of Scientific Writing-Past, Passive and Personal

Academic journal article Teaching Science

Prescriptions and Proscriptions. the Three PS of Scientific Writing-Past, Passive and Personal

Article excerpt

The paper attempts to give an up-to-date picture of what it means to write like a scientist. In most journals it is not now essential to write in the past tense and the passive voice. And the use of 'I' or 'We' is not banned. For some teachers, and for many students, this knowledge might be a great blessing.


How do you advise your students to write their experimental reports? Many science teachers stick with the traditional instruction to write '50 ml of acid was pipetted ...' and not 'We pipetted 50 ml of the acid ...' The experimental reports are to be written in the third person, past tense and passive voice. And if we believe that scientists write this way, and if we believe that schools are training budding scientists, this is clearly sound advice.

I shall avoid the question of whether schools are training budding scientists, though we all know that very few of our students will actually go on to be practising scientists. Instead I'll focus on the question of whether scientists do write in this way.

What exactly are we looking for? The questions are:

* do scientists always write in the third person?

* do they always write in the past tense?

* and do they always write in the passive voice?

We can see the differences in the following:

'We assume that the electromagnetic radiation ...'

'It was assumed that the electromagnetic radiation ...'

These phrases differ. The first is in the first person (I, we *), and the voice active; that is the subject of the sentence (We) did the action of assuming. It is also written in the present tense. The second is in the past tense, and in passive voice: that is, something was done to the subject of the sentence (It). It is also in the third person (the subject is he, she or it). So which of these constructions can properly be used in scientific writing--both, or only one?

What is the advice?

Let's begin by looking at some recommendations to budding scientific writers, including those in school and tertiary institutions. These recommendations have been collected through a Google search, and are in no way intended to present a comprehensive picture. Rather they illustrate the range of recommendations, or even rules, provided by different authors. Following this, I want to look at what actually does happen in current scientific writings.

The traditional advice

Some authors are firmly fixed on providing recommendations about person, tense and voice that are in accord with traditional views.

First person

Keep your writing impersonal; avoid the use of the first person (i.e. I or we). (Dolphin, undated)

... the textual conventions governing lab reports do not permit the use of the first person ('I' or 'We') at all, and in fact any mention of the researchers, even in the third person, is frowned upon. (Blue, 2002)

Past tense

Research papers reflect work that has been completed, therefore use the past tense throughout your paper (including the Introduction) when referring to actual work that you did, including statements about your expectations or hypotheses. (Department of Biology, Bates College, 2002)

Passive voice

Passive voice makes sense when the agent performing the action is obvious, unimportant or unknown ... The passive voice is effective in such circumstances because it highlights the action and what is acted upon rather than the agent performing the action. (Purdue University, 2004)

By writing in this way, the research is depersonalised. Actions, rather than the personnel involved, become the main focus. This not only depersonalises scientific findings, it also strengthens their claim. Actions become neutral, and so do interpretations. They are not presented as particular claims of specific persons, rather they become objective--and, by implication, unambiguous and 'true'. …

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