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How to effectively use active and passive voice in research writing

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Kakoli Majumder

How to effectively use active and passive voice in research writing

Choosing between the active and passive voices is sometimes a matter of style and depends on what you want to emphasize in a sentence. This article will help you understand:  difference between the active and passive voices, wh y the active voice is preferred in research writing,  w hen the passive voice should be used, and wh ich voice is preferable in each section of a manuscript.

The usage of active versus passive voice is often a source of confusion in scientific writing. While some writers argue against the use of passive voice in academic writing, others claim it should be used liberally.

Traditionally, the passive voice was used in scientific writing, but in recent times, there has been a shift from this trend, with journals and editors increasingly showing a preference for the active voice. So, what should authors do? Should they depart from tradition and stop using the passive voice completely? Would using the active voice lend that scholarly tone to the article? Such questions keep bothering researchers when they write their papers. So, which is preferable, the active or the passive voice?

Before we get to that, let’s understand the difference between these two kinds of construction. All sentences in English are either in the active voice or in the passive voice. The active voice refers to a sentence format that emphasizes the doer of an action.

Example: The authors conducted experiments on planetary gear trains.

Here, the doer (in this case “the authors”) seems important.

On the other hand, in the passive voice, the action being performed is emphasized, and the doer may be omitted.

Example: Experiments were conducted on planetary gear trains (by the authors).

In this construction, the phrase “by the authors” can be omitted, which means that the reader already knows or does not need to know who the doer is; only the action is important.

how to write a research paper in active voice

Until recently, it was the norm to use passive construction in scientific writing. The passive voice lends an impersonal tone to the writing which was perceived to be more objective and formal. Traditionally, this tone was considered favorable for scientific writing and authors were advised to strictly avoid using the active voice, especially the use of first-person references, such as “I”, “we”, “my” and “our”, in their academic research papers. If you compare the two examples below, you will see that the passive voice sounds impersonal and therefore, more formal than the active.

Active: In this study, we numerically analyzed the thermal responses of WEDM wire electrodes using a finite element model.

Passive: In this study, a finite element model was used to numerically analyze the thermal responses of WEDM wire electrodes.

However, passive constructions can make the text more wordy and difficult to understand, especially when used in long sentences. Compare these two sentences:

Passive: An increase in hardness was demonstrated by all the brittle materials under dynamic indentations compared to measurements under static hardness.

Active: All the brittle materials demonstrated increased hardness under dynamic indentations compared to measurements under static hardness.

Using the active voice definitely makes the sentence less wordy, more readable, and easier to understand, doesn’t it?

That is the reason why many authorities are going against this traditional notion and encouraging the use of the active voice, with the view that academic papers should be easy to read and understand. In fact, multidisciplinary SCI-indexed journals like Nature and specialist journals like the American Journal of Botany , in their instructions for authors, state that the active voice is preferred. This is why you would now find the usage “In this study, we investigated…” very common.

how to write a research paper in active voice

So which should you use: the active or the passive voice? Here are some generic guidelines that will make it easier for you to decide when to use the active voice and when the passive.

Why is the active voice preferable?

1. Improves readability:  In general, scientific style manuals like, the American Medical Association's AMA Manual of Style, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), etc. recommend using the active voice as much as possible as it is direct, clear, concise and improves readability. Compare these two sentences:

Passive: The hardness–impact velocity relation was significantly affected by the increased indenter mass.

Active: Increased indenter mass significantly affected the hardness–impact velocity relation.

2. Emphasizes author responsibility: Another argument in favor of using the active voice is that it emphasizes author responsibility. Using the passive voice often makes it unclear who was responsible for the action. Compare these:

Passive: No attempt was made to comprehensively investigate the material properties as it was beyond the scope of the present study.

Active: We did not attempt to comprehensively investigate the material properties as it was beyond the scope of the present study.

Thus, the active voice is more appropriate when you wish to emphasize a decision that you took as authors of a study.

3. Journals prefer the active voice: Most journals in their submission guidelines instruct authors to use the active voice in their manuscripts as they feel that the active voice would help readers comprehend the subject matter of the paper more easily.

For instance, the author guidelines of Nature mentions the following: “Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice (“we performed the experiment . . .”) as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly.”

In short, most style guides and journals advocate the use of the active voice in scientific writing as far as possible since it is livelier, clearer and more direct. However, there are certain instances where the passive voice is preferred over the active.

When is the passive voice preferable?

1. When the recipient is the main focus: The passive voice is generally used when you wish to emphasize the person or thing acted on; for instance, when referring to your main topic, as in the following example:

Active: In 1921, researchers at the University of Toronto discovered insulin. It is still the only treatment available for diabetes.

Passive: Insulin was first discovered in 1921 by researchers at the University of Toronto. It is still the only treatment available for diabetes.

Compare the above sentences. Here, insulin is the main topic of discussion and hence should be focus of the sentence. The passive voice emphasizes insulin, and is therefore preferable in this context.

2. When the action is more important: When discussing an experimental procedure, the focus is on what was done, not on who did it. For example:

Passive: The solution was first heated to 120°C for approximately 20 minutes and then allowed to cool to room temperature.

Now let’s see what happens if the same sentence is written in the active voice:

Active: We first heated the solution to 120°C for approximately 20 minutes and then we allowed it to cool to room temperature.

Neither is the sentence clearer, nor more concise. In fact, it is a few words longer than the passive construction. In addition, the focus has shifted from the actual experiment to the researcher who conducted it. In this case, the process is more important; hence, the passive voice is preferable.

3.   To avoid repetition: Using the passive voice can at times help avoid repetition and add variety. For example, consider these sentences:

Active: We dissolved the sodium hydroxide in water. Then we titrated the solution with hydrochloric acid.

In these sentences, it is obvious that the researcher is doing the dissolving and titrating. Therefore, the doer is not important. Moreover, using the active voice would mean beginning every sentence with “I” or “We” This would sound rather repetitive and monotonous. Therefore, the passive voice is a better choice here.

Passive: S odium hydroxide was dissolved in water. This solution was then titrated with hydrochloric acid .

Usage of active vs. passive voice in different sections of a manuscript

Now let us dig a little deeper and try to figure out which sections of a manuscript require the use of the active voice and where the passive would be preferable.

Active Voice

Introduction and Discussion sections:   The active voice is especially useful in the introduction and discussion sections of your manuscript, where you discuss previous research and then introduce your own.

Example: Previous studies have investigated contact behaviors resulting from dynamic loading. In this study, we investigated the effect of stiffness on contact behavior.

Note how using the active voice in the second sentence helps the reader make a clear mental transition from previous studies to the present study.

Literature review: The literature review section of a paper often seeks to delineate the most important contributions in the field, which makes actors/agents/authors important.

Active: Nobre et al. (1997) studied the surface resistance characteristics of ductile steel to impact indentation by hard alumina balls.

Passive: The surface resistance characteristics of ductile steel to impact indentation by hard alumina balls were studied by Nobre et al. (1997).

In this case, the active voice is the stronger, preferable choice. It is cleaner, clearer, and more concise. It clearly states what the author has contributed to their article. The passive option is unnecessarily wordy and difficult to comprehend.

Passive Voice

Methods section:   The passive voice is often preferred in the Materials and Methods section where the steps taken are more important than the doer or actor.  Consider the following example:

Active: We obtained the velocity contour lines from CFD simulations.

Passive: The velocity contour lines were obtained from CFD simulations.

In this case, it is more important to emphasize what was done rather than who did it; therefore, the passive voice is preferable here.

Results section: The passive voice is also preferable when describing the results of a study as the presentation of results calls for objectivity.

Active: We observed an inverse relationship between the pressure ratio and exergy loss in the combustion chamber.

Passive: An inverse relationship was observed between the pressure ratio and exergy loss in the combustion chamber.

Note that in the examples above, the passive construction seems a better choice because the statement indicates that these results hold true regardless of the doer of the experiment. It lends universality to the results. 

In summary, both the active and passive voices can be appropriate choices in scientific/academic writing. It is important to consider what you are trying to emphasize in a particular sentence or section of your paper. Your guiding principle should be clarity: Think about what information the target reader is looking for, and choose the active voice or the passive voice, whichever will make the text most clear and comprehensible. If you write keeping this in mind, no journal reviewer will need to give you feedback about the active and passive voice.

Related reading:

Using the active and passive voice in research writing

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Published on: Jan 29, 2019

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How and When to Use Active or Passive Voice in Research Papers

when to use active or passive voice in research papers

Many young researchers are unsure about when and where to use active or passive voice in research papers. In fact, once you are sure about what to include in your research article, the next big question usually is how to include this information and which writing voice to use.  

Being uncertain about whether to use the active or passive voice in research papers is actually quite common. The simple answer is that usage and preference of one over the other is arbitrary and depends on the point that you, the researcher, are trying to make 1 . Balance is crucial here, though; sticking to just one voice structure can not only make the article boring but also ambiguous at times. As a result, the reader is left unsure of the authors’ intended message and which section to focus on. 

You might be wondering at this point what the difference between active and passive voice is and why it matters so much when only the research should be of concern. It matters because choosing the right writing style is key to convey your ideas in your research paper in a clear, succinct, and convincing manner.

To make it easier, we answer the most frequently asked questions in this article. 

Table of Contents

  • What’s the difference between active and passive voice? 
  • When should you use active or passive voice in research papers? 
  • i) The introduction section 
  • ii) The results section 
  • ii) The methods section 

What’s the difference between active and passive voice?

When you use active voice in research papers, the agent—a person or object—doing the stated “action”—receives emphasis. 

E.g., CRISPR is a new gene editing tool that edits the DNA (Active)  

The use of CRISPR as the agent in this sentence serves to highlight the significance of CRISPR as a tool for gene editing. 

When you use passive voice in scientific writing, emphasis is given to the subject (person or object) receiving the action (of the verb). 

E.g., The DNA can be edited by a new gene editing tool, CRISPR (Passive)  

In this example, DNA is the object of the CRISPR action (editing). The author wants to draw attention to how the DNA can be edited by CRISPR. Simply put, the performer (CRISPR) is the main focus in the active voice, whereas the recipient (DNA) is the star of the show in the passive voice. 

When should you use active or passive voice in research papers ?

When you write a research paper, active or passive voice usage makes a significant difference to how your words are interpreted. The use of passive voice in research papers has traditionally been favored; however, in recent years, more journals have started to prefer the use of active voice in research papers. Journals like Science and Nature encourage researchers to use, whenever appropriate, active voice in research papers 2 . This is because scientific articles should be simple to read and comprehend, and most sentences written in the active voice are succinct, straightforward, and vigorous. It does not imply that sentences in the passive voice have no place in your research articles. Passive sentences are formal, impersonal, and occasionally even shorter, making them just as significant as active voice sentences if used in the right way. See how the passive voice can be shorter and more impersonal than the active voice in the following example. 

E.g., Researchers have created the first artificial vision system for both land and water (Active)  

In the above active sentence, the placement of the subject (researchers) at the beginning gives the impression that researchers are significant in this context. 

E.g., The first artificial vision system for both land and water has been created (Passive)  

The most important part of the passive sentence above is the construction of the first artificial vision system (action); information about the researchers (subject) is either universally true or unnecessary and can be omitted entirely. 

In contrast, using passive voice can occasionally lengthen and also complicate a sentence. See this example: 

E.g., The James Webb telescope finds a 13.5 billion-year-old galaxy in the universe (Active)  

E.g., A 13.5 billion-year-old galaxy in the universe was found by the James Webb telescope (Passive)  

In this example, the active voice sentence is clear and emphasizes the James Webb telescope as the agent that performs the action of identifying a galaxy. The sentence in passive voice emphasizes the newly discovered galaxy and is two words longer than in active voice. 

Which sections of the manuscript require which type of voice construction?

It is crucial to use both active and passive voice in research papers in order to keep your writing from sounding repetitive and unclear. The active voice is typically used in an article’s introduction, results, and discussion sections to simplify complex information 3 . See a few examples: 

i) The introduction section

E.g., Mild and moderate diseases of the upper respiratory tract in animals and humans are caused by the SARS-CoV-2, an enveloped RNA virus (Passive)  

E.g., SARS-CoV-2 is an enveloped RNA virus that causes mild and moderate diseases of the upper respiratory tract in animals and humans (Active)  

As seen in the above example, using active voice in the introduction is preferable as it is clear and concise. 

ii) The results section

E.g., No attempts were made to check the interactions of the proteins as it was beyond the scope of the present study (Passive)  

E.g., We did not check the interactions of the proteins as it was beyond the scope of the present study (Active)  

Active voice is usually preferred in the results section to emphasize the outcome (interactions of protein in this example); it is also used to highlight the role of the authors in making decisions. 

ii) The methods section

The total RNA was treated with DNAseI to remove the contaminating DNA for cDNA synthesis (Passive)  

We treated the total RNA with DNAseI to remove the contaminating DNA for cDNA synthesis (Active)  

The use of passive voice is preferred in the methods section, where the process itself is valued more highly than who is performing the process. 

The general rule is, therefore, to select the preferred voice while taking the statement’s clarity and the points you want to emphasize into consideration. Needless to say, a combination of both voices provides cadence and clarity to the writing. When in doubt, use active voice liberally when you need objectivity, and use passive voice when it is required. Use passive voice in academic writing when the performer is unimportant, obvious, or unknown; passive voice is also preferred when the process or action is more important than who did it (often the case in the method section). Hope these tips help you understand when to use active and passive voice in research papers, and you can slay your academic writing. 

1. Majumdar, K. How to effectively use active and passive voice in research writing. Editage Insights (2019) https://www.editage.com/insights/how-to-effectively-use-active-and-passive-voice-in-research-writing

2. Clear Science Writing: Active Voice or Passive Voice? http://www.biomedicaleditor.com/active-voice.html

3. Cerejo, C. Using the active and passive voice in research writing. Editage Insights (2013) https://www.editage.com/insights/using-the-active-and-passive-voice-in-research-writing

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The passive and active voices and when to to use them

Active voice.

The subject (doer) is put at the beginning of the sentence and performs and action. The object (done to) of the action is placed after the verb at the end of the sentence. In the following sentence 'The team' is the subject, the 'optimum pH' the object. 

The team calculated the optimum pH . 

The active voice:

  • is usually more concise than the passive voice
  • puts the subject at the sentence beginning - better if the subject is at least as important as the object

Passive Voice

The object of the action is placed at the beginning of the sentence. The subject is placed after the verb. This sentence construction sometimes needs additional words with the main verb, such as 'is, was, are, being ...[verb]...by'

The optimum pH was calculated by the team. 

The passive voice : 

  • sounds more formal so invites use in science
  • can sound duller
  • can use more words
  • enables a more impersonal tone

When should I use passive, when active?

Some believe that you should not use the active voice in formal scientific writing because scientific writing should be impersonal. Ultimately, you should use the style of language with which supervisors and co authors feel most comfortable. Further, some journals provide guidance on writing style and prefer authors to use the active voice (always read a journal’s ‘Instructions for Authors’).  

Using the active voice does not mean you need to use a person’s name or personal pronoun (‘ I ’ or ‘ we’ ). Take the example: ‘ Process X improves yield .’ This is the active voice but does not need a personal pronoun. The passive version is fine ‘ Yield is improved by using process X .’, but it uses more words.

It is now acceptable to use 'we' in formal science writing. Further, in thesis writing the occasional use of 'I' can be appropriate - for example when indicating that you have decided to use a particular method from a number of alternatives. However in disciplines such as the physical sciences, using the first person ('I') is often less acceptable. So check with your supervisor or PI, or other colleagues and a journal's Instructions for Authors. 

If you are uncertain about what a passive or active style reads like, compare the following two abstracts. The passive version has nine instances of the passive voice and 131 words. The active version has six instances of the active voice and three in the passive; the word count is 122 words. 

Example 1: passive style

Biosecurity is defined as a set of measures to protect animals and crops from the risk of disease. It is considered important in pig production, and several routine measures are employed by farmers (e.g. cleaning, disinfection, segregation). However, air as a potential vector of pathogens has long been disregarded. Filters for incoming and recirculating air were installed into the ventilation system of one of two barns at a fattening piggery. Over three consecutive fattening periods, the lung health of pigs in the filtered compared with the unfiltered barn was evaluated. Air filtration was easily introduced into the existing ventilation system. Better lung health was found in animals from the barn equipped with recirculating air filtration modules. Therefore, air filtration systems in animal rearing enclosures should be recommended by animal healthcare professionals.

Example 2: active style

Biosecurity is defined as a set of measures to protect animals and crops from the risk of disease. It is important in pig production, and farmers routinely employ several measures (e.g. cleaning, disinfection, segregation). However, air as a potential vector of pathogens has long been disregarded. We installed filters for incoming and recirculating air into the ventilation system of one of two barns at a fattening piggery. Over three consecutive fattening periods, we compared the lung health of pigs in the filtered and unfiltered barn. Air filtration was easily introduced into the existing ventilation system. Animals had better lung health in the barn equipped with recirculating air filtration modules. Therefore, animal healthcare professionals should recommend air filtration systems in animal rearing enclosure s.

(Adapted from: Wenke C. et al. (2018). Impact of different supply air and recirculating air filtration systems on stable climate, animal health, and performance of fattening pigs in a commercial pig farm. PloS One 13.3: e0194641)

The active voice is appropriate:

  • when readers/journals express a preference/expect the active voice
  • to avoid/cut down excessive use of words
  • to identify the subject and/or take responsibility.

The passive voice is appropriate:

  • the most readable text is often a combination of active and passive voice (as in example 2 above)
  • to achieve a balance with the active voice, particularly in the ‘methods’ section of a manuscript
  • when the subject is not known, obvious or irrelevant:

Artificial intelligence has been the subject of considerable research for decades. (By whom? … It doesn’t matter.)

  • when the object/recipient is the main topic:

These dangerous emissions are produced by diesel engines. (When the focus is ‘dangerous emissions’ and not diesel engines.)

On this page

Form and Style Review Home Page

Capstone Form and Style

Scholarly voice: active vs. passive voice, active vs. passive voice.

APA style encourages use of the active voice over passive voice for clarity. Writing in the active voice means the subject of the sentence clearly performs the action that the verb expresses. 

APA stresses using the active voice to make it clear to the reader who is taking action in the sentence. The reason is that the use of passive voice often makes it difficult for the reader to determine who is taking the action of the verb. In addition, the active voice stresses that the actor (or grammatical subject) precedes the verb, again, putting emphasis on the subject.

The order of words in a sentence with active voice is subject, verb, object.

  • Example : I conducted a study of elementary school teachers.
  • This sentence structure puts the emphasis of the sentence on the subject, clarifying who conducted the study. 
  • Example : A study was conducted of elementary school teachers.
  • In this sentence, it is not clear to the reader who conducted this study. 

Generally, in scholarly writing, with its emphasis on precision and clarity, the active voice is preferred. However, the passive voice is acceptable in some instances, for example:

  • if the reader is aware of who the actor is;
  • in expository writing, where the goal of the discussion is to provide background, context, or an in-depth explanation;
  • if the writer wants to focus on the object or the implications of the actor’s action; or
  • to vary sentence structure.  

Also, much like for anthropomorphism , different writing styles have different preferences. So, though you may see the passive voice used heavily in articles that you read for your courses and study, it does not mean that APA style advocates the same usage.

Examples of Writing in the Active Voice

Here are some examples of scholarly writing in the active voice:

  • This is active voice because the subject in the sentence precedes the verb, clearly indicating who (I) will take the action (present).

Example : Teachers conducted a pilot study addressing the validity of the TAKS exam.

  • Similarly, teachers (subject) clearly took the action (conducted) in this sentence.

Recognizing the Passive Voice

According to APA, writers should select verb tenses and voice carefully. Consider these examples to help determine which form of the verb is most appropriate:

Example : A study was conducted of job satisfaction and turnover.

  • Here, it is not clear who did the conducting. In this case, the writer should revise this sentence to clarify who is doing the conducting. 

Example : I conducted a study of job satisfaction and turnover.

  • This revised sentence clearly indicates the action taker. Using “I” to identify the writer’s role in the research process is often a solution to the passive voice (see APA 7, Section 4.16).

Using the past tense of the verb “to be” and the past participle of a verb together is often an indication of the passive voice. Here are some signs to look for in your paper:

  • Example : This study was conducted.
  • Example : Findings were distributed.

Another indication of passive voice is when the verb precedes the actor in the sentence. For example, even if the action taker is clearly identified, that actor should be the grammatical subject and come before the verb.

  • Issue : Though the verb and the actor (action taker) are clearly identified here, to use the active voice , the writer should also place that actor, Rogers, before the verb. This improves clarity and word economy as well.
  • Correct : Rogers (2016) conducted a study on nursing and turnover.
  • Issue : Here, the actor follows the verb, which reduces emphasis and clarity.
  • This revised sentence is in the active voice and clearly identifies the action takers and the action being taken.

Intentional Use of the Passive Voice

Sometimes, even in scholarly writing, the passive voice may be used intentionally and strategically. A writer may intentionally include the subject later in the sentence so as to reduce the emphasis and/or importance of the subject in the sentence. See the following examples of intentional passive voice to indicate emphasis:

Example : Schools not meeting AYP for 2 consecutive years will be placed on a “needs improvement” list by the State’s Department of Education.

  • Here, all actors taking actions are identified, but this is in the passive voice as the State’s Department of Education is the actor doing the placing, but this verb precedes the actor. This may be an intentional use of the passive voice, to highlight schools not meeting AYP.
  • To write this in the active voice, it would be phrased: “The State’s Department of Education will place schools not meeting AYP for 2 consecutive years on a “needs improvement” list. This sentence places the focus on the State’s Department of Education, not the schools.

Example : Participants in the study were incentivized with a $5 coffee gift card, which I gave them upon completion of their interview.

  • As the writer and researcher, I may want to vary my sentence structure in order to avoid beginning several sentences with “I provided…” This example is written in the passive voice, but the meaning is clear.

Using Passive Voice in Scholarly Writing

As noted before, passive voice is allowed in APA style and can be quite appropriate, especially when writing about methods and data collection. However, students often overuse the passive voice in their writing, which means their emphasis in the sentence is not on the action taker. Their writing is also at risk of being repetitive. Consider the following paragraph in which the passive voice is used in each sentence:

A survey was administered . Using a convenience sample, 68 teachers were invited to participate in the survey by emailing them an invitation. Email addresses of teachers who fit the requirements for participation were provided by the principal of the school . The teachers were emailed an information sheet and a consent form. Responses were collected from 45 teachers… As you can see, the reader has no idea who is performing these actions, which makes the research process unclear. This is at odds with the goal of the methods discussion, which is to be clear and succinct regarding the process of data collection and analysis.

However, if translated entirely to the active voice, clearly indicating the researcher’s role, “I” becomes redundant and repetitive, interrupting the flow of the paragraph:

In this study, I administered a survey. I created a convenience sample of 68 teachers. I invited them to participate in the survey by emailing them an invitation. I obtained email addresses from the principal of the school… “I” is quite redundant here and repetitive for the reader.

The Walden Writing Center suggests that students use “I” in the first sentence of the paragraph . Then, as long as it is clear to the reader that the student (writer) is the actor in the remaining sentences, use the active and passive voices appropriately to achieve precision and clarity (where applicable):

In this study, I administered a survey using a convenience sample. Sixty-eight teachers were invited to participate in the survey. The principal of the school provided me with the email addresses of teachers who fit the requirements for participation. I emailed the teachers an information sheet and a consent form. A total of 45 teachers responded …

The use of the passive voice is complicated and requires careful attention and skill. There are no hard-and-fast rules. Using these guidelines, however, should help writers be clearer and more engaging in their writing, as well as achieving the intended purposes.

Remember, use voice strategically. APA recommends the active voice for clarity. However, the passive voice may be used, with intention, to remove the emphasis on the subject and also as a method for varying sentence structure. So, generally write in the active voice, but consider some of the above examples and some uses of the passive voice that may be useful to implement in your writing. Just be sure that the reader is always aware of who is taking the action of the verb.

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How to Effectively Use Active and Passive Voice in Academic Writing

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A sentence is considered to be in passive voice when the subject of a sentence is the object being acted on. Active voice, on the other hand, is where the subject is the one doing the acting. In the 20 th century, passive voice was a dominant characteristic of scientific writing; however, there has been a discernible shift in consensus in recent years. Most writing guides (such as APA [6 th edition, section 3.18]), root for the active voice for clarity and conciseness. According to scholars, the general opinion is that the passive voice makes writing flat and insinuates evasion of responsibility in writing of any form, not just scientific writing.

how to write a research paper in active voice

In fact, some scholars have actually shown that active voice was the preferred form till the beginning of the 20 th century when the trend of objectivity became favored. According to Ding (1998), in writing, the world should essentially be represented “in terms of objects, things, and materials.” Passive voice can obscure agents and readers can lose sight of the relevance of a prose that is dominated by things and objects. However, in the art of writing, polarized views often become irrelevant and a balance must be achieved by using the two voices contextually.

After all, human agents are responsible for designing experiments…writing awkward phrases to avoid admitting their responsibility and their presence is an odd way of being objective . -Jane J. Robinson

The APA recommends that verb tenses and voices should be used carefully. Try not to be reluctant to utilize the active voice – particularly in the Discussion section, where it is imperative to express that it is you supposing certain things and having specific assessments. In the Methods section, it is satisfactory to break the dullness of numerous passive voice sentences with the usage of the active voice. A response on Quora (John Geare, 2015) sums up the required balance in a succinct manner:

In academic writing, passive voice is used to describe a process, the results of study , or similar material which is objective in nature. But active voice is used to describe actions.
Related: Having trouble with grammar and punctuations in your research paper ?  Get help from native language experts now!

John Geare provides a specific example for clarity.

My colleagues A, B, [names changed] and I, designed an experiment to test the impact on worker perceptions of well-being when domesticated cats were allowed to freely roam various work environments in which the subjects were normally employed. Three test environments were selected for our experiments: a law office, a laboratory in which experiments were performed using laboratory rats, and an automobile assembly line. One-way mirrored glass panels were installed to allow video cameras to record the activity, and researchers to observe the same and take notes. We secretly inserted observers directly into the work environment. These observers posed as outside contractors, and were uniformed as maintenance and cleaning staff, coffee and water service vendors, and similar supporting personnel. The observers were drawn from the students who were matriculated into the experimental psychology courses from which this study had been developed as an example of such studies generally.

activandpassive

You can check the references for more information on the usage of active and passive voice across writing styles.

References:

Vijith Assar (2015, September 3) An Interactive Guide To Ambiguous Grammar. Retrieved from https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/an-interactive-guide-to-ambiguous-grammar

Josh Bernoff, WOBS LLC (2016, April 26) A passel of pernicious passive voice (Master Post). Retrieved from http://withoutbullshit.com/blog/master-post-passel-pernicious-passive-voice

Duke University Scientific Writing Resource. Passive Voice in Scientific Writing. Retrieved from https://cgi.duke.edu/web/sciwriting/index.php?action=passive_voice

Leong Ping Alvin (2014, March 13) The passive voice in scientific writing. The current norm in science journals . Retrieved from https://jcom.sissa.it/sites/default/files/documents/JCOM_1301_2014_A03.pdf

Language and Learning Online. Active or passive voice? Retrieved from http://www.monash.edu.au/lls/llonline/writing/general/lit-reviews/5.xml

John Geare (2015, August 29) Why shouldn’t we use a passive voice in academic writing? Retrieved from https://www.quora.com/Why-shouldnt-we-use-a-passive-voice-in-academic-writing

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Using Active or Passive Voice in Research Papers

how to write a research paper in active voice

When to Use the Active or Passive Voice in Research Writing

One decision that gives pause to thousands of beginning researchers is whether to use the active or passive voice in their research papers. You may have been taught in school that you should always use the active voice, especially when giving speeches and when writing fiction or persuasive essays, as it emphasizes the subject and makes your sentences leaner and stronger.

While this rule generally applies to research writing, there are some definite differences in application–this accounts for why there are so many sentences in scientific journal articles using the passive voice construction. In fact, applying only  one  type of voice construction can make a paper awkward to read and difficult to comprehend, and it might even confuse the reader about which parts of the study or a given passage are most important. So when should an author choose the passive voice over the active voice and what is the difference between the two?

Differences Between the  Active  and the  Passive Voice

In general, the active voice emphasizes the  agent  of the action—that is, the  person or object performing the action .

Example: “ We   arranged  the sample groups.”

The subject pronoun “we” leads the sentence, setting off its importance in the action and leading right into the action taken against the object, “the sample groups.” Using this construction doesn’t necessarily imply that “the sample groups” is unimportant, but it does place special emphasis on the agent of the action.

The passive voice, on the other hand, emphasizes the  person or object receiving the action.

Example:  “ Sample groups   were arranged  (by us/by the researchers).”

In this example, “sample groups” stands out as the most important element in the sentence, and indeed it should since we are able to omit the agent entirely—adding “by us” or “by the researchers” seems redundant as the researchers are necessarily the ones carrying out the operations of a study. Also, note that by eliminating the agent we have also decreased the word count, which makes the passive construction leaner than the active voice in this case.

Since active-voice constructions are usually stronger, clearer, more direct, and often more concise than their passive-voice counterparts, most style guides advise scientific and clinical authors to favor the active voice in their research writing.

However, this is not a command to silence the passive voice entirely. In fact, scientific manuscripts have increasingly favored passive-voice construction in the past couple of decades. Whether the reasons for this are practical or because it is simply more fashionable today to use the passive voice, there are good reasons to include this construction to gain a balanced perspective in your writing.

Sticking with the conventional wisdom that we should use the  active voice  as often as possible, when exactly should we opt for the passive? Here are three circumstances in which using the passive voice can be a good decision.

1) When the agent of the action is unimportant, unknown, or obvious to readers

Choose the passive voice when the agent of the action is unknown or unimportant to the action being discussed, or when it is quite clear who is performing the action. In some cases, you may identify the agent using a “by” clause, but it is often unnecessary to add this information.

Examples of active and passive voice:

“Over 20,000 patients  are diagnosed  with diabetes each year (by doctors) in the United States.” “Encyclopedias  have been written  (by scribes and scholars) throughout history.” “ Carcharodon carcharias   has been studied  (by scientists) more extensively than almost any other species of shark.”

In the first example, naming the agent of diagnosis is redundant, as doctors are almost universally the ones who diagnose diseases. In the second example, the author assumes the reader will not be interested in the authors (this decision of course depends on the focus of the study) or perhaps the authors are unknown; the agent may be added in case this information is known and is somewhat important to the statement. In the third example, the agent is fairly obvious, as scientists are the ones tasked with studying species of animals.

2) When the object or action itself is more important than the agent performing the action

In research writing, the study is clearly of greater importance than the researcher undertaking the study (unless that researcher happens to be someone as renowned as Stephen Hawking), and thus the passive voice is more often employed. This object/action focus can commonly be seen in the  Methods  section, in which an author writes about what he or she did (or rather,  “what was done”),  mostly using the passive voice since the topics here are generally the research methods, materials, and procedures.

“Frozen embryos  were stored  in a cryogenic tank for two weeks.” “The extract from sample A  was added  to sample B to create a mixture.” “The results  were assessed  using a Chi-square statistic.”

The sentences might be written in the active voice like so:

“We  stored  the embryos in a cryogenic tank for two weeks.” “We  added  the extract from sample A to sample B to create a mixture.” “Our team  assessed  the results using a Chi-square statistic.”

What would be the net benefit of using the active voice here? In none of these examples would the active voice improve the sentences by shortening them or by clarifying the focus of the action. The length of each active sentence is the same as its passive voice counterpart, and the sentences in the active voice actually redirect the focus to the  agent —“we” or “our team”—which does not seem to be the most important element in any of these examples. The active-voice constructions are admittedly a bit stronger and livelier, but they seem more fitting for a short story or anecdote than for an explanation of actions carried out in the course of a scientific study.

Another benefit of using the passive voice in the Methods section (in addition to some other parts of the research paper) is that it varies the structure and cadence of your sentences while maintaining an emphasis on the actual work. One can see how a paper becomes more readable when there isn’t constant emphasis on only one part of a sentence.

In the  Methods  and other sections of the manuscript, use the passive voice to redirect focus to the work being done—the object of the action or the action itself. When editing a manuscript , note this distinction in voice usage between the Methods section and other sections, as it is a common one in research writing.

3) When the recipient of the action is the topic of your sentence

It is sometimes necessary to use the passive voice to place the  most important information  at the beginning. By placing an item at the  beginning  of a sentence, you are putting it in the “topic position” (or “subject position”), indicating that it is the central element of your sentence.

Similarly, by placing a word at the  very end  of your sentence, you put it in the “stress position,” which is often used for words or phrases that modify or qualify the primary focus of your sentence. You can place words in these positions using passive or active constructions.

Active voice: “Scientists once  classified  slime molds as fungi, but they no longer  classify  them as part of that particular kingdom.” Passive voice: “Slime molds  were  once  classified  as fungi but  are  no longer  considered  to be part of that particular kingdom.”

In the first example, “scientists” occupies the topic position, and “part of that particular kingdom” is in the stress position. What might this ordering indicate to the reader? First, it shows that “scientists” is perhaps the main focus (or at least an important element) of this information. Second, by putting “part of that particular kingdom” at the end of the sentence, the author seems to be telling the reader that this qualifying information is also essential to understanding this information.

How might this information be interpreted differently in passive-voice construction? The main difference here is that “slime molds” are placed in the topic position, indicating that they are the primary focus of this information.

Privileging One Element Over Another in a Sentence

Which voice you use and how you order your sentence elements can make a big difference in establishing the importance of one element over another, especially when both of these are important to your study and neither involve the researcher.

In the following examples, there are at least two elements that the study focuses on. Reordering these by changing the voice makes the importance of these positions quite clear.

Active voice: “These amoeba coalesce into a multicellular, slug-like coordinated creature that  grows  into a fruiting body.” Passive voice: “This multicellular, slug-like coordinated creature, which eventually  grows  a fruiting body, is created by coalescing amoeba.”

In both of these sentences, the “amoeba” and the “multicellular, slug-like coordinated creature” are central; they seem to be essentially two parts of one process. This  process  is demonstrated through the active construction, which explains the life-cycle chronologically and therefore places emphasis on both elements (both agents) equally: “amoeba” and “fruiting body” (in the topic and stress position respectively) are at the beginning and end of this sentence and the particular part of the life cycle, with the information in the middle representing the transition between the two.

However, in the passive-voice construction, the “multicellular, slug-like coordinated creature” is in the topic position, the “amoeba” in the stress position, and the “fruiting body” in the middle is described (using a relative clause) as an outgrowth of this “creature.” This ordering completely shifts the focus of the sentence to the multicellular creature itself, with the other elements acting as supporting information. But because “amoeba” is still included in the sentence and is in the stress position, the author clearly wants to show its importance.

Combining the Active and Passive Constructions in a Sequence of Sentences

Whether introducing the purpose of your study in the  Introduction  section or suggesting further applications or studies in the  Discussion  and  Conclusion , you should try to combine conciseness and clarity of intention to create a logically cohesive structure. This can be done by combining passive and active constructions.

One way to achieve this is to create a structure that “connects backwards”—the final sentence in your paragraph or short sequence of sentences explains the purpose of the first sentence. Let’s see how this might work in action in the  Introduction  section.

Example of three cohesive sentences ( active—passive—passive ):

[Excerpt from “A Possible Correction of the Face Inversion Effect: A Methodological Commentary” (Rakover, Sam and Cahlon, Baruch)] “The present commentary concerns the face/object (UI) effect. This effect can be explained by appeal to either innate or learning factors. However, this effect  can  also be influenced by another factor, the ‘baseline-level,’ which is the focus of the present commentary.”

These three lines occur in sequence within the paper’s  Introduction  section. The first sentence clearly and directly explains the problem of the study (“the face/object (UI) effect”) using the active voice, setting the reader up for a further explanation to follow.

The second sentence, written in the passive voice, explores some potential directions from which this problem can be approached.

And the third sentence unites the two ideas, or “synthesizes” them, using a passive-voice construction. This third sentence has a parallel structure to the second and unites the problem and the proposed explanations using the word “influence” as a unifying action.

By focusing on the topic (“the effect”), the author can create a cohesive structure that uses sentences in both the active and passive voice. Such a passage flows naturally and is more comprehensible and enjoyable for the reader than separated sentences using the same voice construction.

Active and Passive Voice Guidelines

There are several good reasons to vary your sentences between active and passive voice:

  • To place emphasis on the most important element of the sentence
  • To cut down on word count (sometimes using active, sometimes using passive)
  • To make your paper easier for the reader by creating variations in cadence and syntax

As a rule of thumb,  choose the active voice whenever possible.

Choose the passive voice  when there is good reason to do so. Consider passive voice when:

  • The agent is unknown, unimportant, or obvious to the reader
  • The agent is less important than the  action  of the sentence
  • The agent is less important than the  topic  of the sentence
  • One topic (among several) has greater importance

To ensure that your voice constructions follow style guidelines, as well as grammar rules, be sure to get paper proofreading services from a reputable English editing company like Wordvice.

Academic Resources:

  • Springer.com.  “Stress Position”  https://www.springer.com/gp/authors-editors/authorandreviewertutorials/writinginenglish/stress-position/10252690
  • Gopen GD, Swan JA. The science of scientific writing.  Am Scientist.  1990;78:550-558.
  • Rakover, S., & CAHLON, B. (2014). A Possible Correction of the Face Inversion Effect: A Methodological Commentary.  The American Journal of Psychology,   127 (3), 303-311. doi:10.5406/amerjpsyc.127.3.0303 Website:  https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/amerjpsyc.127.3.0303?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
  • Wordvice  Blog: “Which Tenses to Use in Your Research Paper.”  https://blog.wordvice.com/video-which-verb-tenses-should-i-use-in-a-research-paper/
  • Wordvice  Blog: “How to Choose the Best Title for Your Manuscript.”  https://blog.wordvice.com/best-title-for-journal-manuscript/
  • Wordvice YouTube Channel:  “ How to Create a Title for Your Research Paper .”
  • Wordvice Blog:  “Choosing the Best Keywords for Your Paper.”  https://blog.wordvice.com/choosing-research-paper-keywords/
  • Wordvice YouTube Channel:  “Parts of a Research Paper.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aO6ipI-d2fw
  • ScienceDocs  Inc. Blog: “5 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Discussion.”  https://www.sciencedocs.com/writing-a-research-paper-discussion/ 
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Mastering Active and Passive Voice in Academic Writing

David Costello

Active and passive voice are two distinct ways of structuring sentences in English, each with its unique character and effect. Active voice occurs when the subject of the sentence performs the action, resulting in a direct, clear, and concise expression. An example could be: "Researchers conducted a thorough study."

On the other hand, passive voice transpires when the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb, bringing the object or the action to the spotlight. It may sound more formal or impersonal, as in: "A thorough study was conducted by the researchers."

In academic writing, the choice between active and passive voice can have significant implications. Each voice contributes differently to the tone, clarity, and style of your text. Understanding the distinctions helps ensure your writing is clear, precise, and appropriate for your context.

In academic writing, active voice is often praised for its clarity and directness, making it easy for readers to follow the thought process. Meanwhile, passive voice can be useful for focusing on the action or object of the sentence, or when the performer of the action is unknown or irrelevant.

Making an informed decision about which voice to use can enhance the impact of your academic writing, making your arguments more compelling and your points easier to understand. It's not just a matter of grammar—it's a tool that, when used correctly, can significantly improve the quality of your academic work.

Understanding active voice

Active voice refers to sentence constructions where the subject performs the action denoted by the verb. The key characteristic of active voice is its directness—the actor, action, and recipient of the action are typically clear and straightforward. The structure usually follows the pattern: "Subject + Verb + Object."

Examples of active voice in academic writing

Here are a few examples of active voice in academic writing:

  • "The research team analyzed the data."
  • "We found significant correlations in the variables."
  • "The experiment demonstrated the theory's validity."

In each of these cases, the subject of the sentence—the research team, "we," and "the experiment"—are performing the actions.

Benefits of using active voice in academic writing

Active voice has several benefits in academic writing. It often makes the writing clearer and more direct, allowing the reader to easily understand who is doing what. This clarity can make your arguments more persuasive and your points easier to follow. Active voice also tends to be more concise since it generally requires fewer words than passive voice, helping to keep your writing succinct.

Potential drawbacks of overusing active voice

While active voice offers many benefits, it is possible to overuse it. Over-reliance on active voice can make your writing sound repetitive or overly simplistic. Furthermore, it may not always be suitable for the tone of academic writing, which often requires objectivity and a focus on the research itself rather than the researcher. In some disciplines, using active voice excessively could make the writing seem overly personal or subjective.

Understanding passive voice

Passive voice refers to a sentence structure in which the subject is acted upon by the verb. The actor is often placed after the verb or omitted entirely. The typical structure is: "Subject + (is/are/was/were) + Verb (past participle) + (by + Actor)." The primary characteristic of the passive voice is its focus on the action or the object of the action rather than the actor.

Examples of passive voice in academic writing

Here are some examples of passive voice in academic writing:

  • "The data were analyzed by the research team."
  • "Significant correlations in the variables were found."
  • "The theory's validity was demonstrated by the experiment."

In each of these sentences, the focus is on the action and its result, not on who performed the action.

Situations where passive voice is beneficial or even necessary in academic writing

The passive voice is worthwhile in a number of situations in academic writing. When the actor is unknown, irrelevant, or should be intentionally de-emphasized, passive voice is a useful tool. For instance, in scientific writing, the passive voice is often used to maintain an objective tone and focus on the experiment's processes and outcomes, rather than on the researchers themselves. Moreover, passive voice can be useful when writing about a sequence of events in a methodological process where the actions are more important than the actors.

Drawbacks of overusing or misusing passive voice

Despite its benefits, overusing or misusing passive voice can lead to several drawbacks. It can sometimes make sentences longer and more convoluted, making them harder to read and understand. Furthermore, passive voice can create a sense of distance or detachment from the subject matter, which may not always be desirable. If the actor is omitted entirely, it may leave readers with unanswered questions about who is responsible for an action. Finally, an over-reliance on the passive voice can result in a lack of variety in sentence structures, leading to monotonous writing.

Comparing active and passive voice

To provide a clearer understanding of the distinct characteristics and uses of active and passive voice, we've compiled a comparative table below. This overview outlines the fundamental differences between the two voices in terms of their definitions, sentence structures, focus points, tones, and clarity, supported with examples.

The choice between active and passive voice in academic writing depends on the context, discipline, and specific writing situation.

Active voice is generally preferred when you want to make your writing clear, direct, and concise. It's particularly useful when the actor in the sentence is important and needs to be emphasized, or when you want to convey a more assertive or decisive tone.

Passive voice, on the other hand, is beneficial when you want to focus on the action or the object of the action rather than the actor. This is often the case in scientific writing where the process or results are more significant than the individuals performing the action. The passive voice is also useful when the actor is unknown, irrelevant, or intentionally omitted for reasons of style or emphasis.

Therefore, a balanced use of both active and passive voice is recommended in academic writing. The key is to understand your audience, your writing goals, and the norms of your academic field, and to make conscious, informed decisions about which voice to use.

Guidelines for using active and passive voice in academic writing

Strategies for effectively using active voice.

The use of active voice should be approached strategically to ensure the effectiveness of your academic writing. One of the primary strategies involves prioritizing clarity. When your intent is to make your writing clear and direct, active voice is usually the best choice. It provides a straightforward way for the reader to understand who is performing the action.

Furthermore, active voice is beneficial when you want to emphasize the action or the actor. If the person or entity performing the action holds significance to your argument or findings, utilizing active voice will underscore their importance.

Finally, to avoid monotonous writing and keep the reader engaged, vary your sentence structure. Incorporating active voice sentences into your writing adds diversity to your text and helps maintain reader interest.

Best practices for employing passive voice

When employing passive voice in academic writing, there are certain practices to adhere to for effective communication. Firstly, use passive voice when you want to focus on the action or the object of the action. This is particularly common in scientific or technical writing, where the procedure or outcome often carries more weight than the actor.

Passive voice also serves well when the actor is unknown or irrelevant. If the individual or group performing the action does not contribute to your main point, the passive voice can omit unnecessary details and keep the focus on your argument.

Lastly, the use of passive voice can impart a level of formality to your writing. Depending on the academic discipline or the context of your writing, this could enhance the appropriateness and scholarly tone of your text.

Tips on maintaining balance between active and passive voice

Striking a balance between active and passive voice is crucial for creating engaging and well-rounded academic writing. To achieve this, first understand your purpose. The decision to use active or passive voice should always align with your overall writing objectives. Choose the voice that best helps you convey your points effectively.

In addition, make sure to vary your sentence structure. Just as a balanced diet is healthier, a balanced use of active and passive voices makes your writing more engaging and less monotonous.

Lastly, always review and revise your work. Revisiting your writing with a critical eye will help you identify areas where you may have overused one voice and adjust as necessary for better balance and clarity.

If you need help with this, a professional academic editor can provide invaluable assistance . Editors have the experience and expertise to identify overuse or misuse of active and passive voice and to provide constructive suggestions for improvement. They can help maintain balance and variety in your writing, enhancing readability and clarity. A skilled editor can also offer guidance on aligning your writing style with the conventions and expectations of your specific academic discipline. Beyond grammar and sentence structure, editors contribute to the development of your writing skills, enabling you to effectively communicate your research and scholarly ideas. Engaging a professional editor can be a significant step towards creating polished, professional, and impactful academic writing.

The myth about passive voice being "incorrect" or "inferior"

One common myth is the idea that passive voice is somehow "incorrect" or "inferior" to active voice. This is a misconception. Passive voice is a fundamental part of the English language, with a rich history of usage in a wide range of contexts, including academic writing. It is particularly prevalent in scientific literature, where emphasis is placed more on the actions or results than the individuals performing the actions.

The belief that passive voice is grammatically incorrect stems from its potential to create less direct and potentially convoluted sentences. While this can be the case if overused or used inappropriately, it does not imply that passive voice is inherently bad or wrong. Rather, it is a valuable tool in the writer's toolbox, and its effectiveness depends largely on how and when it is employed.

Active voice, indeed, often results in clearer, more direct, and more engaging sentences. However, this doesn't mean it is universally the best choice for all writing contexts.

The value of active versus passive voice depends greatly on the context, the audience, and the purpose of the writing. For instance, in some academic disciplines or in specific sections of a research paper, such as the Methods section , passive voice might be more appropriate or even necessary. The key to effective writing is understanding the unique strengths and applications of both voices and using them strategically to enhance the clarity and impact of your work.

Additional Resources

The mastery of active and passive voice is a journey, and there are numerous resources available to aid your understanding and practice. Here are a few recommendations:

  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White: A classic guide to English writing, this book includes excellent advice on active and passive voice.
  • Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) : This resource offers numerous exercises and explanations on grammatical topics, including active and passive voice.
  • English Grammar: A University Course by Angela Downing: This is a comprehensive resource for those wishing to delve deeper into English grammar. It covers a broad range of topics, including the use of active and passive voice, making it ideal for advanced study and practice. Additionally, many universities have writing centers that offer resources and tutoring, which could be very helpful for more personalized guidance.
  • Academic Phrasebank : This is an excellent online resource that provides phraseological "nuts and bolts" of academic writing. It's designed to help academic writers effectively express their thoughts and ideas, and it includes specific sections on using active and passive voice.

Remember, practice is the key to mastering the use of active and passive voice in your academic writing. Keep studying, keep practicing, and don't hesitate to seek feedback on your work.

The use of active and passive voice plays a pivotal role in shaping the tone, style, and clarity of academic writing. Understanding the distinctions between them, their strategic applications, and how to maintain balance are integral components of effective academic communication. Although certain misconceptions have led to confusion over the years, the reality is that both active and passive voices have their places in academic writing.

It's not about labeling one as "good" and the other as "bad," but rather understanding that they are different tools to be used for different purposes. Active voice tends to be clear and engaging, making it suitable for most writing. However, passive voice allows writers to emphasize the action over the actor and to introduce a level of formality, making it essential in certain academic contexts.

The resources provided in this post offer a starting point for further study, but the journey towards mastery is a continuous one. As you continue to write, edit, and review academic works, your command over the use of active and passive voice will grow, improving the overall quality of your writing.

Remember, effective academic writing is not just about adhering to grammatical rules. It's about conveying your ideas in a manner that is clear, coherent, and accessible to your readers. The judicious use of active and passive voice is just one aspect of achieving this goal. Continue to learn, practice, and explore the richness of academic writing, and your efforts will undoubtedly bear fruit.

Header image by Debby Hudson .

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Academic Voice

A teacher

You use the academic voice because your opinion is based on thinking; in your paper you’re revealing your thought process to your reader. Because you’ll be appealing to reason, you want to use the voice of one intellectual talking to another intellectual.

If the subject matter for your academic writing isn’t personal, as in the case of a formal research paper, you would take on a more detached, objective tone. While you may indeed feel strongly about what you’re writing about, you should maintain a professional tone, rather than a friendly or intimate one.

However, it’s important to note that even the most formal academic voice does not need to include convoluted sentence structure or abstract, stilted language, as some believe. As with all writing, you should strive to write with clarity and an active voice that avoids jargon. All readers appreciate a vigorous, lively voice.

Of course, the decision about whether you use a specialized vocabulary depends entirely on who your audience is and the purpose of the paper.

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Active Versus Passive Voice

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Active voice is used for most non-scientific writing. Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy. Even in scientific writing, too much use of passive voice can cloud the meaning of your sentences.

The passive (indirect) sentence, the entrance exam was failed by over one-third of the applicants to the school, includes an action performed upon the sentence subject (the entrance exam).

The action is performed upon the sentence subject, meaning this sentence is passive (indirect).

The active voice sentence subjects perform the action in the sentence, over one-third of the applicants to the school failed the entrance exam.

This is an example of the active voice because the sentence subject performs the action.

The subject (the brakes) is being acted upon by another individual (her) in the sentence, the brakes were slammed on by her as the car sped downhill.

This is an example of the passive voice.

The subject of this active voice sentence (she) performs the action in the statement, she slammed on the brakes as the car sped downhill.

This is an example of an active voice sentence because the sentence subject performs the action.

The bicycle is the subject of the action performed by the agent, who is omitted, in this passive voice sentence (your bicycle has been damaged).

This is an example of an active voice sentence because its subject performs the action expressed in the verb.

Sentences in active voice are also more concise than those in passive voice because fewer words are required to express action in active voice than in passive.

This passive voice sentence (action on the bill is being considered by the committee) requires more words to communicate the idea that the committee is considering action on the bill.

This passive voice sentence is less concise than its active voice counterpart (shown below).

This active voice sentence (the committee is considering action on the bill) is more concise than the passive voice version (above).

This active voice sentence requires fewer words to communicate the same idea as the passive voice version (above).

This sentence (By then, the soundtrack will have been completely remixed by the sound engineers) is more wordy than an active voice sentence because the sentence subject does not directly perform the action described by the verb.

This passive voice sentence is more wordy than an active voice version.

This sentence (by then, the sound engineers will have completely remixed the soundtrack) uses the active voice and is more concise than a passive voice version because the subject directly performs the action.

This active voice sentence is more concise than the passive voice version (above) because the subject directly performs the action.

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How to write your paper

On this page, writing for a nature journal, how to write a scientific paper.

Before writing a paper, authors are advised to visit the author information pages of the journal to which they wish to submit (see this link for a  full list of Nature Portfolio publications ). Each journal has slightly different format requirements depending on readership, space, style and so on. The journal's website will contain detailed information about format, length limits, figure preparation, and similar matters. If your questions are not answered on these pages or through our recommended guidelines below, we suggest you contact the journal’s editorial office for further guidance before submitting. Contact information for the editorial offices can be found on the journal websites.

We also strongly recommend that authors read a few issues of the journal to which they wish to submit, to obtain a sense of the level, length and readership of the journal. Looking at the print issue, or at PDFs in the online edition, is particularly useful for details such as presentation of figures or style of reference numbering. (All Nature Portfolio journals have a free online issue of the journal for those who do not subscribe or have site-licence access, which can be accessed via the journal's "about" web page.)

Nature journals are international, so in writing a paper, authors should consider those readers for whom English is a second language. The journals are read mainly by professional scientists, so authors can avoid unnecessary simplification or didactic definitions. However, many readers are outside the immediate discipline of the author(s), so clarity of expression is needed to achieve the goal of comprehensibility. (See the section below for links to some websites that provide writing help and advice.)

Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice ("we performed the experiment...") as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly. We have also found that use of several adjectives to qualify one noun in highly technical language can be confusing to readers. We encourage authors to "unpackage" concepts and to present their findings and conclusions in simply constructed sentences.

Many papers submitted for publication in a Nature journal contain unnecessary technical terminology, unreadable descriptions of the work that has been done, and convoluted figure legends. Our journal subeditors and copyeditors edit the manuscript so that it is grammatically correct, logical, clear and concise. They also ensure that manuscripts use consistent search terms and terminology that is consistent with what is used in previous articles published in the journal. Of course, this process is assisted greatly if the authors have written the manuscript in a simple and accessible style, as the author is the best person to convey the message of the paper and to persuade readers that it is important enough to spend time on.

We ask authors to avoid jargon and acronyms where possible. When essential, they should be defined at first use; after first use, the author should use pronouns when possible rather than using the abbreviation or acronym at every occurrence. The acronym is second-nature to the author but is not to the reader, who may have to refer to the original definition throughout the paper when an acronym is used.

Titles need to be comprehensible and enticing to a potential reader quickly scanning a table of contents or performing an online search, while at the same time not being so general or vague as to obscure what the paper is about. We ask authors to be aware of abstracting and indexing services when devising a title for the paper: providing one or two essential keywords within a title will be beneficial for web-search results.

Within the text of papers, Nature journals use a numbering (Vancouver) system for references, not the Harvard method whereby the authors and year of publication are included in the text in parentheses. We adopt this numbering style because we believe the text flows more smoothly, and hence is quicker for the reader to absorb.

Our experience has shown that a paper's impact is maximized if it is as short as is consistent with providing a focused message, with a few crucial figures or tables. Authors can place technical information (figures, protocols, methods, tables, additional data) necessary to support their conclusion into Supplementary Information (SI), which is published online-only to accompany the published print/online paper. SI is peer-reviewed, and we believe that its use means that the impact of the conclusions of the study is enhanced by being presented in concise and focused form in the print/online journal, emphasizing the key conclusions of the research and yet providing the full supporting details required by others in the field in online-only form. We encourage authors to use SI  in this way to enhance the impact of the print/online version, and hence to increase its readership. Authors are asked to provide short "signposts" at appropriate points in their paper to indicate that SI is present to expand on a particular point (for example "for more details, see figure x in SI) so that readers can navigate easily to the relevant information.  We also encourage authors who are describing methods and protocols to provide the full details as SI.

We all face the challenge of how to make the best use of our time in an era of information overload. Judicious use of SI to ensure that the printed version of a paper is clear, comprehensible and as short as is consistent with this goal, is very likely to increase the paper's readership, impact and the number of times others cite it.

Nature Physics: the Editorial  Elements of style  explains the importance of clear and accessible writing. The advice contained within this Editorial applies to all the Nature journals.

Top of page ⤴

A number of articles and websites provide detailed guidelines and advice about writing and submitting scientific papers. Some suggested sources are:

  • SciDev.Net's  Practical guides section  (including  How to submit a paper to a scientific journal  and  How to write a scientific paper )
  • The Human Frontier Science Program's report  Websites and Searching for Collaborations  also contains useful writing guidelines for non-native-English speakers, as well as other helpful advice related to scientific publishing
  • The classic book Elements of Style by William J. Strunk, Jr (Humphrey, New York, 1918) is now published by Bartleby.com (New York, 1999) and is  freely available on the web  in searchable format.
  • Advice about how to write a Nature journal paper is provided in the Nature Physics Editorial  Elements of style .
  • Advice about how to write a summary paragraph (abstract) in Nature Letter format is available as a  one-page downloadable information sheet .
  • An amusing but pertinent algorithm,  How to write a paper (one possible answer) is at Nature Network's New York blog.

How can you help improve your manuscript for publication?

Presenting your work in a well-structured manuscript and in well-written English gives it its best chance for editors and reviewers to understand it and evaluate it fairly. Many researchers find that getting some independent support helps them present their results in the best possible light. The experts at Springer Nature Author Services can help you with manuscript preparation—including English language editing, developmental comments, manuscript formatting, figure preparation, translation, and more. 

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Please note that using these tools, or any other service, is not a requirement for publication, nor does it imply or guarantee that editors will accept the article, or even select it for peer review. 

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如果在结构精巧的稿件中用精心组织的英语展示您的作品,就能最大限度地让编辑和审稿人理解并公正评估您的作品。许多研究人员发现,获得一些独立支持有助于他们以尽可能美好的方式展示他们的成果。Springer Nature Author Services 的专家可帮助您准备稿件,具体包括润色英语表述、添加有见地的注释、为稿件排版、设计图表、翻译等。 

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For authors from Japan

発表に備えて、論文を改善するにはどうすればよいでしょうか?

内容が適切に組み立てられ、質の高い英語で書かれた論文を投稿すれば、編集者や査読者が論文を理解し、公正に評価するための最善の機会となります。多くの研究者は、個別のサポートを受けることで、研究結果を可能な限り最高の形で発表できると思っています。Springer Nature Author Servicesのエキスパートが、英文の編集、建設的な提言、論文の書式、図の調整、翻訳など、論文の作成をサポートいたします。 

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For authors from Korea

게재를 위해 원고를 개선하려면 어떻게 해야 할까요?

여러분의 작품을 체계적인 원고로 발표하는 것은 편집자와 심사자가 여러분의 연구를 이해하고 공정하게 평가할 수 있는 최선의 기회를 제공합니다. 많은 연구자들은 어느 정도 독립적인 지원을 받는 것이 가능한 한 최선의 방법으로 자신의 결과를 발표하는 데 도움이 된다고 합니다. Springer Nature Author Services 전문가들은 영어 편집, 발전적인 논평, 원고 서식 지정, 그림 준비, 번역 등과 같은 원고 준비를 도와드릴 수 있습니다. 

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how to write a research paper in active voice

IMAGES

  1. What Is Active Voice? Rules, and Examples of Active Voice • 7ESL

    how to write a research paper in active voice

  2. PPT

    how to write a research paper in active voice

  3. Writing a Good Essay: How to Write in Active Voice

    how to write a research paper in active voice

  4. What Is Active Voice? Rules, and Examples of Active Voice • 7ESL

    how to write a research paper in active voice

  5. How to Write in an Active Voice?

    how to write a research paper in active voice

  6. 120+ Active Voice And Passive Voice Examples

    how to write a research paper in active voice

VIDEO

  1. Session 6

  2. Research Paper Writing Workshop

  3. 5 Tips For Writing In Academic Voice

  4. active voice changed into passive voice with examples

  5. Active voice VS. Passive voice

  6. Active voice & passive voice in English

COMMENTS

  1. PDF Let's Get Active: Active Voice Writing Guide

    Directions: The following sentences are written in passive voice. Rewrite each sentence in active voice in the space provided. The toy was assembled by Julian and Oliver. The soccer ball was kicked by Kia after her teammate rolled it to her. Four specialty cakes were made by Mr. Mars, the baker, for his favorite customers.

  2. Using the active and passive voice in research writing

    3 mins. The active voice refers to a sentence format that emphasizes the doer of an action. For example, in the sentence "The mice inhaled the tobacco-infused aerosol," the doer, i.e., "the mice" seem important. On the other hand, in the passive voice, the action being performed is emphasized, and the doer may be omitted, e.g.,

  3. PDF Scientific Writing-Active and Passive Voice

    The terms active and passive voice refer to the way subjects and verbs are used in sentence construction. In scientific writing, we use both voices to write clear and coherent research articles. Although many scientists overuse the passive voice, most scientific journals (e.g. Science and Nature) actually encourage active voice.

  4. Academic Guides: Scholarly Voice: Active and Passive Voice

    Active and Passive Voice. Active voice and passive voice are grammatical constructions that communicate certain information about an action. Specifically, APA explains that voice shows relationships between the verb and the subject and/or object (see APA 7, Section 4.13). Writers need to be intentional about voice in order to ensure clarity.

  5. How to effectively use active and passive voice in research writing

    In addition, the focus has shifted from the actual experiment to the researcher who conducted it. In this case, the process is more important; hence, the passive voice is preferable. 3. To avoid repetition: Using the passive voice can at times help avoid repetition and add variety.

  6. How to Use Active or Passive Voice in Research Papers

    When you use active voice in research papers, the agent—a person or object—doing the stated "action"—receives emphasis. E.g., CRISPR is a new gene editing tool that edits the DNA (Active) The use of CRISPR as the agent in this sentence serves to highlight the significance of CRISPR as a tool for gene editing.

  7. Use the active voice

    Visitors are not allowed after 9:00 p.m. Generally, try to use the active voice whenever possible. Passive voice sentences often use more words, can be vague, and can lead to a tangle of prepositional phrases. Active vs. passive voice In a sentence written in the active voice, the subject of sentence performs the action.

  8. Principles of Writing: Passive and Active Voice

    Here is the classic formula for identifying the passive voice: A "to be" verb + a past participle + the word by. Active voice: The lion ate the mouse. Passive voice: The mouse was eaten by the lion. In the active voice sentence, the actor (the lion) is presented first, followed by the action (eating) and then the object of that action (the ...

  9. The passive and active voices and when to to use them

    Further, some journals provide guidance on writing style and prefer authors to use the active voice (always read a journal's 'Instructions for Authors'). Using the active voice does not mean you need to use a person's name or personal pronoun ('I' or 'we'). Take the example: 'Process X improves yield.' This is the active ...

  10. The Active Voice in Scientific Articles: Frequency and Discourse

    This article examines the frequency and discourse functions of 752 active transitive clauses in a 66,500-word corpus of sixteen research articles in the physical sciences. The overall rate of actives was only 34 percent; the rates were lowest in the Methods (12%) and Abstracts (27%), higher in Introductions (41%) and Results (40%), and highest ...

  11. How to write a research paper

    Then, writing the paper and getting it ready for submission may take me 3 to 6 months. I like separating the writing into three phases. The results and the methods go first, as this is where I write what was done and how, and what the outcomes were. In a second phase, I tackle the introduction and refine the results section with input from my ...

  12. Changing Passive to Active Voice

    If you want to change a passive-voice sentence to active voice, find the agent in a "by the..." phrase, or consider carefully who or what is performing the action expressed in the verb. Make that agent the subject of the sentence, and change the verb accordingly. Sometimes you will need to infer the agent from the surrounding sentences which ...

  13. Academic Guides: Scholarly Voice: Active vs. Passive Voice

    Generally, in scholarly writing, with its emphasis on precision and clarity, the active voice is preferred. However, the passive voice is acceptable in some instances, for example: if the reader is aware of who the actor is; in expository writing, where the goal of the discussion is to provide background, context, or an in-depth explanation;

  14. How to Effectively Use Active and Passive Voice in Academic Writing

    A sentence is considered to be in passive voice when the subject of a sentence is the object being acted on. Active voice, on the other hand, is where the subject is the one doing the acting. In the 20 th century, passive voice was a dominant characteristic of scientific writing; however, there has been a discernible shift in consensus in ...

  15. Using Active or Passive Voice in Research Papers

    To make your paper easier for the reader by creating variations in cadence and syntax. As a rule of thumb, choose the active voice whenever possible. Choose the passive voice when there is good reason to do so. Consider passive voice when: The agent is unknown, unimportant, or obvious to the reader.

  16. Mastering Active and Passive Voice in Academic Writing

    Active and passive voice are two distinct ways of structuring sentences in English, each with its unique character and effect. Active voice occurs when the subject of the sentence performs the action, resulting in a direct, clear, and concise expression. An example could be: "Researchers conducted a thorough study." On the other hand, passive voice transpires when the subject of the sentence ...

  17. Actively Passive: Understanding Voice in Academic Writing

    Prefer the active voice [bold in original]." (Publication Manual, 2001, p41) And advice to authors from the British Medical Journal concurs. Guiding prospective authors about their house style, they state that to "write in a clear, direct, and active style" is "essential"('BMJ house style,' 2006 ).

  18. Academic Voice

    You use the academic voice because your opinion is based on thinking; in your paper you're revealing your thought process to your reader. Because you'll be appealing to reason, you want to use the voice of one intellectual talking to another intellectual. If the subject matter for your academic writing isn't personal, as in the case of a ...

  19. Active Versus Passive Voice

    This passive voice sentence is more wordy than an active voice version. This active voice sentence is more concise than the passive voice version (above) because the subject directly performs the action. This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a ...

  20. Should I Use Active or Passive Voice in a Research Paper?

    One decision that gives pause to thousands of research writers every time they start a new paper is whether to use the active or passive voice in their resea...

  21. Actively Passive: Understanding Voice in Academic Writing

    The passive voice is a way of writing which omits any mention of the agent, or the person doing an action. Instead, it uses an auxiliary (generally the verb be); the subject of the sentence is not actually the agent of the action, rather its recipient. So, for example, when "the patient was observed to be sleeping", the patient may very ...

  22. How to write your paper

    Writing for a Nature journal. Before writing a paper, authors are advised to visit the author information pages of the journal to which they wish to submit (see this link for a full list of Nature ...