'I did', or 'It was done'?

Sir Robert May Responds

Last year TSN members were asked what they think is an appropriate writing style for a scientific report. Should the style be direct; ‘I measured the height…’, ‘We found…’, or should it be passive; ‘The height was measured…’, ‘It was found that…’? Which style is appropriate for a research paper? Which is best for children’s written work in science lessons? Most thought the passive style is more appropriate for scientists writing research papers and some thought this style should also be used by older school children. Following the TSN survey an article in the New Scientist (19/7/01) by Rupert Sheldrake put the case for all children as well as scientists to adopt the direct style. Phone calls to the Examination Boards and the major Scientific Institutions indicated that they are, in the main, undecided in the matter. However, in a letter to the TSN, Sir Robert May, President of the Royal Society, robustly promotes the case for using the direct style:

Dear Mr. Chennell

Thank you for sending me a copy of TSNews. I enjoyed the opportunity to see it.

The column, on page 3 about whether one should use the active or passive voice in “scientific” writing really caught my attention. I was particularly horrified to discover that “most TSN scientists say” that the passive style is more appropriate for scientists writing research paper, and that “most TSN primary and Secondary Teachers say” that they are not sure which style they think scientists should use. Admittedly, both groups agree that school children should adopt the direct, “I did”, style, although even here we have the looney view that the passive style might be more appropriate for older children. At the risk of going over-the-top, I would put my own view so strongly as to say that, these days, use of the passive voice in a research paper is, more often than not, the hallmark of second rate work.

The two major general scientific journals, Nature and Science, have an interesting history is this regard. For at least the past thirty years, Nature has edited articles that are presented in the passive voice, to transform them into the “I did” style. To the contrary, until relatively recently, Science remained under the antique delusion that work was more scientific if performed by the impersonal forces of history rather than by real people, and it was in the habit of editing manuscripts to transform them from the active into the passive voice; I had several bitter arguments over this point, over the years. But Science has made great strides in the past decade, becoming (in my view) more fully competitive with Nature in many ways, particularly in its front material. Not surprisingly, a major change has been the switch to editing manuscripts presented in the passive voice to transform them into the active voice. The notion that it is somehow more “scientific” to suggest that some impersonal, dispassionate actor or whatever did the work – thus conferring more authority upon it – rather that the person writing the report did it him or herself, belongs to a older generation. Anyone who writes in this style today simply is not likely to be at the cutting edge.

In short, I believe that Primary and Secondary teachers should, without any reservation, be encouraging all their students – younger or older – to be writing in the active voice. That actually reflects the reality – the students are doing the work – and at the heart of science must be the recognition that it is work being done by people! In the long run, more authority is conferred by this direct approach than by the pedantic pretence that some impersonal force is performing the research!

Yours sincerely,

Sir Robert May AC

President, The Royal Society