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

by Renu Bisht
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 make1. 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 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 papers2. 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 information3. 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) 

Or 

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) 

Or 

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) 

Or 

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. 

References

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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