There seems to be a pretty widespread agreement that peer review should (even if it can’t always) identify flawed reasoning, improper statistical tests, and other serious issues with the inferences a manuscript makes. But should reviewers also make suggestions about writing style? About use of the active voice vs. the passive; about the use of contractions and other informality; about metaphors or even (gasp) humour? A lot of authors seem to think they shouldn’t, arguing that writing style is a personal decision that should be left up to a writer. Actually, I have some sympathy for that argument – the role of reviewers in crushing individual style is one reason that our literature lacks much individual voice, and pushback against beauty and humour is one reason it’s (mostly) so tedious. But in matters of style, should reviewers mind their own business? Continue reading
I mention in my book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, that there are few better ways to get academics arguing than to bring up the topic of the passive voice. I’m reminded of this every time I get into a discussion of voice, either online or in person, in my department. As you’d expect for a topic provoking argument, there are strongly held opinions on both sides: that scientific writing should use the active voice, or that the passive voice should be used instead*.
In general, I’m a passionate advocate for the active voice (although I acknowledge that a reasonable person can disagree). Either on Twitter or in real life, I’ll often say something about avoiding the passive, and almost always somebody will come back with an objection. These objections take a number of forms, both among different objectors but also within a single objector’s argument. Two things interest me about patterns in those objections. Continue reading