Our scientific literature (and academic literature more broadly) has a reputation for being impenetrable. That reputation is entirely deserved. That’s why things like the Sokal Hoax sometimes work, and that’s why scientists are sometimes mocked, or scorned, for operating like a priesthood, holding truth away from the layperson. It’s easy and fun to find a complex sentence, dense with unfamiliar jargon and turgid acronym-laden phrases, and hold it up for all to see (I’ll plead guilty: I do it myself in my scientific writing course). But it’s also naïve, unless you’re willing to think carefully about it – because there are two very different reasons why our literature is impenetrable. One is a bug, yes; but the other is very much a feature. Continue reading
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
So, I’m teaching my course in Scientific Writing, and I’m frustrated by something I didn’t see coming. I teach students to write in the active voice (“I measured photosynthesis”, not “Photosynthesis was measured”). That’s the modern best practice in scientific writing – not to use the active all the time, but to prefer it unless there’s a specific reason for using the passive in a specific sentence. But the way the course is structured, I’m running into conflict with my departmental colleagues. 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
Image: what every one of my Methods sections looks like after my passive voice search-and-destroy!
I probably should have seen this coming, but ever since people found out I was working on a book on scientific writing, I get mistaken for a good writer. I get asked for advice; I get asked to give writing workshops and teach writing courses; and people turn to my own papers looking for examples of excellent writing (and even for touches of humour and beauty). You may find it odd, but all this has taken me somewhat aback. Continue reading