When did I become it? The fall and rise of passive and active voices in science writing

 

A few weeks ago, one of Stephen Heard’s excellent blog posts reminded me about the passive versus active voice debate.  I was once a passionate opponent of the active voice and the use of the first person singular and plural (Leather, 1986)*. In fact, during my tenure as Editor-in-Chief of Ecological Entomology (1996-2003) my Editorial Assistant/Copy Editor took great pleasure in converting, the mainly USA-authored actively written papers to passive conformity 😊 People often mention that they were ‘trained’ to write in the third person as this was regarded as being more scientific and less likely to lead to biased interpretations of data. In my 1986 paper I adopted a similar view and added that using the first-person singular could lead to a sense of ‘ownership’ and a subsequent reluctance to accept criticism.  But that was then, this is now, and those of you who read my scientific papers as opposed to my blog, will see that the first person singular and plural are to be found there.

Stephen says in his blog “Most of us were trained to write science in the passive voice, and most of us are accustomed to reading science in the passive voice.” In an idle procrastinating moment, I wondered when the impersonal passive way of writing became standard.  As an Editor of a couple of society journals (Annals of Applied Biology and Insect Conservation & Diversity) I have free access to the back numbers of the journals of the Association of Applied Biologists and the Royal Entomological Society to the year dot.  I decided to do a rather limited, and I hasten to add, not very replicated study, on the rise and fall and return of the active voice in two journals, Annals of Applied Biology and Ecological Entomology (formerly Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society).

As an aphidologist I felt compelled to start with a quote from one of our most distinguished alumni, the great Thomas Henry Huxley.  Just to complicate things, it is also in neither of the two journals I surveyed 😊. Huxley (1858) not only uses I profusely, but also cites and quotes chunks of papers written 50 years earlier which also use I.  It seems that Victorian entomologists and their predecessors had no problems with ‘owning’ their opinions and observations.

If we jump forward sixty years or so to the first issue of Annals of Applied Biology (1914) we see, even though the writing is not exactly thrilling, that it is active, and the authors, as demonstrated by the following example, had no problems with using the personal pronoun.

“This seemed to the present author to be a very important question about the two life-cycles described for Aphis rumicis. It intimated that the two parallel life-cycles might be merged into one by crossing from Euonymus to Broad Bean and from Rumex to Poppies. If the two life-cycles proved to be absolutely constant and separate, a very important feature would be established, namely the establishment of two biological species (A. euonymi and A. rumicis), both resembling each other in structure but differing physiologically in habitat. As the results obtained in these experiments will show, Aphis euonymi will heavily infest Broad Beans, and Aphis euonymi reared on Rumex will heavily infest both Broad Bean and Poppies.  Thus the two life- cycles may be merged into one.  The life-history, however, has not been completed, as owing to leaving England in September, I have been unable to trace the history of the sexuparae.”  (Davidson, 1914).

We also find a very similar style in articles published by the Royal Entomological Society in the same year (e.g. Lamborn et al., 1914).

I wondered if the traumatic experience of the First World War would have affected scientific writing styles, but found, at least in my two sample journals, that during the 1920s nothing much changed in the style in which papers were written.  In Annals of Applied Biology, the change from personal pronouns and active voices begins in the early 1930s, 1933 being the last year in which the majority of papers still used the more personal style, but the following examples show, the tide was turning.

“So far as we are aware, no systematic investigation of the carbohydrates of crinkle infected plants has been made heretofore, and the present work was initiated and carried out on the same lines as was employed by us for leaf-roll. It should also be mentioned that our colleague, Mr George Cockerham, has carried out a similar investigation on mild mosaic at the substation” (Barton-Wright & McBain (1933).

“In 1930 we grease-banded sixty plum trees before the sawflies had emerged and on these we caught seventeen adults.  Later on it was noticed that these trees were badly infested with sawfly larvae.  From this it would appear that most of the sawflies must have flown on to the trees, either directly from the ground or from neighbouring trees. In order to study their habits, adults were collected in the orchard and kept on plum shoots in cages” (Petherbridge et al., 1933).

The early to mid-1930s marks an emerging trend toward the third person appearing, for example; “This paper describes our work on this disease during 1932. We consider that we have collected sufficient evidence to show conclusively that the disease is caused by the feeding of the tea mosquito bug (Helopeltis bergrothi Reut.) on the more mature green stems of tea.  We consider that fungi play a purely secondary part in the etiology of the disease. We suggest the name ((gnarled stem canker” as being a more descriptive name for the disease than ((stem canker” or “branch canker,” which may include many different diseases” (Leach & Smeed, 1933). The rest of this paper is, however, strongly third person impersonal.

Jackson (1933) writing about the tstetse fly refers to himself as The Author and has a very dry and impersonal third person reporting style throughout. In a similar style, here is Maldwyn Davies**, “The writer has been concerned solely with entomological studies and the relation that the work has to the seed potato and virus problems” (Maldwyn Davies, 1934).

This, the last pre-war use of the first person in the Annals, is, coincidentally, in the form of a tribute to the aforementioned Maldwyn Davies; “Dr W Maldwyn Davies died in February 1937 after preparing the first draft of this report; and it has therefore fallen to me, as one very closely associated with him in his ecological work on aphides, to prepare the Report for publication. I have endeavoured simply to make the necessary verbal corrections which, I feel confident, Dr Davies himself would have desired” (Maldwyn Davies & Whitehead, 1939).

Post-war the third person and passive voice is firmly established (e.g. Prentice & Harris, 1946) and in this paper I was pleased to see the authors capitalizing Petri as in dish and comparing with not to, two errors commonly evident in modern papers 🙂

Over at the Royal Entomological Society and in their flagship journal, Transactions, things are very different.  Here in 1949, some 15 years after the last mention of the personal pronoun in the Annals, we find a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Indian Medical Service writing very actively indeed:

“It was not until 1877 that Selys gave the first definition of the genus Agriocnemis, listing under it ten species, including in this number exilis, but excluding solitaria and rufipes ; the former was placed in a new genus, Argiocnemis, the latter relegated again to its former genus, Agrion! It is diacult to fathom the Selysian reasons for this volte face, for he had the type of rufipes before him in his own collection: nor can he be said to have forgotten his original reference, for he actually cites Pollen and Van Dam where rufipes is listed under Agriocnemis“ (Fraser, 1949).

I then jumped forward in time to 1955, an excellent year, the year a new entomologist was hatched; I was born 🙂  In the Annals I found only one paper with a first person mention and that was in the acknowledgements (Shaw, 1955).   In Transactions however, there is a mixture, for example Tottenham (1955), a Vicar, using the active first person singular and Downes (1955) a government taxonomist using the third person passive.  There are however, indications that the third person passive style is growing in popularity, and by 1962 you can read passages like this “It was desirable to obtain data on the dispersal of adults to supplement results obtained in the weekly samples” (Anderson, 1962).  This was done at my old stamping ground, Silwood Park and marks the increasing number of professional entomologists beginning to publish in the Transactions.  By 1965, the year we left Jamaica, there is only one instance of active, first person plural reporting, in the persons of Trevor Lewis and Roy Taylor, two legendary entomologists from Rothamsted, the former still alive and relatively well (Lewis & Taylor, 1965).  They were, however, not the last to follow this practice. In 1975, the final year of Transactions (metamorphosed to Ecological Entomology in 1976, both forms are still in use. In the Annals on the other hand, the papers in the issues of 1965 and 1975 are both firmly passive and impersonal.

So why the difference between the two journals?  It has nothing do with being an entomologist per se.  Rather I think, it is to do with the difference in fields of study.  Annals of Applied Biology is, and was, run by the Association of Applied Biologists, so from the very beginning, it was the mouthpiece of professional biologists working in agriculture and forestry, who were mainly employed at Government Research Institutes or Universities.  The Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, on the other hand, had a much longer history, and was, for almost the first century of its existence, dominated by the output of Fellows of the Royal Entomological Society, most of whom were, what we would now call amateur entomologists.

My hypothesis, admittedly based on very limited data, is that as “professional scientists” applied biologists were more likely to perceive writing in an impersonal passive manner as more appropriate to their standing as paid scientists, whereas the parsons, medical practitioners, military officers, gentlemen and other amateur naturalists writing on entomological matters, felt no such compulsion.  That does not however, explain why my Editorial Assistant for Ecological Entomology, had a constant battle against the use of the active and personal voice by authors from the USA; one of the first countries to have a professional entomological extension service J  Perhaps one of my North American readers can suggest an answer?

Although I am still sparing in my use of the personal pronoun and the active voice in my formal scientific writing, I am no longer averse to taking ownership of my work.  Regular readers of my blog will know that I have fully embraced the practice in my less formal offerings and revel in the freedom to express my personal viewpoints with vim and vigour, although of course all firmly backed up with documented evidence 🙂

References

Anderson, N.H. (1962) Bionomics of six species of Anthocoris (Heteroptera : Anthocoridae) in England. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 114, 67-95.

Barton-Wright, E. & McBain , A. (1933) Studies in the  physiology of the virus diseases of the potato. II. A comparison of the carbohydrate metabolism of normal with that of crinkle potatoes; together with some observations on carbohydrate metabolism in a “carrier” variety. Annals of Applied Biology, 20, 525-548.

Brierley, W.B. (1934) Some viewpoints of an applied biologist. Annals of Applied Biology, 21, 351-378.

Davidson, J. (1914) The host plants and habits of Aphis rumicis Linn., with some observations  on  the  migration of, and infestation of, plants  by  aphides.  Annals of Applied Biology, 1, 118-142.

Doncaster, J.P. & Kassanis, B.  (1946) The shallot aphis, Myzus ascalonicus Doncaster, and its behaviour as a vector of plant viruses   Annals of Applied Biology, 33, 66-68.

Downes, J.A. (1955) Observations on the swarming flight and mating of Culicoides (Diptera: Ceratopogonidae. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 106, 213-236.

Fraser , F.C. (1949) The Zygoptera of Mauritius (Order Odonata). Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 100, 135-146.

Huxley, T.H. (1858) On the Agamic Reproduction and Morphology of Aphis.–Part I. Transactions of the Linnean Society London, 22, 193-219. 

Jackson, C.H.N. (1933) On an advance of tsetse fly in Central Tanganyika. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society, 81, 205-222.

Lamborn, A., Bethune-Baker, G.T., Distant, W.L., Eltringham, H., Poulton, E.B., Durrant, J.H. & Newstead, R. (1914) XX. On the relationship between certain West African insects, especially ants, Lycaenidae and Homoptera. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 61, 436-498.

Leach, K. & Smeed, C. (1933) Gnarled stem canker of tea caused by the capsid bug (Helopeltis bergrothi Reut.). Annals of Applied Biology, 20, 691-706.

Leather, S.R. (1996) The case for the passive voice.  Nature 381, 467.

Lewis, T. & Taylor, L.R. (1965) Diurnal periodicity of flight by insects.  Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 116, 393-43.

Maldwyn Davies W. (1934) Studies on aphides infesting the potato crop: ii. aphis survey: its bearing upon the selection of districts for seed potato production. Annals of Applied Biology, 21, 283-299.

Maldwyn Davies, W & Whitehead, T. (1939) Studies on aphides infesting the potato crop: vii. Report on a survey of the aphis population of potatoes in selected districts of Scotland (25 july-6 august 1936). Annals of Applied Biology, 26, 116-134.

Petherbridge, F.R., Thomas, I. & Hey, G.L. (1933) On the biology of the plum sawfly, Hoplogampa flava L.†, with notes on control experiments. Annals of Applied Biology, 20, 429-438.

Prentice, I.W. & Harris, R.V. (1946) Resolution of strawberry virus complexes by means of the aphis vector Capitophorus fragariae Theob.  Annals of Applied Biology, 33, 50-53.

Shaw, M.W. (1955) Preliminary studies on potato aphids in north and north-east Scotland   Annals of Applied Biology, 43, 37-50.

Tottenham, C.E. (1955) Studies in the genus Philonthus Stephens (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society, 106, 153-195.

 

Post script

The following couple of sentences must surely be a contender for the prize of most impersonal writing “The first to apply the theory of of parallel evolution to entomophagous parasites was Mackauer (1961, 1962b).  He found that the host range of members of the…”  Why you are now asking is this such a great example of impersonal writing?  All becomes clear when I reveal that the author of these sentences is writing about himself (Mackauer, 1965).

Mackauer, M. (1965) Parasitological data as an aid in aphid classification.  Canadian Entomologist, 97, 1016-1024.

 

*This paper, my only appearance in Nature, received a lot of negative published responses, but a lot of personal emailed positive ones.  Even with my thick skin I felt a little bruised by the experience 😊

**The entomologist, not the tenor

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “When did I become it? The fall and rise of passive and active voices in science writing

  1. Alex W.

    I have previously “heard” some nolstalgia online for the colorful writing of Victorian entomologists.

    I still enjoy occasionally reading modern-style sci papers for fun, though

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting Simon. Personally, I have no preference as long as the message is clear!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. You have provided me with much food for thought. Fantastic read! And btw, negative responses, which can often drip with irrational scorn, often come from an unwillingness to examine tradition, but traditions must be periodically examined to ensure progress and to keep authoritarianism from sinking too deeply into its seat. Take care and thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting post. I remember in the early 1980s having a conversation with one of my colleagues in Nottingham about active and passive voice. He wanted to use the active, third person voice in the Biochemical Journal and was unsure how this would go down!
    I had a look back at one of my last papers (in Molecular Pharmacology) and it seems I used a mixture of active and passive, which gives a nice balance (at least that’s my opinion!!).

    Like

  5. HHGeek

    1) Is there any crossover between the switch from active > passive, and peer reviewing?
    2) Thgere’s clearly something in the air, as this was published by the OUP in the last few months. https://blog.oup.com/2018/01/first-person-pronouns-passive-voice-scientific-writing/

    Like

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