I’ve been reading 13 different senior theses this quarter (5 drafts of each—we’re currently on the 3rd drafts). One of the biggest writing problems that I’ve been trying to fix is the gross overuse of passive voice. Passive voice is often overused in scientific writing, partly out of a misguided attempt to sound formal and partly to remove the people who did the experiment from the description of the experiment. The result often sounds like the authors are trying very hard to disassociate themselves from the project.
Nick Falkner describes this use of passive well in The Blame Game: Things were done, mistakes were made:
The error is regretted? By whom? This is a delightful example of the passive voice, frequently used because people wish to avoid associating the problem with themselves.
But the whole point of a senior thesis is to show what a particular individual knows and has done (and presumably can do again). The author must attribute every concept and action in the thesis to the right person: those ideas that come from the literature need to be properly cited, work done by others in the lab needs to be properly credited, and work done by the author of the thesis needs to be explicitly claimed. (I’m aware of all the passive in the last sentence—see below for explanations of some acceptable uses of passive voice.)
Along with passive voice, students misuse the first-person plural, which has little role in a single-author work like a thesis. Almost the only time that “we” should appear in a thesis is shortly after a listing of who “we” are. It is ok to say, for example, “Alpha Beta and I ran alternating shifts for the 48-hour data collection period. We collected samples every hour …”, but it is not ok to say “We collected samples every hour … “, if you did it alone, or (worse) if someone else in the lab did it and not you. Saying “Samples were collected every hour …” sounds like you don’t know or are not willing to say who collected the samples (perhaps because it was done illegally?).
I am not going to prohibit students all use of the passive (as some writing instructors do, or used to do)—passive voice is sometimes useful. For example, passive can be used for improving the flow of a paragraph, since it allows flipping a sentence, which can strengthen the old info⇒new info flow heuristic. This flipping of sentences is best shown with some schematic sentences: we start with
A creates B. C modifies B. D controls C.
and we can improve the flow by modifying to
A creates B. B is then modified by C, which is controlled by D.
Note that the second sentence of the above paragraph uses passive (“passive can be used …”) in order to connect better to the topic sentence.
Aside: The “we” in the middle of the paragraph above is not the multi-author “we”, which is as wrong for this single-author blog post as it would be in a thesis, but the “you-and-I” version of “we”, which is also acceptable in theses.
Students worry that if they avoid passive, then they’ll end up starting every sentence with “I”. Certainly, starting every sentence identically would be a problem, but avoiding that problem is fairly easy, particularly if students talk about the goals and purposes of experiments, rather than just giving technician-level protocol dumps of what they did. Note that I did not use passive at all in this paragraph, and only this last sentence has “I” as a subject—forming gerunds is one good way to create alternative subjects for sentences.
Although my writing instructor’s despair about overuse of passive voice has been the theme of this post, that was not the point of Nick’s blog post—it was a plea to students (and others!) to take responsibility for their actions. He wants people to be aware that actions have actors:
Responsibility doesn’t have to be a burden but it does give you a reason to exercise your agency, your capacity to act and to make change in the world. If all of your problems are in the passive voice, then “assignments are handed in late”, “the money ran out”, “mistakes were made” rather than “I didn’t start early enough or put enough time in or I was horribly ill and thought I could just push through”, “I spent all of my money too quickly” and “I made a mistake”.
His point is a good one (go read the whole article), but his equating passive voice with refusal of responsibility is the message I want to get to the thesis writers. The whole goal of a thesis is to establish agency—that the writer of the thesis knows and has done certain things, so the writer should avoid using passive voice. (I initially had written “passive voice should be avoided as much as possible”, but I didn’t trust that all my readers would get the joke—my apologies to those who would have.)