Passive voice obscures the technical contribution of your writing

position statement
technical writing
Unless you strategically need it, don’t use passive voice!

Gregory M. Kapfhammer



Through my service as an associate editor for the Journal of Software: Evolution and Process, an academic editor for the PeerJ Computer Science journal, and a program committee member for conferences like the International Conference on Software Testing, Verification and Validation, I’ve read a lot of research papers in fields such as software engineering and software testing.

There is one limiting style of writing that I have frequently seen in the many papers that I have reviewed — passive voice! A sentence that is written in passive voice does not have a clear actor that takes a specific action. While I acknowledge that some scientists train their mentees to write in passive voice because it is less impassioned, my experience is that it also makes papers less exciting and engaging for the reader. I mean, who said that a scientific paper can’t be fun to read. We should make our papers engaging, right?

With that said, there is another aspect of passive voice that is even more concerning: it makes the technical and scientific contributions of a paper less clear. When sentences contain many passive phrases like “was computed” it becomes less clear to the reader what technique performed this computation. However, it is important for the reader to understand that the technique presented in the paper is, in fact, the one that performed the computation. Moreover, using passive voice in sentences with “was performed” or “was analyzed” makes it less clear if the action was done in an automated or a manual fashion, which is also useful for computer science research papers.

It’s easy for you to determine if your sentence contains a verb in passive voice! Following the strategy suggested by Rebecca Johnson, you should ask yourself if you can insert “by zombies” after the verb! If you can, then you know that a specific sentence is written in passive voice and should be rephrased to be more active. Once you recognize that the sentence is in passive voice, start asking yourself questions like “what algorithm or technique or tool performed this action?” and “is this process one that is automated or manual?”. Finally, if the action is one that you or your coauthors took — say to make a decision or to configure some aspect of your experimental setup — then consider using “we” to ensure that the reader knows that a tool did not take the step.

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Do you have your own tips about how to effectively write a research paper? Have you noticed sentence structures that limit your ability to effectively explain your idea? Do you have suggestions for how I can improve the writing in my papers or on my blog? If you do, then I hope that you will contact me to share some of your suggestions. Or, do you want to be updated when I publish new blog posts like this one? If you do, then please subscribe to my mailing list.

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