Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Who is this magical "third person" doing the science?

Writing in the third person and passive voice is traditionally the preferred style for publishing in many scientific journals.

But you’ll often come across a research article that’s written in the active, first person. I hadn’t seen one in a long time until yesterday and at the drop of the first “I,” alarms went off. After I calmed down I wondered, What’s so terrible about writing I and my?

I’ve decided that the answer is nothing.  It’s fine.

In fact, after you become accustomed to reading studies like this written in a much more modern active tone, articles written in the conventional way sound borderline ridiculous. That is, strict adherence to the passive voice and the strange use of "we" by a sole author...these practices can read pretty ridiculous.   

People complain about how awkward scientific writing is, so that’s one count against it. But beyond inconvenience there’s another problem with conventions of scientific writing.... their dehumanization of science. 

This third person passive "rule" was supposedly sparked by Francis Bacon to inject objectivity into scientific writing. But does it really do that? I’m inclined to think it's also likely to obscure objectivity by hiding weak or shoddy research in something larger, in something less accountable.

By sticking to the first person active perspective, you’re reminding yourself along with everyone who reads your study that a human with limits and biases performed it. This is fair, open, forthcoming, and can be very honest and humbling (depending on the author)… all these are beloved virtues of science and scientists. 

But transform an active, first person article into one with only a passive voice and the science reads like it's above and beyond mortal human business... as if an external force guided the author to do the research or that she's merely the recorder of a supernatural science project that was magically conjured in her laboratory.  
"The experiment performed itself!"
By dropping the third person passive voice, scientists can avoid giving the impression that their work transcends earthly constraints and that it is greater than what a human (or a mere first person) is capable of.

Scientists are science-doers, not science-whisperers and they should be able to report their work as objectively as possible, as close to reality as possible, not according to this or that grammatical preference.

I'm not sure very many MT readers (including myself, tomorrow) are going to agree with this post, but this is something I'm thinking about today.   


Anne Buchanan said...

One has often wondered how this tradition got started. Thanks for the enlightenment, Holly!

Hollis said...

I totally agree! and yet I'm always tempted to chicken out and stick with the safe third person approach ... thanks for the moral support on this issue.

Nate Davis said...

Yes, Anne, "one" has often wondered! :)

In all seriousness, this entry makes a lot of sense to me. We can't stop being human, and bearing all of the messiness that that entails. What we can do is be upfront about our perspectives and privileges. Acting like we have none is silly and harmful.

And yet, I play right into it! If it's between reasonably using my voice in a vacuum or using language that adheres to an editorial style that will get me grants and publishing and put food on my table, well...

Erick said...

To be perfectly narcissistic, "I" would much rather take credit for examining over 9,000 tiny bits of jade, than saying that "9,758 were examined".

For me the tricky part is always discussion of the fieldwork that involved multiple people - colleagues, field workers, etc. In those instances, I have stuck with the passive voice - i.e. "twelve test pits were excavated" - because the audience is not going to know to whom I am referring if I were to write "we excavated twelve test pits". And I ain't strong enough to have done it all by my lonesome.

David said...

I think it is odd that anyone still sees scientific writing in an active, first person voice as unusual. The practice must differ among fields, but I've been writing scientific papers (in biology) for over 35 years, and was taught early on that the first person, active voice is preferred for describing what I (or we, in the case of multiple authors) did (e.g., the materials and methods). This has long been the advice in the Council of Biology/Science Editors Style Guide, and I can't ever recall any journal objecting.

Holly Dunsworth said...

It's great to know the passive voice is so actively avoided out there!

(And it wouldn't be a Holly-post if someone didn't react to her hyperbolic, theatrical writing devices, would it?)