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Passive or active voice?

Passive voice is often considered more complicated, objective and professional, especially among English learners in Asia. They usually feel that they are demonstrating their proficiency in English through mastering the passive voice. Even school teachers love to encourage students to use more passive voice by awarding it higher marks.

However, when it comes to academic research, whether journal papers should be written in the passive or active voice is a much-debated topic.

What do the majority of journals suggest?

Although the passive voice was once considered more objective, the use of the first person is now preferred by the majority of journals.

Check out this advice from two highly-prestigious journals:

So, the key takeaways here are:

  • There is no reason to avoid writing in the first person unless your target journal specifically states that you should not do so.
  • Mixing passive and active sentences is a good idea to add variety and interest to your journal paper.

Using active voice effectively in your journal paper introduction

In one of our previous blogs, we went through the structure and flow of a journal paper’s introduction and we know that one of its key functions is to provide essential context to the research.

You will probably therefore switch frequently between descriptions of previous studies and your own study. It is critical to make it clear which study you are referring to, and the use of the active voice avoids ambiguity.

Here are some tips:

  • Using “we found” and “our study” helps to differentiate between your own findings and those of other studies.
  • Using “we” also avoids the repetition of phrases such as “The present study” and “A previous study”, which becomes monotonous.
  • Most importantly, avoid phrases such as “It has been found” and “It was shown” that do not make the subject of the sentence clear.

But Remember, language usage in different fields can vary, so always check how papers in your target journal are written. It is of utmost importance to write in a style that is consistent with the language usage in your particular field.

Author Profile

Dr Rachel Baron
Co-Chief Editor & Managing Editor (Social Sciences)
Rachel first joined us as a freelance editor in 2001, while completing her PhD. After spending a few years as a post-doctoral researcher and then lecturing in psychology, she returned to us in 2010 and focused her career on academic editing. She took on the role of Assistant Chief Editor in 2018, and became co-Chief-Editor in 2020. Unable to leave academia behind completely, she also teaches Psychology at an English-speaking university in Italy, where she is now based. With extensive experience in both academia and publishing, Rachel has an excellent overview of both the client and editor sides of the business.

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