Category Archives: Research

Should we use active or passive voice?


The traditional criticism of active voice

Traditionally, science and academic writers were strongly advised to use passive voice in order to maintain objectivity. However, this view is based on the criticism of using the first person (‘I’ or ‘my’) in that an individual’s view or perspective was considered biased. For example, the proponents of the passive voice in science writing claim that the active construction “I observed the behaviour.” presents a subjective view, while the passive construction “The behaviour was observed.” presents a more objective perspective. Some also argue that the use of personal pronouns in science and academic writing gives the impression of stating an opinion. However, active voice is not governed by the use of personal pronouns. You can write in passive voice while using a personal pronoun. For example: “I was photographed by my friend”. 

What is meant by ‘voice’?

In simple terms, ‘voice’ refers to the relationship between the subject and the verb.

How to identify active voice

Active voice is when the grammatical subject performs the action specified by the verb. 

For example:

Active voice: “I produced ten surveys.” The subject is the person “I” who performs the action “produced”. 

How to identify passive voice

Passive voice is when the grammatical subject of the sentence is receiving the action specified by the verb. Passive voice always has the verb form ‘to be’ followed be a past participle. ‘To be’ verbs include: ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘am’, ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘has been’, ‘have been’, ‘will be’, ‘will have been’ and ‘being’. They are also known as linking verbs. A past participle is a past tense verb that often (but not always) ends in ‘ed’.


For example:

Passive voice: “Ten surveys were produced”. The subject is the “surveys” that receives the action “were produced”. In this sentence, the reader does not know who or what produced the surveys.

Passive voice with an object: “Ten surveys were produced by me”. In this example, the object of the sentence specifies who (or what) performs the action (me).

The criticism of passive voice

The insistence that writers should always avoid the personal pronouns (or the first person) has lessened and the use of active voice is increasingly encouraged. Key criticisms of passive voice are that the reader does not know who or what was responsible for the action described in the sentence and that passive sentence constructions are often wordy and vague.

Both types of voice are necessary for good, clear writing

Whether you use active or passive depends upon what you are writing and what you need to focus on.

1. If it is necessary to specify who or what performed the action

Without adding an object identifying the performer of the action, passive construction can make it difficult to know who did what.

For example:

The effectiveness of stem cell treatment was investigated.”  With this statement the reader might be unsure who did the investigation. They might assume that the authors are referring to another study. Whereas, “We investigated the effectiveness of stem cell treatment.” clearly lets the reader know that the authors did the investigation.

If a sentence is to remain passive, a citation might be necessary to let the reader know who did the investigation.

2. If it is necessary to focus on the action itself

The following example is from the methods section of a recent research paper, which uses both passive and active voice. Here the focus is on what was measured, determined, distinguished and compared. Continual reference to who did the measuring is not necessary.

 “The abundance, sex ratio, and age structure of GT and NGT trees were determined by designating 47 plots (50 m × 50 m) in the six sites in the main GIAHS area (Fig. 1a). Morphological difference of GT and NGT trees was distinguished by identifying the graft scar just above ground. In each plot, we measured the location, basal diameter (BD), and sex of each of each torreya tree. The sex ratio of NGT trees was calculated in each plot. The population density (number per ha) of GT and NGT trees was statistically compared with a t-test in R.” p 8. Zang et al. 2019

3. If the person or thing responsible for the action is unknown

For example:

Passive: “The car was stolen.”

Active: “Somebody stole my car.”

4. When explaining cause and effect 

For example:

Passive: "Most malaria cases are caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum".

Active: "The parasite Plasmodium falciparum causes most cases of malaria".


5. If it is necessary to deliberately avoid specifying authorship

Some government departments, consultancies and corporations produce documents where acknowledgement of individual authors is deliberately avoided. This might occur when documents are designed to represent the organisation in its entirety or when a variety of different authors design, write and update documents.

For example:

- Passive: “The remediation program was initiated in early 2015”.

- Active: “Land & Water initiated the remediation program in early 2015”.

In these cases, the third person (we) may be used to collectively represent the organisation or institution.

6. If changing voice will make your writing more concise

If you do not need to specify who did what, your writing can be more concise.

For example:

- “We found that an increase in production rate was caused by increasing the length of the probe.” (16 words)

- “An increase in production rate was caused by increasing the length of the probe.” (14 words).

Changing to active voice makes the sentence shorter and more direct.

- “Increasing the length of the probe caused an increase in production rate.” (12 words).

Finally...

As passive voice is commonly in past tense, some confuse past tense with passive voice. Tense explains when something happened while voice explains who or what performs the action. Here are examples of active and passive voice written in the three different tenses.

For example:

Passive voice

Past tense: "The problem was investigated by me".

Present tense: "The problem is being investigated by me".

Future tense: "The problem will be investigated by me".

Active voice

Past tense: "I investigated the problem".

Present tense: "I am investigating the problem".

Future tense: "I will investigate the problem".

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

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Work procrastination: important tasks that keep us from writing


There is a lot of angst with people who want to write, yet cannot seem to. This is commonly referred to as writer’s block. Often the cause of writer’s block is procrastination.

There are a lot of blogs about procrastination; lots of advice and many very humourous blogs and skits (remember when Bernard from Black Books (Series 1, Ep. 1) gladly paired his socks and welcomed in the Jehovah’s Witness to avoid having to do his tax?). We could procrastinate by reading about procrastination: It’s very easy to procrastinate by learning how not to procrastinate. It’s also easy to recognise most types of procrastination: playing computer games, snacking, walking the dog, doing the dishes, chatting to your work colleagues and generally allowing yourself to get distracted by anything colourful, shiny, noisy or interesting.

A less obvious type of procrastination is simply keeping busy, also known as busywork: “work that usually appears productive or of intrinsic value but actually only keeps one occupied”. What is even less obvious is what I call work-procrastination; this is when you are working on a task that is very closely related to, but is not actually, writing. For example, sorting computer files; doing that extra bit of background reading on a topic you are already familiar with; editing the reference list of your report; looking up the perfect definition of a concept; proofreading; re-reading; or spending 40 minutes rewriting and polishing a nearly-perfect paragraph when you haven’t yet considered what might be the major points in your first draft.

You tell yourself that working on these related tasks will ultimately help complete the task; you convince yourself that they are important and necessary and that they must be completed before you write. Because we know these related tasks still have to be completed at some point, we procrastinate by doing them instead of writing.

How to realise when you are work-procrastinating?

When you stop writing and allow yourself to be distracted by other important tasks.

How to avoid work-procrastination?

–        Block off time on your calendar where you are only writing.
–        If it’s a first draft, just write. Write messily and incoherently and incompletely. Get your main ideas out first.
–        Don’t stop and worry if you are making sense – leave that for when you tackle the second draft.
–        Don’t stop and re-read and edit what you’ve just written– leave that for when you tackle the second draft.
–        Set up a zone of silence to reduce distractions. 

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au

Find out more about our new online course...

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020


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What goes into a document’s Appendix?


In a nutshell: Any additional information or data that supports the main document or report.

Appendices (singular; appendix), supporting information, and supplementary data are terms that describe information presented as an attachment to a report, paper, article or thesis. The term used depends on the type of communication being prepared; appendices are usually used in theses and reports, whereas supplementary data or supporting information are often terms used by scientific journals.

Scientific journals place constraints on the length of published papers and actively encourage the use of supporting information to keep papers short and concise. Supporting materials are also peer-reviewed and their inclusion should be scientifically relevant.

In general, supporting information is:

– Relevant to the main report and provides extra information that will expand the reader’s knowledge of the topic.

– Not strictly necessary or essential; the report should include all of the information required to address the research problem and still be understandable to the reader without referring to the supporting information.

– Too cumbersome for the main report.

Examples of supporting information include:

– Extra information about methods used in the research project; for example, details on reagents, specific conditions used, and detailed descriptions of measuring instruments.

– Large and complex datasets, with a summary or subset of the data included in the main report. Large spreadsheets using software such as Excel can often be inserted in supporting information.

– Detailed drawings, maps, diagrams or charts.

– Sample calculations or detailed mathematical derivations.

– Questionnaires or surveys.

– Raw data or analytical data (e.g. data produced from instruments), with a summary of the processed data included in the main report.

– Detailed text, such as transcripts of interviews and excerpts from surveys.

– Summaries of other reports that expand the reader’s knowledge of the topic.

For studies with large datasets, the use of a public data repository could be appropriate. Check the journal you are submitting to as they usually provide information on the types of data repositories that should be considered. Lists of data repositories are also available (see Further Reading).

​Structure guidelines

Divide the information into appropriate sections, with each section on a separate page. Each section should have a title that clearly explains its content.

Label the sections; appendices are usually labelled Appendix 1, 2, 3 (or A, B, C) whereas as supporting information is often labelled according to its type; for example, Supplementary Table 1, Supporting Figure 1, Supplementary Movie 1. As with figures and tables in the main report, supporting information is numbered according to the order it is mentioned in the text of the report.

The page numbering should be continued from the last page of text in the main report.

Always remember to check publisher’s requirements and editorial guidelines. Figures and tables should be carefully formatted as per editorial requirements, ensuring appropriate file formats are used. Also look at different formats presented in documents specific to your field.

​Citation

Insert appendices at the end of the report, after the bibliography. Ensure all supporting information is appropriately cited in the report; it should be easy to find. Also ensure it is listed in the table of contents (if used).

Critically evaluate your supporting information; Is it relevant and does it expand the reader’s understanding?

Further reading

Organising your social sciences research paper: Appendices

Data repositories

- Registry of Research Data Repositories

- List of data repositories

Example Instructions to Authors

- Science: preparing your supplementary materials

- The Veterinary Journal Guide for Authors: Supplementary material

International Journal of Molecular Sciences: Supplementary Materials and Data Deposit 

© Dr Liza O’Donnell and Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020


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If science was perfect, it wouldn’t be science


A common claim espoused across social media is the idea that science must be perfect if we are to believe what is says. For example, when arguments are raised against vaccination, GMO and fluoridation of our water supply, science is criticised for not being perfect and that it should not be trusted. There is a clear assertion that scientists should not make mistakes, and when they do, that science itself is at fault.

What do scientists do?

Scientists solve problems, create new things, come up with new ideas, try things that don’t work and work at things that appear insurmountable. Scientists climb mountains to look at lava, swim with sharks to look at coral, dig ditches to uncover fossils, climb trees to study flowers, wear masks when mixing chemicals, stand all day measuring samples, or sit all day crunching numbers or staring at a computer screen. Scientists write, think, teach, create, destroy, argue, worry, mope and get excited. Scientists make new knowledge and dig through old knowledge for new answers or when working out new ways to do things. Scientists disagree with each other and criticise themselves and others and they try to do things better the next time around. They work with ideas, hypotheses and theories, and come to conclusions and make predictions. They are not always right nor do they expect to be. 

Scientists are not always certain

What we know about science comes from new research and from old research that is looked at again and again. There are things that we are certain are true; there are things that we are reasonably confident are true; then there are things we expect are likely to be true, while understanding there may be important exceptions. Then there are things that we think may, or may not, be true, depending upon the circumstances. Then there are things we are not really sure of at all but have a vague hunch that something about them might be true. Then there are things where very little is known. We don’t know everything and never will. A great many scientific ideas and opinions may be unsubstantiated or simply wrong. Hypotheses either grow up to be theories or discarded and melt into the background of productive thought. Theories are tougher, last longer and are much harder to break, but still do.

Science is not perfect
Science is a process of looking for answers and working on the best way to find these answers. It is not perfect; it couldn’t possibly be as it is done by humans in an imperfect world. Science doesn’t always find the answers and is often inconclusive and indecisive. When looking at their results, scientists regularly find that their answers are inconsistent or contradict currently-held viewpoints. What we know to be true today may be completely wrong at some point in the future, but this is what science is about. Scientific knowledge will always be incomplete. As soon as we find answers to one problem, up springs 10 more questions that demand attention. The search for answers will always bring new questions and new ways of looking at the world. Science is self-improving and never-ending; science is a work in progress.

Scientists make mistakes
Scientists try things that sometimes don’t work, but the idea is to learn why something didn’t work and to improve the method next time. This is a normal part of science. What is rare is when a scientist deliberately makes stuff up to make themselves and their study look good, in order to preserve or improve their career.
The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research “…advocates and describes best practice for both institutions and researchers…” and “…provides a valuable framework for handling breaches of the Code and research misconduct.”

Scientists can be afraid of making mistakes as the culture of science currently favours short, brand-new studies with exciting results over long-term, repetitive and boring studies that are still scientifically-important. The reports that say “we didn’t find anything” often don’t even get written, let alone published, allowing others to repeat the same ‘mistakes’ when trying to solve a problem. Similarly, I have met more than a few PhD students who spend a very long time worrying about their project ‘not working’ because it is common for studies not to produce the results you expect. It is difficult to do statistics on lots of zeros. Nevertheless the science behind why you didn’t find anything is as important as why you did find something.

The checks and balances of science

There are checks and balances that maintain and improve the quality of research but science itself is inherently rigorous; it has its own inherent checks and balances. The scientific record is research that is written and published so others can check that it was done properly, ideally other scientists then repeat or build upon the original study and try to do it better. The peer-review process means that other scientists get to verify that a study was done correctly. The published journal paper in bone-fide journals means that the science community gets to read and further judge whether a study is valid. If they don’t think a published study is good enough, they can write another paper to critique it. Those papers that make a big impact or make it into the higher quality journals get cited more often, meaning these papers are popular with other scientists and become more influential in their field.

Yet none of these checks and balances work perfectly. There are major criticisms of the peer-review system with many suggestions on how to improve the process. There are some papers that get rejected for publishing that shouldn’t have been, while there are papers that get accepted that shouldn’t and some of these get retracted, which means they are withdrawn from publication and are deleted from the journal (The top ten paper retractions for 2015 are listed here).

Scientists disagree with each other

There is a lot of trust in science. We trust that most studies produce accurate and reliable results but some studies are based on little evidence or were conducted with incomplete or even incorrect methodology. We hope that these studies will fail the peer-review stage, but they don’t always. Of those that do get published, if the scientific data is no
t strong, there can be differing opinions on the importance of that study’s conclusions. Nevertheless, below-standard published papers still create important and necessary debate. For example, the paper Neurobehavioral effects of developmental toxicity (Lancet Neurol. 2014; 13: 330–338) that looks at harm caused by fluoridation is critiqued by a paper published in response to this study Neurodevelopmental toxicity: still more questions than answers (Lancet Neurol. 2014; 13: 647 – 648).

Scientific disputes are normal and a necessary part of science. Providing the disagreement is between peers, disputes strengthen science. Disagreement forces researchers to look harder at their own ideas, beliefs and methodology.

There are many ways science can improve: for example, the peer-review process, the amount and extent of scientist training and mentorship, and the amount of funding for training and research. We also need to make is easier for scientists to do their work. The predominance of the publish or perish culture leaves little time for scientists to communicate widely or to do the boring but important work that might not get published in high-quality journals. The lack of funding, tenure and job vacancies means that many months of the year are devoted to preparing job and grant applications of which only a small fraction are successful.

Effective communication is essential

We need science to make decisions about all sorts of things and we usually do not have the time or money to study something 100 times for 100 years. Decisions often need to be made with limited information. Science is not a neat, perfect road map where the direction to home is clearly marked. It is more like the game of snakes and ladders, when sometimes you think you are making satisfactory progress, but something changes or goes wrong and the next step takes you straight back to the beginning.

Yet given the overwhelming advances in science, the drive to do it bigger and better continues. Scientists need the support and understanding of the community and the community needs reliable and digestible information about the impacts of science and technology.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020


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10 writing tips for the struggling ESL science writer


For most people, learning a second language is a struggle, let alone learning how to be a proficient science writer in that language. The following tips and suggestions will help the struggling ESL science writer both identify and tackle common writing obstacles.

1. Don’t aim to learn all the rules of grammar before you start writing

It can take a long time to be proficient in all the English rules of grammar. Even many experienced writers with English as their first language are not proficient at English grammar rules, relying on their innate knowledge of the language when writing. Instead of thinking you need to learn every English grammar rule, concentrate upon the most common grammar errors when learning English as a second language. In a recent study, the most common written grammar errors by ESL tertiary students were found to be Subject – Verb Agreement (SVA) and Verb Tense (Singh et al. 2017).

2. Avoid trying to make your English grammatically-perfect in your early drafts

While the final version of your document should be grammatically correct, don’t worry about having perfect grammar before you start or when preparing early drafts. In your first draft, concentrate upon getting your ideas down and ensure you are addressing a clearly defined aim. You can fix up your grammar as you edit and rework your later drafts.

3. Try writing your first draft in your first language

If writing in English is a significant obstacle to getting your thoughts down, try writing your first draft in your first language to allow you to first concentrate upon writing about your topic clearly. Once you are satisfied with the progress of your document, you can then translate your writing into English and then seek assistance from a science editor to help you correct your grammar.

4. Continue with English conversation classes

Science writers who struggle to improve their written English, are also often not yet proficient in spoken English. Continuing with weekly or monthly English conversation classes will not only improve your written English, but will allow you to pick up commonly-used English vocabulary and terminology.

5. Ask a friend or colleague to regularly give you feedback on your spoken English

Normally, friends or colleagues will not correct your spoken English and unless you are continuing your conversation classes, it may take you a long time to learn where you need to improve. Try asking a friend or colleague to regularly give you feedback on your spoken English.

6. Ask a friend or colleague to give you feedback on late drafts of your document

In addition to any editing and feedback you might receive from co-authors, colleagues or managers, try asking a friend or colleague to give you feedback, specifically on your English grammar. This person need not be an expert in English grammar but be able to point out any obvious anomalies in your writing. Having someone focus on giving you feedback on your English will allow other colleagues to focus on giving you feedback on the scientific aspects of your work. In return, you could also offer to give feedback on your colleagues’ writing. This will also help you to improve your writing as critiquing the work of other writers allows you to notice areas of improvement you might not see in your own work.

7. Use online grammar exercises to improve your grammar

Grammar textbooks are excellent as reference texts to look up individual rules, while online grammar exercises are a good way to learn how to correct grammar using real examples. Online grammar exercises immediately provide both corrections and explanations.

8. Avoid online forums to learn about grammar rules

Grammar queries that are posted in online forums (for example Quora) are invariably answered by both experts and non-experts and some answers can be incorrect. This makes it difficult to decide which is the correct answer to follow. Also, there are some grammar rules that are more difficult to follow than others, especially if there are many exceptions to the rule; for example, the spelling rule ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’. Only refer to reputable grammar websites that are specifically designed for education.

9. Be aware that not everyone agrees about what is correct English grammar

Be aware that not everyone agrees about what is correct English grammar and what is acceptable vocabulary. For example, some experts advise never to use contractions (for example “We’re” instead of “We are”) in scholarly or formal writing, yet contractions do not change the accuracy of the message and are argued to make reading more enjoyable.

Choose 3-5 grammar references that are reputable and written by trained, professional experts and consistently follow their advice. Also aim to follow the standard references and style guides for your discipline and institution.

10. Hire an editor that can explain grammar rules

If appropriate for your circumstances and if you have the resources, hire an editor proficient at explaining grammar and ask them to give you regular feedback on your writing.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020


SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter

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