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A note on the the passive voice and the use of 'we'

Passive or active?

There is some debate about the role of the passive voice in scientific writing, and writers often receive contradictory or confusing advice about this. Traditionally, passive structures were favoured (Leong, 2020); however, both passive and active structures play a role in modern scientific writing.

As example (1) shows, careful consideration of topic and information flow often results in a balanced use of active voice (in bold text) and passive voice (underlined):


In this method, triangular-weave polypropylene nets are attached to support posts to serve as water collectors. (2) Each of these nets is designed to collect approximately 40 gallons of water each day. (3) When the fog develops, droplets of water are trapped in the nets and join to form larger drops that then fall into a trough. (4) From the troughs, the water drains through filters into a series of underground tanks. (5) The water is then piped to a 25,000-gallon storage tank, where it is chemically treated to kill disease-causing organisms. (6) Finally, the water flows to individual households, just as in traditional water systems.

(Swales and Feak, 2012: 109)

The passive voice is used in example (1) to ensure a focus on the method and result of water collection; the people involved in water collection are not the focus here. However, note how the writer uses active voice in sentences 4 and 6 and the passive voice in sentence 5 to ensure an effective flow of information, so that old information (water) appears in topic position in each sentence.

Can I use the pronoun 'we'?

Scientific writers have traditionally avoided the use of personal pronouns, perhaps to underline the detached and unbiased nature of their work. Today, however, we see a greater use of personal pronouns such as ‘we’ as scientific writers use more active voice in their texts.

Examples (1–3) show how writers have used personal pronouns in an Introduction, Theoretical Framework, and Conclusion, respectively:

(1) Here, my aim is to evaluate three methods for solving the stochastic equation.

(2) As equation 14 shows, we can extract the spin-wave spectrum from any part.


This work supports and extends findings in [14], which suggests the possibility of lithium plating under mild conditions. For this degree project, I have used Li NMR to provide a numerical report of lithium plating in commercial cells cycled at a low C-rate (0.5C) and at mild temperatures (below 33 °C). I have also shown that the proliferation of lithium plating is abrupt, confined to specific areas, and related to component deactivation.

Passive or active in Method sections?

Process descriptions in Method sections have a focus on ‘what was done’, often using the passive voice (see example 4) and avoiding personal pronouns. However, today, it is also common to see process descriptions written using we, as in example (5). Note that these two examples both come from the same journal, The Lancet. It is important to establish if there is a preferred approach in your discipline and write accordingly.


This retrospective, total population cohort study was done using data from Swedish nationwide registers. The cohort comprised all individuals vaccinated with two doses of ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, mRNA-1273, or BNT162b2, and matched unvaccinated individuals, with data on vaccinations and infections updated until Oct 4, 2021. Two outcomes were evaluated. The first was SARS-CoV-2 infection of any severity from Jan 12 to Oct 4, 2021. The second was severe COVID-19, defined as hospitalisation for COVID-19 or all-cause 30-day mortality after confirmed infection, from March 15 to Sept 28, 2021.

Nordstöm et al., The Lancet, Feb. 2022


In this systematic review and network meta-analysis, we searched, without language restrictions, the Cochrane Schizophrenia Group's specialised register between database inception and April 27, 2020, PubMed from April 1, 2020, to Jan 15, 2021, and the lists of included studies from related systematic reviews. We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs; ≥12 weeks of follow-up) that recruited adult participants with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder with stable symptoms who were treated with antipsychotics (monotherapy; oral or long-acting injectable) or placebo. We excluded RCTs of participants with specific comorbidities or treatment resistance. In duplicate, two authors independently selected eligible RCTs and extracted aggregate data. The primary outcome was the number of participants who relapsed and was analysed by random-effects, Bayesian network meta-analyses.

Schneider-Thoma et al., The Lancet, Feb. 2022

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Leong, Alvin Ping. (2020) The passive voice in scientific writing through the ages: A diachronic study. Text & Talk, vol. 40, no. 4, 2020, pp. 467-489.

Swales, J. M. and Feak, C. B. (2012) Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Essential Tasks and Skills. 3rd Edition. Michigan University Press.