passive vs active

aloisia t schmid a-schmi at
Wed Apr 2 20:41:56 EST 1997

Dear Sabine,

     So after reading your follow-up question, it seems that what you are
concerned with is the way you should sumamrize what other people have
done.  That you have no trouble using the active voice in discussing your
own methods or results, it's the stuff in the introduction and discussion
you don't want to be too pushy about.  

      Just as an aside, do you ever wonder if Watson and Crick went
through any of this introspection when they were reporting Rosalind
Franklin's results?  Somehow, I suspect it never came up.....

      Anyway, you accurately point out that others have said that wouldn't
it be great if people wrote the way they talked---it would make scientific
writings so much more pleasureable to read.  Well, I think that is a good
rule.  So use the active voice, even when discussing what other people
think or did (even unpublished results...), and then make it clear as to
what YOU think or believe or did after using other's inputs as a jumping
off point.  For example, say that someone you work with gave you an idea
in a discussion and that to make this idea clear you need to discuss alot
of previous points that were not your own work.  So state what that
information is.  Very clearly.  Reference everything.  Unpublished points
get referenced as personal communications.  And then, when you get to what
you yourself thought and came up with, it is "I" all the way.  If
something you are writing up was a collaborative effort, then you use
"we", making it clear who the other part of the collaboration was.  And
then as quickly as possible return to "I".  

      The reason that it is important is that your thesis IS copyrighted. 
Your thesis will also be referenced by others, and if these are cool ideas
that you are proud of, and may never make it into a paper, it is a good
idea to get them out there, even if only in a thesis that you are
convinced no one but you and your parents will ever see.....if for no
other reason so that it is on the record.  Your adviser may go on to
mention these ideas at meetings, or in talks, or in papers where your name
will not be attached and this will be your opportunity to get something on
the record that might not otherwise get there.  If you dilute that credit,
you are giving it away.  There will be plenty of times when you will be
FORCED to give credit when it may not be deserved, but this is one time
when it is all yours.....

       Anyway, I don't think anyone should ever think that putting your
name on your work should be a source of stress.  And using "I" is doing
just that.  It is putting your name on this work, and everyone deserves
that, don't you think?

                        Good luck!


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