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  • Passive Voice versus ‘We’ in my thesis

    Posted by Qrystal on August 3, 2010 at 18:46.
    Category: Concepts. Tags: grammar, thesis.

    I was contemplating the problem of the “royal we” versus the use of passive voice in my thesis, and it sparked the following ideastorm on twitter:

    RT @timtfj:

    Passive [voice] makes the facts harder to absorb. Disengages the reader.

    Harder than in normal non-scientific writing, I mean.

    I wonder if anyone’s done the experiment: ”One version of the paper was prepared in passive voice and 3rd person in order to test the reader’s information retention. We wrote the other one in 1st person to test how much you remember.”

    You’d take an actual science paper, & keep it exactly the same except for editing all the passives out of one version, then test how easily & accurately people could follow it, what criteria they used to evalute it, etc.

    Results would probably vary depending on whether it was a paper in the reader’s own discipline.

    [1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8]

    My responses:

    Interesting experiment idea, and well-described as well. ;) In that case though, the “we” seems more correct. My case is more vague.

    I think passive voice works for mathematical research because it doesn’t matter who sets it up, or even if anyone does.

    [1][2]

    I think the results of above experiment described by Tim would also depend on whether the norm for the test paper’s discipline tends towards passive voice or active explanations of what the researchers actually did.

    In mathematical physics, there are a lot of situations where it seems more natural (in my humble opinion) to use passive voice.  Specifically, I’m finding this to be true when the only other choice is what I’ve recently learned (thanks @candace_nast) can be called an “inclusive we”, where I mean the reader and myself, for example when I am demonstrating something so that “we can see” whatever it is I’m demonstrating. I’d much prefer to take myself out of the picture, and just state what is being demonstrated, letting the reader decide whether s/he sees it too.

    If, instead of opting for passive voice or inclusive we, I take too much responsibility for what I am sharing, it may seem like I am the only person who has ever figured out what I am demonstrating. Obviously, I do need to take some credit for my work, because the whole point of a thesis or dissertation is to put my work on a pedestal. However, I think it would be too distracting to do this within the body of the explanation, where I really want the demonstrated concepts to be the focus. The math speaks for itself, after all, and would still demonstrate the same things whether I was the one who did the calculation, or you did, or we did together, or nobody did it at all.

    Perhaps I am just struggling with modesty, which is why I am tempted at times to use “we” to mean my fellow researchers and myself, even though it blurs my own contributions with those of my collaborators. Maybe this is okay for my first draft, after which I can ask my advisor what parts he thinks are my own extensions to his work, and so they would be better described by a more personal pronoun.  Of course, this brings up the question of whether I should then choose the overly-formal method of referring to myself as “the author”, as awkward as that tends to sound…

    Ah, the dilemmas that interfere with research are so much fun, aren’t they? :)

    2 Comments »

    • http://www.desigeek.com Amit Bahree

      Interesting dilemma, something I have been struggling with as well. Curious to know what did you end up going with? – Amit Bahree. (@bahree on twitter)

    • http://qrystal.name Qrystal

      Hi Amit,

      I’ve been doing what I feel most comfortable with doing: using passive voice. After all, when I say “it can be seen that”, I really do mean that it can be seen, and it doesn’t matter who is the one who shows it.

      I have yet to show most of my work to my advisor, though, so there’s a chance he might advise me to use words that give me more credit for things that I’ve done that are new. This might be more important if I was intending to submit my work to a journal for publication, though. Plus, I’m not entirely sure how much of my work is truly new, or if it’s just a new way of looking at things that are already known.