All posts,  Psych science

The sin of the perpendicular pronoun

Many psychologists, myself included, want to make psychology more like the natural sciences. Psychology, as a scientific discipline, may be a couple of hundred years younger than chemistry or physics, but with cautious work we will be able to reach the same level of replicability and confidence in our findings, despite the complexity of our subject matter. Unfortunately (and for some reasons too complex to delve into here, perhaps deservedly), most scientists do not regard much of psychology as scientific. The result is that psychologists find themselves on the cusp of scientific respectability, and perhaps that is why psychologists are sometimes behind the curve when it comes to changes in scientific practice. One such change has recently occurred in science writing. It’s not a big thing, but it’s something we psychologists should be especially au fait with, and most of us seem to be pretending it didn’t happen. 

In the 1920’s, British and American scientists began to move away from straight-forward constructions like “we ran an experiment” in favour of unpleasant passive voice constructions like “an experiment was run”. Though this was never a complete take-over, and though there has recently been a strong trend to the reverse, high school psychology teachers and many university lecturers are still encouraging students to write in the passive voice.

To some extent, this continued pedagogic trend is understandable. Most psychology courses require no serious prior training in science and so students turn up having studied humanities and literature. In other words, they are often used to modes of writing where an individual is the focus of a narrative. Teachers must somehow encourage a subtle mental shift, to get students focussing on the procedure, the apparatus, the observations, and the data, rather than on their opinion that EEG machines are a bit tricky to calibrate.

A great many psychology lectures therefore ban the use of the first person and encourage the use of the passive voice. This is a quick fix. Students can no longer write,

We didn’t like using the blue conductive gel because it was smelly, so we used the clear one.

and find themselves, as if by magic, writing,

The blue conductive gel was unacceptable to the participants due to its pungent odour and so another brand was substituted.

Well, not quite. In fact, what often happens is that students get their verbs in a knot and write utter garbage, but let’s be charitable for a moment.

In fact, since it’s accepted as standard practice in most psychology departments, most of us have no real first-hand experience of whether it’s our instruction not to use the first person or our other wonderful constructive feedback that improves students’ writing the most. We have conflated our variables.

I would have no problem with this little pedagogic foible if students saw through it later, just as a young chemist realises that ‘covalent’ and ‘ionic’ are useful shorthands for the ends of what is in fact a continuum. But they don’t. I have recently received two peer reviews of my work, and seen three peer reviews of other people’s work where “please avoid the use of the first person” was one of the main criticisms. Why? Are you scared that your false air of scientific respectability will somehow be punctured if we admit that the experiment didn’t just develop consciousness and run itself?

There are several problems with the passive voice, though the ones that annoy me are:

  • Constructions in the passive voice are often longer
  • It is sometimes unclear who is doing what when sentences are written in the passive voice
  • Agency is often given to inanimate things
  • The passive is often more complex and students then interpret a preference for the passive as a preference for linguistic pomposity and grandiloquence.
  • If we accept that the first person is terribly unprofessional, we are implying that some of the greatest scientists of all time were poor communicators. Francis and Crick’s groundbreaking 1953 paper on the structure of DNA was written in the first person. Their paradigm-changing paper started, “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.” It was readable. Moore (2000) even suggests that it may owe some of its impact to the clean and readable nature of its prose. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was written in the first person. Miller’s famous psychology paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information,” was written in the first person, with no fewer than 52 occurrences of the perpendicular pronoun.
  • Worst of all, restricting the use of the first person is a blunt pedagogic tool. Doing so doesn’t reorient students to care more about data than researchers. They still write “so and so said” instead of “so and so collected data on”.

This is not only a problem in psychology. Scientists from other disciplines have bemoaned the problem over the last decade or two, but in psychology it seems to be accepted knowledge, as though there were not even a debate to be had.

Let’s set the record straight.

The American Psychological Association’s Publication Manual has included a recommendation on the use of the passive voice at least since the fifth edition. Here’s what the sixth edition says:

Prefer the active voice.

Preferred:

We conducted the survey in a controlled setting.

Nonpreferred:

The survey was conducted in a controlled setting.

Not convinced? Here’s what Nature’s editorial board has to say on the issue:

Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice (“we performed the experiment…”) as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly. (Link)

In fact, psychologist Rupert Sheldrake reports on an informal survey he conducted of peer-reviewed journals, and the vast majority accepted manuscripts written in the first person, with a few, like Nature, preferring that style.

The alternative is clear. Science is done by scientists. There should be no shame in admitting this. Objectivity in science comes from replication by other teams — both theoretical and strict — not from the grammar we use to describe our work.

Now repeat after me … We conducted an experiment…