Pre-submission advice:  academic language

The following advice is of a general nature.  Various elements discussed will be valuable for both non-native speakers of English and native-speakers.  It will be useful as a reference prior to submission to a journal or conference, or prior to submission to a copy-editing or proof-reading service.  It covers selected aspects that are specific to English language expression for academic writing. 

Academic style — passive voice

Advantages
Disadvantages
Critiques

Academic style — avoidance of "I"

Advantages
Disadvantages
Critiques

Academic style — past tense versus present tense

Past tense
Present tense

Selected academic vocabulary

 

Academic style — passive voice

There is a tendency to use the passive voice more frequently in academic writing.  Thus, we rarely see: 
"I put the sample on an Acme 'Z43' shaker and ran it for ten seconds." 
we sometimes see: 
"We put the sample on an Acme 'Z43' shaker and ran it for ten seconds." 
it would be more common to write:
"The sample was shaken on an Acme 'Z43' shaker for ten seconds."

Advantages

Judicious use of the passive voice does have some advantages:  

  • It puts the focus on the experimental materials or processes and the empirical observations, instead of on the academic (experimenter or theoretician or researcher), which is often appropriate for such statements of fact and objective descriptions. 
  • It is more concise and less repetitive than continually writing "We did this, and then we did that, and later we did the other thing."

Disadvantages

There has been a regrettable tendency to overuse the passive voice.  This creates some significant disadvantages: 

  • It is a disingenuous way of pretending that statements of opinion, and subjective descriptions, are somehow unarguable, because they have been presented in the same style as is used for statements of fact and objective descriptions. 
  • The writing can become less interesting if it is completely impersonal, and the 'voice' of the writer is lost. 

Critiques

"However, prevailing customs also permit the authors — and this is the best solution, provided it is not done to excess — to use the first person plural [i.e. "we", "our"] whenever a sentence expresses something subjective like an opinion, a purpose, a decision."
—Robert Schoenfeld, The Chemist's English.
Third, revised edition with "Say It in English, Please!";  published by VCH, Weinheim (F. R. Germany), 1990:  page 5.

"Harold Rosen, my tutor at the University of London [...] was responding to the first bit of writing I had produced for my doctoral studies [...]. With a tired sigh, he growled 'You can get by in the world of academia with this third person objective word-from-God North American dialect if you want to' — he paused to enable me to absorb this [...] 'but why would you want to?  I have no sense of you as a reader, of you as a writer, or of you as a teacher.  You don't say why you think what you are writing about is important, or why you even took on board the concept to write about in the first place.  It's good;  it's comprehensive and thorough, even original, and definitely worthy of publication [and it was published] but you can do better.'"
— Sharon Hamilton, "Whose voice is my voice when I write in academe?". 
Chapter 11 of 'Who Owns English?', edited by Mike Hayhoe & Stephen Parker, published by Open University Press, Buckingham (U.K.), 1994:  page 91.
 

Academic style — avoidance of "I"

 A further problem that has arisen from the unthinking application of formulaic phrases is the use of "we" instead of "I" in active constructions, even if there is only a single author. 

Advantages

There are almost no advantages of avoiding "I" and using "we" in single-author texts.  One possible advantage might be to partially mitigate (subconscious) bias against single-author manuscripts, if it exists. 

For texts with multiple authors, it is logical to use "we". 

Disadvantages

Disadvantages of using "we" in single-author texts: 

  • It is grammatically incorrect.  (Unless the author happens to be a monarch, in which case they can justifiably use the 'royal we'.) 
  • It unjustifiably suggests that multiple authors have formed a consensus on the statements made. 
  • The writing can become less interesting if the authentic 'voice' of the writer is lost. 

Critiques

"Prevailing custom, alas [!], is still against the use of the first person singular [i.e. "I", "my"].  
[...] a certain amount of care [...] is certainly desirable, but if you are the sole author of your paper I see no harm in your using I in those places where, as a member of your group, you would have written we
[...] here I find myself advocating a change.  But customs are progressively changing in the direction I desire [...].  Certainly, in my journal [the Australian Journal of Chemistry][...] I shall promise [...] not to put any road-block in the way of your legitimate little ego-trip!"
—Robert Schoenfeld, The Chemist's English.
Third, revised edition with "Say It in English, Please!";  published by VCH, Weinheim (F. R. Germany), 1990:  page 5.

Academic style — past tense versus present tense

The following discussion emphasises the difference between use of past tense to describe specific details and present tense to describe general truths.  It is not an exhaustive enumeration of all possible tenses or their uses!  Examples using the verb to show are also available. 

Past tense

Past tense is commonly used in academic writing to describe:  

  • specific details of research reported previously; 
  • specific details of research that is the subject of the present article or paper. 

Examples

Reporting of methodology:
"Smith & Jones (1982) assigned patients to three different treatment groups."
"We inoculated the flasks with the algal strains set out in Table 2."

Reporting of observations:
"In 1990 Lee & Madzlan reported the detection of an 'unusual' signal from 'somewhere' outside our own galaxy."  [Emphasis on the reporting suggests current doubts about the validity of that observation.]
"This algorithm had the greatest accuracy (98%) in a study using synthetic data [32]."  [Different results could well be obtained when processing other data sets.]
"Our new reactor design was able to be operated at lower temperatures than the conventional design for all seven of the reactant combinations considered herein."  [Different observations could well apply for other reactant combinations.]

Reporting of previous conclusions:
"Based on an extensive experimental programme, Kumar & Negus [12] recommended that backwashing of filters be conducted twice as often as the average frequency for the sites that we surveyed."  [The recommendation was made in the past;  we do not know whether Kumar & Jain continue to hold that view.  The present authors may or may not agree with the recommendation.]

Present tense

Present tense is commonly used in academic writing to describe:  

  • generally applicable findings of research reported previously; 
  • generally applicable findings of research that is the subject of the present article or paper. 

Examples

Allusion to methodology:
"In conducting a literature review, it is important to adopt a systematic approach."  [The statement is true in general, not just in the past (or present, or future).]
"We always follow the glass-cleaning protocol of multiple acid and alkali washes, followed by thorough rinsing, that is specified in Appendix 1."  [This protocol has been followed in all of our (relevant) research, and will continue to be followed for the foreseeable future.  Note also that the protocol can currently be found in Appendix 1, so present tense is used (albeit in the passive voice) in "is specified".]

Allusion to previous observations:
"Clearly, alloys produced using this technique have the smallest grains [Yarmy et al., 1965; Adams et al., 1977]."  [This general truth might be fairly well known to experts in the field, but is here being supported by citation of the two 'classic' research studies who each reported only limited findings on one alloy type.]
"Epidemiological data from France [23–26], Germany [27], Canada [28] and Japan [29] indicate that consumption of raw (unpasteurised) cheeses is not a significant risk factor for this disease."  [Essentially the present author is proposing a generally true conclusion based on analysis of the previously reported data.  Although the data have already been collected, they suggest this conclusion now, hence use of present tense also for "indicate" (see "show" versus "shown"). ]

Reporting of conclusions:
"Prof. de Vries showed that there is an optimum velocity gradient at which the flocs attain their maximal size."  [Although the proof was conducted in the past, the finding is taken as a general truth that still holds, and indeed will always hold.]
"The results obtained in the present paper emphatically demonstrate that increased consumption of bottled water poses a great threat to the environment."  [The results have already been gathered, but the conclusion is taken as still true, and indeed true in the short–medium term;  in the distant future it might no longer be true, due to unforeseeable technological developments.] 
"These observations demonstrate beyond doubt that more ergonomic designs are produced when ergonomics are formally considered in each phase of the design process."  [The conclusion is proposed to be generally true.]

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