April 22, 2010

Language tips: methodologic or methodological & first person and passive voice in scientific writing

Posted in first person and passive voice in scientific writing, methodologic or methodological at 9:08 am by dlseltzer


Nicole K spotted this great sighting:


Honestly, I’m not selling anything-just thought you would enjoy dialogue about complimentary/complementary.

Tip 1: Methodologic or methodological

Last fall, I talked, in the WLUT, about the difference between methods and methodology. As a reminder, methods refer to the means by which we carry out research, that is, the procedures we use, and methodology refers to the theoretical analysis of the methods. While these words are increasingly used synonymously, they really are distinct, and when describing how we do research, we should discuss our methods rather than our methodology: <https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/methodsmethodology/>

However, that was last October’s discussion.

Today, I want to talk about a different form of methodology. I see this kind of statement in grant proposals regularly:

I will work with the Data Center to determine the relative merit of our statistical and methodologic approaches.

There’s epidemiologic and biologic and bacteriologic and technologic and physiologic and dermatologic and pharmacologic and geologic and neurologic and ophthalmologic and pathologic and serologic and illogic and morphologic and technologic and hematologic and gynecologic and oncologic and immunologic and microbiologic and ecologic and etiologic and ethnologic and sociologic and radiologic and chronologic and neurophysiologic and psychopathologic.

But, boys and girls, there is no such word as ‘methodologic.’

The correct word is ‘methodological.’ And the sentence should read:

I will work with the Data Center to determine the relative merit of our statistical and methodological approaches.

And that’s that.

Tip 2: Personal pronouns in scientific writing

A reader writes:

Could you comment on the use of personal pronouns in scientific writing?

I went to a scientific writing workshop several years ago and was told that the idea that we should avoid personal pronouns in scientific writing was antiquated. We were told that it was most important to avoid passive voice. So instead of writing, “Blood pressure was measured at baseline,” we should write “We measured blood pressure at baseline” (assuming that we were the ones doing the measuring). However, this morning I received the second review in a month that stated “avoid personal pronouns.” Obviously, I’ll do whatever the reviewer says since, at this point in my career, getting published is more important than being grammatically correct. However, I’m wondering if I should start to avoid personal pronouns as a general rule.


What a great question! There’s so much I want to say, I am not sure where to start. However, not to worry-I will manage. I’m going to start at the end.

Obviously, I’ll do whatever the reviewer says since, at this point in my career, getting published is more important than being grammatically correct.

As you might guess, this note was written by a young investigator. I was thrilled to see this sentence in the note. This is exactly right. The most important thing right now is getting published. So it’s good to remember that the reviewer is always right, even when the reviewer is wrong. And here, the reviewer is wrong. Don’t get me wrong: there are times to assert yourself with the reviewer and stand up for yourself, but those times have to do with the science of the research and not the style of writing. And even then, there are ways of disagreeing that won’t raise the reviewer’s hackles. But that is a discussion for another issue of WLUT.

Today, we are talking about the use of the first person and the active voice in scientific writing.

Before I begin, however, let me say this: Always check and FOLLOW the conventions of the journal to which you will be submitting your manuscript. This will save you a lot of grief in the long run.

Okay, back to the subject at hand. The use of the third person and the passive voice was once considered a means of maintaining objectivity in reporting scientific findings. (This dates back to the days of Francis Bacon.) The thought was that the investigator inserting him- or herself into the story could somewhat distort or otherwise influence the results or at least take attention away from the science. Unfortunately, articles written in the passive voice can be deadly dull, and articles written in the third person can seem awkward or stilted. Fortunately, the notion that we have to write in the third person, using a passive voice, is an old school point of view. Today, the more pervasive view is that we want scientific writing to be readable, engaging, and even exciting (if the findings allow). Using personal pronouns and an active voice contribute to the readability of a document and does not imply narcissism on the part of the author as some writers and editors assert. Let’s look at some examples.

The literature was reviewed, and it was determined that a series of experiments should be performed to test the hypothesis.

Nothing to write home about.

We reviewed the literature and determined that we would carry out a series of experiments to test the hypothesis.

A bit stronger.

After reviewing the literature, we conducted a series of experiments to test the hypothesis.

Stronger. But it would be stronger still if the experiments were specified.

There are lots of ways of rewriting the sentence, but the main point is to write clearly and with economy of style.

I am not saying to always avoid the passive tense. There are some places it makes sense. Listen to the sound of the sentence, and make your decisions accordingly.

Finally, should we use ‘we’ or ‘I’ when writing manuscripts? Remember we want to be precise and objective, so use the word that most accurately reflects what happened in the study.



  1. Ted Zuur said,

    Hi again: Thanks for the column. Can you cite another authority for your advice for the use of semicolons followed by conjunctive adverbs,

    “When you use a connector to bind two clauses, put a semicolon before the connecting word, and follow it with a comma.

    “We were planning to write up the results of the experiment; however, we didn’t find what we expected when we ran the experiment a second time.

    “The national meeting is not until next week; nevertheless, I am already looking forward to it.”

    In both of your examples I would have punctuated each clause as a separate sentence. Maybe my skills are out of date, or were always off base, but this is what I remember from my technical writing classes at San Francisco State a couple of decades ago.

    Thanks again, Ted Zuur

    • dlseltzer said,

      If you google it, you’ll find many authorities. One I use is Prentice Hall’s Handbook for Writers, eleventh edition, 1991. I don’t think this is a new approach. this is what I learned in grammar school way back in the 60s.

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