The problem: expressing your ideas in an academic setting

Many of us have been taught not to use the first person, “I,” “my,” “we,” “our” and so forth (and for that matter, the second person, “you”), when writing research papers. First person pronouns and verbs, we were told, suggest that an author may be too close to the subject matter and is mixing opinion with fact, or may even be hiding something. As is frequent with advice about writing, what begins as a reasonable general idea comes to be perceived, incorrectly, as a hard-and-fast rule. In any case, the questions of if and when the first person is appropriate should be part of an author’s broader consideration of the balance of objectivity and subjectivity that a given piece of writing requires.

Initial considerations: the audience and forum

The first thing to consider when deciding whether to be concerned about using the first person is the type of writing that you’re doing. If you are preparing a talk to be delivered before a live audience, use of “we” can help to establish a rapport with the audience, and it will anyway probably feel quite unnatural to avoid all use of “I” (and “you”), regardless of the subject matter. The same is true when the forum for your writing is informal, as often is the case with blog posts (like this one).

The issue can get tricky when writing for academic journals and presses. The first person naturally tends to be used less frequently in the sciences than in the humanities, but editors are coming around to the idea that insistence on the third person can lead to imprecision and even to a kind of false modesty (as can be seen in this quick survey of opinions by experts on scientific writing). This less rigid stance is admitted in the APA, CMA and MLA style guides.

When “we” do science

Sticking with the sciences for the moment, let’s take a look at a couple of abstracts from recent articles:

We hypothesized that this is due to infrequent or short interactions between S. Typhimurium and Y. enterocolitica… To test these hypotheses, we constructed an S. Typhimurium strain that synthesizes AHLs to mimic a constant interaction with Y. enterocolitica.

[Journal of Bacteriology (2010) 192.1: 29]

In this case, the first-person plural “we” refers accurately to the multiple (in this case, eight) authors: they did the work, and are taking credit for it. The passage would become awkward if the “no first person” rule were enforced:

It was hypothesized that this is due to infrequent or short interactions…an S. Typhimurium strain was constructed

Contrast this abstract with one from the Journal of Psychology:

Self-report questionnaires tapping worry, rumination, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) were administered to a clinical sample of 60 patients aged 30–40. … We also analyzed differences of outcome variables within two clinical groups. [Journal of Psychology (2015) 149.8: 866]

Here the study’s two authors have it both ways, which, when juxtaposed, highlight the greater precision of the first person: did the questionnaires administer themselves? No, this work was of course done by the same people who “analyzed the differences”.

Obviously, you will want to consult recent articles from the journal to which you will submit your manuscript. Generally speaking, however, it is permissible, even preferable, to use the first person when describing actions—experiments, surveys, internet searches and so on—actually performed by the author(s) of the article.

When “we” write about the humanities

The humanities allow greater scope for the first person because such work as interpreting a poem or explaining a historical event directly reflects the writers’ opinions: there is no experimental model that would yield an objective explanation for William Blake’s image of the tiger, for example. Let’s look at a couple more recently published articles.

In the following case, the (one) author very properly uses the first person to communicate her own point of view:

Herring suggests that O’Hara thought Lowell’s confessionalism too self-revealing, while I argue on the contrary … I suggest that rather than being “anti-confessional,” both O’Hara and Ginsberg wrote poems that had affinities with the confessional mode. [Journal of Modern Literature (2005) 28.4: 41]

Here the author’s own understanding of her subject is contrasted with that of another scholar; removal of the “I suggest” would give the impression that the author believes that she has had the last word on the subject—and this is never the case in scholarship.

Another common usage in the humanities for the first person plural in particular is to identify the author with the reader of the article. Sometimes this is called the “inclusive we.” Our next example was written by a single author:

The way we read Valerius’ use of Cicero’s text thus informs how we might understand the genre of his work as a whole. [American Journal of Philology (2013) 134.1: 73]

Here the author, quite properly, positions herself and her audience within the context a community of readers of ancient Latin texts. Again, consider the awkwardness and imprecision if these same ideas would be rendered in the third person:

The way Valerius’ use of Cicero’s text is read thus informs how the genre of his work as a whole might be understood.

Moreover, such phrases as “let us now consider” and “as we shall see” can be very useful for signposting and to effect transitions in the course of an academic article.

This usage is to be distinguished from that of the first person plural for singular, the so-called “royal we” (sometimes called the “exclusive we“), which is now almost universally rejected as old-fashioned and a bit condescending. “This quirk of English grammar is rarely heard today, except in historical context or as a jibe at someone who is too assured of his own power.”

Some workarounds

Since some authors may still be uncomfortable with the first person, and it remains frowned upon in a number of contexts, let’s conclude by considering a few useful workarounds:

passive voice: as can be seen from some of the above examples, a common way to eliminate the first person is to switch to the passive voice. It must be observed that this workaround conflicts with the common, though in part mistaken, directive that one should always use the active voice.

impersonal “one”: Here “one” stands for any hypothetical person who might be interested in the subject matter. For example, “One may infer that both abundant OH groups and negatively charged surfaces of gel-derived silica and titania are important…“; this workaround is nice because it is also gender-neutral.

“this study (article, thesis etc.)”: for example, “this study aims to identify effective teachers in terms of improved student achievement…”, in which case “this study” simply stands for the author(s). (Avoid entirely referring to yourself as “the author,” even in abstracts.)

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