A Rationale for Limiting the use of First Person Pronouns for Academic Writing

Graduate students frequently wonder whether they can use first person pronouns when writing academic papers. Below is a brief guide that students can use to determine when and why writing in the first person is acceptable or not.

  1.  Review a number of articles from a highly reputable journal in your discipline. Are they written in the first person? If no, then you should model your writing in a similar style if you would eventually like to seek publication in a similar journal.
  2. Early in your academic journey, very little of what you write is truly your own work. It is most likely an interpretation of the relevant literature. Thus, there is little need to refer to yourself.
  3. When submitting a paper for a class assignment the instructor obviously knows that you wrote it and thus there is no need to refer to yourself unless stating a specific opinion. 

Are first-person pronouns acceptable in scientific writing?

 "First-person pronouns are acceptable in limited contexts. Avoid their use in rote descriptions of your methodology (“We performed the assay…”). Instead, use them to communicate that an action or a decision that you performed affects the outcome of the research."

The Scientist’s Handbook for Writing Papers and Dissertations argues that in using the third person, the writer conveys that anyone else considering the same evidence would come to the same conclusion. The first person should be reserved for stating personal opinions.

Good Style: Writing for Science and Technology2 is also against use of the first person in scientific writing, explaining that “readers of scientific papers are interested primarily in scientific facts, not in who established them.” However, this book also points out that there are points in scientific papers where it is necessary to indicate who carried out a specific action.

In Eloquent Science, Dr. Shultz concludes that “first-person pronouns in scientific writing are acceptable if used in a limited fashion and to enhance clarity.” In other words, don’t pepper your paper with I’s and We’s. But you don’t have to rigidly avoid the first person either. For example, use it when stating a nonstandard assumption (“Unlike Day and Gastel, I assumed that…”). Or use it when explaining a personal action or observation (“We decided not to include…”). Finally, follow the conventions in your field, and particularly check that the journal you intend to submit your paper to does not specifically ban the use of the first person (as a handful of journals do).

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