Research writers frequently wonder whether the first person can be used in academic and scientific writing. In truth, for generations, we’ve been discouraged from using “I” and “we” in academic writing simply due to old habits. That’s right—there’s no reason why you can’t use these words! In fact, the academic community used first-person pronouns until the 1920s, when the third person and passive-voice constructions (that is, “boring” writing) were adopted–prominently expressed, for example, in Strunk and White’s classic writing manual “Elements of Style” first published in 1918, that advised writers to place themselves “in the background” and not draw attention to themselves.
In recent decades, however, changing attitudes about the first person in academic writing have led to a paradigm shift, and we have, however, we’ve shifted back to producing active and engaging prose that incorporates the first person.
Can You Use “I” in a Research Paper?
However, the use of “I” and “we” still has some generally accepted rules we ought to follow. For example, the first person is more likely used in the abstract, introduction, discussion, and conclusion sections of an academic paper while the third person and passive constructions are found in the methods and results sections.
In this article, we discuss when you should avoid personal pronouns and when they may enhance your writing.
It’s Okay to Use First-Person Pronouns to:
- clarify meaning by eliminating passive voice constructions;
- establish authority and credibility (e.g., assert ethos, the Aristotelian rhetorical term referring to the personal character);
- express interest in a subject matter (typically found in rapid correspondence);
- establish personal connections with readers, particularly regarding anecdotal or hypothetical situations (common in philosophy, religion and similar fields, particularly to explore how certain concepts might impact personal life. Additionally, artistic disciplines may also encourage personal perspectives more than other subjects);
- to emphasize or distinguish your perspective while discussing existing literature; and
- to create a conversational tone (rare in academic writing).
The First Person Should Be Avoided When:
- doing so would remove objectivity and give the impression that results or observations are unique to your perspective;
- you wish to maintain an objective tone that would suggest your study minimized biases as best as possible; and
- expressing your thoughts generally (phrases like “I think” are unnecessary because any statement that isn’t cited should be yours).
The following examples compare the impact of using and avoiding first-person pronouns.
Example 1 (First Person Preferred):
To understand the effects of global warming on coastal regions, changes in sea levels, storm surge occurrences and precipitation amounts were examined.
[Note: When a long phrase acts as the subject of a passive-voice construction, the sentence becomes difficult to digest. Additionally, since the author(s) conducted the research, it would be clearer to specifically mention them when discussing the focus of a project.]
We examined changes in sea levels, storm surge occurrences, and precipitation amounts to understand how global warming impacts coastal regions.
[Note: When describing the focus of a research project, authors often replace “we” with phrases such as “this study” or “this paper.” “We,” however, is acceptable in this context, including for scientific disciplines. In fact, papers published the vast majority of scientific journals these days use “we” to establish an active voice. Be careful when using “this study” or “this paper” with verbs that clearly couldn’t have performed the action. For example, “we attempt to demonstrate” works, but “the study attempts to demonstrate” does not; the study is not a person.]
Example 2 (First Person Discouraged):
From the various data points we have received, we observed that higher frequencies of runoffs from heavy rainfall have occurred in coastal regions where temperatures have increased by at least 0.9°C.
[Note: Introducing personal pronouns when discussing results raises questions regarding the reproducibility of a study. However, mathematics fields generally tolerate phrases such as “in X example, we see…”]
Coastal regions with temperature increases averaging more than 0.9°C experienced higher frequencies of runoffs from heavy rainfall.
[Note: We removed the passive voice and maintained objectivity and assertiveness by specifically identifying the cause-and-effect elements as the actor and recipient of the main action verb. Additionally, in this version, the results appear independent of any person’s perspective.]
Example 3 (First Person Preferred):
In contrast to the study by Jones et al. (2001), which suggests that milk consumption is safe for adults, the Miller study (2005) revealed the potential hazards of ingesting milk. The authors confirm this latter finding.
[Note: “Authors” in the last sentence above is unclear. Does the term refer to Jones et al., Miller, or the authors of the current paper?]
In contrast to the study by Jones et al. (2001), which suggests that milk consumption is safe for adults, the Miller study (2005) revealed the potential hazards of ingesting milk. We confirm this latter finding.
[Note: By using “we,” this sentence clarifies the actor and emphasizes the significance of the recent findings reported in this paper. Indeed, “I” and “we” are acceptable in most scientific fields to compare an author’s works with other researchers’ publications. The APA encourages using personal pronouns for this context. The social sciences broaden this scope to allow discussion of personal perspectives, irrespective of comparisons to other literature.]
Other Tips about Using Personal Pronouns
- Avoid starting a sentence with personal pronouns. The beginning of a sentence is a noticeable position that draws readers’ attention. Thus, using personal pronouns as the first one or two words of a sentence will draw unnecessary attention to them (unless, of course, that was your intent).
- Be careful how you define “we.” It should only refer to the authors and never the audience unless your intention is to write a conversational piece rather than a scholarly document! After all, the readers were not involved in analyzing or formulating the conclusions presented in your paper (although, we note that the point of your paper is to persuade readers to reach the same conclusions you did). While this is not a hard-and-fast rule, if you do want to use “we” to refer to a larger class of people, clearly define the term “we” in the sentence. For example, “As researchers, we frequently question…”
- First-person writing is becoming more acceptable under Modern English usage standards; however, the second-person pronoun “you” is still generally unacceptable because it is too casual for academic writing.
- Take all of the above notes with a grain of salt. That is, double-check your institution or target journal’s author guidelines. Some organizations may prohibit the use of personal pronouns.
- As an extra tip, before submission, you should always read through the most recent issues of a journal to get a better sense of the editors’ preferred writing styles and conventions.
For more general advice on how to use active and passive voice in research papers, on how to paraphrase, or for a list of Useful Phrases for Academic Writing, head over to the Wordvice academic resources pages.