Using personal pronouns in research writing

Should you use “I” or “we” or neither in your thesis or paper?

Thoughts on this have changed over the years. Traditionally, using personal pronouns like “I” and “we” was frowned on. Instead of saying “In Section 3, I have compared the results from method X with those of method Y”, you were expected to write “In section 3, the results from method X are compared with those from method Y”. This is known as writing in the “passive voice”, and for many years it has been considered the “academic” way of doing things. I think it is favoured because of the tone of detachment and impersonality that it helps establish.

Sometimes the passive voice is awkward. For example

In studying ARIMA models, the effect of the estimation method on forecast accuracy was explored.

This is easier to express using “I”:

In studying ARIMA models, I explored the effect of the estimation method on forecast accuracy.

In my exponential smoothing monograph, one of the coauthors preferred to write everything in the passive voice, which led to some rather awkward phrasing. (I edited all chapters to consistently use “we” before it went to print.)

There are still some journals and research supervisors who insist that research writing must be in the passive voice. However, the situation is slowly changing and now many journals accept, or even encourage, the use of personal pronouns. The International Journal of Forecasting which I edit allows authors to use whichever approach they prefer.

A related issue for research students writing a thesis is whether to use “I” or “we”, especially when the material has previously appeared in a co-authored paper. In general, I prefer students to use “I” when they mean the author, as it is their thesis. (The royal “we” should only be used by monarchs.) However, it is very important to include a statement at the front of the thesis clarifying the role of co-authors involved with any parts of the thesis. If a chapter is essentially a co-authored paper, many universities require a signed statement from all authors.

One area where “we” is useful is in referring to the reader and author together. For example,

In the following theorem, we see that …

This is particularly common in mathematics.

In summary:

  • Write in the most natural way. It is ok if that means using “I”.
  • Use “we” if you mean “the reader and I”, or if you are writing a coauthored paper.
  • Don’t use “we” if you only mean yourself.

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  • Jeanine

    Is it okay to say the researcher or researchers instead of I or we?

    • Rob J Hyndman

      This author thinks that writing in the third person like that sounds weird. But Jesus was fond of doing it, often referring to himself as “The Son of Man”. So you would be in good company.

  • Wanvisa

    i’ve seen some of theses in science field that using ‘I’ but not in linguistics area, is it make a different or not?

    • Rob J Hyndman

      Most likely there are different fashions in different fields.

  • professional research paper writers

    In linguistics using ‘I’ is considered to be inappropriate, ‘we’ is used instead.

  • Mmeell

    Hi. I just saw this post and I’m really curious about how I will state “according to my observations” in a passive voice. I’ve been really struggling with it and I literally don’t know who to ask. I hope you could find time to answer to this question. Thanks 😀

    • Rob J Hyndman

      “according to the observations collected” or something similar.

    • phil w

      The results indicate or confirm or show that – whatever. You are stating what happened. Why say I saw whatever or according to “my” observations.