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Using personal pronouns in research writing

Published on 15 October 2009

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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7 Comments  comments 
  • Jea­nine

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

    • http://robjhyndman.com 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?

    • http://robjhyndman.com Rob J Hyndman

      Most likely there are dif­fer­ent fash­ions in dif­fer­ent fields.

  • http://www.professionalresearchpaperwriters.com/ 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 :D

    • http://robjhyndman.com Rob J Hyndman

      accord­ing to the obser­va­tions col­lected” or some­thing similar.