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Style Question: Use of “we” vs. “I” vs. passive voice in a dissertation

When the first person voice is used in scientific writing it is mostly used in the first person plural, as scientific papers almost always have more than one co-author, such as

We propose a new method to study cell differentiation in nematodes.

Often the "we" also includes the reader

We may see in Figure 4.2 that...

However, I am writing a thesis which means I am the only author and I even have to testify in writing that the work is my own and I did not receive any help other than from the indicated sources. Therefore it seems I should use "I", but this seems to be very unusual in scientific writing and even discouraged as one may sound pretentious or self-absorbed. However, the alternative is to use the passive voice, which seems to be even more discouraged as it produces hard to read writing and indeed an entire thesis in the passive voice may be indigestible for any reader.

So far, I used the second form of "we" extensively that includes me and the reader. This form is often natural when describing mathematical derivations as the truth is objective and it suggests that I am taking the reader by the hand and walking her through the process. Still, I'm trying not do overdo this form.

However, eventually I will need to refer to methods that I propose and choices that I have made. Should I just follow scientific convention and use "we" although it is factually inaccurate or indeed write in the scorned-upon "I"?

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marked as duplicate by Marthaª, RegDwigнt May 12 '11 at 9:07

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In your particular case, an inclusive we could be used to recognize the nematodes collaboration :) –  belisarius May 10 '11 at 13:01
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I find the use of "we" odd if there is only one author. I read a paper by a single author recently and he consistently wrote things like "we propose...", "we then present..." and I kept thinking, wait, who did you work with? –  Andrew May 10 '11 at 14:08
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@Andrew: Seriously? You read academic papers, and you're not at least aware of the convention? You might not endorse it, but you could just accept it as something some people do. –  FumbleFingers May 10 '11 at 22:05
    
@oceanhug: Probably saying nothing you don't already know, but bear in mind this sort of question could become a bit of a 'poll'. And there will be plenty of people who actively dislike using the effectively 'singular we' in any context. Because of associations with the 'academic old guard', the 'regal we', whatever. Or in solidarity with the march towards 'individualism' that marks Western civilisation. You, on the other hand, have a thesis to write. –  FumbleFingers May 10 '11 at 22:58
    
I have seen academic papers by a single author using I. However I agree with FumbleFingers that most of the time you would use we, and that I sounds strange in an academic paper. Personally, if I were to read your thesis and saw we, I wouldn't find it as an implication that you were not the only author of the work. Also, I assume you will have a thesis supervisor, who is also responsible to check (and possibly approve) your work, so you can include him/her in the we. –  nico May 11 '11 at 6:47

6 Answers 6

How about using neither? What about using factual voice instead :

"A new method to study cell differentiation in nematodes is proposed.""A new method to study cell differentiation in nematodes will be proposed." or "Figure 4.2 shows that..."

Edit :

"A new method to study cell differentiation in nematodes will be proposed."

Was Replaced with :

"A new method to study cell differentiation in nematodes is proposed."

in accordance with suggestions (details in comments below).

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That is passive. Nothing wrong with it, but that's what it is. –  Cerberus May 10 '11 at 12:09
    
Nix the "will be" with "has been". I recommend using positive and factual statements, and not futuristic promises. By the time someone reads this, the works has already been done, and has been reported on. –  ja72 May 10 '11 at 16:33
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"Figure 4.2 shows that..." Good: definitely an improvement over the original. "A new method to study cell differentiation in nematodes will be proposed." Terrible: this kind of use of the passive voice to avoid writing we or I makes papers much harder to read. –  Peter Shor May 10 '11 at 18:19
    
#Peter : Thanks , What about "A new method to study cell differentiation in nematodes is proposed."? –  Arjang May 10 '11 at 22:27
    
@Arjang: You see! You're getting the hang of it already! Soon the habit of using the passive voice will be forgotten! –  FumbleFingers May 10 '11 at 23:24

I don't think there's anything wrong with using we in single-author scientific journal papers. It's the tradition, and if you use I in scientific papers it stands out, not necessarily in a good way. On the other hand, a PhD thesis is not a scientific journal paper, but a PhD thesis, and if you want to use I in it I don't see anything wrong with that.

The passive voice should not be used to avoid writing I or we. If the entire thesis is written in the passive voice, it is much harder to read, and the sentences within it1 have to be reworded awkwardly so that some good transitions between the sentences within a paragraph are lost. On the other hand, if some sentences seem to require the passive voice, by all means those sentences should be written in the passive voice. But the passive voice should only be used where it is justified, that is, where its use improves readability of the thesis.

1 See how much better your sentences would read here.

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Shor: In the end I mostly go with @Ryan Reich's answer, but you and @Rafael Beraldo make additional important points. I'm minded to say that - probably with no concious effort on your part - you only used I once in your second paragraph. And that was only to quote the word. When I compare my sentences here with yours, I think yours look more authoritative, academic, educational, etc. You say you don't see anything wrong with I, but I bet you wouldn't use it in OP's position lol –  FumbleFingers May 10 '11 at 22:47
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@FumbleFingers: The lack of pronouns I and you in my second paragraph was quite deliberate, and took some effort. –  Peter Shor May 11 '11 at 1:30
    
Shor: Ah. Well, it was worth the effort from my point of view, if that's any recompense for your labours. But I notice you don't deny you'd avoid using I in a thesis yourself, even if you wouldn't think of that as particularly wrong on the part of someone else. –  FumbleFingers May 11 '11 at 2:40
    
@FumbleFingers: I've only written one thesis, and the pronoun we is the one I mainly used in it. –  Peter Shor May 11 '11 at 10:30
    
Shor: Quite so. It may indeed be an age-related thing that's been changing over recent decades, but I personally still find the first person distracting in many of the contexts we're talking about here, and I'm obviously not alone in that. The main thing for OP to consider is 'local expectations'. But whether or not he decides to avoid "I" and/or "we", he should definitely make minimal use of the passive voice. –  FumbleFingers May 11 '11 at 14:05

I tried to use "I" in the first version of my thesis (in mathematics). When my advisor suggested corrections, the most detailed and strongly-worded of them was to use "we"; later, I asked another young professor whether one could use "I" and she said "Only if you want to sound like an arrogant bastard", and observed that only old people with established reputations can get away with it.

My extremely informal recollection of some articles that are more than, say, forty years old is that the singular is used more often, so what she says may be true but for a different reason than simple pride. The modern culture may disparage apparent displays of ego simply because of the greater prevalence of collaboration, whether or not your paper is a product of it. This is complete speculation, though.

I disagreed with the change at the time but acquiesced anyway, and now, with distance, I realize that it was a good idea. Scattering the paper with "I" draws attention to the author, and especially in mathematical writing, the prose is filled with impersonal subjects (that is, you often don't mean "I" literally, as in "If y = f(x), then we have an equation..."). Using "we" allows it to simply sink into the background, where it belongs. If it's your thesis, you don't have to put any special effort into reminding the reader who is talking, just like in an essay, they used to tell me not to say "in my opinion" before stating it.

EDIT: Oh, I forgot entirely about "the author". I hate that phrase, because it is just as inconsistent with "we" as with "I" and disingenuous to boot. If you have to make a truly personal remark, just say "I", and perhaps set off the entire comment by "Personally..." or something like that.

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Excellent answer. I totally agree on all points, which you express well. Egalitarianism, individualism, or whatever may push for the first person singular, but it's distracting in serious academic texts. Though I don't have a big problem with 'the author' once (maybe twice). –  FumbleFingers May 10 '11 at 22:14
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We think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your speculation. –  Konrad Rudolph May 11 '11 at 14:23
    
-1; I strongly disagree. Moreover, the APA (and perhaps other) style manuals disagree. The persistence of using the passive voice to minimize the use of first person pronouns is a historical affectation that most of us have been trained from a young age to slavishly employ. However, it tends to yield awkward prose that is hard to read. If the greatest crime that must be committed is either "egotism" or "lack of clarity", I certainly choose to be egotistic. –  Russell S. Pierce Oct 23 '12 at 16:06
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@drknexus Thank you for reminding me why I no longer use this site. –  Ryan Reich Oct 23 '12 at 17:11
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@RyanReich: You know that a down-vote is not a personal criticism right? –  Russell S. Pierce Dec 24 '12 at 14:45

By all means write "I". By an amusing coincidence, I have in front of me the article Deformations of Symmetric Products, a proceedings article published by Princeton University Press. The author is the late George R. Kempf, a distinguished algebraic geometer, and on the very first page I read [not we read:-)]: "My proof uses heavily the deformation theory..." . And on the second page "I will use without particular references standard facts from deformation theory". I could give any number of examples: this usage is quite widespread.

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The very example you give supports the opposite view. As a 'distinguished algebraic geometer', of course Kempf could get away with "I" if he wanted to be self-indulgent. It may become less noticed in future, but in the here and now many (including perhaps those who will assess OP's thesis) both notice and deplore it. –  FumbleFingers May 10 '11 at 22:22
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@FumbleFingers: I just gave a factual reference to show that "I" is indeed used. Calling the late George Kempf self-indulgent is rather insulting. –  Georges Elencwajg May 11 '11 at 9:52
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I have no opinion on Kempf. Perhaps I should have used less loaded phrasing. I just meant that what's appropriate / acceptable for distinguished academicians isn't necessarily the best option for a somewhat more humble thesis-writer. Okay, it was OTT to baldly say your example supports the opposite view. But depending how you look at things, it supports either or neither position. –  FumbleFingers May 11 '11 at 13:44

Remember that in situations like this, it is common for the author to refer to himself as "this author," e.g., "This author proposes a novel solution to the problem of X."

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The only time I like seeing this author in a scientific paper is when it is opposed to that author. In other words, in situations where you say something like "The first author believes this is a ..., but the second and third authors disagree with him." –  Peter Shor May 10 '11 at 18:07

Many people in academia encourage the use of “we” instead of “I”, although many other people don’t — I can easily remember that Chomsky, at least in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, do use the first-person singular. Personally, I prefer to use “I”, if I’m the only author. I believe that it sounds much better, not to mention, humbler.

If you have an adviser, then you should really ask him. If you’re writing for a journal, see if they have published articles in which the author use “I” instead of “we”.

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I like @Ryan Reich's answer better, to be honest. But you make the important additional point that much academic output can and should be guided by what's expected in context. Ask your advisor, mentor, editor or whatever if you don't already know that context. Don't do the 'unexpected' without being aware you're doing it, and having some idea how it'll go down. That would hardly be a rigorous academic approach. –  FumbleFingers May 10 '11 at 22:33
    
@FumbleFingers, thank you. For some reason, I find the use of “we” to be conservative. Although science is not a solo task,there is nothing bad in remembering the reader that this is only your interpretation and findings about the subject. This is less obvious when reading seminal books on any area — by saying “I”, the author reminds us that he is human, and not a king ruling. –  rberaldo May 10 '11 at 22:54
    
I think it's a finely-balanced thing, and all your arguments carry weight. The bottom line for OP should be 'ask the man', but we can afford to have our own personal positions. I only wrote one thesis, decades ago, and I bet I never used "I" once. Since then I've been in programming, and I nearly always use "we" in comments (in code that I wrote alone), even though most of that code was never likely to even be read by anyone except me. YMMD –  FumbleFingers May 10 '11 at 23:19

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