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Back at university, I remember being told to never use personal pronouns in my dissertations. I was never given a reason, but I was told to avoid statements like

The evidence leads me to believe.

or

After researching similar techniques I had settled on ....

I remember spending a lot of time constructing sentences that used "the author" rather than "I" or similar. These are some very bad examples (as I submitted my final dissertation back in 2008).

Since then however, when I've read research papers, scientific articles and dissertations the authors have referred to themselves as "I" or "us" (when collaborated on). This seems to fly in the face of what I was told at university.

Is there a hard-and-fast rule to this, or is it down to personal preference?

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There is a discussion on the perceived advantages and disadvantages of the use of the passive voice in scientific registers at https://cgi.duke.edu/web/sciwriting/index.php?action=passive_voice .

The article begins:

Passive Voice in Scientific Writing

Few topics engender such heated debates as that of active vs. passive voice. This argument is relevant to writing in general, but I think it's particularly so to scientific writing. Some writers speak out in vehement opposition to passive voice, others claim it should be used liberally. What is one to do?

Everyone will have to make his own decision. I think the most important thing is that you've thought about it and you make the decision consciously. At the risk adding to an already saturated debate...

Use of the passive, without 'by-phrases', is (almost?) essential in 'depersonalised' writing, though it can be difficult on occasion for the writer to avoid pompous or ridiculous-sounding phraseology.

  • So I can use either passive or active, and I was writing to my supervisors preferred style? And it was entirely feasible for me to have written in either style? (For added background information: I was a Computer Science major) – Jamie Taylor Aug 28 '13 at 9:50
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    But saying “the authors looked into this” is not passive. – tchrist Aug 28 '13 at 9:55
  • @Jamie Taylor There are laws in science. In English, I'd obey this one of Professor J Lawler's: 'It is not safe, nor trouble-free, to follow the rules. They are idiotic and describe nothing. Pay no attention to them.' Though Orwell's rules are pretty usable. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 28 '13 at 9:55
  • @tchrist: Agreed - but the OP addresses 'use of personal pronouns', as does JK: But what's wrong with personal pronouns? Some scientists overuse passive because they are reluctant to use first-person pronouns (we or I). I do not share this reluctance, and neither did Watson and Crick. Expressions such as 'was performed', 'were conducted', 'were experienced', 'were carried out', 'was achieved', 'was shown', 'were effected', 'were observed', 'resulted' and 'occurred' are desperately overworked in scientific writing because scientists are reluctant to write directly and personally... -J Kirkman – Edwin Ashworth Aug 28 '13 at 10:08
  • @EdwinAshworth On the other hand, when one of the rules in question comes from the supervisors who might be marking the paper then it might well be "safe [and] trouble-free, to follow the rules"! :-) – TrevorD Aug 28 '13 at 12:47

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