Is it recommended to use "we" in research papers? If not, should I always use passive voice?


We is used in papers with multiple authors. Even in papers having only one author/researcher, we is used to draw the reader into the discussion at hand. Moreover, there are several ways to avoid using the passive voice in the absence of we. On the one hand, there are many instances where the passive voice cannot be avoided, while, on the other, we can also be overused to the point of irritation. Variety is indeed the spice of a well written scientific paper, but the bottom line is to convey the information as succinctly as possible.

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    Thanks, Jimi. So you suggest that using "we" not a really bad thing as long as not overusing it, right? – evergreen Mar 2 '11 at 23:46
  • @evergreen: Definitely. Take a look at the best papers out there; we is used liberally. It really cannot be avoided, especially in experimental research writing. – Jimi Oke Mar 2 '11 at 23:48
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    Since this is an English site, I feel obliged to point out that “at the end of the day” and “the bottom line is” are almost synonym, and anyway close enough in meaning to clash horribly when put next to each other. Furthermore, you simply can’t follow “the bottom line is” with “on the other hand”. That contradicts the whole meaning of “bottom line”. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 3 '11 at 8:34
  • @Konrad: Great points you make here. I don't necessarily agree with your final sentences, but I guess I went for too much color, resulting in an overkill of idiomatic phrases. But this is not a well-written scientific paper :) And I guess it also shows that too much spice is usually not a good thing! – Jimi Oke Mar 4 '11 at 1:13
  • There is alleged to be a research paper, by a single author, who wrote: "We with to thank our wife for her understanding..." – GEdgar Nov 14 '11 at 15:22

It's definitely OK to use "we" in research papers. I edit them professionally and see it used frequently.

However, many papers with multiple authors use such constructions as "the investigators," or "the researchers." In practice, there really aren't that many occasions when the authors of a scientific paper need to refer to themselves as agents. It happens, sure. But not that often.

Rather, the Introduction, Methods, Results, and Conclusion sections should speak for themselves. Any reference to the authors should be minimal as except in rare cases they are not germane to the findings.

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    “It’s definitely OK” … well, if it’s merely OK, then what are the alternatives? Using the passive voice extensively sounds stilted and sometimes a pronoun simply cannot be involved. So is “I” OK when writing as a single author? In my experience, this is a complete no-go for various reasons. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 3 '11 at 8:37
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    As noted above, instead of "I," constructions such as "this researcher" are normal. "We" is a pronoun used when one author is writing on behalf of a team or group, but usually "the researchers" or the passive voice is used. It also depends on both the field and the journal in question. – The Raven Mar 3 '11 at 12:19

APA (The American Psychology Association) has the following to say about the use of "we" (p. 69-70).

To avoid ambiguity, use a personal pronoun rather than the third person when describing steps taken in your experiment.

Correct: "We reviewed the literature."

Incorrect: "The authors reviewed the literature."


For clarity, restrict your use of "we" to refer only to yourself and your coauthors (use "I" if you are the sole author of the paper). Broader uses of "we" may leave your readers wondering to whom you are referring; instead, substitute an appropriate noun or clarity your usage:

Correct: "Researchers usually classify birdsong on the basis of frequency and temporal structure of the elements.

Incorrect: "We usually classify birdsong on the basis of frequency and temporal structure of the elements"

Some alternatives to "we" to consider are "people", "humans", "researchers", "psychologists", "nurses", and so on. "We" is an appropriate and useful referent:

Correct: "As behaviorists, we tend to dispute...

Incorrect: "We tend to dispute..."

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