I'm currently in the process of revising my graduate thesis in Computer Science. One section of the thesis specifically addresses design decisions I made and changes I made based on test results. In this section I describe the actions I took in a first-person active voice.


In this chapter I present a cognitive walkthrough of the interface based on the criteria Polson et al. originally presented. I also took further direction from suggestions for performing cognitive walkthoughs which the same authors later presented in the form of a practitioner's guide(citation).

My faculty adviser has approved my draft, but one of my committee members said that he doesn't think personal pronouns should be used in technical writing. There are some cases where I can easily eliminate the personal pronouns and maintain an active voice (e.g. the first sentence in my example.) However, there are cases where I can't see how to do so without reverting to a passive voice.

Is it really bad form to use personal pronouns in technical writing? I have seen it quite often in conference papers. What alternatives do I have if I want to maintain the active voice? Is it better to use the passive voice than use personal pronouns?

I'm particularly confused because my technical writing instructor taught me that one should always describe the author as doing or presenting something rather than the paper.

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    The once firm rule against personal pronouns in technical writing has largely been discarded --but that doesn't make a difference if your committee member still endorses it. Ultimately your committee sets the style rules for this particular piece of writing. Unless your writing instructor is on the committee, my suggestion would be to save his or her advice for later and rewrite as "This chapter presents..." etc. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Mar 4 '14 at 18:01

As @ChrisSunami says, if a person judging or grading your paper says "this is the standard", then I'd follow that standard. You could find some authority that disagrees and argue about it, but what would you gain? Even if you forced the person to concede, he might then be annoyed with you and be looking for ways to mark you down. There's no point starting an argument that you really can't win. Just follow the rules you're given.

There are two easy ways to avoid using "I" in a paper:

One, use passive voice. "Suggestions for performing cognitive workthroughs were received ..."

Two, personify the paper. "This paper presents several algorithms for ..." rather than "I present several algorithms for ..."

Oh, a third option occurs to me. I've read technical papers where the author refers to himself by some sort of description in the third person. Like, "The researcher performed several experiments using flux capacitors ..." This is especially true when there are several authors, or one person describing the work of several people. "The researchers investigated ...", "The team considered ...", etc.

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  • Thanks. Those were the options I thought of. I think the second or third may be the best option in my case. I think the most frustrating aspect of the situation is that the same committee member also told me to emphasize my individual contributions. – B Sharp Mar 4 '14 at 18:36
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    In that case, "the researcher", or even the author would be good. – Andrew Lazarus Mar 4 '14 at 20:18
  • "The author" -- that's another very common one. – Jay Mar 5 '14 at 14:44

This is a common stylistic guideline, but I've never seen any real justification for it other than "that's how it's always been done". You end up coming up with workaround for saying "I" without using the word "I", as suggested by Jay. Why not just say "I"?! And if the first person plural is fine ("We did this..."), why isn't the first person singular?

I've has seen a couple of research papers written in the first person and they were perfectly fine. I say if you can get away with it, do it. If you have to conform to someone else's style then I guess you don't have a choice.

The Chicago Manual of Style puts it very well (see point 3).

When you need the first person, use it. It's not immodest to use it; it's superstitious not to.

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