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According to numerous questions (e.g Is it recommended to use "we" in research papers?), one should use "we" instead of "I" while writing a scientific paper.

However, it's unclear to me if, for example, "In the following image you can see..." should be replaced with "In the following image we can see..."?

Personally I think, that the latter sounds better and also includes the reader together with the authors in the discussion at hand, as already mentioned in the above question.

But it's still unknown for me, if it could or should be mentioned while reviewing another paper.

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  • 10
    I would use "The following image shows ..." In many instances, it is unnecessary to explicitly allude to a particular observer at all.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 16, 2023 at 18:46
  • 3
    My recollection is that "we" is often used in Mathematical papers. "Applying Cayley's Theorem, we see that ..."
    – Peter
    Jun 17, 2023 at 5:24

8 Answers 8

13

In particularly formal writing, the pronoun "one" would likely be preferred over either "we" or "you" in situations like this. As Cambridge states, "one" is considered more formal than either of those two options, and it is perfectly appropriate here:

In the following image one can see...

Of course, you can avoid the issue entirely by rephrasing the sentence. If "see" is followed by a subordinate clause, for instance, you might be able to rewrite it as:

In the following image it is apparent that...

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  • Agreed, but supporting references? Jun 16, 2023 at 18:27
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth Added a link to a Cambridge page about this!
    – alphabet
    Jun 16, 2023 at 18:34
  • 8
    Of course, even in quite formal academic writing many esteemed writers would eschew such uses of one on the grounds that it can sound overly pedantic. Jun 17, 2023 at 9:22
  • 6
    Better yet, IMO: "The following image shows that..." (if the point is that the reader should conclude something), or "The following image depicts..." (if the point is simply to describe what is visible). Jun 17, 2023 at 23:49
10

It is possible to write in clear simple English whatever the genre. When I was at school we were taught to write "A pipette was used" rather than "I/We used a pipette". Today that kind of passive voice writing is unbearably stuffy. Similarly, saying "The reader will observe" rather than "you will see" is not formal, it is just stilted.

I'm aware that I'm a little ahead of the curve in this. In the 1980s I did a search of a database of thousands of product specification documents and discovered I was the only person to have used the word "you" to refer to the user of the product. Today that style is commonplace.

In scientific papers there is a terrible tendency to use convoluted language in order to make the reader think you are clever. Resist it.

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  • Avoiding the nuances Ricky mentions perhaps should be held in tension with this view. Jun 18, 2023 at 18:16
  • Then again, "The proof is left to the reader" is somwhat idomatic in math papers </tongue in cheek> Jun 19, 2023 at 15:05
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Yes, I agree "we" is better in your example. So, use that in your own writing.

But... I would not go so far as to include use of "you" as a criticism of a paper I am reviewing.

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    Unless I have been asked by the author to help improve the English of the paper.
    – GEdgar
    Jun 17, 2023 at 13:35
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    This was kinda the case, as I was asked to review a paper and also review the language. However, I decided to not criticize the usage of "you", and focus more on other, bigger problems.
    – Mime
    Jun 17, 2023 at 19:16
  • To echo Edwin Ashworth's comment on alphabet's answer: «Agreed, but supporting references? »
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 18, 2023 at 21:46
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Any personal pronoun used in a scientific paper may be viewed as bad form, since ideally science should operate with facts while completely eschewing emotion and/or manipulation.

"You" is an invitation to engage the reader personally as an individual. "We" is a suggestion that "we're in the same boat": an invitation to take sides. "I" is trying to saddle the reader with the author's problems; it's too confessional.

One is ideal, even though many would argue it's too formal (to which the answer is that a scientific paper is supposed to be precisely that: formal).

Thus:

In the image below, one can observe that ...

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    I find that this view is somewhat going out of favour. Sure, I agree with the second clause of your first sentence, but there's quite a concerted effort at the moment to make scientific writing more accessible and less stuffy. Jun 19, 2023 at 8:12
  • All writing, scientific papers included, should be written with the aim of communicating ideas effectively. (Although cynically, some scientific articles are written primarily with the aim of enhancing the author's career, and readers are irrelevant). There is absolutely no harm, if it improves communication, in addressing the reader directly, person to person. 'You should be aware that Sprollenhaus uses the term "gadget"' in the same sense as I use "widget"'. Jun 20, 2023 at 6:45
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This is what the passive voice is for.

Active: In the following image, we can see cats.

Passive: In the following image, cats can be seen.

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  • I've had the passive voice beaten out of me over time with editors, but I still feel like it's unfairly maligned. I guess the point is that verbs in scientific papers do actually have a subject (the scientist or scientists), and the passive voice seems like it obscures this? Jun 17, 2023 at 21:50
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    Ok, but how about "the following image shows cats"? :) Jun 18, 2023 at 4:06
  • Or even, "There are cats in the following image"? Jun 18, 2023 at 20:00
  • Or "Cats are in the image, Fig. X (a)" Using foregoing and following is a far greater sin than addressing the reader, because it is fragile.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jun 19, 2023 at 21:03
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To respond to your question directly, using "we" can signal solidarity. However, using "you" can do so as well depending on the style that you adopt.

I will also respond to other users' answers that are trying to discourage you from using first or second person.

Writing in first and second person can signal Classic Style, a style explained by Thomas and Turner (2017). The style adopts the following stances: truth can be known, language is a window to truth, the situation is someone talking to another person, and the motivation is to show truth, among other stances (Ibid.). With these stances, the style helps writers avoid the pitfalls of academese (Pinker 2015). Therefore, it is not surprising that the style has been used in academic texts throughout history (Thomas and Turner 2017).

It's important to note that using first and second person is not sufficient to successfully use Classic Style. The style is successfully used to the extent that writers adopt the same stances as the style. This also means that a text could avoid first and second person altogether and yet adopt many of the Classic Style stances.

As to concerns about objectivity (which other Stack Exchange users have), it's important to note what scientific paradigms you are using (Kuhn 2012 and Maxwell 2012).

For example, critical realism takes the stance that reality is a phenomenon external to human subjectivity, and yet it is always filtered by a human lens (Maxwell 2012). Some simply recognize that academia is an ongoing conversation in which "they" are talking and "I" join (Graff, Birkenstein, and Maxwell 2014), while others have a narrower stance, such as that academic publications are an attempt to change other academics' ideas about the world (McEnery). Yet others go further and claim that knowledge should always be situated in its all-too-human source because not doing so would be irresponsible (Haraway).

In all of these cases, there is a human community involved in the pursuit and the generation of knowledge. If you are engaging with such a community, I would argue that using the first person is clearer and more responsible.

Having assuaged that fears associated with the first person, using the second person becomes a trivial leap. It is simply part of adopting a style and a paradigm that recognize humanity in science.

Sources:

  • Graff, Gerald, Cathy Birkenstein, and Cyndee Maxwell. 2014. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Gildan Audio.
  • Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–99.
  • Kuhn, Thomas S. 2012. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Fourth edition. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Maxwell, Joseph A. 2012. Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach. Sage publications.
  • Pinker, Steven. 2015. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Penguin Books.
  • Thomas, Francis-Noël, and Mark Turner. 2017. Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. Reprint edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • McEnerney, Larry. 2014. Leadership Lab: The Craft of Writing Effectively. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtIzMaLkCaM.
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Scientific writing has its own norms, one of which is that "we" normally indicates "the authors and readers", and is the preferred pronoun in most cases.

I see no reason why this should be any different. Why would you want to exclude the authors by using "you"? Presumably they can also see whatever it is. I have not seen the pronoun "one" used in a paper, and although certainly acceptable it would stand out as unusual and some would see it as pretentious.

Of course, you should think about why you are talking about what can be seen in the image as opposed to simply saying what the image is. But sometimes that is a desirable distinction, as in "This image shows [data]. We can see that [interpretation]."

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This answer is broadly correct and the advice I would follow should I be wishing to maintain the traditional, formal voice whilst writing academically.


However, in my experience (I'm a postgraduate researcher), the formal, passive voice of traditional academic writing is falling rather rapidly out of favour. This is in an effort to make the writing more accessible and less stuffy.

As long as what's written is clear, concise, unambiguous and understandable, your choice of voice doesn't really matter.

In this instance, I would personally go with "you" over "we" purely because you and the reader aren't looking at the paper at the same time. However, I'd consider this a stylistic choice rather than one being more correct than the other.

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