First-person pronouns in scientific articles

Scientists fall into two camps: those who love reading scientific papers and those who hate them. I definitely belong to the second group. The second I try to read a scientific article, my eyelids get heavy, my heart rate slows down, and my mind goes blank. I feel like the heroine of a plane crash movie, trying so hard not to fall asleep in the snow after days of walking alone in the Himalayas. Stay awake, Gaya… be strong… don’t close your eyes…

I’m usually the first to blame myself when things don’t go my way, but not this time. I like science and I like reading, just not scientific papers. And I’m convinced that there is a good reason for that: 99% of scientific articles are dull, abstract, and utterly impersonal. In this post, I want to point fingers at one of the main culprits of this academic crime: the ban on First-Person Pronouns.

In this post, I want to review:

  • Why some scientists consider I and we taboo, and the consequences it has on their writing.
  • What scientific manuals, journals, and experts recommend.
  • And how it really is in practice.

I’ll also go through guidelines for using first-person pronouns in scientific papers without sounding too obsessed with oneself.

What are First-Person Pronouns?

First-person pronouns, or FPP for short, are a subset of personal pronouns that specifically refer to the speaker or speakers, such as I, me, my, mine, we, us, and ours. In other words, they’re the language toolkit we use when we’re the subject of our own sentences.

They can surface in scientific articles in several ways such as:

  • The Researcher’s I: The article has a single author who refers to him or herself as I. For example, “In this article, I would like to suggest an alternative explanation.”
  • The Researchers’ We: The article has several authors who refer to themselves as We. For instance, “We tested our hypotheses across four studies.”
  • The utterly weird Royal We: The article has a single author who refers to him or herself as We. Scientists can feel insecure putting themselves alone out there so they pretend there are several of them.
  • The Inclusive We: Here, we includes both the author and readers. For example, “We, as human beings, are by nature social.”

Why did first-person pronouns become taboo in scientific articles?

Objectivity over personality

Many scientists believe that if they skip words like I or we, their work appears more objective and impartial. Avoiding first-person pronouns and using the passive voice would shine the spotlight on the data and results, rather than on the researchers.

Universal application

Science aims to discover universal truths. Some scientists believe that using the passive voice allows their findings to be presented as general truths, rather than as the ideas of specific researchers. In their view, this approach lends an air of timelessness and universality to their research.

A modest attitude

Science is a collective enterprise. Consequently, for some researchers, emphasizing one’s own contributions is a way of overshadowing the work of other scientists, and is perceived as a form of self-promotion and a lack of modesty.

But while these reasons are well-intentioned, they come at a price: that of clarity and reader engagement.

The alternative to using first-person pronouns: The academese trap

To sidestep using first-person pronouns, scientific writers resort to passive sentences and spiral into what Steven Pinker labels as academese. Academese embodies a writing style where sentences are elusive and challenging to understand because they hide who is actually performing the action (see this hilarious lecture of Pinker on scientific writing).

Academese peaks in the methods section of scientific papers, where actions occur seemingly without human involvement: “The compounds were synthesized,” “the solutions were diluted,” “the data were analyzed and outliers excluded.” These descriptions of scientific methods conjure the Weasley family home, where dishes magically wash themselves: the sponge diligently scrubs the pan, which rinses and dries itself—no hands involved. Could scientists, with their mysteriously self-conducting experiments, be wizards in disguise?

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The upside of using first-person pronouns in scientific articles

Using first-person pronouns isn’t about breaking tradition; it’s about enhancing clarity and authenticity in scientific writing. By doing so, we avoid the pitfalls of academese, and make the content of our papers more approachable and genuine for readers. First-person pronouns present advantages at three levels.

Communicating clearly

First-person pronouns simplify writing. “We conducted a test” is more direct than “A test was conducted”. They let readers know exactly who is behind the actions and create a clearer mental image of how the research unfolded.

Infusing a human element

Research isn’t a faceless endeavor—it’s driven by passionate scientists. Using phrases like “I found” or “we discovered” weaves the researchers into the narrative, humanizing the findings and drawing readers in.

Owning one’s research and its interpretation

When researchers use first-person pronouns, they’re not just stating facts, but also providing a platform for their interpretations and insights. For instance, instead of writing, “It is suggested that the data indicates a significant trend,” a more direct and accountable statement would be, “Based on our analysis, we believe the data shows a significant trend.” This clearly attributes the interpretation to the researchers, reflecting their expertise and thought processes.

What do manuals, journals, and experts recommend?

By now you’ve probably understood that I’m in favor of using first-person pronouns in scientific articles. But you may be wondering if this is just my opinion. To answer that question, let’s see what the recommendations of leading manuals, journals, and experts have to say on the subject.

Scientific manuals’ perspective on first-person pronouns

You probably know that scientific writing obeys precise rules that are listed in style guides or manuals. These rules cover everything in an article, from the structure and writing style to Kafkian rules for formatting bibliographic references. Scientific manuals share a clear consensus about first-person pronouns: “Use them when appropriate”. Here is what each of the major manuals writes about it in their guidelines.

American Psychological Association (APA)

“Use first-person pronouns in APA Style to describe your work as well as your personal reactions. If you are writing a paper by yourself, use the pronoun “I” to refer to yourself. If you are writing a paper with coauthors, use the pronoun “we” to refer to yourself and your coauthors together. Do not use the third person to refer to yourself.” (see reference here)

American Chemical Society (ACS)

“Use the first person when it helps to keep your meaning clear and to express a purpose and decision.”

American Medical Association (AMA)

They advocate for the active voice, recommending its use, “except in instances where the actor is unknown or the interest focuses on what is acted upon.”

Chicago Manual of Style

“When you need the first-person singular, use it. It’s not immodest to use it; it’s superstitious not to.” (I love this one 😀)

Modern Language Association (MLA)

Here is what the editor of the MLA wrote in a post on their website (see post here):

“I recommend that you not look on the question of using “I” in an academic paper as a matter of a rule to follow, as part of a political agenda, or even as the need to create a strategy to avoid falling into Scylla-or-Charybdis error. Let the first-person singular be, instead, a tool that you take out when you think it’s needed and that you leave in the toolbox when you think it’s not.

Examples of when “I” may be needed:

  • You are narrating how you made a discovery, and the process of your discovering is important or at the very least entertaining.
  • You are describing how you teach something and how your students have responded or respond.
  • You disagree with another scholar and want to stress that you are not waving the banner of absolute truth.
  • You need “I” for rhetorical effect, to be clear, simple, or direct.

Examples of when “I” should be given a rest:

  • It’s off-putting to readers, generally, when “I” appears too often. You may not feel one bit modest, but remember the advice of Benjamin Franklin, still excellent, on the wisdom of preserving the semblance of modesty when your purpose is to convince others.
  • You are the author of your paper, so if an opinion is expressed in it, it is usually clear that this opinion is yours. You don’t have to add a phrase like, “I believe” or “it seems to me.”” .

What do scientific journals say about first-person pronouns?

Many leading journals encourage the use of first-person pronouns. Even if this is not specified in their guidelines, editorial positions point in this direction. And this debate is not new. Editorials dating back to the 1920s have addressed the subject.

For instance, this article published in Nature in 1928 expressed it clearly: “Truly, it is not well to be always saying ‘I’; but there is no virtue, moral or literary, in the mechanical substitution of the third person for the first.”

This other editorial from 1920 published in Science indicates that: “Some believe that the use of I or we is immodest, and others believe that this usage inserts a subjective element into the paper. Science has been trying to discourage the former view.”

Books on Scientific Writing

Many writing authorities advocate for first-person pronouns over passive constructs.

Steven Pinker in The Sense of Style suggests that pronouns like I, me, and you are not only harmless but beneficial.

Similarly, Paul Silvia, in Write it Up, criticizes the misconception that conflates objectivity with validity, which often discourages the use of I and We.

Finally, Joschua Schimmel, the author of the excellent Writing Science writes that “the idea that by removing ourselves visibly from the writing we remove our prejudices and imperfections is plain wrong. We did the work, and we wrote the words. They are inextricably ours. We can’t change that by changing the writing voice“.

Yes, but what is the practice?

You might wonder: Despite these guidelines, what’s the real-world practice in using first-person pronouns? Could it be that your field is an exception where first-person pronouns are prohibited? Helen Sword, Emeritus Professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand has scientifically investigated this question.

Prof. Sword has studied 66 peer-reviewed journals across various disciplines, including the physical and life sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Surprisingly, only one journal—a prominent history journal—explicitly prohibited personal pronouns. The others? They all featured papers that freely employed I and we. Clearly, some fields used personal pronouns more than others, but these were not necessarily those you might think.

One intriguing finding of Sword’s research was that all the biology papers she examined, especially those focusing on plants and animals, employed first-person pronouns. In contrast, she found that education researchers, who often write about human subjects, used I or we about half as frequently. The journal Nature echoes this trend, noting a significant surge in the use of first-person pronouns in biology journals (see article here).

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Helen Sword’s lecture on first-person pronouns and stylish academic writing at Harvard.

Guidelines for using first-person pronouns in scientific articles

Experts in scientific writing are unanimous: the strategic use of first-person pronouns injects clarity and directness into scientific articles and is a good practice. But remember, the focus should be on the research, not the researcher. Overusing first-person pronouns can detract from the objectivity and professionalism of your work.

Using first-person pronouns in the different sections of your paper

To help you strike the right balance, I have compiled a few guidelines for using first-person pronouns across different sections of a scientific paper.

In the introduction

  • Establish authority: Use I or we to present your research question or hypothesis confidently (e.g., “In this study, we explore…”).
  • Describe the approach you chose to follow: Use first-person pronouns when outlining the structure of the paper (e.g., “First, we will discuss…”).

In the methods section

  • Describe procedures: Use first-person pronouns to detail the procedures, ensuring clear and unambiguous descriptions (e.g., “We conducted the experiment…”).
  • Justify your choices: Explain the reasons behind methodological decisions (e.g., “We chose this method because…”).

In the results section

  • Present your findings: While it’s often possible to describe results without using first-person pronouns, employing them can make the narrative more direct and succinct (e.g., “We found that…”).
  • Avoid anthropomorphism: Avoid humanizing non-human entities. For example, say “We observed” instead of “The data revealed” – your data, after all, doesn’t possess the power of revelation 😀.

In the discussion & conclusion

  • Interpret your results: Use first-person pronouns when sharing your interpretations (e.g., “We believe that these results indicate…”).
  • Summarize your findings: First-person can be used to summarize findings and their implications (e.g., “We have demonstrated that…”).
  • Propose future research: When suggesting future research directions or practical applications, the use of I or we can make proposals more direct (e.g., “We suggest that future research should…”).

Acknowledgments

  • Express gratitude: Naturally, this section often includes first-person pronouns to thank contributors and funders (e.g., “We thank…”).

Additional Tips

Maintain pronoun consistency

Stay consistent in your choice of pronouns throughout your article. Switching between first-person expressions like “we hypothesized that…” and third-person references such as “the researchers in this study tested…” can be disorienting for readers. Similarly, avoid mixing the researchers’ we (e.g., “we found a significant correlation…”) with the inclusive we (e.g., “we, as humans, are innately social”).

Clarify your we

If you employ the inclusive we, specify who you are referring to. For instance, instead of saying “We often worry about what our peers think of us,” specify “As members of social groups, we often worry about what our peers think about us”.

Direct the narrative spotlight

Readers paint mental images based on your words. Consider what you aim to highlight: the experimenter, the participants, the methodology, or the results? Craft your sentences to underscore these focal points.

Avoid long paragraphs written only in the passive tense

Even if you decide against using first-person pronouns, avoid successive sentences all in the passive form. A manuscript laden with passive constructions is as gratifying as spaghetti without sauce: dull and hard to swallow.

Maintain objectivity

While first-person pronouns can improve clarity, they should not allow your descriptions or analyses to become subjective. Your paper is not about you but about your research. Your observations and your interpretations should be precise and rational.

Follow journal guidelines

Adhere to the stylistic guidelines of the journal to which you are submitting. Always!

In sum

Surely, no scientist wants their readers to feel like survivors of a plane crash, slowly succumbing to the icy embrace of snow. Yet avoiding first-person pronouns (FPP) in scientific articles has, for ages, done exactly that. The detachment and impersonality it creates make scientific writing lifeless and soporific.

When used judiciously, first-person pronouns humanize research, make methods transparent, and improve the overall readability of scientific literature. So don’t be afraid to use them! And if you’re currently writing an article or abstract, reread it and, whenever you spot a passive sentence, try to see if you couldn’t reformulate it by incorporating personal pronouns.

Want to write clearer, more appealing scientific articles? Take a look at my Utlimate Guide to Scientific Writing! You’ll find simple methods that make a world of difference.

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