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In my PhD thesis, I often used the first person singular during the description of the problem and the discussion of the results. One comment from the reviewer states that because I did not use the third person, the entire thesis must be revised accordingly.

I understand that in a journal article one should use the third person to describe the problem and discuss the findings. However, I always supposed that one can use the first person in a PhD thesis because I saw many researchers doing so. Could anybody give me a suggestion about how to deal with the reviewer who doesn't accept my choice to write in the first person?

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    I'm voting to reopen the question because it has a different focus than the earlier question: The earlier question was about the standards for writing in the first person. This new question is about how to deal with a reviewer who doesn't accept the choice to write in the first person. – lighthouse keeper Mar 30 '18 at 7:42
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    @lighthousekeeper I am convinced by your comment that this question is about how to deal with the situation that the committee member disagrees with the OP's choice. I apologize and thanks for pointing it out. – scaaahu Mar 31 '18 at 9:07
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Wrzlprmft Mar 31 '18 at 19:09
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    Can you please edit your question to clarify whether the reviewer really insisted on you using the third person (he, she, it, they) or just the first person plural (we)? – Wrzlprmft Mar 31 '18 at 19:14
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    As one of our esteemed moderators posted a clarifying question here and not in the chat chain, I'll dare to do the same.... Can you give us a bit more context such as field, age of reviewer, whether reviewer has some recent publications, country you're in? – aparente001 Apr 1 '18 at 1:36

11 Answers 11

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With due respect - everyone's answers here are mostly irrelevant. The suggestions, ideas and perceptions we here on Academia.SX have on this issue are not the authoritative answer you need to get you past the review.

You need to talk to:

  1. Your advisor
  2. The administrator in charge of the "thesis phase" of PhDs in your department or your graduate school

They have some or lots of experience, respectively, with this situation, and will tell you what you should/must do when faced with such a demand from a reviewer. They may also contact the reviewer on your behalf if they believe s/he is wrong, or to explain the regulations to him/her etc.

Note that it might even be the case that you're expected to use the first person, and other reviewers will get annoyed if you switch. So you can't just cater to one person - you need to check what the default is.

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    I like this. We can discuss the problem here till the cows come home, but the advisor and administrators on the ground are the people who can give relevant, meaningful advice to OP. – aparente001 Apr 1 '18 at 1:39
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    Your institution will have a set of style guidelines. Follow them and speak to your administrator if you get any pushback – Stevetech Apr 1 '18 at 8:17
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    @Stevetech: I was assuming that if OP was able to submit and have his thesis sent to reviewers, it meets the institutional guidelines already. – einpoklum Apr 1 '18 at 11:41
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    I was agreeing with you. Most institutions will also have language guides – Stevetech Apr 1 '18 at 11:45
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    @PeterGreen: In that case, your advisor will say "officially you can write your thesis either way, just humor the guy" or "I want it to be 1st-person, let me talk to him". – einpoklum Apr 2 '18 at 7:08
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There is an annoying truth here: What's OK in a PhD thesis and what not largely depends on the reviewers. Some people in academia have a huge inflated ego and prefer things to be done as they suggest, and the reviewer in your case is possibly among those people. You don't want to fight with them on this kind of issue.

If the reviewer has other comments that tend to create additional work without clearly improving the thesis, you may consider exchanging the reviewer.

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    I wouldn't say that a reviewer has an nflated ego if he demands a form to be used which is standard in that field (if that's the case). In chemistry for example you basically won't find any serious work using "I", it's passive for the most part and in introductions and such things you use "we". Everything else just looks unprofessional to most chemists. – DSVA Mar 30 '18 at 19:55
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    Agreeing with DSVA; different fields have different widely accepted conventions. For example in astronomy use of “I” is quite prevelant, but in say, a particle physics paper is not, showing even within the same field, different subfields may have varying conventions. That being said, the department’s PhD style guide (if it exists) always takes precedent. – JNS Mar 31 '18 at 12:45
  • @DSVA and JNS: Mostly agreed. I'm referring to the OP's description, according to which he already saw his preferred form in a couple of PhD theses (presumably in the same area). – lighthouse keeper Apr 1 '18 at 16:47
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There is no steadfast rule that applies across disciplines, countries, fashions, and personalities.

Do what makes your reviewers happy. Their demand is annoying, but not utterly unreasonable. More importantly, they decide over your defense and thereby your future.

This is not something worth fighting over, and certainly no reason to change supervisors.

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    I agree that it's not worth fighting the reviewer; nevertheless, I think the reviewer is being utterly unreasonable. – Andreas Blass Mar 30 '18 at 10:53
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    A famous example of the “make reviewers/editor happy” rule is the story of this cat sciencemag.org/news/2016/08/… who got co-author credit for a paper. I actually think that, in a thesis, attribution is important and “I” should be used to clarify what the candidate has done. – ZeroTheHero Mar 31 '18 at 12:18
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We think that they can either suck it up, or keep using they as it clarifies very much the thesis. And by they I mean you, by we I mean they, or something like that.

I wrote my PhD thesis by putting "I" everywhere when the norm was a vaporous "we, the people". I wrote it, together with MY brain and, most importantly, MY ego. The dog did not type it either, though we could be all-encompassing.

I find it ridiculous to use a metaphorical "we" or "they", or "the neighbour" when talking about one's own work. We should share their salary, while we are at it.

Now your question is whether you can do something or not, which is completely up to the jury or referrer. Sure you can. And sure they can make your life miserable.

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    We is first person, not third. – Captain Man Mar 29 '18 at 20:42
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    We love the humor in this post. +1 – Mehrdad Mar 30 '18 at 0:34
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    @WoJ Mathematicians and their ilk justify the standard use of "we" for solo work by claiming it means "the author and the reader". For example: "As a key step toward our main theorem, we prove Lemma 4 using a variant of our proof technique for Lemma 2." Math papers don't describe what someone did before the paper was written, but an argument to be followed by the reader after the paper is written, with the author's help. – JeffE Mar 30 '18 at 16:15
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    @DSVA Switching to the passive decreases readability (in my opinion), increases length, and worst of all removes information. It actually makes a practical difference whether a sample was prepared by me, by a department technician with 25 years' experience, by a novice undergrad assistant, by a professional external lab, or by a trained chimpanzee. Distinguishing between work that I did and work that someone else did is particularly important in a PhD dissertation, because it's primarily my work that's of relevance for assessment. – Pont Mar 30 '18 at 20:13
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    @DSVA Of course if your field or target journal strictly mandates the passive you have no choice, but for many fields this isn't the case. For instance, Nature's style guide says ‘Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice’, the American Chemical Society Style Guide (3rd ed.) says ‘Use first person when it helps to keep your meaning clear and to express a purpose or a decision. [e.g.] Jones reported xyz, but I (or we) found…’, and as JeffE mentions above, the active ‘we’ is standard in mathematics. For the rest, I think we'll have to agree to disagree. – Pont Mar 31 '18 at 7:33
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Despite this academic's personal embrace of first person writing, many respected colleagues despise even a hint of first person narrative. In their honor, here are a few ways writing improves without the first person.

  • Phrases like "I think that" and "I believe that" often sneak into writing and water it down. Excising the first person can make the arguments bolder, as well as more readable.
  • Even in presenting results or discussion or a conclusion, "I find that..." might already be implicit. For instance, replacing, "I find that the sky appears blue," with "The sky appears blue," yields a stronger topic sentence for the paragraph. Again, sentences can gain authority while becoming briefer.
  • More broadly, the best writing tells a story. However, the narrative that is often closest to an author's mind is their own journey through the topic. Only exceptional circumstances make that autobiography a compelling narrative to frame a research paper. Instead, "storytelling" should almost always give the reader insight into the research, perhaps by highlighting an incident captured in and illuminated by the data, or a metaphor to characterize molecules' motion, or as the puzzle of why X commonly happens after Y.

As other answers here emphasize, if that committee member cares enough about this point and must approve the final draft, then editing it is the wisest course of action. If there are hints (from that person or others) why they care, that may allow for compromises that meet those objectives without a full edit, or it may at least make the time spent editing out "I"s feel less bitter. And upon reviewing sentences in the thesis that use the first person, if patterns emerge, editing only the frequent, most problematic contexts (such as "I think...") may appease that reader.

(This answer uses neither the first nor second person, without relying on the passive voice. It is possible by (occasionally) relying on the impersonal pronoun, using gerunds to discuss action without having to identify an actor, and making inanimate things into grammatical subjects. It makes for an annoying writing experience, and hopefully such edits will not be mandatory after all for the thesis in question.)

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As a side point, It is very convenient to use the term "we" in a draft of a paper, in the off-chance that an additional author joins for one reason or another (someone you consult makes a significant contribution, two articles with similar content are independently published on a pre-print server, and a joint paper is in order).

Also, some boiler-plate introduction of terms/notions can be almost copy-pasted between projects, some with one author, some with several. Changing all 'I' to 'we' must be annoying.

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A lot has been covered by other answers, but I just wanted to add something that came up while I was working on my thesis.

The faculty at my university always suggested that in the "Contributions" section (of the Introduction), you list your contributions in first person. For example, "I was responsible for implementing X on Y and testing Z", "I authored a paper in IEEE Transactions on ABC" and so on.

For the rest of the thesis it was passive, but that one section was handled differently. Of course, discuss this with your supervisor and reviewers first.

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  1. Writing style is not a big deal. If you have a strong and reasonable opinion about style, you have a good chance to defend it, because people won't care too much.

  2. Depends on the country, but I think in general, not all reviewers get to approve the final version of your thesis. Some suggestions of those who do not, especially suggestions about style, can be silently ignored.

  3. If "third person", as in "he" or "she", is actually what you meant to say then it does not seem common in the West, which makes it more likely that you can just ignore this suggestion.

2

I am in favor of clear writing and against the academic attitude. All that said, I would still go ahead and write it like a normal journal article. Use the third person and the "we/our" for most of the results. After all, you will probably add at least your advisor to the co-author list of papers coming out (or have already done so if you already wrote the journal articles).

Just scanned my thesis, which was mostly stitched together chemistry papers. Not like a European one where all it is, is the papers themselves. But pretty clearly taking different papers and with some minor edits changing them into chapters (e.g. combining redundant methods). I was pretty much either talking about the chemicals or using the passive voice or saying "our" for discussion of interpretation and such. But these were sections where I had co-authors, professor at least.

I did have one minor area (other than acknowledgements) where I used first person and got no static for it. Within the Intro, after giving a review of previous work, I discussed the research objectives (in a one para section called that) and used "my" in context of "my goals changed during the student. Initial my goal was X; subsequently it was Y. Didn't get any static for this--it was a helpful para to explain why the chapters to follow in the thesis were connected.

There are a lot of other areas where you can cut the crap and be honest (for example, I shared some important lab safety learnings and equipment construction that was helpful to subsequent students but really fit in a thesis more than a results journal article. I did that on purpose because the main audience was/is future group members.

But I wouldn't make a big deal of the impersonal style. Some of it is good (keeping attention on the chemical, not the researcher). Some of it is bad (pompousness, or not taking responsibility). But overall, it's not worth worrying about.

Get the union card done. Thesis is pass-fail and very little read. Don't mess with it too much, just wrap something up, get a job and boogie. Defense committees can be very accommodating as long as you have published well (already showing ability to make solid contributions) and have gotten someone to hire you!

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One quick solution could be to find another example of a thesis that has already been approved by your institution which also uses first person singular. If there is a precedent it might justify your use.

I remember that one of my reviewer comments about "aesthetic" language issues like this which I ignored: the reviewer suggested that I had not used a real word, I provided a link to a dictionary definition of the word, stated that it was a matter of preference, and that I would keep my original choice of word. (I do not claim that all comments can be rejected in this way, but my point is that it is possible.)

  • thanks, I have already found several precedents approved by my department. – jsxs Apr 3 '18 at 4:07
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In my opinion, avoiding first person and sticking to passive voice is beneficial for two reasons, one philosophical and one practical.

Starting with the practical - parts of the thesis are likely to be used as a base for subsequent journal articles. As the OP says, journal articles have a fairly set format. By sticking to the same format in the thesis, a lot of redundant writing effort could be saved. It would also be a sort of dry run- one can identify problematic/ambiguous phrases/paragraphs, which are to be avoided in later manuscripts.

On the philosophical front, any piece of scientific writing should, IMO, primarily convey scientific results and secondarily the methodology used by the researcher. Certainly, researchers deserve credit for novel methods followed, but this shouldn't overshadow the results/inferences. I believe passive voice acts as a safeguard against this.

  • Could I know why this answer was down-voted? I'm new to the site and would like to avoid mistakes/oversights made in the future. Thanks. – user153812 Mar 31 '18 at 12:19
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    Your practical point is a really good one. (Arguably, that reviewer should've spoken up about it before the thesis was mostly written.) You're answering the question: "Could anybody give me some suggestion?" by supporting a change to third person: therefore no need to tangle with the reviewer. You may have gotten down-voted because people think the novel part of this question is how to deal with that committee member, rather than the writing itself (covered in previous questions). ::shrug:: – cactus_pardner Mar 31 '18 at 17:52
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    Active voice is best. Using the passive voice is not good. – Martin F Mar 31 '18 at 20:12
  • @MartinF because.... – Fábio Dias Mar 31 '18 at 23:14
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    @FábioDias -- The active voice is usually more concise and easier to understand. See writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/CCS_activevoice.html, owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/02 or quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/… – Martin F Apr 3 '18 at 23:33

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