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Recently, I have submitted an early draft of a report summarising the results of a year-long project at my university, to my advisor for review. We have met up for a review of the paper, and he pointed out my frequent use of the word "we" in the paper. He considered it a mistake and asked me to change everything to a third-person view.

Personally, I found this incredibly strange. I am in the field of mathematics, and based on other papers and publications in math, it is very common and even considered "good" language to use the word "we" in writing, especially in proofs and discussions of results. For example, instead of

This proof demonstrates Theorem 3 to be true

it is considered desirable to instead write

We have thus proven Theorem 3.

The reasons cited for this preference, I have seen, is due to both convention and to avoid dodgy writing (third-person wording may suggest that the authors did something, but it could have been taken from somewhere else).

I have seen different questions on this site pertaining to this issue. This question, for example, has answers which suggest to take reference to the style guide provided by one's university, which unfortunately mine does not have. The accepted answer deals with economics, so I am unsure it applies in mathematics. This question suggests it is good to use "we" in mathematical and scientific writing. A quick search on Google, however, apparently suggests it is always undesirable to use first or second person pronouns in academic writing (see this site).

Thus, I am asking this question for my specific scenario for clarification. Should I follow my advisor's advice, or should I discuss with him further? Again, I find his advice rather odd and I definitely prefer to be able to use the word "we" as I please when appropriate.

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    "This proof demonstrates Theorem 3 to be true" sounds awkward to me. "We have thus proven Theorem 3" sounds better. "This completes the proof of Theorem 3" sounds better yet. I often use "we" in mathematical writing, even when I'm the only author, and my impression is that globally eliminating "we" would make my papers unpleasant to read. – Andreas Blass Aug 5 '18 at 23:40
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    Any advice that supposedly applies to all of academia is wrong. Writing mathematics in the first-person plural active voice, even when the author is singular, has been standard for at least a century. The standard explanation, possibly due to Paul Halmos, is that "we" is short for "the author(s) and the reader(s)"; after all, the target readers for any math paper are actively engaged participants, not passive spectators. – JeffE Aug 6 '18 at 0:17
  • In the end it doesn't matter. I like to write "we" as well (and people around me don't). When I was in Leeds, someone who I believe worked for a journal suggested that you can write "I" if it is truly only your work. Other people will tell you that you never ever write "I" ... I think in the end, write how you want, reasonably formally and just make sure the science is clear and accurate. – DetlevCM Aug 6 '18 at 9:03
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    @JeffE I have heard the term of "we" for "author and reader" too. Maybe because I started in mathematics? - I also find that active voice is often easier to read than at times contorted passive voice. Passive voice has its place and uses - and most definitely is not universally beneficial. – DetlevCM Aug 6 '18 at 9:05
  • If you are a sole author and still want to write from a plural frst-person perspective, you can just add your cat as co-author. – Ian Aug 7 '18 at 10:41
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If you were writing for a journal, you would want to check the journal's style guide. If it doesn't cover that issue, then the next step would be to check previous publications and see what the norm is.

For an internal report with no applicable style guide, one should write for the intended reader/s. If your advisor is going to be the main reader for this document, then write it in the style that he requests.

To me, this change seems unnecessary, but it may help to consider this story from the development of the computer game Battlechess:

The producers of the game were known to demand changes to the game, presumably to make their mark on the finished product. To this end, one animator added a small duck around the queen piece, but made sure that the sprite would be easily removable. Come review, the producers, predictably, okayed everything but asked for the duck to be removed.

In my experience, this is a very broad tendency among managers/advisors, and now that I'm a manager myself I understand the temptation to micro-manage. Even if a document is quite good enough as-is, if we don't suggest changes we don't feel like we're doing our job.

It may be that your use of "we"s is the sacrificial "duck" shielding you from more annoying change requests.

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Reports and proposals in math often have different style than other mathematical writing. For example, in NSF grant proposals you would usually say "the PI" instead of "we". Similarly, in a document going to a broad science audience, conventions of science might be more appropriate. I'd suggest following up with your advisor to better understand where he's coming from, maybe he just means "we" is inappropriate for this particular document.

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I have a bit of overview over the fields, having my MSc in mathematics, prolifiely working in computer science, and having some contacts to medical research.

  • As someone mentioned above, "mathematics is for eternity". When I wrote my own texts in that field I was very, very wary of using "I" or "we" or anything. I think, I have overloaded my texts with passive voice then, and "we" should be Ok in mathematical texts in my opinion.
  • In computer science it is perfectly Ok to use "we".
  • In medicine "we" is actually frowned on, use passive voice. "The operation was performed in order to ..."
  • In liberal arts, when you express your opinion and your position, you use "I". Have seen few such papers, completely alien to me, but obviously an accepted usage in that fields.

And yes, "we" does not really mean "the authors of this paper", thus forcing you to "I" in a thesis or a solo paper. "We" means "us, the reader and the writer".

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I'll make two points. First, it is always good advice to a student to follow the advisor's advice. He or she has more experience and is supposed to look out for your interests.

But second, if you are writing mathematics or most other things, you aren't writing a blog or a diary. You are, in fact, writing for the ages. What you have found to be true is true, and has always been true, independent of your action. The writing should be about the it not the who.

When you present the work at a conference, you can be more informal and talk about your contributions and what made it challenging and/or rewarding for you. But in the writing, focus on the math itself.

I'd have to think about whether I'd give the same answer for Computer Science, which is an act of creation, not discovery. I'd need to think about it for a while first.

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    We don't all accept your creation/discovery dichotomy. – erstwhile editor Aug 6 '18 at 6:31
  • "He or she has more experience and wants to look out for your interests." - Well, I'm not really sure about the second part... - And experience does not necessarily mean it is helpful, for example when a supervisor tries to promote research in a direction which is under the present circumstances pointless. (E.g. using CFD in a chemistry problem where the chemistry is not fully understood...) So in conclusion: Do listen to your advisor, but also do question him/her if appropriate, they are not without flaws. – DetlevCM Aug 6 '18 at 9:08
  • @DetlevCM, sadly, yes. I should have said "is supposed to be looking out for your interests." Too many questions here imply there are too many exceptions out there. – Buffy Aug 6 '18 at 10:45
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    @erstwhileeditor, I thought that might be the case. Is mathematics "created"? Only in the sense that concepts/ideas are created. The Circle existed before humans did. So did the Natural Numbers. We named the concepts and explored the consequences. But we didn't "create" them. Think about it. The fact that a circle maximizes contained area for a given boundary length also was true pre-thought. That is all I mean. I don't mean that mathematicians aren't "creative", of course. It is my training, actually. – Buffy Aug 6 '18 at 10:50
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    @Buffy. Pure assertion on your part. We are not all naive platonists. – erstwhile editor Aug 6 '18 at 11:45

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