I wrote a paper with a collaborator. The collaborator wrote a followup paper where they referred to their work in that paper in the first person, i.e. "in a previous paper, I presented the idea that...". To be clear, that particular idea really was their idea, not mine.

Is this acceptable, or should they have instead said "we presented the idea that..."? Does it differ between different fields, such as computer science, mathematics, physics, and economics?

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    What would you gain from this? – Azor Ahai Aug 8 '18 at 6:04
  • I've proposed an edit that removes a lot of awkward forced 2nd person phrasing, which (I think) preserves your meaning while removing over half of the words. – knzhou Aug 8 '18 at 16:08
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    If you're in a bad situation, nobody wants to read "what would you hypothetically think if you were in this situation where you...". Just say "I'm in this situation". – knzhou Aug 8 '18 at 16:08

In maths you never use the first person singular anyway, so they question as stated does not apply. Also, all work in a paper (in pure maths at least) is understood to be the work of all authors. In fact, it is common to refer to the other paper in the third person, even when the authors are the same.

In short: no, this is not acceptable.

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    Having said that, in the interest of maintaining the collaboration, it might not be a good idea to argue with your coauthor over this. – Jessica B Aug 8 '18 at 6:12
  • This answer relates to math. I am wondering how it is in the other disciplines – user56834 Aug 8 '18 at 10:19
  • Very rarely, I have read math papers where one section is the work of one of the authors, and the rest is the work of both authors. But it's uncommon enough to stand out. – user37208 Aug 8 '18 at 16:46
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    I've seen some solo-author math papers where the authors do use "I", particularly when discussing their own past (solo) work or their own opinions. It's more a matter of personal writing style than anything; it's less common but I don't think anybody seriously objects to it. But I agree that references to joint work should definitely use "we". – Nate Eldredge Aug 8 '18 at 17:33
  • @NateEldredge I'm surprised that got past the referee. I tend to use I in the acknowledgements section, since that really is just me, but that doesn't always get allowed. – Jessica B Aug 8 '18 at 20:45

The I and we is less of a problem in my field. In my field (sociology) double blind review is standard. A reference "we (2018) shows" identifies the authors, so it cannot be part of the review copy. In principle, you could have a review copy that says "A and B (2018) show", and the final copy replace it with "we (2018) show", but that is rarely done. It is usually left as "A and B (2018) show". Now your colleague cannot say "A (2018) shows" as that does not correctly refer to the entry in the bibliography, so it will always be "A and B (2018) show".

This is a non-intentional side-effect of this tradition, but I think a good one. I would consider all co-authors responsible for the entire paper.


In physics

  • Most often the paper and its authors are not mentioned. The results are stated followed by a citation.
  • Occasionally the authors are mentioned in the third person "Lastname et al." where Lastname is usually the first author of the paper.
  • "We" or "I" would be rare but I don't see why anyone would care if they were used.

As a final note, papers with only two authors are not so common. I have never published one myself.

  • Whereas papers with more than two authors are not so common in my field. – Jessica B Aug 8 '18 at 15:01

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