Are there written or unwritten rules for avoiding the use of first-person while writing research papers? I was advised at the beginning of my grad school to avoid use of first person - but I still don't know why I should do this.

I have seen that, at many places, authors refer to themselves are "the authors" and not "we". At the same time, I have also seen use of first-person to a good extent.

Do these things differ in different Journals and Conferences (and in different disciplines as well - mine happens to be CS)?

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    Related (and I think the first answer somehow also addresses your question): academia.stackexchange.com/q/2945/102 – user102 Aug 5 '13 at 9:57
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    I think the rule is to avoid the first person. Personally, I try to violate this rule whenever I can get away with it, because the rule prohibits writing readable English. – gerrit Aug 5 '13 at 12:48
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    I suspect that the answer varies somewhat with the discipline. In mathematics, while 'I' is uncommon, 'we' is widely used. (This is of course an instance of the first person.) – Shane O Rourke Mar 19 '14 at 21:43
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    The awkward, stilted use of third person is a holdover from the Victorian era. For example, a style guide for AIP journals from 24 years ago says, "The old taboo against using the first person in formal prose has long been deplored by the best authorities and ignored by some of the best writers." – user1482 Mar 20 '14 at 1:08
  • related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/186685/… – user1482 Jun 26 '16 at 20:44

The link provided in the first comment above has a VERY useful answer but I will add a little bit as to the why part of your question.

In writing research papers, the reader's focus should be on the idea, not the author. Yes, you did the research but the point is not "Everyone! Look what I did. I am so great!"

The research paper should be more along the lines of "Everyone! Look what is new and interesting. This information is really great!"

So, the purpose of the research report is not "I did this" but rather "This was done." For this reason, it is quite common to use the passive voice (this was done) rather than the active voice (I did this).

Personally, I disagree that removing the use of the word "I" prevents writing readable English. I do agree that is makes the writing more difficult but lots of things are more difficult when they are done the proper way. That doesn't mean we give up and do it the wrong way because it is easier.

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    the results are reproducible and therefore they are not dependent on you. Reproducibility is a goal/ideal in the sciences, not in other fields. – user1482 Mar 20 '14 at 1:02
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    @earthling Oh, get over yourself. Even in the sciences, not all research is reproducible, even in principle. Is the discovery of the Higgs boson "anecdote"? – JeffE Mar 20 '14 at 3:21
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    @earthling: I think that in, for example, literary criticism or philosophy, most research would not be 'reproducible' because it contains quite a lot of the author's own personality. This doesn't make it 'not research'. – Tara B Mar 20 '14 at 4:31
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    Can it be reproduced? — In principle, maybe; in practice, no. Even with the billions of dollars required to independently build the necessary equipment, the equipment would be different; reproducing the precise conditions of the experiment is simply impossible. (And yes, dismissing huge swaths of research as "more of an anecdote" does come off as snobbish.) – JeffE Mar 20 '14 at 13:39
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    @TaraB "In . . . philosophy, most research . . . contains quite a lot of the author's own personality." I'm a philosopher, and I wish that the research I read had anything that could be called personality. But, more seriously, philosophy aims at the same kind of objectivity that mathematics and the sciences does. The difference between philosophy and science lies in the different natures of the questions the researchers ask, not in the goals the researchers are seeking per se. – user10636 Dec 1 '17 at 14:32

@earthling's accepted answer -- to use the passive voice -- is perhaps the convention in certain disciplines, but it is crucial to note that the active voice is the convention in others. Using the passive voice will make a paper sound daft and amateurishly pompous in certain communities.

My preference is very much for the active voice, first person (plural in almost all cases). This is also the most prevalent convention in my community (applied CS).

The strongest argument (and it is a very strong one!) against passive voice is that it removes all responsibility from the doer: it leaves ambiguity as to who did what, which is crucial for proper attribution in scientific writing.

For example:

The methods of Franklin et. al. were taken. The software was implemented in Java.

Who implemented the methods? The authors of the current paper or Franklin and his pals? Who should be contacted if there's errors in the software? Who's to credit and who's to blame?

Even aside from ambiguity, in the hands of a deceptive author, the passive voice could be used to subtly claim credit for others' work.

The methods of Franklin et. al. were taken. These methods were extended to incorporate the inputs previously described.

... the authors make it sound a bit like they did the extending, but maybe they didn't?

The second argument against the omnipresent passive voice is more subjective: that for many people (including me), it sucks to read, it sucks all humanity from the writing, any modesty it provides is entirely false, and it just generally sounds pompous.

So if using the active voice, which person to use? Again this is convention, but talking about yourself in the third person is again considered silly in many communities (although mandatory in some journals!). Also using the third-person can introduce the same ambiguities regarding what was your work and what was the work of others:

The methods of Franklin et. al. were taken. The authors extended these methods to incorporate the inputs previously described.

Leaving convention aside, first person is the only voice with a clear objective argument in favour of it: it avoids ambiguity as to who did what!

All arguments for passive voice refer to subjective matters of style or (false) modesty. (Aside from which, I feel that first person active voice is a more natural style!)

However, you should follow the convention of the venue you are submitting the paper to!

See these letters to Nature, for more on the debate. (The second author sounds ridiculously pompous to me.)

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    Bleah. "The authors extended the methods of Franklin et al. to incorporate the inputs described above." – JeffE Mar 20 '14 at 3:23
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    @badroit In a single-author context, would you choose "I extended" or "The author extended" ? – ybakos Mar 29 '17 at 18:57
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    @ybakos, I prefer to use "we" for single author papers: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/2945/… – badroit Mar 29 '17 at 22:42
  • If, according to @earthling 's answer, "the reader's focus should be on the idea, not the author.", then I see no difference between "The authors extended the methods of Franklin et al. to incorporate the inputs described above." and "We extended the methods of Franklin et al. to incorporate the inputs described above.". What's more I've seen guidelines to use third person and passive voice and then tons of papers using first person and active voice for the same conference, e.g., for International Conference on Data Mining – dzieciou Nov 2 at 10:58
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    @dzieciou, both the passive and active voice can express the ideas. With the active voice you additionally get clearer attribution of the ideas. I think that the attribution of ideas is useful to clarify in the context of a research paper. I would be interested to see guidelines for the use of third person in ICML if you can provide a link? – badroit Nov 5 at 2:44

In mathematics, we is used in a few subtly different ways:

  1. To mean the author(s): "We are not aware of any previous work on reticulated splines." (But maybe we just didn't look hard enough.)

  2. To mean the author(s) and the reader: "We see from Theorem 5 that every snark is a boojum." (You are supposed to be able to see it too.)

  3. To mean the mathematical community: "We lack a complete classification of cromulent blobs." (No such classification exists, but it sure would be nice if it did.)

Usually it is clear from context which meaning is intended. But occasionally third-person phrasing like the authors will be used to emphasize or clarify that the sentence is only referring to the authors, and not anyone else. "We cannot prove Conjecture 6 using these techniques" could be ambiguous: is it an absolute claim that it is impossible to do so, or merely an admission of failure by the authors? "The authors cannot prove Conjecture 6 using these techniques" resolves it in one direction. To make an absolute claim, you might use the passive voice: "Conjecture 6 cannot be proved using these techniques."

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Saying "a method was used . . . " doesn't make the method, or your use of it objective. Nobody who is stupid enough to be fooled into thinking that will be reading your journal article. Besides, what you want is to be objective, not just sound objective. If you have a firm grasp on your method, your data and your conclusion, then the objectivity of the results will be obvious.

For instance,

"My hypothesis is h. Since h implies p, I used method m, since m will tell us whether p or not because m works by . . . . And when I used m, it clearly reported that not-p. So, my hypothesis turned out to be false."

Sentences like this create a narrative with helpful guideposts, showing how you arrived at your conclusion and bringing the reader along with you. Narratives help you attract readers outside the immediate small circle of people already familiar with the problems, methods and principle results of your sub-discipline.

As a humanities guy who occasionally really wants to find out what's going on in relevant empirical literature, I find it really difficult to discover the information that I want because I simply cannot discern why we are using certain experimental or statistical methods, how those methods imply the conclusions the authors claim, or what the ultimate significance of the results of the individual experiments are for the overall conclusion that the paper is ostensibly about. Tell a good story that includes how the experimental work and mathematical analysis all fit together, and you'll attract a broader audience, I promise.

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The use of "passive voice" started to become common in US journals in the 1920's. The reason for this is that science and the conclusions you draw from your analyses should be objective, which comes across more easily in the passive voice. This is actually a heated debate in many academic circles. Most journals encourage the use of passive voice, and some reviewers may give you a hard time if you use active voice in a paper you're trying to publish.

It's best to target your audience and write for them. For example, if you are writing an article for a science magazine, the active voice might be more suitable. It certainly comes across as more exciting.

Some good reading on this matter can be found here and here.

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    This timeline ("started to appear ... in the 1920's") is clearly wrong. Michelson and Morley's famous paper, which appeared in 1887 in the American Journal of Science, is almost entirely in the passive voice. – Peter Shor Sep 25 '16 at 4:22

This is highly field dependent. Actually, in certain social fields such as women/gender studies, African American studies, ethnography, etc. it is required to use "I", to disclose any biases. "I am a 30 year old white male" etc.

I know advisers that would outright reject a thesis that doesn't explicitly use "I" in this manner (or at least something like "the author is ___").

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