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My research is in software engineering, but in a sub-field which is very close to social science. My papers normally contain sentences like "We conducted a study with 56 participants." and "Our previous study showed that [some assumptions are true]" and "We chose to use Cramer's V as the association measure, because [explanation why we thought it is better than other association measures]".

Now that I am close to my Ph.D. thesis, I am writing more texts alone, and the thesis is legally required to be my own work. So "we" is factually wrong. But using "I" feels immodest, and it is certainly unusual. But I don't know how to change my texts to avoid it.

I can't imagine how to apply the advice from that other answer to my case. "One conducted a study with 56 participants"? "The conducted study had 56 participants"? "A study was conducted, with 56 participants"? Unlike describing a mathematical proof, these sentences sound terrible. And how to explain my decision to use Cramer's V, when it is based on personal opinion?

Any advice how to deal with the matter outside of the world of mathematical proofs?


Another example why "I" might be needed. It is not only vanity; in the not-so-exact sciences there is sometimes lots of leeway involved. Say that I code some data. This is a very subjective process, and can be error prone. It is important for the readers to know that a coding was done by a single person, as this is considered less reliable than having somebody else repeat it and discuss any differences, and also because the coder has to take responsibility for any unusual decisions or errors.


There is a more general question on the same topic. But the accepted and highly-upvoted answer is from the point of view of a mathematician, it says that the writing style is best constrained to declarative sentences such as "Since p, it follows that q.".

  • I am almost sure this is duplicate of academia.stackexchange.com/q/2945/546. The only difference I can tell is that you're working on PhD thesis. Have you talked to your advisor yet? – scaaahu Jan 4 '14 at 11:07
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    @scaaahu it is a dupe, thank you for pointing it out. But the answers there don't help me, as the highly upvoted one assumes that I am making a proof. I can't say "One performed a study with 56 participants", etc. :( Maybe I will think of ways to re-write my question. – rumtscho Jan 4 '14 at 11:15
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    @scaahu I rewrote it completely, to point out how it differs from the situation to which the answer of the other question applies – rumtscho Jan 4 '14 at 11:31
  • The study included 56 participants. For each sentence, identify the key verb. You are off track because you have focused on conducted as the key verb. Maybe you can aso avoid mentioning a person if you make the subject the study or the paper. – Dawn Feb 8 at 3:13
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The use of the authorial 'we' is very common in academia even for single-author papers, as argued by many and properly referenced in the other question that you mention.

Personally, I would keep 'we' also for the thesis without bothering. I doubt anyone would misunderstand, but if you wish you can include a quick remark in the introduction: something like Despite the use of the 'authorial we', common in academia, this thesis is the sole work of its author. In many cases you are required to state that you are the only author anyway in some boilerplate forms in the front matter.

This looks much better to my eye than changing every sentence to a contorted passive form. Readability matters.

5

There are customs and habits that differ between disciplines, between research groups and between individuals. I would endeavour to claim that the trend is away from passive phrased (e.g. "was made" etc.) to active we and I but perhaps also from royal we's and expressions such as "this author" in favour for being to the point using "I". The key, however, lies in how the "I" is used. (in fact, "this author" may even be confused by the author of the latest referenced paper)

If you write a paper you can safely use I whenever you report on things you in particular have done. In methods sections, it concerns the choices of methods you (and nobody else) has made and in the results section it concerns the results you (and nobody else) has obtained and your choice which ones to highlight. In the discussion section you can use "I" whenever you make a point that you stand by, you can use we in parts where you perform a discussion with the reader; we meaning you and the reader. In short, the "I" signals your contributions and puts you (and nobody else) on the spot for criticism. So as I see it "I" is not a way to brag (which seems to scare many), it is exposing the fact that you alone stand for what is written.

I suggest you try to find good (recommended by peers) papers written in different styles and think about the styles with the aim of finding your own comfort zone. It is a matter of style, not right and wrong.

To cap off I want to highlight a couple of books that I personally, being a non-native English speaker, have found very useful:

Glasman-Deal, H., 2012. Science research writing for non-native speakers of English. Imperial College Press, London

and

Day, R.A. & Sakaduski, N., 2011. Scientific English. A guide for scientists and other professionals. Greenwood, Santa Barbara CA

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I'm not sure about the conventions in social science, but the problem seems to be very close to what natural scientists face when writing a methods section, i.e., how an experiment was performed. If you look into the publications, you will see that these sections are almost exclusively written in the passive voice. The idea behind it is to take away the focus from the subject performing the experiment, putting more emphasis on tthe process instead. So you examples would become:

  • A study with 56 participants was conducted.
  • Cramer's V was chosen as the association measure, because...

"Our previous study" is still fine, when the previous study has several authors.

  • Yes, that is, "passive voice" in verbs avoids first-person pronouns altogether. – paul garrett Jan 4 '14 at 14:42
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I am in cognitive psychology and frequently use, "In the present investigation." There are sometimes workarounds you can use to avoid passive voice such as, "56 adults participated in this study."

2

I want to add two thoughts based on APA style. While the passive voice may help in some circumstances (as demonstrated in other answers), overuse of the passive is sometimes considered bad style. The Publication Manual of the APA (6th) even says on page 77:

Prefer the active voice.

Furthermore, the APA manual contains something about attribution on page 69.

Inappropriately or illogically attributing action in an effort to be objective can be misleading.

Thus, if you did something, it may even be misleading if this information is hidden using some stilted writing. And APA explicitly mentions the usage of I for single-author pieces on page 69:

For clarity, restrict your use of we to refer only to yourself and your coauthors (use I if you are the sole author of the paper).

In summary, I think a good balance of passive and active is considered good style, and the usage of I (where appropriate) is slowly becoming acceptable.

1
  1. If any co-authors, you need to use we since the readers don't know who the I is.

  2. Use I, as needed for sole author pubs. I like I because it is a strong statement--there is a definite person to hold responsible. Don't use "we" if there are no co-authors (what you got a mouse in your pocket?) If you feel too hesitant about a bold I (or get static) than go to passive voice. But a "we" for a sole article is distracting.

  3. Do not use I when it makes more sense to make the objects of the research, the subject of the sentences. For example NOT "I observed pitching as the stall angle was approached", but "the model started pitching near the listed stall angle, about 35 degrees". The reason is not for modesty but because (a) it is tighter writing and (b) the proper attention is on the model in the wind tunnel--your observation is not the point, here.

  4. I recommend to avoid the passive voice, but some people will recommend it or expect it. Certainly if an editor requires it, just do it, don't argue. "The reactants were combined in a boiling flask..." Note, it does have the benefit of putting the attention on the science, not on you as an actor.

  5. Some math writing uses we because the reader is included as an observer in a derivation, "after completing the square, we see...blabla".

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I asked my supervisor directly. She said that she is OK with using "I" in the dissertation, but that it is "uncommon" to use it in articles. As she is always a co-author on our papers, I guess none of her students had to deal with the problem in the context of an article anyway :) And because she did not mention internal reports even though I specifically asked about them, I think that she doesn't care what I use in them.

This is just the opinion of one professor, and the answers here show me that there doesn't seem to be a good convention. So, my take-home message from the whole problem would be: ask your professor, he will probably have a position on it and it is wise for you as a student to follow it.

0

I'm facing the same problem, though in German language/natural science (conventions may vary somewhat).

The main problem with the passive construction is that it doesn't say at all who did it. Consider:

The algorithm was implemented.

How can the reader be sure it was you as opposed to your colleague giving you his code (particulary, if the corresponding paper is authored by multiple coauthors)? I'm told I cannot expect the reader to look up the source where the author is explicitly stated.

So for some (ver key points where I need to make really sure everyone gets the fact that I actually did work myself that is fairly common (e.g. in other groups in my field) to be done by colleagues, collaboration partners, students or technicians I use "I" even though is so uncommon that I get comments about the use of "I".

Assuming that commonly studies like the one with 56 participants have someone planning it, someone (else) doing the experiments/collecting the data, and someone (yet else) analyzing the data: make sure you properly acknowledge the contributions of your collaborators in the acknowledgements.

You can also use constructions like:

A study with 56 participants was conducted [ref]. This thesis focuses on [whichever part you did]

Otherwise, "This thesis shows that..." or

Throughout this thesis, Cramer's V is used as the association measure, because ...

get you a long way.

  • For disciplines where passive voice is used, there's an English grammar convention that tells whether you or somebody else performed the work. You: The algorithm was implemented. Somebody else (or you, in a previous paper): The algorithm has been implemented. And of course, if you reference other people's work properly, this will also answer the question. – Peter Shor Apr 13 '16 at 14:51
  • @PeterShor: good to know. Not knowing this, I've produced papers for a decade that may be misleading... That being said, I'll try to remember this, but considering how many non-native English speakers publish (and not knowing which native languages have a similar concept of using time to denote contributions) I will not rely on this convention when reading papers. I'm anyways a big fan of a "contributions" paragraph at the end of the paper. – cbeleites Apr 13 '16 at 15:42

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