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It is common to write papers in the third person, using sentences such as "The author(s) did this", "the author(s) thank XYZ" etc. Is the same convention true for referee reports? I have noticed that my reports tend to be a mishmash of first and third person, with sentences like "to the best of the reviewer's knowledge" next to "I think equation 123 has a typo". What is the most common convention? My field is math, in case it makes a difference.

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    It doesn't really answer the question of "how common", but this question seems quite relevant: Should I write a peer-review in third person?
    – Anyon
    Aug 20, 2020 at 13:33
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    I doubt it matters what you do. You are, in essence, writing to only the authors and the editor. How "common" it is seems irrelevant as a guide.
    – Buffy
    Aug 20, 2020 at 14:17
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    I think the language of the reviews can be somewhat less formal because this is not the stuff that is going to be published Aug 21, 2020 at 0:42
  • The question in the body is the opposite of the question in the title. An answer of "yes" or "no" (which as of now, one of them is) becomes confusing. Aug 21, 2020 at 12:43

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Resoundingly, yes. At least in my field (number theory). I just looked at the 15 most recent referee reports I received, and only 1 out of 15 of these reports avoided writing in the first person.

Note: I restricted to reports on initial submissions to avoid obvious duplication of referee styles. Of the 15 I looked at, the reports were written in sufficiently different styles that I'm confident in saying there wasn't too much duplication of referees in this sample.

Added: To address the "mishmash" aspect, in none of these reports did the reviewer refer to themself in both the 1st and 3rd person, but I have seen it before and have possibly done it myself. The bottom line is that it doesn't really matter. Referee reports are not formal pieces of writing meant for public display (like parts of grant applications or MathSciNet reviews), and while some reviewers may prefer to refer to themself in the 3rd person (presumably to make the review sound more formal/professional or less personal), I think most prefer to write more directly.

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  • I second the observation within numerical analysis (math) and scientific computing. I'm also not seeing a lot of papers where the authors refer to themselves in third person as "the authors". Aug 20, 2020 at 21:40
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    @user53923 That supports Kimball's findings Aug 21, 2020 at 14:21
  • @Azor Ahai You are right I misread. In any case, I second this answer for Theoretical Computer Science. Looking at the last 9 reviews I received, 8 were in first person and the remaining one did not refer to themselves at all.
    – user53923
    Aug 22, 2020 at 19:50
  • "Referee reports are not formal pieces of writing meant for public display": note that this depends on the field, there are now journals doing open peer review where the reviews are posted publicly
    – a3nm
    Sep 7, 2023 at 18:59
  • @a3nm The question is tagged mathematics, and as far as I know, no major mathematical journals post reviews publicly. Do you know examples?
    – Kimball
    Sep 7, 2023 at 20:22
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First person is the default in the natural sciences. It's difficult to find an "official" reference for this as a convention. But I have never seen a referee report written in the third person.

On a related note, most style guidelines suggest that active voice makes for clearer writing. If in doubt about your norms might as well pick what makes it easiest for the reader to understand you! https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/active_and_passive_voice/active_versus_passive_voice.html

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I'll add a data point from physics: I've seen thousands of referee reports, and very few reviewers refer to themselves in 3rd person. It's simply unnatural.

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