Today at work, we had a discussion about writing styles of research papers. One of the topic was if the phrase "We can see that..." is appropriate for research papers or not.

While some people were convinced that the phrase does not belong there others had no problem with it. Since my mother language is not English and I am a "writer beginner" I was tactically silent.

I tried to google.scholar the phrase and it showed me a lot of papers with it. However, we all know that not all papers out there have proper writing style.

So the question:

Is the phrase "We can see that ..." appropriate for a research paper? If so, at which circumstances? At which circumstances it is not?

  • 4
    What's the objection to this phrase? It certainly shouldn't be used too frequently (if you say "we can see that" every time you mention anything, then you are using a lot of redundant words). On the other hand, I don't see a good argument for why it could never be appropriate, so I'm curious what your colleagues were objecting to. Jan 21, 2014 at 13:47
  • @AnonymousMathematician Well, that is actually part of my question. My personal opinion is that especially when someone wants to describe a graph is it completely legitimate. But I would like to know opinion from experienced people. Some of my colleagues were objecting that it is not enough formal, that this style is, let say, "low". But again, there were two different opinions and my colleagues also did not eat all the knowledge. That is why I am asking.
    – MasterPJ
    Jan 21, 2014 at 13:56
  • 1
    I agree that it sounds completely legitimate for describing a graph. Jan 21, 2014 at 14:08
  • There are some guidelines that say that you should never use: I, you and we in academic writing. Some people strictly follow this rule. However, it is just a simplification. Using we as ( I am as an author and the reader) is fine in academic writing. Only "beginners" will say: that is bad style ... Oct 5, 2022 at 9:23

1 Answer 1


The goal of scientific writing is to transfer knowledge and information with high degree of clarity, precision, conciseness, and a reasonably natural tone. When editing written work, a quick litmus test is to slash away each phrase then evaluate if the sentence can do without it. "We can see that..." is a very popular candidate to be slashed because in 99% of the cases, the sentence's meaning wouldn't change:

"We can see in Table 1 that the average age is 56 years old with a standard deviation of 7 years."

"The average age is 56 years old with a standard deviation of 7 years (Table 1)."

When describing graphs or illustration, we tend to see "We can see that..." a lot more frequently than in other plain text; most of these can also be deleted:

"In Figure 1, we can see that females are the majority (67%)."

"Females are the majority (67%, Figure 1)."

... or replaced by the graphical components on which that the viewers should focus.

"In Figure 2, we can see that the sales of graphic novel have been steadily increasing since 2011."

"The sales of graphic novel have been steadily increasing since 2011, as indicated by the dotted line in Figure 2." OR

"The sales of graphic novel (dotted line in Figure 2) have been steadily increasing since 2011"

And a few random thoughts from also an ESL:

  1. I tend to focus on how efficient the sentence is rather than how formal the sentence is. I will, on any day, take a PhD candidate who writes clearly than one who writes formally. "Formal" bad writing scratches the inside of my cranium.

  2. When it comes to writing, I tend to gear away from pragmatic advices that say "You always have to..." or "You never should..." Languages and usages change along time; it's more important to be able to tell my ideas to the current crowd, than to be able to write an ancient script. Beginning learners should feel free to stick to a handful of "rules of thumb," but as the learning progresses they should develop their own judgment and some flexibility.

  3. A journal is only as formal as the editors of that journal go. Check the guideline to authors, read the specified style manual, and read a few current issues for an overall landscape, and then write. Leave all other "formal this" and "formal that" behind.

  • 7
    While I agree 100% with what you say (hence +1), I should add that a little bit of fluff is, to me, perfectly ok for a research paper. I would argue that, even though the sentence in question will strictly speaking be redundant most of the time, it can still make the text easier to read on occasion (and that's what we should strive for, right?).
    – xLeitix
    Jan 21, 2014 at 14:23
  • @xLeitix, certainly. I added "... and a reasonably natural tone" to reflect your point of view. Jan 21, 2014 at 14:36
  • 1
    "The sales of graphic novel (dotted line in Figure 2) have been steadily increasing since 2011"
    – Trylks
    Jan 21, 2014 at 14:46
  • Thank you, the tip: slash it and see if the meaning is the same is great. Even for beginners : )
    – MasterPJ
    Jan 22, 2014 at 8:32

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