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The question Choice of personal pronoun in single-author papers has a good discussion of the motivation for using first-person plural pronouns ("we") instead of first-person singular (“I”), especially in math-type papers.

But here are three edge cases where the first-person plural seems a little funny for a single-author paper (but not as flagrantly wrong as thanking "our wife" in the acknowledgments):

  1. To (our/my/the author's) knowledge, this result is new.
  2. (We/I/the author) performed a careful review of the previous literature, but did not find any examples of X.
  3. (We/I/the author) believe(s) that this method is easier to employ and more illuminating than the method outlined in the previous section.

Any thoughts on which is the best option for these three constructions?

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    Wow, unexpectedly controversial question! We’ve got answers in all camps.
    – tparker
    Mar 17, 2023 at 17:09
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    I absolutely loath "we did" in single-author papers, it makes no sense whatsoever. If it was us doing it, then it should be all of us as authors on that paper. crisluengo.net/archives/421 Mar 17, 2023 at 17:20
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    Um... I think of the "we" as "you the reader and me the author, we are going on this adventure because we are both the coolest and smartest for being interested in this stuff."
    – Boba Fit
    Mar 17, 2023 at 18:53
  • @BobaFit Sure, “we see that” includes the reader. “We ran this experiment” does not. Mar 20, 2023 at 0:09
  • @CrisLuengo language in general doesn't make sense. Sense is established by conventions. Use of "we" to express the authors' (or author's) standpoint is quite conventional. Now, that's not to say every convention is good, however we should have good reasons for going against them. I'd say: for the most part, "we" works alright, and the alternatively have rather worse problems. Mar 20, 2023 at 11:59

7 Answers 7

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I usually remove the speaker entirely in these cases. Certainly I would not use 'we' in any of those situations. 'We' is used in proofs because the author and the reader are (hopefully) both proving the result together, it isn't just the author. Indeed, if the author wrote "and then I see that (1) implies that the lemma is true" it sounds very much as if the reader won't see it!

"The author(s) believe(s) this result is new" is absolutely fine, but I normally solve it by using "This result appears to be new". So your three examples in your question become:

  1. This result appears to be new.

  2. A careful search of the literature did not find any examples of X.

  3. This method seems to be easier to employ and more illuminating than the method outlined in the previous section.

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    I like these rewritings, but none of them are in the passive voice as your first two words suggest. Also, in #2, I think that “did not return X” would be better, since the search itself does not find things, but the searcher does. (That sounds like a Zen proverb.)
    – tparker
    Mar 17, 2023 at 12:39
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    Half a million hits on Google for "a search found" as an exact phrase. All top hits are news reports. "A careful search found" top hit is an academic article. Mar 17, 2023 at 12:51
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    I don't agree with this. Scientific papers have become incredibly dry and boring to read over the last some decades. Earlier scientific reports used "I" much more often, and were much more pleasant to read. Mar 17, 2023 at 17:23
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    It depends on the language, but writing in the passive tense sounds a bit weak in English. It is especially criticised in many books on writing by professional fiction writers, where it is criticised as being dry and weak-sounding.
    – Tom
    Mar 17, 2023 at 21:26
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    @Tom: The passive voice is used all the time in academia, especially when describing the methodology of an experiment, but probably in other contexts as well.
    – Kevin
    Mar 18, 2023 at 3:12
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To be honest, unlike the other answers, I wouldn't bat an eye if "we" were used in any of these three examples in a math paper (they seem more jarring out of context, but in context it's just a convention of the discipline). That being said, if one wanted to avoid both "we" and passive constructions, I think "the author" works just fine.

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    The act of writing "we" in a single author paper is uncomfortable, the act of reading "we" in such a paper is entirely natural. That's how a large majority of academic papers are written.
    – David
    Mar 19, 2023 at 0:50
  • Didn't the use of passive in scientific literature come about because 19th-century gentlemen-scientists often had their servants do the manual work? "the apparatus was assembled."
    – benwiggy
    Mar 19, 2023 at 16:55
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For pure math: to counter most of the other answers here (except Greg Martin's), I still find the use of first-person singular in research papers strange (excluding perhaps some special acknowledgements), simply because it's not the norm. To check this, I just browsed the new arXiv posts in my area (Number Theory), and all of the single-authored papers there use "we" including in situations like yours where it doesn't make traditional grammatical sense (e.g., abstract starts with "We describe...").

My thoughts are:

  • first-person plural is perfectly fine in your examples; to me it's also a little more direct and less stiff than "the author", so preferable

  • in general don't mix first-person singular and plural forms to refer to yourself

  • try not to mix first-person pronoun usage and "the author" in nearby areas of text

  • it's of course a matter of personal style, and as far as I know, there are no pure math research journals which would prohibit any of the options you give based on their style guidelines

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  • I may be a bit of a hypocrite (first sentence). I checked one of my recent preprints, and there are a few paragraphs in the intro where I use the first person singular, mainly to mention a suggestion somebody told me and say I personally don't have an explanation for phenomenon blah. I use "we" everywhere else in the intro, but at least don't mix any "we"'s in between. Anyway, I still stand by my answer as general guidelines, though I'll see if the copy editor says anything.
    – Kimball
    Mar 18, 2023 at 21:43
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Fashions change, and there is no hard and fast rule ... but I agree that to use "we" in any of the situations you have described would be odd.

The use of "we" seems reasonably well suited to cases where the pronoun is intended to include the author and the reader but the three situations that you describe are not like that. It is you who have done a literature search, you who are or are not aware of previous results, and you who found a particular method easier.

The use of the passive (as an alternative to any first-person pronoun) is still common but increasingly unfashionable ... and all round, "I" seems very well suited to the situations you've described.

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Try using "the present author"

For academic writing, I also like using "we" instead of first-person singular, when discussing findings, proofs, etc. I have always thought of the "we" as referring to the reader and I, embarking on a journey of discovery together. We find that there is evidence for A, we find that the present method works well on problems of class B, we can see that the proof of Theorem D can be extended to deal with generalisation D, etc. r However, as you note, there are instances where one is making a statement that only applies to the singular author and which should not be attributed more broadly. For these cases a useful construction is to refer to yourself as "the present author" (see related answer here). This leads to the following framing for the cases you note, all of which sound quite pleasing and maintain the formality of academic writing.

To the knowledge of the present author, this result is new.

The present author performed a careful review of the previous literature, but did not find any examples of X.

The present author is of the view that this method is easier to employ and more illuminating than the method outlined in the previous section.

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    The "present" or current author in contrast to some hypothetical future author? Or is there another sense of "present" in use here?
    – J W
    Mar 17, 2023 at 6:40
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    @JW: The "present author" as in, the one whose work you're presently reading.
    – Ben
    Mar 17, 2023 at 6:41
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    @JW while not always necessary, it can be useful if you mention some previous work in the same sentence, or sufficiently nearby that you might be misconstrued as referring to the author of some other paper. (Not that you should do that IMO - if another author is worth mentioning, they are worth mentioning by name.) Mar 17, 2023 at 10:34
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I do not like "we" at all in single author papers. In my view, "we" implicitly says that the author expects all readers to agree and basically synchronise themselves with what the author is doing, and this in my view is patronising.

Personally I don't have much problems with "I" as I think that in this way the author takes personal responsibility for what they're writing, and I think this is appropriate. I do however accept that "I" can come over as arrogant and self-centered, so I'm very careful with it. I have no issues with "I" in the three cases provided in the question, however I'd probably say "this method seems easier" in case 3. In case 2 one could say "A careful review did not..." (your sentences there seem longer than needed and the "I/we" could be removed as a side effect of shortening).

I do think avoiding first personal personal pronouns as far as possible without becoming too awkward is a good thing. George Spencer-Brown wrote somewhere that a reader, in order to properly appreciate and understand a mathematical proof, needs to do the steps themselves and observe the consequences, and he stated that the imperative is the best form for this, which I found very convincing. So in proofs I'll write "Assume... set... get... observe..."

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In a single author paper, it does not matter much if one uses the royal “we” or the singular “I”. I tend to go with what is more common in the journal.

What is important IMO is proper attribution.

It makes a difference in a thesis for instance, or in other situations where the author has to be clear on who did what. A thesis written entirely using “we” could be problematic as it becomes impossible to identify the contribution of the candidate, especially if the candidate has published with collaborators. An interview talk where the presenter only uses “we” could also be problematic if the person was part of a team.

In your specific examples I would probably use “I” as I can’t see using the royal “we”. You did the literature review, and it’s difficult to see how you can attribute this to someone else or draw the reader into thinking they are involved in this review.

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