I am proofreading a text where two authors are listed (one of which is the writer, and the other, apparently, only a "supervisor") and in reporting the author(s) use first person singular (instead of first person plural): I believe, I was surprised etc. I find this very illogical and was wondering whether there was a rule for this type of situation.

To be more specific: right below the title of the essay two authors are listed. However, in the introduction and in the conclusion, the author(s) say that "I was somewhat surprised..." and, towards the end, "it is hard for me to..." It seems illogical to me to list two authors and then report in the first person singular. When I suggested this be edited, they told me only "one person was the writer, while the other one was the supervisor".

What should be done in such a situation? Should the "supervisor" also be treated as one of the writers and verbs be written in plural, or should this person simply be removed from the list of authors regardless of his or her contribution?


Number in scientific writing is fairly straightforward:

  • Multiple authors should be plural.

  • Complementarily, a single author should be singular (except when speaking of author and reader together), but many academics are uncomfortable with this and end up either sort of doing a sort of "royal we."

The response of the authors seems to be asserting that the supervisor is not really properly an author. As such, I would suggest pointing them toward the Vancouver Protocol and giving them a choice:

  • If the supervisor is really an author, the paper should be changed to plural.
  • If the paper remains singular, the supervisor should be demoted from authorship to acknowledgement.
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    +1 for the reference to the Vancouver Protocol. If the supervisor is not an author according to that, he shouldn't be listed. – Emilie Jan 6 '16 at 13:36
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    @Emilie Personally, I don't like the Vancouver Protocol overly much, since the "drafting" criteria can be abused to deny authorship to people who did much of a paper's actual work. It is designed to prevent gift authorship, however, and that appears to be the question here. – jakebeal Jan 6 '16 at 13:50
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    I agree with you that it's not perfect, but it does apply here. – Emilie Jan 6 '16 at 14:04
  • Good answer, but note that OP said she is proofreading, not refereeing, the paper, so it's not clear she has the authority to make any requests of the authors regarding authorship. – Dan Romik Jan 6 '16 at 20:44

In addition to @jakebeal's answer, I might suggest consulting the journal guidelines, or a field-specific style guide. Pulling my (now perhaps venerable) AIP Style Manual (1990 edition) from the shelf, I will quote (section 9(1), page 14):

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. "We" may be used naturally by two or more authors in referring to themselves; "we" may also be used to refer to a single author and the author's associates. A single author should also use "we" in the common construction that politely includes the reader: "We have already seen... ." But never use "we" as a mere substitute of "I," as in, for example, "In our opinion...," which attempts modesty and achieves the reverse; either write "my" or resort to a genuinely impersonal construction.

Clearly, for the American Institute of Physics, "we" should be the proper pronoun.

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