I – Me – You – We: What’s a Scientist To Do?

The use of the personal pronoun in scientific writing is a choice with far-reaching repercussions, not least of which is the accuracy of the article in question. If a team of researchers collected the data, but one researcher is listed as the author, is it appropriate to say I, or should the author defer to his or her team and say we?

Should the researcher default to the team throughout the Methods section and then use I in the Results and Discussion sections at the risk of confusing the reader? These are difficult questions with which researchers are required to wrestle.

Less controversial is the personal pronoun’s ability to alleviate the tiresome ubiquity of the passive voice allowing –

We titrated the results.

to replace

The results were titrated.

This, unfortunately, has created a new redundancy – the tyranny of we. We tagged the badgers … We collected their scat … We produced three charts outlining the results … Monotony is monotony, no matter which voice is being used.

And while many American scientific journals have accepted the active voice as more engaging and readable, not all international journals have. And even in the United States, not all journals are in agreement about whether the personal pronoun can be used in conjunction with the active voice.

For example, in the world of conservation biology, where I work most often, a survey of three different journals yields three different approaches. Conservation Biology, which offers a somewhat comprehensive Style Guide for Authors, clearly states in its advice about the active voice to use we or I.

The Auk, on the other hand, offers no guidance whatsoever, either about the active voice or about personal pronouns. One would need to read its articles to discover its preference. Even then, there may need to be a discussion between the author and the journal’s editors and peer reviewers to arrive at a consensus.

And, because I work often for the Fish and Wildlife Service, I would be remiss if I did not mention the relatively new Journal of Fish & Wildlife Management, which refers authors for guidance to the Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format, now in its 7th edition.

Unfortunately, the CSE offers no guidance on the use of the personal pronoun, and this seems to me a grave omission on the part of a normally conscientious and scrupulous editorial body.

It’s one thing for a scientist to employ the personal pronoun in the Methods section and so engage the active voice. It’s entirely another when we consider the Discussion section. Not that I’m opposed, simply that I recognize its significance and am asking that the leaders of the scientific community do too.

Consider:

 The results indicate that …

 We interpret the results to mean …

This is not a stylistic difference, but a paradigm shift on the order of that qualified by Thomas Kuhn as a scientific revolution. Yet rather than make a sweeping statement with one editorial voice, science editors are making the decision journal by journal, university by university.

Is the use of the personal pronoun in the Discussion section a matter of clarity? Is it a clear, objective statement of fact? Or is it a violation of the principles of objectivity and neutrality that separate the hard sciences from the soft, the natural from the social?

As a language expert, I have my own opinions on these matters. But I am not a scientist; therefore, I cannot be the ultimate arbiter. I recognize that language change is organic, and that prescriptive rules engender more dissent and confusion than obedience. Still, it seems time for the Council of Science Editors to at least open the debate, acknowledge the questions before the field, and invite the comments of its leadership so that individual scientists know where they stand and why.

Comments

  1. I think that the traditional avoidance of personal pronouns in scientific writing comes from a false sense of modesty and a false belief that avoiding them lends a more neutral, “scientific” tone. As someone who has been editing medical-journal articles for years, I think the move to active voice and to using personal pronouns is long overdue.

    I am a member of the CSE, but I’m not a part of its publication committee, so I can’t speak for the entire organization. I do agree with you, though, that the next edition of the CSE style manual should address this issue.

    As far as medical writing, the AMA Manual of Style, 10th edition, already addresses this issue, in section 7.3.1:

    In the active voice, the subject does the acting; in the passive voice, the subject is acted on. In general, authors should use the active voice, except in instances in which the actor is unknown or the interest focuses on what is acted on (as in the following example of passive voice).

    He was shot in the abdomen and within 10 minutes was brought to the emergency department.

    If the actor is mentioned in the sentence, the active voice is preferred over the passive voice. …

  2. Thanks Michelle — interesting discussion.
    My understanding is that the passive is traditionally used in science writing to increase objectivity, by focusing on what was done and what was found, rather than on who did it. Going wholeheartedly passive or active can make the writing dull and repetitive.
    When editing, I try to get a comfortable balance between active and passive, and I look at what is more important — what was done or who did it.
    cheers
    Hilary

    • Hello Hilary, and welcome! I think that traditionally it was believed that the passive voice increased objectivity, but the trend in the last quarter century has been to recognize that there are real human beings on both sides of the research process. There are researchers in the lab conducting the experiment, and there is an audience consuming the research report. It’s not necessarily neutral or objective to exclude those people from the process since they’re the ones processing and applying the information.

      I agree with you that the overuse of either can create monotony, and that we should decide based upon context, as you noted. Thank you for pointing that out and for doing so with such grace.

      I would also encourage readers to remember that this post is primarily about the personal pronoun. The decision whether to use active or passive voice implicates the pronoun, but we can as easily say The researcher conducted this study under these conditions as we conducted this study under these conditions. However, now we return to the question of neutrality and objectivity, right?

  3. Can’t comment on scientific writing in general, but one genre feature I have noticed in medical research papers (though admittedly based on an anmalysis of a fairly small sample) is that when the authors refer to their own research, they tend to use “we” + active verbs. When, on the other hand, they refer to other people’s research, they switch to the passive or other impersonal forms.

  4. Damn fine post. (Strunk & White are dancing with joy.)

  5. Bill Huang says:

    (was led here from the linkedin posts)

    I don’t have any background in scientific editing, but as an editor with some experience in news and literary editing, I would think the style points being discussed have to give way to questions of factual reporting.

    If a team of researchers did the data collecting but one researcher is listed as the author, then I would imagine they would have agreed that the researcher speaks for the team, so whichever pronoun is agreed upon at the start is the one you need to use throughout.

    To start with “we” and then introduce an “I” somewhere in there might tend to invite questions as to whether “I” is going to say something that “we” didn’t sign off on as a group.

    Then again, to start with “I” and then introduce “we,” absent any explanation, just sounds pretentious.

    Sue Swift’s comment up there sounds like a pretty good rule of thumb, but I think it moves past the issue of “We” vs. “I,” because that particular issue’s factual and stylistic points are assumed to have been already threshed out.

  6. I encounter the injunction not to use the first person more often than permission to use it.

    I generally agree with Michelle that the usefulness of the first person varies throughout the text – journal articles should absolutely and always avoid first person in the abstract – but I don’t see much harm in the absence of uniform guidance, since practices vary so much between disciplines. I’d prefer to see discussion from the CSE rather than rules.

    A curiosity: in mathematical writing, it is common to use first-person plural in explanations, particularly of techniques or when explaining a proof, even when there is just one author. The idea is that the “we” is inclusive; the author(s) are figuring out something together with the reader, at least at the rhetorical level, so making the text friendlier.

    • I agree Charles that I think discussion is the key. I don’t think any uniform practice will ultimately resolve the question. And thank you for that bit about math. I had no idea. And your explanation of it is lovely. All my best – Michelle

  7. First, I am a bit of a scientific heretic, so naturally my writing style may be considered similarly. However, my rules go something like this:
    1. Active voice, “I”. I did this
    2. Active voice, “We”. Here comes a logic argument, and I want you to follow what I am saying, so I say “We now look at . . .”
    3. Passive voice. This is general and independent of who does it, If I say, “The precipitate was filtered . . .” I am also saying, if you do what I say, you will also be able to do this, short of total incompetence on your part.

    This means a lot of passive voice. It is true that this has been imposed by years of other editors, and no, you do not argue with the editor, because the editor will then throw out the paper. Nevertheless, I think there is a lot of merit in it. The passive voice keeps the individual out of the discussion, and out of the issue.

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  1. […] Many scientific journals are open to the use of personal pronouns in the Methods and Results section of the article. And in government writing, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 mandates the use of personal pronouns for […]

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