Academic Poll: Pronoun Trouble

I’ve moved on to the second of three academic writing projects I wanted to work on this summer (yes, I know I’m rapidly running out of summer…), which is a sort of review article on which I will be the only author. This creates an awkward situation in the introductory material, because it just feels wrong to use the first-person singular pronoun in an academic context. This is not a new problem for me– my advisor pointed out that the only place I used “I” in my Ph.D. thesis was in the acknowledgements– and other people have the same issue, so this seems like a perfect topic for a poll:

I won’t promise to follow the collective wisdom of the poll respondents, but I’m interested to see what people think. What is the appropriate way to deal with self-references in a single-author academic paper?

(The Hans Bethe joke is a reference to the famous α β γ paper. Thanks to Rob Knop on Twitter for suggesting it.)

18 thoughts on “Academic Poll: Pronoun Trouble

  1. I believe “I” is the appropriate form. It is taking clear responsibility for what you’re saying, and I also find it tremendously refreshing to read a paper boldly using “I” after endless reams of mealy-mouthed passive constructions.

  2. Another vote for “I”. It makes it clear where any praise or any blame should fall, and it will make avoid awkward constructions in your writing.

  3. Wait…wait! I voted for adding Hans Bethe as a co-author but I mistakenly read it as Halle Berry!

    Can I have another vote?

  4. Agree with CCPhysicist. Weren’t you paying attention when they told you academia was feudal? It’s the royal “We”!

  5. It puts the lotion on its skin … errrr … I mean, “It is well known that Condensed Matter Physics is the most of awesome subject.”

    Or you could use the third person impersonal “one”.

  6. None of the above. I = the author. We = the author and the reader. Thus, “I will show” and “we will see”.

  7. If it’s a review article and refereed as such, then you’re telling the reader (who may be from another field in Physics) about the current state of play amongst specialists. You’re speaking for everyone in the field represented by the review. The referees agree that you have accurately described what you have included and haven’t excluded anything that is appropriate for the level of the article.

    One should be somewhat awed and awesome to write a review paper (of whatever sort), Royalty who sees and writes with the authority of experience of many perspectives. “We”, but not either of the two options you give in your poll. “We adopt the terminology that is usual in XXX physics, …, from which we can show that …”. The reader may feel themselves to be part of the “we” or not. A bit of passive voice for variety and a change of pace, perhaps.

    There is less room in a review article for personal assessments that others in the field might not agree with, which should be signaled with “I”.

  8. Refer to yourself as ‘the author.’ You can use AFAICT, it depends on your intended audience.

    AFAICT, the author of this comment thinks the use of ‘we’ indicates the presence of Multiple Personality Disorder, and I’ve found that when people refer to themselves as ‘I,’ I know exactly who, they’re referring to.

    LOL, I see your point. Using ‘I’ seems familiar and personal. I don’t see any way around it but to perhaps mitigate the use by saying ‘it turns out’ instead of ‘I realized/found/discovered… Oh heck, go with the mouse idea, and better yet, name him Hans Bethe.

  9. “We” for generic references; “I” for things that are very particular to you.

    “We use the standard notation…”
    “We would be satisfied by a theory that predicted the correct order of magnitude…”
    “We approximate this sum by an integral…”

    “My lab was the first to detect…”
    “I once forgot this step, and had a canister of liquid nitrogen go flying out the window!”
    “As Feynmann once told me…”

  10. If the “I” was humble enough for Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Stephen Jay Gould it should be fine for you sir. Sparing use is good.

  11. I typically use we because like a radio jock, I get to feel I’m having a discussion with my reader. Earlier this year I published a single author paper in Phys Rev A and the referee objected to this and wanted me to use I.

    The only solution: no more single author papers. I’m happy to take Bethe’s place!

  12. I would tend to use passive voice to describe the procedure (“The shark was fitted with a radio collar.” over “I fitted the shark with a radio collar.”), and use inclusive “we” when doing a derivation.

  13. You should write for your readers, not for the occasional anonymous pronoun nazi. Following arbitrary formal rules often hampers understanding because it distracts you from your primary task, clear communication. So if you are the subject in a phrase, just say so and ignore your super-ego.

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