Scientific writing and the pronoun I

Why are scientists so scared of writing their statements in the first person? Open any journal, and look for the word “I”. Chances are, you won’t find it. You’ll see article authors jump through hoops just to avoid this word. As if it were dirty, illegal. For example, instead of a normal, complete sentence like “I found existing methods to be insufficiently accurate,” you’ll find the sentence “Existing methods were found to be insufficiently accurate.” This leaves the most important thing out: who found them insufficiently accurate? Is this a generally known thing? Does the whole world share this opinion? Was it the dog that didn’t like the method? Why do they shy away from the word “I”? Does it make science less objective?

In the example above, the author tried to avoid subjectiveness by rewriting the sentence and leaving out the active subject. As if that makes the concept less subjective. It was the author, after all, who evaluated and discarded these methods. The author didn’t like them. This is a subjective evaluation. The only way to avoid subjectiveness is to devise an experiment, and prove that existing methods do not meet the required accuracy requirement. Lacking that, the statement is subjective, and hiding this fact is misleading.

Scientists are subjective, this is no secret. They are human, after all. This means that, no matter what people want to believe, the scientific process is subjective as well. A scientists chooses what to study, and his (or her) opinions influence which of his (her) results are published, for example. This leads to publication bias, of course, but otherwise does not taint the objectiveness of the scientific results. As long as these scientists are honest, and don’t invent data, or misuse statistics, their opinions should not influence the outcome of their experiments.

But if it is subjectiveness that these authors are scared of, why is it less of a problem to use the word “we”? Is it the implied consensus? It is no longer the opinion of a single person, but that of a group of people, and thus more objective in some way. This leads to strange things, like the editors of IEEE replacing all occurrences of “I” with “we” in a recent paper of mine (if there is only one author, who is the “we” in “First we will give a short description of…”?). There’s a famous quote of Mark Twain that is relevant here: “Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we.'”

Interestingly enough, this fear of the pronoun “I” is rather recent. Einstein, at the beginning of the 20th century, wrote things like “It is possible that the movements to be discussed here are identical with the so-called ‘Brownian molecular motion’; however, the information available to me regarding the latter is so lacking in precision, that I can form no judgment in the matter” (in the first paragraph of “On the movement of small particles suspended in stationary liquid…”, a translation of which can be had here). Going back in time to the 17th century, we can find even more extensive use of the first person pronoun. Newton, for example, gives a good example of how experiment-based papers should be written (in my opinion): “[…] I became surprised to see them in an oblong form; which, according to the received laws of Refraction, I expected should have been circular” (from “A new theory of light and colors”). This is so much more vivid and pleasant to read than “they had an oblong form, not circular as predicted by laws of refraction.” But maybe the beginning of that same sentence could have been redacted out, as it certainly does not relate in any way to the science being described: “It was at first a very pleasing divertisement, to view the vivid and intense colours produced thereby […].” Nonetheless, this paper would have been much more boring to read had it been written today.

So I wonder, why did this openness about the subjectivity of the scientific process disappear? When did they start to become afraid of “I”? Why? Please weigh in by adding a comment, I’d love to hear your opinions!

Edit: I was just made aware of this publication (there’s a scanned PDF available here if you don’t have access to the version at Wiley’s online library). It doesn’t talk at all about personal pronouns, but it does criticize the boring tone of scientific writing nowadays. Nice read!

5 Responses to “Scientific writing and the pronoun I”

  1. On October 6th, 2011, at 5:10, peb said:

    I think because it’s easy to put a subjective judgement in a scientific paper. by avoiding to put author’s subjective view, the author is forced to be objective. although, under some circumstances this could be a problem like finding a support for a statement to be used just as general introduction. knowing this, the unsupported statement most probably ignored . at least for me.

    it is already a problematic task for a student or even a professional scientist to read many scientific papers (often those should be read many times to be understood) without subjective statements. not to mention to be selective in the reviewing process.

    in my opinion, the subjective statements are left out to be talked when presenting or discussing the paper.

  2. On October 6th, 2011, at 11:49, Michiel said:

    The ‘I’ word is not necessarily subjective (e.g. ‘I measured the shift in radius ten times’), but there are a few problems.

    The first is a technical one; I can’t recall the last time I read a single author paper, but I bet by far the most scientific papers these days are multi-author. Thus only ‘we’ is usable. Grant funding directs us towards collaborating and also the complexity of experiments requires more and more people participating in one publication. The time when we could be just working in a patent office, or watching apples falling from a tree and write papers about our thoughts by ourselves are over. I agree that it would still be nice to use ‘I’ (‘While I set up the equipment to do the first imaging experiment, Peter optimized the code necessary to process the incoming images, based on his previously published algorithms[1])’, though it is easy to fall into cozy language.

    Another problem is the ease of introducing more subjectiveness that does not add anything to the observation. To come back to Newton: ‘I became surprised to see them in an oblong form; (…)’ His surprise adds nothing to the discovery. Indeed, not everyone may be surprised at all at what he describes. Continuing this path we do not have to hesitate introducing more adjectives. ‘This number is astonishing, when we consider…’ Further down the road of introducing more readable language I guarantee that more exiting titles will include the words ‘new’, ‘historical’, ‘impressive’, ‘great’, as there is no limit to how people will try to put their research forward and advertise themselves. I am not sure if this adds anything to science in general on the long term. But of course, instead of the following title from a paper in 1953:
    ‘Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid’
    it would be far more fun to read:
    ‘The awesome structure of our DNA: It’s a double helix!’

  3. On October 6th, 2011, at 14:23, Adam N. Fraser said:

    Thought provoking article. I have three suggestions.

    The first is this: Maybe scientists avoid “I” because the constraint has makes us sound more sophisticated as deemed by our peers. This is very important as are writing our first paper for publication because we’re looking for acceptance as an intellectual in the community. Insecurity is a factor.

    The second is: Although using the word I could certainly simplify many papers where all of the work was done by the author, there are certainly many more cases where MOST of the work was done by the author. In these cases the other aspects of the work need to be attributed specifically to whomever. This probably requires more explaining than simply using “we” everywhere.

    Lastly: In any paper where there is more than a single author, it’s easier and possibly mutually assuring to use “we.” It makes us feel like we’re all as good as the whole paper, and not just those paragraphs that each of us specifically contributed to.

  4. On March 19th, 2013, at 18:22, Pedro Terán said:

    Curiously, I have a rather different view on the issue.

    Although this probably does not apply to other fields of science, in maths most often ‘we’ is just ‘the reader and I’. ‘Now we need to show that…’ kindly includes the reader in the flow of the proof, while ‘Now it needs to be shown that…’ and ‘Now I will show that…’ do not.

    Additionally, replacing ‘I’ by ‘we’ or a passive voice is often self-deprecatory and opposite to the majestic plural. If I write ‘In this paper, I will prove the Riemann hypothesis’, the grammatical structure suggests that the focus is that I will prove it. Thus ‘In this paper, the Riemann hypothesis will be proved’ puts the focus where it should be, and does not convey a (wrong? right?) boasting or arrogant connotation.

    Finally, systematically writing ‘we’ for ‘I’ lets you use ‘I’ in exceptional occasions to good effect. In my case, I only write ‘I’ to make it clear that it is a personal opinion that doesn’t necessarily follow from the facts presented in the paper. For instance: ‘In Section 4 we will show that the Such-Such method has such and such bad properties, which I think are enough to suggest that it should not be used’. I’m taking personal responsibility for a claim that I understand the reader might not find compelling, and setting it apart from all the claims that the paper intend to establish as valid.

    As I said before, this probably does not capture why ‘I’ is not used in other fields.

  5. On November 29th, 2013, at 10:55, DIV said:

    Cris, I quite agree with you: there is a relatively recent convention that has evolved that has made scientific writing typically more boring, and given it a dissembling facade of being more objective.

    I suggest that Peb has missed the thrust of your argument: the subjective content is in there whether you like it or not, and hiding it by twisting the language is not a cure.

    Michiel correctly points out that there are fewer single-author papers these days — but they still do exist. How about in a PhD thesis too? (And just what is wrong with “cozy language”? If we write in Latin, does our work become more correct??) The second point suggests that use of the first person pronoun introduces irrelevancies. Well, it doesn’t have to. Cris’s first example (“Existing methods were found to be insufficiently accurate.”) shows that. Besides which, in a manuscript of several thousand words I personally would not begrudge someone using a handful of those words to share their surprise with the readers, say.

    On Adam’s first comment, I would say most scientists — and other academic authors — avoid using “I” because the papers they themselves read avoided it, and if that weren’t enough their supervisor and various editors probably reinforced the message. A minority of authors would reflect on this, and conclude that they should be able to use “I”. In this minority no doubt there is a (justifiable) fear working to stop some implementing their preferred pronoun. And nefarious editors at work in other cases. And a few instances slip through 🙂 [It is, however, not a universally held aversion among editors; there are a number who will allow use of “I”, and even a few who encourage it — see §32 of Robert Schoenfeld’s “The Chemist’s English”.]

    Pedro makes a very good point regarding things like mathematical derivations. In fact, I think I completely agree with Pedro 🙂

    Personally, on a single-author paper, I think it is excessive to use “I”, and “me” and “my” throughout. But they can be included judiciously.

    “The Bunsen burner was turned off.” It’s a single-author paper, so I probably was the one who did it, but it doesn’t really matter who the agent was.

    “My working hypothesis is that …”. Now this is quite fitting. I can’t share with the audience, or any non-existent co-author. I have to take the responsibility for this myself. Use “I” to take responsibility, not to take credit!

    At the end of a mathematical proof: “…which is the result we sought.” is okay, as the reader has been guided through the proof by me, and together we sought this result.

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