Objectivity is typically brought up when academic writing is discussed. Researchers are supposed to conduct their studies in such a way that bias, undue influence, and incorrect results are avoided.

This can include blinding research subjects from other research subjects, preventing observers from knowing certain details about their subjects (e.g., age, gender, race, political affiliation), and even removing the person writing the final report from the phrasing so that the information presented is not viewed as an opinion.

In academic writing, how essential is it to avoid using the first person? When writing academically, this article will examine whether the first or third person should be used.

You might be surprised at how much the response varies depending on the context of the question.

The Case Against First-Person Narrative in Academic Writing

Francis Bacon and other like-minded scientists in the 17th century were trying to find out how scientific information should be shared. Bacon believed in empiricism, which roughly translates to “seeing is believing.” Though Bacon wasn’t the first to espouse this viewpoint (it dates back to approximately 600 BCE), he was the first to formalize it.

He said that the only way to assure the human subjectivity of such a vision was to write down each and every step made during an experiment and provide an explanation for each step’s existence.

Does this ring a bell? Bacon was attempting to prevent scientists from deceiving themselves by seeing what they wanted to see rather than what was truly there during experiments. To this day, academic writing aspires to achieve this goal.

Using the third person in academic writing is a must for most scientists. A first-person pronoun is a warning sign, indicating that a certain experiment may only be carried out by a specific individual or group.

Using the third person removes subjectivity from the picture, allowing anybody to complete the work. “I” did not do the work; it was done by “them,” and “they” might be anyone, making the action universal.

Is “they” a Saudi Arabian male research student, a Scottish female Asian postdoctoral fellow, or a Canadian non-binary Aboriginal biological chemistry professor? Yes, it can be anyone. 

Supporting the First Person: The Passive Problem

The issue with the third person in academic writing that most institutions and publishers face is one of voice, especially the passive voice. As we seldom refer to ourselves passively, using the first person in academic writing virtually assures the active voice will be utilized.

This was highlighted by Nathan Sheffield, who used an example for the Duke Graduate School’s Scientific Writing Resource, which is summarized here.

“We then examined the DNA using qPCR,” says the active example. The statement is written in the active voice, with “we” examining “DNA” with the use of a tool known as “qPCR.” Straightforward and easy to understand.

“The DNA was then subjected to qPCR analysis,” says the passive example. This statement is written in the passive voice, and the verb has been nominalized (turned into a noun), adding two unnecessary verbs and other words to the sentence.

Yes, the nominalization may be done away with “The DNA was then examined using qPCR,” however this raises the issue of who did the action. Using the third person introduces uncertainty, and context will not always allow for conciseness until surrounding phrases clarify who is acting.

The Importance of Using the Appropriate Tone

So, if you want to write academically, where do you go from here? It is up to you to decide what you want to write. In some situations, using the passive voice to retain an objective tone is permissible (which uses the third person). Other situations will allow a subjective tone (using the first person) provided you can explain it, which is a huge “if.”

The easiest way to justify a subjective tone is to show agency (e.g., “While past studies have focused on X, I have taken a Y perspective…”) or progress (e.g., “We noted X after the reaction began…”).

The terms “voice” and “tone” might be confusing when it comes to writing. They may sound similar, but they are not the same. If you know what to look for, they are easy to differentiate from one another.

Consider your writing style to be your voice. Before they begin writing, most academic writers will be given a style to follow, and they will need to edit their words and referencing to fit that style.

When reading the work of a specific author or publication, voices are clearly defined and recognized. Consider a favorite novelist or a reliable news source. The terms they repeat and the rhythm of their writing help you distinguish their voice.

Even journals have voices, with some providing factual descriptions with little context (so the reader can focus on the described experiments), while others provide rich context before getting into the specific details of what was tested, ensuring that the reader understands the subtleties at play in the presented study.

Tone, on the other hand, varies according to on the content and audience. You wouldn’t address a first-year class or attend a job interview in the same tone you would with your parents.

So, because audiences and information in each of these circumstances are different, we adjust our tone accordingly. Pronouns are decided by tone, and the choice between first and third person is made.

Because academic writing has a consistent audience (other authors/students looking for well-supported arguments on a topic they’re familiar with), selecting an appropriate tone should be rather simple once you know your content.

When to Use the First Person and when the Third Person

The simplest way to write for your audience and topic is to answer the following question: What tone would you like if you were reading your article for the first time? You most likely read numerous publications on the same subject on your way to creating your article. What drew your attention to them?

Did they all speak in a passive voice and use careful syntax so that the information they presented could not be considered biased?

Did the writers’ writing in the first person indicates that they each had a separate point of view? Treat your other authors with the respect they deserve and don’t be hesitant to borrow their tone while simultaneously citing them.

Personal experience is frequently used in philosophy and arts articles to explain concepts or draw similarities between current and previous work. Gender studies frequently draw on unique viewpoints that can be reinforced by personal experience.

If you’re writing about these topics, or if you’re delivering a subjective opinion, giving guidance on how to educate, providing a narration, or describing someone’s emotions, use the pronouns “I” and “we.”

Use the third person if you’re writing about religious topics (where personal devotions might lead to charges of prejudice) or scientific facts (where the focus is on duplicating your study rather than your opinion).

If you wish to persuade the reader of the validity of your argument, “I” is not your friend, because it is far too simple for a critic to disregard your logic as an opinion. 

So, when to use “I”?

Given the long history of pedagogical advice to avoid using the first person in academic writing, as well as the justified reasons for doing so, authors may choose to use the authorial I sparingly.

In some rhetorical contexts, however, expressing one’s point in the first person may improve one’s argument by making it more personal, embodied, and compelling.

You might find it useful to ask yourself the following questions about your writing:

  • Do my personal feelings about this issue have an impact on how I approach it?
  • Is it necessary for me to admit my own personal investment in this subject?
  • Is it my natural inclination to speak in the first person in some situations?
  • Do my own experiences provide strong/relevant support for my point of view?

Another way to consider is when to use the authorial I. A first-person narrative can sometimes be used as a sort of introduction, serving as a “hook” to attract the reader into a discussion.

For most academic papers, though, it’s a good idea to think of the first person as a privilege that must be won by demonstrating a scholarly approach to the subject first. As a result, it may be preferable to introduce a topic by referencing credible sources rather than relying on one’s own personal experience as an authority.

Finally, while using the first person and/or personal voice, academic writers should think about their audience and message. What is the proper tone to use while discussing a certain topic? What is one’s personal connection to the topic at hand?

For example, unless the personal information is clearly relevant and can be presented in a respectful manner, it may not be appropriate to mention personal material while writing about the Holocaust or a natural disaster.

When writing on race or gender, on the other hand, including one’s own experience(s) of living in a racialized/gendered society maybe not just appropriate, but especially necessary.

Academic writers must select if, when, and where to use first-person references and the personal voice in order to convey their point to their intended audience.

Conclusion

To summarize, successful use of the first person in academic writing requires careful consideration of context, situation, and tone. But it is possible. You are the author at the end of the day. If you haven’t been requested to follow a certain style, feel free to utilize whatever literary tools you need to demonstrate your enthusiasm and academic worth.

To help you polish your work, you can seek outside help, such as expert editing and proofreading. However, you have the last say on whether or not to mention yourself in your work. Happy Writing!

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Thanks and Regards,

Isabell S.

The TrueEditors Team

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