Research Paper First Or Third Person

@earthling's accepted answer -- to use the passive voice -- is perhaps the convention in certain disciplines, but it is crucial to note that the active voice is the convention in others. Using the passive voice will make a paper sound daft and amateurishly pompous in certain communities.

My preference is very much for the active voice, first person (plural in almost all cases). This is also the most prevalent convention in my community (applied CS).

The strongest argument (and it is a very strong one!) against passive voice is that it removes all responsibility from the doer: it leaves ambiguity as to who did what, which is crucial for proper attribution in scientific writing.

For example:

The methods of Franklin et. al. were taken. The software was implemented in Java.

Who implemented the methods? The authors of the current paper or Franklin and his pals? Who should be contacted if there's errors in the software? Who's to credit and who's to blame?

Even aside from ambiguity, in the hands of a deceptive author, the passive voice could be used to subtly claim credit for others' work.

The methods of Franklin et. al. were taken. These methods were extended to incorporate the inputs previously described.

... the authors make it sound a bit like they did the extending, but maybe they didn't?

The second argument against the omnipresent passive voice is more subjective: that for many people (including me), it sucks to read, it sucks all humanity from the writing, any modesty it provides is entirely false, and it just generally sounds pompous.

So if using the active voice, which person to use? Again this is convention, but talking about yourself in the third person is again considered silly in many communities (although mandatory in some journals!). Also using the third-person can introduce the same ambiguities regarding what was your work and what was the work of others:

The methods of Franklin et. al. were taken. The authors extended these methods to incorporate the inputs previously described.

Leaving convention aside, first person is the only voice with a clear objective argument in favour of it: it avoids ambiguity as to who did what!

All arguments for passive voice refer to subjective matters of style or (false) modesty. (Aside from which, I feel that first person active voice is a more natural style!)

However, you should follow the convention of the venue you are submitting the paper to!

See these letters to Nature, for more on the debate. (The second author sounds ridiculously pompous to me.)

Writing in the first, second, or third person is referred to as the author’s point of view. When we write, our tendency is to personalize the text by writing in the first person. That is, we use pronouns such as “I” and “we”. This is acceptable when writing personal information, a journal, or a book. However, it is not common in academic writing.

Some writers find the use of first, second, or thirdpersonpoint of view a bit confusing while writing research papers. Since second person is avoided while writing in academic or scientific papers,the main confusion remains within first or third person.

In the following sections, we will discuss the usage and examples of the first, second, and third person point of view.

First Person

The first person point of view simply means that we use the pronouns that refer to ourselves in the text. These are as follows:

  • I
  • We
  • Me
  • My
  • Mine
  • Us
  • Our
  • Ours

Using these, we present the information based on what “we” found. In science and mathematics, this point of view is rarely used. It is often considered to be somewhat self-serving and arrogant. It is important to remember that when writing your research results, the focus of the communication is the research and not the persons who conducted the research. When you want to persuade the reader, it is best to avoid personal pronouns. In addition to sounding somewhat arrogant, the strength of your findings might be underestimated.

For example:

Based on my results, I concluded that A and B did not equal to C.

In this example, the entire meaning of the research could be misconstrued. The results discussed are not those of the author; they are generated from the experiment. To refer to the results in this context is incorrect and should be avoided. To make it more appropriate, the above sentence can be revised as follows:

Based on the results of the assay, A and B did not equal to C.

Second Person

The second person point of view uses pronouns that refer to the reader. These are as follows:

This point of view is usually used in the context of providing instructions or advice, such as in “how to” manuals or recipe books. The reason behind using the second person is to engage the reader.

For example:

You will want to buy a turkey that is large enough to feed your extended family. Before cooking it, you must wash it first thoroughly with cold water.

Although this is a good technique for giving instructions, it is not appropriate in academic or scientific writing.

Third Person

The third person point of view uses both proper nouns, such as a person’s name, and pronouns that refer to individuals or groups (e.g., doctors, researchers) but not directly to the reader. The ones that refer to individuals are as follows:

  • She
  • Her
  • Hers (possessive form)
  • He
  • Him
  • His (possessive form)
  • It
  • Its (possessive form)
  • One
  • One’s (possessive form)

The third person point of view that refers to groups include the following:

  • Everyone
  • Anyone
  • Them
  • They
  • Their (possessive form)
  • Theirs (plural possessive form)

For example:

Everyone at the convention was interested in what Dr. Johnson presented.

The instructors decided that the students should help pay for lab supplies.

The researchers determined that there was not enough sample material to conduct the assay.

The third person point of view is generally used in scientific papers but, at times, the format can be difficult. We use indefinite pronouns to refer back to the subject but must avoid using masculine or feminine terminology. For example:

A researcher must ensure that he has enough material for his experiment.

The nurse must ensure that she has a large enough blood sample for her assay.

Many authors attempt to resolve this issue by using “he or she” or “him or her,” but this gets cumbersome and too many of these can distract the reader. For example:

A researcher must ensure that he or she has enough material for his or her experiment.

The nurse must ensure that he or she has a large enough blood sample for his or her assay.

These issues can easily be resolved by making the subjects plural as follows:

Researchers must ensure that they have enough material for their experiment.

Nurses must ensure that they have large enough blood samples for their assay.

Exceptions to the Rules

As mentioned earlier, the third person is generally used in scientific writing, but the rules are not quite as stringent anymore. It is now acceptable to use both the first and third person in some contexts, but this is still under controversy.

In a February 2011 blog on Eloquent Science, Professor David M. Schultz presented several opinions on whether the author viewpoints differed. However, there appeared to be no consensus. Some believed that the old rules should stand to avoid subjectivity, while others believed that if the facts were valid, it didn’t matter which point of view was used.

First or Third Person: What Do The Journals Say

In general, it is acceptable in to use the first person point of view in abstracts, introductions, discussions, and conclusions, in some journals. Even then, avoid using “I” in these sections. Instead, use “we” to refer to the group of researchers that were part of the study. The third person point of view is used for writing methods and results sections. Consistency is the key and switching from one point of view to another within sections of a manuscript can be distracting and is discouraged. It is best to always check your author guidelines for that particular journal. Once that is done, make sure your manuscript is free from the above-mentioned or any other grammatical error.

You are the only researcher involved in your thesis project. You want to avoid using the first person point of view throughout, but there are no other researchers on the project so the pronoun “we” would not be appropriate. What do you do and why? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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