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Use of first person in writing (a cross-disciplinary thought experiment)

May 10, 2010 Filed under Blog, Uncategorized, Writing 

I recently attended a workshop on writing across the disciplines at the University of Manchester run by Alex Baratta. The group spent a lot of time discussing how each of our own disciplines uses the first person in academic writing.

After the discussion went on for a while, I offered the following model. What does the use of first person depend upon? Well, it will depend upon:

  • the discipline: Some social sciences and humanities encourage use of first person, whereas many sciences historically shun the use of first person.

  • the author’s preference: Different people within the same discipline will have different opinions about the appropriateness of the first person (Schultz 2010, to appear in the August issue of BAMS).

  • the purpose of the statement: If the statement is to appear in the abstract or the data/methods section, the author might be less inclined to use first person, than if in the discussion section.

  • the type of paper: If I am writing a persuasive paper in BAMS, I might be more tempted to make more use of the first person than if I were writing a scientific article for Monthly Weather Review. Likewise, a thesis versus a class project might have different levels of acceptability for first person.

    Given these factors, you could envision a four-dimensional phase space where any individual situation might fall.

    So, when people ask me whether first person pronouns are appropriate in scientific manuscripts, the answer should be, “depends.”

    Eloquent Science has my own take on the use of first-person pronouns (pp. 76–77), which was written almost two years ago, now.

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