When Can You Use the First Person in Academic Writing?

Many students are taught not to use the first person in academic writing. But is this always the case? And when should a proofreader change or comment on the point of view in scholarly work? In this post, we’ll explain the basics, including:

  • Why the first person is traditionally avoided in academic writing.
  • Differences in how the first person is used in the sciences and humanities.
  • How the passive voice and third person can reduce use of the first person.
  • Situations in which the first person may be helpful in academic writing.
  • Use of singular and plural first-person pronouns in academic work.

For more advice on all of the above, then, read the full post below.

Why Is the First Person Avoided in Academic Writing?

Traditionally, scholarly writers have discouraged use of the first person in order to:

  • Maintain an objective, impersonal tone in academic writing.
  • Keep focus on the subject matter being discussed, not the author discussing it.

These certainly can be issues. And editors and proofreaders will want to flag (and potentially correct) use of the first person in academic writing when it isn’t necessary. For example:

I believe that lemon juice is acidic.

Here, the “I believe” is unnecessary because lemon juice being acidic is not a matter of belief. It’s a basic fact. As such, using the first person here draws focus from the subject matter to the author. It would thus be better to simply omit this subjective element:

Lemon juice is acidic.

This kind of unnecessary use of the first person is the main thing that editors and proofreaders will need to address. And if you see anything like this in a client’s academic work, you should at least flag it for the author and note that it could seem overly subjective.

Sciences Vs Humanities

In addition to overtly unnecessary or overly subjective use of the first person, as illustrated above, it is worth noting how the first person is used in different scholarly fields.

Notably, scientific disciplines (e.g., medicine, physics, mechanical engineering) tend to avoid the first person wherever possible. That’s because these subject areas value objectivity highly, so they usually avoid anything that will detract from an objective, impersonal tone in writing.

The main exceptions here are reflective essays, which should always use the first person.

There is usually more flexibility on point of view in the humanities (e.g., philosophy, literary studies, sociology), where use of the first person is more widely accepted.

In both cases, if you see the first person used in a client’s academic work, you should consider:

  • What your client’s style guide or sheet says about using the first person.
  • Whether the use of the first person is necessary for clarity.
  • Whether use of the first person is consistent with the voice used elsewhere in the document, especially in scientific work or other writing that is aiming for an objective tone.

Where necessary, you can then flag or edit issues with the point of view as appropriate.

Use of the Passive Voice and Third Person

If you do need to help a client reduce use of the first person in their academic writing, common techniques include switching to the passive voice and using the third person.

Using the passive voice typically involves omitting the subject of the sentence. For instance:

We collected infant EEG data.

Infant EEG data was collected.

Here, using the passive voice means we can cut the first-person pronoun “we”. And this helps to maintain an impersonal tone, with the focus on the research, not the researchers.

Switching to the third person can be used to a similar end, especially when an author is discussing what they will do in their research. For instance:

In this essay, I will explore…

This essay will explore…

Here, by focusing on what the essay will do (rather than what the author will do in the essay), we can eliminate use of the first person and maintain a more impersonal tone.

However, using the passive voice or third person can detract from the clarity of academic writing. And in these cases, it is usually better to use the first person instead.

When Is the First Person Needed for Clarity?

The first person can be helpful for ensuring clarity in academic writing, particularly when:

  • The author is describing their own role in research (e.g., setting out the research process).
  • Distinguishing the author’s opinions from other points of view.
  • The writing contains reflective or personal elements.
  • Using the passive voice or third person could be ambiguous.

You may therefore need to make changes or flag issues in these respects, especially in relation to the final point. For example, while the passive voice is common in academic writing, it can sometimes lead to awkward or ambiguous sentence structures, such as:

The work with key stage three boys informed the development of the new curriculum.

Here, it’s unclear who worked with the students. Is it the author of the paper? Or does this refer to someone else’s work, which the author is merely drawing on?

In this case, then, using the first person would help the author ensure clarity:

My work with key stage three boys informed the development of the new curriculum.

Similarly, some authors will refer to themselves in the third person as “the researcher” or “the author” to avoid using the first person. But this can be ambiguous, especially when referring to other authors or researchers. Take the following sentence, for example:

Davidson (2017) argues for taking a holistic approach when dealing with medical issues of this kind. In this respect, the author concurs with Connor (2014).

Here, “the author” could either refer reflexively to the author of the present paper or to Davidson, the author of the paper cited in the previous sentence. This, then, is another case where using the first person would help to ensure clarity. For example:

Davidson (2017) argues for taking a holistic approach when dealing with medical issues of this kind. In this respect, I concur with Connor (2014).

In cases like these, you may therefore need to recommend using the first person to ensure clarity, even if the author is generally avoiding first-person pronouns elsewhere.

Singular and Plural Pronouns

Finally, one more thing editors and proofreaders should look out for in academic writing is inappropriate use of “we” and other plural first-person pronouns.

Plural pronouns should be used when research has been conducted by a group or team. Thus, if you’re editing or proofreading a paper with more than one author, you should check that plural pronouns are used where appropriate.

However, some authors opt to use “we” simply because they believe it sounds less subjective than “I”. But this is not grammatically correct, so if you see “we” used in a paper that has a single author, you may need to flag it or switch to singular pronouns to ensure accuracy.

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