Scientific writing - we vs. I

Chris Boake cboake at
Thu Mar 27 14:27:25 EST 1997

Different areas of science, and of biology, use the active or passive
voice.  It is best to learn and follow the conventions of your own field
(but please don't criticize other fields that do it differently!).  Some
journals have an explicit policy regarding active or passive voice and in
other cases, you can see how the majority of papers handle the issue.

I prefer "I" and the active voice because often the sentences are more
straightforward, and as Susan pointed out, I did the experiments, they
didn't do themselves.  Using a passive voice does not automatically avoid
the sense of self-promotion: "this important experiment, the first of its
kind, conclusively demonstrates that, counter to popular expectation (and
blah blah)" is quite self-promoting without using  the first person.

Sabine, if you are using first person, use the singular if you did the
work.  When I see a thesis or dissertation that uses "we," I ask, You and
who else?  After all, those works are supposed to be the scientific
efforts and responsibility of one person.  I very much doubt that you
would see a paper written in the active voice that had one author, in
which "we" was used. If you are writing a series of papers from your
dissertation, some of which are multi-authored, go ahead and use "we" in
those papers, but if the dissertation is a stand-alone text, use "I"


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