“This study has been driven in part by the researcher’s background managing a seal training facility. One seal trainer’s actions caused the researcher to struggle with leaving seals in the hands of an inadequate trainer. After three years of the researcher trying to redress the trainer’s shortcomings, the trainer was dismissed. However, he continues to harass the facility by throwing rubber fish at windows. As this experience illustrates, the researcher is a stakeholder in the present study.”
My background is in women’s studies, an academic field in which first person is seldom controversial, and I consider that a privilege. The idea that the words “I” and “me” don’t belong in proper research articles and books has not been a big part of my learning experience since high school.
I probably don’t have to explain the position opposed to first person in too much detail. Many of us learned it in high school or college as “the way” to write a term paper—or even something more advanced than that. If the research is truly objective, we’ve been told, then the insertion of the researcher’s identity distracts the reader at best and introduces bias at worst.
More recent writers have raised the counter-argument that the researcher is never truly objective. I like Sandra Harding’s concept of “strong objectivity” as an example of this perspective. Instead of understanding objectivity as a “you either have it or you don’t” state, we can think of it as a scale applied not so much to the objectivity of the researcher as to that of the research.
Here’s the fun part. You get strong objectivity not by denying that the author of the research exists in human form but by acknowledging it and analyzing it. This is because the researcher’s perspective, what they bring to the table in terms of background, social standpoint, and so on, is seen as part of the research environment. Implying that the researcher doesn’t exist as a human being, meanwhile—such as by obscuring them into the third person—is to omit a chunk of the research context from the analysis. Avoiding first person for reasons of objectivity is downright ironic within this view.
Me, Myself, and Ay Ay Ay
Are You a Hypercorrections Officer?
In my experience, most fields these days recognize the significance of the researcher’s personal standpoint in the production of research. This appears in research articles when we include a section on the limitations of the study, which often include factors specific to the researcher’s circumstances, often regarded as bias. Acknowledging these sources of bias helps the reader understand some of the context in which the work was performed.
In my editing, however, I find that the “limitations of the study” section and the methods section of dissertations and other grad student writing are often the most awkwardly—I would even say backwardly—written. While the authors recognize the importance of inserting themselves into the document, acknowledging themselves as human factors in the generation of knowledge, they are still writing within disciplinary contexts that (or under advisors who) discourage something as basic as the word “I.”
As a result, they produce passive constructions and odd references to themselves or their team in the third person. I’m not suggesting that passive voice and referring to oneself as “the researcher” are always terrible things. It’s just that if you use them, it should be because they’re the best options for a particular passage and not because you’re avoiding a smoother and more readable construction in favor of an arbitrary rule.
This awkward writing, in other words, results not from an ideological refusal to acknowledge that the author exists but from a stylistic one. So why is writing style lagging behind intent here?
I consider strict avoidance of first person to be a hypercorrection, the stylistic equivalent of saying, “Rick invited Sandy and I to dinner,” or, “May I ask whom is calling?” Of course, these hypercorrections are grammatical errors, while avoiding first person is a stylistic choice. What they have in common, though, is that the writer learned a rule and has been applying it ever since, even when it shouldn’t apply.
I was in high school when I was taught to write only in third person. When we’re younger, it feels natural to speak and write from our own perspective, to say, “I feel…” this and “For my book report, I read…” that. A text where first person is not kept in check at all can quickly feel informal or even autobiographical. Young students do need to learn how to concentrate their writing on the subject and not on themselves. Moreover, phrases like “I think the author means” bulk up a paper so that a student can hit the assignment’s page count target with less thought. Prohibiting first person is one way teachers can keep a few of these junk phrases from seeping in.
There are good reasons, then, to learn how to avoid first person. It streamlines our thought process and writing style. It concentrates our attention on our subject matter. It breaks us of using first person by habit. This is why I consider avoidance of first person in graduate-level and later academic work as a hypercorrection and not as a mistake: the practice at the root of a hypercorrection is, when done properly, correct.
Then there are the times it’s done poorly. The example I opened this post with is a disguised version of a paragraph from an actual dissertation. The writer’s advisor required third person but also required a section in which the doctoral candidate would explain the personal circumstances that inspired his research. In addition, the same advisor required her advisee to use APA as his style guide, but she might not have been familiar with section 3.09 of APA’s 6th edition, which states:
To avoid ambiguity, use a personal pronoun rather than the third person when describing steps taken in your experiment.
Although this is a very specific use, it’s notable that APA not only invites first person in selected contexts but considers it incorrect for authors to refer to themselves as “the authors.” The APA manual calls it “ambiguous”; I consider it ugly to read. Whatever the reason, there are simply times when first person will be the grammatically more elegant and effective choice.
I acknowledge the importance of teaching young writers third person, but by the time a student is writing her doctoral dissertation, she should be trusted to choose its voice appropriately. As an editor who often works on graduate student documents, I would like to appeal to dissertation advisors to consider how standards have evolved in an expanding number of fields to allow contextually appropriate divergence from the old decree.
It doesn’t have to mean permitting first person unequivocally. Even if you discourage it in the bulk of a paper—the parts focused on literature, results, and conclusions—the writer may sometimes need to refer to herself. Sections on methods, personal experiences that inspired the research, and limitations of the study are all areas in which first person often reads not only more naturally but more professionally as well. The goal should always be to convey knowledge, information, and ideas in a way that will be clear and comprehensible to the reader. Convoluted grammar employed to avoid the word “I” doesn’t serve that end.
Comments are welcome. Does first person have a place in academic and formal writing? Or does it detract from tone in ways I haven't accounted for? Are there other ways editors and writers can address the author's prior actions and direct experience, aside from first person, passive voice, and referring to oneself in the third person?
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.