Avoidance of the first person in academic writing can serve to keep your readers’ focus on what matters: the findings. In other words, removing I removes the “youness” that may give readers an impression of subjectivity or distract attention away from the research. This is just one of a laundry list of reasons you might avoid the first person. Perhaps instead you’re drawn to the distance it affords (see On I: Part 1). Maybe “I” is forbidden by your dissertation committee, or it may simply disagree with your writing style.
Whatever the reason, both novice and seasoned writers choose to report their research through more impersonal prose. The trouble is, research is personal. You’ve been driven toward the subject by passion or interest. You’ve spent hours deliberating your approach, collecting the data, and analyzing and interpreting it. So how do you tuck away the inevitable intimacy of it all?
Alternatives to the First Person
A skilled writer can cleverly hide herself behind careful syntax and deliberated word choices, making it seem nearly as if the research conducted itself. Countless writers masterfully construct their manuscripts this way. Let’s consider some alternatives to the first person in academic writing:
Grammatical Subjects that Embody the Intended Focus
Words like this study, this project, the analysis, the evidence, the findings, the report, and this section can shift the focus off the writer and onto the study as demonstrated by Flowerdew and Wang (2016, p. 42):
This present case study incorporates both qualitative (in terms of a reflective account of editing) and quantitative (in terms of systematic analysis of a corpus of revision changes), with the hope of taking advantage of both types of approach.
There isn’t an I (or we) in sight. The authors describe what the case study incorporates rather than describing what they incorporated into their case study.
The Dummy Subject (The Expletive “It”)
Let’s consider a second option by looking again to our textual mentor, Flowerdew and Wang (2016; p. 42):
Since the data collected for this study come from manuscripts that were edited by the author’s editor, it is useful to describe briefly how he interacted with the original authors while trying to improve their manuscripts.
Here, instead of using metalanguage referring to themselves, such as we will describe, the authors used an it-phrase (i.e., it is useful) that renders this unnecessary in addition to providing a justification for the inclusion of the subject’s interactions. (Also note the use of the data as a subject of the verb come instead of we collected data.)
Compare personal language like we disagree with Rozycki and Johnson or we don’t believe that journal editors can judge with the it-phrases that Flowerdew and Wang (2016, p. 50) opted for below:
Therefore, it is premature to argue, as Rozcki and Johnson (2013, p. 166) did their paper, that it might be necessary for EAL authors to pay so much attention as they do now to grammatical issues or pay for editing services unless the journal editors or reviewers specifically make such requests.
From the perspective of journal editors, this means that it is impossible to objectively judge if a manuscript is intelligible or not.
The Passive Voice
The passive voice is a touchy subject that most committees and writing guides have an opinion about, but it is often cited as a legitimate means to avoiding the first person because it bypasses the mention of any actor at all.
Sticking with the same textual mentor, I found the following exemplary alternatives to potential (and successfully avoided) first-person phrases we placed and we loaded (p. 43):
Original sentences and revised sentences were placed into adjacent cells for comparison. Each pair of sentences was then loaded onto MaxQDA, a qualitative data analysis software tool.
The Third Person: The Researcher or the Author
The following example of this approach, taken from the same textual mentor (Flowerdew & Wang, 2016, p. 44), combines the use of the authors (in place of the first person) and the passive voice to keep the readers’ focus on the data treatment:
Revision changes of one research article (J01) were coded together by the two co-authors and an undergraduate research assistant (RA) to help the RA become familiar with the coding system.
But must you really avoid the first person in academic writing?
Despite warnings against the use of the first person in articles with open-and-shut titles like Writing No-No #1: Never Use 1st or 2nd Person, there are arguments against the need to hide yourself behind a veil of anonymity and objectivity as you report your research.
My presentation of our textual mentor (Flowerdew and Wong, 2016) has been a bit misleading up until this point because the authors do in fact use the first person in their published academic article (p. 43):
When analyzing the data, we were particularly interested in developing a taxonomy that can systematically describe the revision changes, taking into account the research insights from previous studies.
GASP! Not only did they use the first person, but they’re explicitly referring to their interests! Here’s a second instance (p. 49):
In this discussion section, we will respond to the three research questions posed earlier in the article.
These published researchers shamelessly bring themselves into the picture. And why not?
In my next article on the first person, I’ll make a case for revealing yourself in your writing for the sake of ownership and in the name of style. Yes, I’m talking about my about academic writing, and I just said style.
Coming Soon: On I, Part 3: Why You Should Write Your Dissertation in the First Person
Flowerdew, J. & Wang, S. H. (2016). Author’s editor revisions to manuscripts published in international journals. Journal of Second Language Writing, 32, 39-52.
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