Finally, using a series of related MMEJ substrates, we investigated the inhibitory effect of Pku70 on fission yeast MMEJ unraveled in this study and the impact of both length and position of the microhomologous region on MMEJ efficiency.
That quote comes at the end of the introduction of this paper entitled “Microhomology-Mediated End Joining in Fission Yeast Is Repressed by Pku70 and Relies on Genes Involved in Homologous Recombination” by Anabelle Decottignies. It’s unremarkable as far as passages from scientific papers go, but I chose it for a reason. The paper from which the quote is taken contains a single author, yet that author writes “we investigated” rather than “I investigated”. The rest of the paper is written in the passive voice — the words “I” and “we” do not turn up again except in the acknowledgments, where the author refers to herself as “I”.
I didn’t pick this paper over the many others that exhibit the same phenomenon for any reason other than it was the first one I found after less than five minutes of searching. I visited the webpage of the journal Genetics, found a single author publication, and searched for the words “I” and “we”. My findings confirmed my suspicion that this single author would refer to herself as “we”. But why do
we people carry out such an odd practice?
I’ve heard speculation that using the first person plural helps deflect blame (I think this article makes that point, but I don’t have access to it), much like the passive voice (as some people claim). By not attributing a claim or action to an individual the retribution for potential mistakes may not be directed at the individual responsible for them. Does this hold for academic publications? Do we unconsciously refer to ourselves as “we” rather than “I” even if we worked alone? If you scour the archives of this blog, you’ll find plenty of examples of me referring to myself as “we”, but they were intentional acts of ironic pomposity (I swear . . . honestly).
The reason I bring this up is that I’m writing up a manuscript (and, yes, this post is pure procrastination), and I’m we-ing all over myself. In it’s current incarnation, this manuscript contains a single author, me. Yet, despite the fact that I did the work, I keep writing about the stuff that we did. One reason for this is because of the history of this manuscript; in it’s original incarnation it contained multiple authors, and many of the we’s are remnants of that previous version. But I have added we’s since it became a single author work, despite knowing better. It’s like there’s this conflict between avoiding the passive voice and avoiding we-ing the manuscript.
Anyway, what do the people of the internets think? Should I we away? Should I be myself, the one and only I? Should I, god forbid, devolve into a passive voice machine? There is a fair bit of the passive voice in the manuscript — mostly as a cheap way to mix up the syntax — but I can’t see myself writing the entire thing in the passive voice.