The Not-So-Royal We

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.


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"I'm we-ing all over myself"

I thought something smelled funny on the third floor...

The passive voice is so sterile. You did the research, you wrote the paper, go ahead with your I's and We's (if you have coauthors). A lot of old ecology and evolution papers I've read use I and We. Why did scientific society change?

As kids we were schooled to avoid 'I', lest we be look like we had big egos. Instead we should be humble, and therefore all first person was the plural.

This was taught to us by teachers who thought their own opinions were pure gold and more important than anything else on earth.

If that ain't irony, I don't know what is.

I was taught in grad school to use "we". I never quite understood why. Since then, I haven't published anything single-authored except my blog, and there it's always "I". If I get around to writing any more single-author technical papers, I'll definitely write with active-voice "I".

Well apparently the prevalence of we-ing led to comments in the nineteenth century. This can be found in Steven Shapin's review of "The Scientific Literature: A Guided Tour" (ed. J.E. Harmon, A.G. Gross) in this week's Nature. The review's main point is that science uses rhetoric aplenty but of a different kind cf. literature. As for we-ing and the passive voice, Mr. Shapin believes this reflects an aesthetic of discovery for science versus creation for art. With this in mind, I would use "I" for conjecture and the passive voice for results, but, as you imply, we often find what has been written by us to be an unpleasant surprise.

We've no idea why this practice is so prevalent. We always used the singular form back in the days when we wrote astrophysics papers.

Use of the passive voice to me has always seemed to me to be a way of objectifying the data - it doesn't matter who mixed A and B together and got a big bang. The relevant facts are that when A and B are mixed, a bang happens, whoever it is doing the mixing! Thus it seems to me that the passive voice is the most appropriate form to use in scientific writing.

However, the current fashion has turned against the passive, quite likely [i]because[/i] of the perception that it's so stilted and disconnected. Use of "we" achieves much the same end in an active-voiced fashion: making clear that the specifics of who did the experiment is not as important as the results obtained.

In any case, the vast majority of papers are multi-author, and so "we" is the only sensible active voice to use unless you want to specify exactly which author did which bit of the experiments (if that's even possible).

As such, the very fact that most papers are multi-author papers means that use of "I" will stand out that much more... a kind of bragging. "Look, I'm clever enough to write a paper all on my own". This may be why authors avoid "I" even if they're sole authors.

There are other ways round it though - for example, the coy "This reviewer feels that..." in review articles.

By Peter Ellis (not verified) on 16 Aug 2007 #permalink

Very interesting post. I have always wondered about the "we vs. I" usage in only author manuscripts. Years ago, I came across a paper by Douglas Black in Cell, where he was the only author. What really stuck in my mind at the time was that he did not hesitate to use "I" throughout his paper. Not once (if I recall) did he use "we". I remember thinking (admiringly) "This guy is one confident dude".

Black DL.
Activation of c-src neuron-specific splicing by an unusual RNA element in vivo and in vitro.
Cell. 1992 May 29;69(5):795-807.

When I see phrasing like "And so we see that..." in, say, a textbook, it feels like it includes the reader. This is obviously not quite the same as what you're talking about, but perhaps it's related.

I hate it when people write "the present author" or "this author" or "the present reviewer" or suchlike instead of "I". It looks like they're afraid.

Peter Ellis above has a good point, but sometimes the passive is too awkward. I don't like writing "...therefore the data were coded as follows" -- I did take a somewhat subjective decision there, so I should mention myself in order to be honest.

I've seen instances of single-author "we", especially in German, where it is apparently meant to include the author and the reader, and presupposes that the reader always agrees with anything the author might say. Not a good idea either.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 23 Aug 2007 #permalink

Thanks for advertising my paper! Maybe not the best way but still. I thought I may give my comments on this post. If you could read back previous versions of my paper, you would probably see successions of "I" and "We" as I was not sure of which one to choose. Not so easy when you think that this may indeed sounds very pretentious but, on the other hand, you did the work alone! Well, I chose the "We". But we can probably change the habits. Why don't you start?
Hope this is not going to be a problem for me anymore in the future though as I don't want to continue doing all those exps on my own! Anyone interested in joining a growing group..???
Anabelle, from this little kingdom called Belgium...

By the way, no tapeworm that I am aware of.. bad explanation.

By Anabelle Decot… (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

Anabelle sorry for calling you out like that. I really did grab the 1st single author paper I could find. Good luck with your research.

This is N.O.T a canvassing or business thing, Please make yourself introduced to the ASSOCIATION Généalogique des DECOTTIGNIES et Alliés et participez à la recherche de nos ancêtres DECOTTIGNIES à Wasquehal Nord FR

By Jean-Claude DE… (not verified) on 20 Jan 2009 #permalink