Using the First Person?

Can I use “I” or “we” in academic writing?
There is much controversy about whether the first person pronouns (“I”, “we”) and the corresponding possessive pronouns (“my”, “our”) should be used in academic writing. Traditionally students have been told not to use those pronouns, as academic writing should be based on research from a variety sources, which are later presented in an objective and factual way.

The use of the first person may imply that little –if any- research has been carried out and that no other viewpoint but the writer’s is presented. The use of the first person may also involve writing that is less objective and favours emotions and self-centred experiences.

These days most academics tend to be more flexible about the use of the first person. However, you should check with your instructors what they prefer as there are no hard and fast rules about it. In fact, the use/absence of the first person depends to a certain extent on your field of studies and your Faculty’s position about it.

“Tell me about it”, “Give your opinion about this topic”
Although you will often find the words above when you have to discuss an issue, it does not mean you only have to include your opinions. Actually, “State your opinion” and other similar formulae are another way to indicate that you still have to do some research, present your findings and take sides if it is an argumentative piece of writing. It does not mean you are only going to write about your views on an issue.

In fact, the author’s presence in understood in the text and stepping back will allow the text speak for itself. Academic writing that uses the first person insistently turns out to be repetitive and implies a too limited approach to an issue, whereas a wider scope of research is key in academic writing.

What can I use instead of “I” or “we”?
You can alternate the use of first person pronous with the use of passive constructions and other impersonal structures in the language. Make sure that you know how to make passive constructions in English and that you use the passive is used correctly. The incorrect use of the passive may result in artificial sentences that are difficult to understand.
Use the first person when …
… you feel it is really necessary in your writing, helps to emphasize a point or shows your contribution to an issue. You should judge if the first person is the most appropriate form for the information you are trying to present and whether there are other structures in the language that help you achieve the same effect without being too personal.

As a general rule, do not overuse the first person. Try to use passive forms and other neutral structures in the language that will focus on the achievement rather than on the actor of the action, that’s you. Overusing the first person pronoun might give a too personal, even conversational touch, to your writing that could lead the reader to think you have not done any research and your writing is not very academic.