Monday, January 6, 2014

First Person in Academic Writing

Here's a somewhat nerdy topic -- is it appropriate to write an academic article in the first person?

I just received a "revise and resubmit" from a top journal with an acceptance rate in the single digits -- always a good thing -- but one point the editor made was I'd written in first person and the preference is otherwise. That's an easy fix and, to be honest, as a journalism guy I've never been comfortable writing in the first person, even on a blog, but I'd noted a lot of the journals I read, mostly political science, seem to be edging more toward first person and active voice. So I thought I'd give it a try.

I know certain kinds of research, especially critical/cultural, are often in first person, but the stuff I do, number crunching quantitative stuff known fondly as the dominant paradigm, tends to be in second person. Bad examples below.

Second Person (traditional)

Respondents were asked to identify the top issue facing them personally and the top issue facing the country.

First Person

I asked respondents to identify the top issue facing them personally and the top issue facing the country.

Yes, the second is tighter, but the first is traditional. These are not from my study by the way; I made them up on the fly, and they're not particularly good examples, but you get the idea.

As I said, I'd noticed more and more journals allowing first person. Maybe it works better with "we" and multiple authors, which gives some separation than the dreaded "I" that, frankly, I loathe.  So I have no issue with an editor asking that I shift to second person. That's the easiest of a list of issues to address with the study. Still, it raises the question, a nerdy one I admit, whether we should allow more first-person in our academic writing.

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