For many novice academic writers, the decision of whether to use first-person or third-person voice is determined by several factors. First and third-person refers to the point of view the author adopts, where first-person uses the singular and plural pronouns “I,” “we,” “me,” and “us,” as in “I argue that,” and third-person uses “she,” “he,” “it,” or “they.” Often times, academic writers will identify the subject in the third-person, as in “Stone argues that,” or “The researchers suggest.” While these pronoun and subject uses are most common, there are also what we might call “stand-ins” in the third-person, where an inanimate “thing” stands in for the subject of the sentence, as in “This paper argues that,” or “The researcher suggests.” Second-person, which should rarely be used in academic writing, uses the pronoun “you.”
To begin, as a student, the professor’s desires should be of primary consideration. After all, successfully completing a paper is your primary goal. Second, whether to use first or third person can be determined by the discipline in which you’re writing, as well. Relative to this, which voice to use is ultimately determined by the shared philosophy of what knowledge is and how it’s created in the discipline. This is what is known as epistemology: the study of knowledge, how it’s created, and how we know what we know. Domains of knowledge are constructed by those who participate in and contribute to that domain; they are dynamic and changing, never static. We will look at each of these differing ideas about the use of first- and third-person voice in academic writing so that you can get a better idea of why you are expected to use one in some cases and not in others.
Pronoun use is a rhetorical element of writing, not just a simple matter of word choice. When we use “I” in our writing, we make our self the focus. In many disciplines, this is considered to be a good thing. However, for some disciplines, especially those that consider their work to be “objective,” using the first person is seen as weakening the argument by making it seem subjective. For scholars in such disciplines, using the first person makes the argument seem opinionated, rather than objective.
Ultimately, most professors who approve of using the first person agree that its use is effective only if the student knows how to use it properly. Some professors who generally like the use of the first person suggest students avoid it when it weakens an argumentative claim—for example, “I feel that [insert argument here]” or “In my opinion, [insert argument here].” Getting rid of “I feel” makes the argument more concise and less redundant. Also, it makes it feel less like the student is taking a shot at asserting an argument and doesn’t know what s/he’s talking about. That student “feels” like s/he is right; s/he doesn’t “know.” Many professors agree that this use of first person weakens a student’s argument and makes the writing sound more like a personal response or journal entry. Importantly, for some professors, seeing too much first person indicates that the student might be the only source of knowledge consulted for the paper, which is a real problem for a research paper.
Many writers will find themselves in a writing situation where avoiding the first person is almost impossible. For example, if you are relaying anecdotes that involve you, making direct observations, or are involved in a teacher research study, etc., it would be nearly impossible to avoid the first person without sounding convoluted and stilted. Also, in some areas of research, it is ethically imperative to acknowledge how who you are shapes what you perceive and know. For example, some disciplines, such as anthropology, do empirical research but emphasize recognition and examination of one’s own subjectivity and how that shapes what we value, believe, and perceive.
This gets us to a discussion of the third person and when it is deemed imperative. As mentioned above, whether to use the first or third person is largely a matter of disciplinary convention. Reading journal articles in your major area of study will help give you an idea of whether researchers in your discipline prefer the first or third person, or both. Earlier I mentioned “epistemology.” Different disciplines operate according to different epistemic models. Disciplines that value third-person writing, such as medicine, engineering, philosophy, the hard sciences, etc., believe that removing the “I” removes subjectivity, therefore making the claim that follows more objective and factual.
Even for these disciplines that favor third-person objective pronoun usage, times are changing. Scientists once needed to assert that their observations, not them, were made more powerful when aligned with other observations. The research was meant to speak for itself, not the researcher. Today, the scientific community is becoming more comfortable with acknowledging the subjective role of the researcher. This epistemic shift shows that “rules” regarding the use of the first and third person are not really rules at all but are characteristics of specific sorts of writing. As with most things, they change.
When faced with the decision to use the first or third person, you ultimately are in a rhetorical situation. The genre in which you are writing, as well as the conventions of your discipline, should help you make your decision. Also, examples from published articles in your field will serve as good models for how and when to use the first or third person. Most importantly, consult the professor for whom you are writing, as each of us has a different stance on this issue.