Use of the first person in academic writing


If you google “Use of the first person in academic writing” you get a variety of opinions. Some sites give advice on how to avoid “I”, others speak of the fallacy that “I” should be avoided. Here are examples from both sides:


Characteristics of academic writing include a formal tone, use of the third-person rather than first-person perspective, clear focus on the issue or topic rather than the author’s opinion, and precise word choice. Writers employing the formal academic style avoid jargon, slang, and abbreviations.


First person has an important place—an irreplaceable place—in texts that report research and engage scholarship. Your choices about where you place yourself as subject are largely determined by context and the conventions of the field in which you’re writing. The key is making sure that your choices are appropriate for the context of your paper—whom you’re writing it for, and the kind of information it’s meant to communicate.


Note that the first quote doesn’t condemn the first person – it condemns the first person perpective. More on that below.

 - I recommend reading the second article closely. Another good paper is


Many Icelandic writers are still terrified of the first person:



But is the first person really outlawed in academic writing? Surely not.  What is to be avoided is intrusion of the writer’s personal preferences into the writing. The operative word here is intrusion. Consider these two examples:



The first sentence is an objective statement about your beliefs and where they came from; the second is chat over a coffee-table. The key question is not whether to use “I” or not, but whether your identity as the writer of the paper needs to enter the scene. If you are dealing with your own research, you need to label it clearly as your own. “My findings in this survey were that …”. This is quite different from “After thinking about this problem from some time, I decided to interview …,” where you are giving biographical details about how you personally came to deal with the subject matter. To be completely objective on that account, you need to start with the birth of your grandmother.


So: if (or more likely, when) you are yourself present in your argumentation, call yourself “I” rather than some ludicrous circumlocution such as “the present writer”. But first ask whether you should be there or not.


And remember the lady who answered the question "Who baked this magnificent cake?" with the words "Það var ég - ef mig skyldi kalla." I think this comes from Þráinn Bertelsson.


Pétur, 28.10.2011