The three scientific we’s

I am a grammatical pedant. Therefore, for the record, here is the definitive style guide to using “we” in your scientific writing.

There are three different common uses of “we”. Only one of them is evil. Writers on this subject do not usually distinguish them properly, so the discussion often gets horribly confused. I don’t know the correct grammatical terminology (I’m not that much of a pedant), so I’ll just make up my own.

  • “We” used correctly as a pronoun: If there is more than one author on the paper and you are describing something that you actually did as a group, then this is an unambiguously correct usage of “we”.

    “We placed the beaker on the tripod and turned on the bunsen burner.”

    “We ran a numerical optimization algorithm to generate the data in fig. 1.”

    I don’t think there is any problem with this usage of we. If you want to eliminate it then you have to write in the past passive tense, e.g. “The beaker was placed on the bunsen burner and the tripod was turned on.” This might be what you were told to do in high school, but it just makes the text sound cumbersome and boring. Modern style guides do not recommend this any more. The era of past passive tyranny is long gone and I say good riddance!

  • The Royal “we”: There is only one author of the paper and you are describing something that you actually did. The examples are exactly the same as in the previous case.

    I’m not a big fan of this sort of “we”, as it makes you sound like Queen Victoria. Personally, I make a point to use “I” in this context. It sounds funny to me, but a lot of people do it and it is not a very big deal.

  • “We” as in “you and I, dear reader”:

    “In section 20, we show that quantum theory is even weirder than we thought before”

    “Substituting eq. (5) into eq. (4), we see that Newton’s second law is obtained.”

    “If we plot luminosity against distance from the Earth, we obtain fig. 3.”

    This is the evil “we” and should be eliminated at all costs. Eliminating them does not make your writing sound more passive. In fact, the opposite is true because it usually forces you to bring the object to the beginning of the sentence. Most people, including myself, use a lot of “dearest reader we’s” when writing a first draft. OK, maybe it’s not a big crime to let one slip occasionally, but in general I think it is a sign of lazy writing. You will find your sentences shorter, punchier and more direct if you eliminate them completely. In case you don’t believe me yet, here are the de-“we”d examples:

    “Section 20 shows that quantum theory is even weirder than previously thought.”

    “Newton’s second law is obtained from substituting eq. (5) into eq. (4).”

    “Fig. 3 shows a plot of luminosity against distance from the Earth.”

You may be thinking that this post is rather aggressive. If so, I apologize. My Ph.D. thesis advisor made me remove every single “we” from every paper I wrote with him, so I still have some scars from that process.

WARNING: Do not write a comment unless you have understood the distinction between the three uses of “we” described above.

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