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”.
    Examples:

    “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”:
    Examples:

    “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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The three scientific we’s by Matthew Leifer, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

11 Responses to The three scientific we’s

  1. Good post!

    I’m all for the royal “we”. The first person in scientific papers has always sounded weirdly arrogant to me.

    I disagree with one of your examples though – “In section 20, we show ..” – there’s no “dear reader” there is there? (Or have I just failed….)

    I had the opposite experience to you by the way – I had to take the “we’s” (many hundreds of them!) out of my thesis…

  2. I’m all for the royal “we”. The first person in scientific papers has always sounded weirdly arrogant to me.

    I suppose “I” could come across as a bit arrogant, but if you think about it you wouldn’t use “we” in this way in any other type of writing, so what is so special about a paper? It cuts both ways. Queen Victoria could use the royal “we” because she was talking about herself as a representative of the British people. According to her usage, in some weird way she actually was the British people. I wonder what the royal “we” is supposed to represent in scientific papers. “We” the scientific community perhaps? If so, it strikes me as slightly arrogant to think you can speak on behalf of the entire community, particularly if you are writing an argumentative quantum foundations paper that 90% of the physics community would disagree with as is occasionally true in my case.

    I disagree with one of your examples though – “In section 20, we show ..” – there’s no “dear reader” there is there? (Or have I just failed….)

    You are right. That’s what happens when you try to write a blog post after spending the whole afternoon de-“we”ing a paper. I guess there should be a fourth category of non-“dear reader” present tense “we”s. Note that the examples of unambiguously correct “we”s are all past tense.

    I guess I am generally against this sort of present-tense “we” as well, at least if it is possible to get to the punchline more quickly without it. However, unlike the “dear reader” ones, I don’t think they can always be avoided. In the body of the paper you can make the sort of change I suggested, but in the abstract you wouldn’t be able to because you have no “section 20″ to set the context. You’d have to keep saying things like “this paper shows”, which is less snappy than “we show”. Well, at least that diffuses my arrogant overconfidence on this issue a little.

    I had the opposite experience to you by the way – I had to take the “we’s” (many hundreds of them!) out of my thesis…

    Now I am really troubled. There must be an alternative meaning for opposite that means “the same” that I do not know about. :)

  3. Is suppose that in my field of research, single author papers are so uncommon that the use of “I” really stands out.

    It simply seems strange to me use a different grammar for single author papers – even if doing so is both more honest and more grammatically correct…!

    I wonder what the convention is in, say, philosophy, where single author works are common and grammatical precision is valued.

  4. Regarding the royal we:

    Dear Matthew,

    We do not agree.

    I do not mean by this that you and I do not agree with each other, although that may also be the case.

    Best regards,

    Howard

  5. I will comment even though I still struggle to understand the distinction between the three uses of “we.” In your de-“we”d example: “Section 20 shows that quantum theory is even weirder than previously thought,” I don’t agree that a Section can show anything. Shouldn’t this be written: “We show in Section 20 that quantum theory is even weirder than previously thought.” Or “I show …” if it is a single author paper.

  6. Sorry, I see now my comment was made previously. Maybe you should just correct your article for future readers (are you allowed to correct blogs?). It is one of the top hits on Google when searching for the correct use of pronouns in scientific papers, and one of the only clear statements on this topic.

  7. here is a comment i got today from one of my supervisors on an abstract i am submitting on a systematic review i did months ago:

    …’I don’t like the use of ‘we’ in scientific work. ‘This study’ or ‘the research team’ (I’m sure you get the gist) I think read better….’

    in this case, i was able to easily adjust just because i don’t care enough in this instance. i am rarely convinced of not doing something because someone doesn’t ‘like it’….

    i like current writing styles and the way english is moving. i like there is a growing list of words considered redundant (because they should be) like ‘whilst’…and i want the science fields to hurry up and recognise these changes. old skool style really does shut people out. i don’t expect things to move to FB SU-esque musings like ‘@JB’s group found a difference, but we didn’t find ne difference. lol.’

    when we do critical analysis with the students, they just think they are dumb if they can’t understand what the researchers did, how they did it, and what they found out. it is usually because the research is POORLY reported (oh hey caps lock does work) rather than the students being dumb. those days of complex reporting are over, and fly in the face of everything science is meant to be about – reporting on findings in a way that anyone could pick up that paper and do the same experiment (and hopefully get the same results).

    i keep papers that speak to me and refer back to them as ‘recipes of writing’. i will often open with ‘We set out to…..’ and then at the end finish with ‘We set out to find out x….and what we found out was….’ i get poles apart comments from reviewers usually of ‘this is the best thing i have ever read’ versus ‘good grammar is good manners and i want you to replace ‘we’ and put in a zillion ‘that’/s otherwise i can not accept your paper….’

  8. I like ‘whilst’. I think there is a difference between UK and US English s to whether it is considered archaic.

  9. ‘whilst’ are you serious! do you use the word ‘whilst’ when talking with colleagues?

    i think we just broke up.

  10. monsieurrigsby

    Rather late to the party but… :-)

    (i) I’m not sure your examples for the ‘evil we’ are all ‘created equal’. IMO, the more ‘useful’ use of the now-not-so-evil ‘we’ is when you are ‘folding’ the reader into the argument, especially when justifying some methodology.

    e.g., ‘We would like a process where….’ (though it’s sometimes hard to see whether this means that just the authors would like it) or ‘we can see, due to the form of equation 4, that…’. Especially in the second case, it’s inviting the reader to look at the equation and come to the same conclusion that you present (rather than just telling them the conclusion). Of course there’s still an implicit invitation if you don’t use the ‘we’, but this more explicitly speaks to the reader.

    There are other variants such as ‘Let us consider….’. Ultimately though, the use of this ‘reader inclusion’ in papers is a stylistic and cultural thing, often strongly influenced by discipline. I recently read a nice linguistics paper on the subject that was trying to look at how disciplinary cultures are reflected in writing style. See here:
    http://www.hf.uib.no/forskerskole/FlottumKinnDahl.pdf

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

    As pointed out in earlier comments, only the second ‘we’ is the evil one. In this case, it’s not really inviting the reader to think about and ‘join in’ your argument: it’s just saying that people generally think quantum physics is weird. (This is only borderline ‘lazy’.) It’s also awkward because it has two different meanings of ‘we’ in the same sentence, so you’d want to change it just on those grounds.

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

    This is reasonably OK, since it’s inviting the reader to see the connection themselves, rather than just telling them.

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

    This is very artificial, since it’s explaining how one would construct a figure. Normally the figure caption would explain any subtleties about what it represented, and you would just talk about what it shows; e.g., ‘Figure 3 shows that, as we move away from Earth, luminosity decreases almost exponentially.’ Oops, caught myself using the inclusive we there :-)

    It’s certainly all quite subtle and subjective though. (I started this comment with more confidence than I finish it!)

    (ii) I liked mv’s first comment, but I think he/she is wilfully ignoring the subjectivity of what ‘current English practice’ is regarded as. As a case in point, I found the lack of sentence capitalisation in his/her posts painful to read (especially since the English was very good otherwise), and wouldn’t consider that ‘current practice’ in any meaningful sense (even in Internet posts).

    Plus there are *significant* differences between UK and US English ‘current practice’. Matt is correct on ‘whilst': it’s not at all archaic in written UK English, and wouldn’t raise many people’s eyebrows in spoken UK English. Plus ‘we just broke up’ is also a strong Americanism; cf. ‘we just split up’ in UK English.

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