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Academic We

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There's this strange tendency in academic texts for authors to refer to themselves as 'we'. Of course this is perfectly justified by grammar in the case of co-authored papers or books.

However, it does seem a bit strange when single authors write We are going to show.... Judging from the behaviour scientists in general and mathematicians in particular exhibit otherwise, I tend to think that this isn't just an ego-bolstering use of pluralis majestatis. But what is it then?

An attempt to use the active mode rather than restricting themselves to the lifeless It can be shown... while being modest enough to avoid the word 'I', perhaps? That might be a theory.

Another theory about this, one that I favour recently, is a bit different, though: If the written papers are considered as the same kind of narrative as talks are, they actually address the audience and take them through the discussion. This is a journey that the author does together with the audience, thus saying we just proved....

At least that's what I think whenever I am tempted to write 'we'. It makes perfect sense in that situation. Looking at it from the reader's perspective, it is perfectly strange, though – even with the above reasoning in mind. Odd.

April 23, 2004, 1:45


Comment by gummi: User icon

This must be a running thought with academics, because I’ve had this discussion with some folks about the same ideas.

I didn’t think too much about the ‘we’ stuff because my previous work has always been in a collaboration, either with a group of people or with just myself and my boss.

Recently, I really hit a block in my writing. I had to submit an application detailing my work and contributions. I used ‘we’ throughout and when I received some critical comments there was always some stuff about the use of ‘we’. So I switched to ‘I’, and reading it back it seemed so strange. And selling myself with my science is just a bizarre thing, I hate it.

I like the idea you put forward, taking the audience with you as the ‘we’. In the end, when I talk about my own stuff I use the ‘we’ and in my mind I translate it as, “yes, it’s me alone doing this but it’s for the knowledge base of humanity (for want of a better word). And I’m really not alone, because Nature/Reality is my partner in this work — it already has the answer and I’m trying to coax it out”. It’s a bit corny and idealistic, but I think it’s true.

April 23, 2004, 12:31

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