There Is an "I" in Academic Writing
Monday, September 19, 2011 APA
By Annie Pezalla, Dissertation Editor
Many students who see us in the Writing Center worry about using first person in their writing. They’ve been trained into “I-less-ness” through their previous classes or in their work with other instructors who have told them that using "I" will make their paper sound weak or subjective. Instead of writing, for example, that “I conducted interviews with participants,” students are told to write, “interviews were conducted with participants”—thereby removing the "I" from the phrase. And they’ve had good reason to practice this stance. Scholarly writing is generally about emphasizing the findings from empirical research, not the person (or people) who conducted the analyses or discovered those findings. Less emphasis, then, has traditionally been given to the "I" in scholarly writing.
But times they are a-changin’. There’s been a growing movement in social science research for greater transparency in our actions as researchers. This movement has been tied to a thing called the “observer effect,” which speaks to the power of our actions on the research findings we generate. This movement has also been linked to the importance of owning our actions for ethical reasons. This stance makes a lot of sense. I mean, is it really honest to act like “interviews were conducted” by some invisible being? Are we being ethical if we fail to disclose our actions in recruiting, interacting with, and compensating participants? Not really.
To present your research in the most transparent way, Walden University and the 6th edition of the APA manual (p. 69) recommend the use of first person in scholarly writing: I collected the data, I conducted analyses, I sought Institutional Review Board approval, and so on. First person voice usually provides the most concise and precise way of describing research processes, findings, and implications. It’s a lot more precise, for example, to write that “I scheduled a meeting with each consenting participant to discuss the study,” rather than “Meetings were scheduled with each consenting participant to discuss the study.” The latter phrase is convoluted, and leaves the reader wondering, “Who scheduled the meetings?” and “Who discussed the study?” The use of first person can limit those questions.
Of course, it should be said that first person should be used wisely. "I" should not appear in every sentence of your manuscript. “I did this” and “I did that” can sound forced and narcissistic. “I” should also not be used to express an opinion about the worth of other scholars' findings (e.g., “I thought this study was boring”). Instead, “I” should only appear in places where anthropomorphic writing might appear (e.g., instead of writing, “This chapter will explain…” write “In this chapter, I will explain…”) and where your presence is as equally important as is the content you are presenting (e.g., when describing the potential impact of your presence on the collection and interpretation of your findings). In any other context of your paper—such as when you are presenting the findings from past literature—“I-less-ness” should generally be practiced.