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"We" and "I" in a technical paper
Thread poster: John Jory

John Jory  Identity Verified
Germany
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Member (2004)
English to German
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Nov 28, 2008

A client of mine (university professor) has written a technical paper on tests carried out on turbochargers. He has used the first person (we, I).

However, a reviewer has now claimed that using the first person in such a paper is "not the correct style" and insists on the use of the third person ("the author").

Are there any rules on this matter?

For example, Matt Young in "The Technical Writer's Handbook" recommends the first person.


I would very much appreciate comments from colleagues.

Thanks and regards,

John


[Edited at 2008-11-28 10:47 GMT]


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Marie-Hélène Hayles  Identity Verified
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I'd say the reviewer is right, but... Nov 28, 2008

In general, use of the first person is avoided in academic technical and scientific writing. Certainly in my field (medical), the practice is to use "the author"/"the authors".

It seems strange though that your professor isn't already aware of this, if it's also general practice in his field.

I'd also add that I try to avoid the use of active voices in this type of writing as much as possible - I wouldn't normally say, for example, "the authors selected 25 patients", but "25 patients were selected". I'd refer to the authors directly only in the discussion and conclusions, e.g. "in the authors' opinion".

This does of course depend on the target audience, but I'd imagine your professor's paper is for publication in an scientific journal where these guidelines generally apply. I certainly don't recall seeing anyone using the first person in medical journals - I'd imagine that the author you refer to was talking about popular technical writing.


[Edited] Actually thinking about it a bit more, I'd have no problem in using "we" in the discussion and conclusions, either. I'd say "our results confirm Smith's study of ...." (although "these results" would also be fine, of course), or "we consider Jones' conclusions to be...".

Basically it depends on the context. If you describe the whole study using the active voice ("we cast the widget, then we polished the dongle, then we connected the widget to the dongle"), it's going to come over as distinctly odd. But its use in the right places is fine.


[Edited at 2008-11-28 11:03 GMT]


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xxxLia Fail  Identity Verified
Spain
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Get a sample of the journal Nov 28, 2008

John Jory wrote:

However, a reviewer has now claimed that using the first person in such a paper is "not the correct style" and insists on the use of the third person ("the author").




It may be house style. Find out where the article is to be published, go to the website, and download a few copies (a sample is isually at least available), and also look for the Instructions for Authors.


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Ken Cox  Identity Verified
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with Marie-Hélène and Lia Nov 28, 2008

Although I agree in principle with Marie-Hélène, I agree in practice with Lia: journals typically have specific style preferences, and these should be respected.

Also, writing for a journal, especially an academic journal, is not necessarily the same as technical writing. 'Technical writing' encompasses things such as technical specifications, user guides, design documentation, etc. Most of the material on this subject is aimed at a North American (or more specifically US) audience and/or written in that context, and it reflects what is regarded as good style in that context.

[Edited at 2008-11-28 11:56 GMT]

[Edited at 2008-11-28 11:57 GMT]


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Marie-Hélène Hayles  Identity Verified
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Also agree Nov 28, 2008

Ken Cox wrote:

Although I agree in principle with Marie-Hélène, I agree in practice with Lea: journals typically have specific style preferences, and these should be respected.



Yes, absolutely - it crossed my mind too, but clearly not for long enough for me to get it down in writing!


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Mervyn Henderson  Identity Verified
Spain
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Sitting on the fence Nov 28, 2008

Hello John,

As Marie-Hélène said, the 3rd person is what they usually want, and I was pulled up on this myself a few years ago when I hadn't yet done many of them, because my text was full of "we"s. Not always so easy to avoid, though.

But as Ailish says (and she is a prolific article-writer herself), it all depends where it's going and what's correct for them. If your article is going to strike a stark contrast with other articles around it, better to standardise it.

They'll appreciate your concern, at any rate, so just find out.


Mervyn


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Tina Vonhof  Identity Verified
Canada
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Dutch to English
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Old vs. new Nov 28, 2008

It used to be a no-no to use first person in scientific writing, which resulted in some pretty awkward sentences. Many journals now allow it in describing the procedures and results of a study. Your friend should follow the authors' guidelines of the journal in question.

Note added - Here is what the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association has to say about it:

"Inappropriately or illogically attributing action in an effort to be objective can be misleading."
They give several examples, including:

Third Person - Writing "The experimenters instructed the participants" when "the experimenters" refers to yourself is ambiguous and may give the impression that you did not participate in your own study. Instead, use a personal pronoun: "We instructed the participants."

Editorial We - For clarity, restrict your use of 'we' to refer only to yourself and your coauthors (use 'I' if you are the sole author of the paper).

Passive Voice - Verbs are vigorous, direct communicators. Use the active rather than the passive voice....

Poor: The survey was conducted in a controlled setting.
Better: We conducted the survey in a controlled setting.






[Edited at 2008-11-29 00:08 GMT]


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John Jory  Identity Verified
Germany
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TOPIC STARTER
Thanks to all Dec 1, 2008

for your comments and suggestions.

I mailed the link for this discussion to my client, who answered as follows (my translation of his reply in German):

"Thank you, John,

that was a very helpful operation. And the last posting finally confirmed what Matt Young wrote in his "Technical Writer's Handbook" in 1989, namely to use the first person and the active form.
The references to the Author's Guide of the respective journals - at least in the technical/scientific field - are not so helpful. None of the journals deals with this issue, and my research in two different magazines showed that the authors use all forms (first, third, and no person) which makes me assume that the editors are very tolerant in this respect. Except for this reviewer ...

Best regards, and a stress-free advent time!"

- - - - - - - - -

Once again, my thanks to you all, and the best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

John


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Elisabeth Moser  Identity Verified
United States
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it all depends Dec 5, 2008

I translate a rather large amount of research papers. Personally, I prefer the first person and active style (also technical manuals are easier to read and understand, if they would be written that way).

I have various new books on the subject and advise my clients at least to be consistent, in other words either stick to the I and we etc. or stick to the traditional passive constructed phrases. The other advice is to check with the publication to which they submit the text.

Even though, there is a difference between APA and MLA styles (writing, documentation, quoting sources, etc.), some publications have their own criteria.

Good luck,
Lis


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Sébastien Ricciardi  Identity Verified
France
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English to French
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"I"-> never , we" -> use as little as possible, favour passive constructions Dec 11, 2008

I have written about 10 scientific papers myself and this is how it works, I disagree with it but this is so.

From Elisabeth Moser:
Personally, I prefer the first person and active style (also technical manuals are easier to read and understand, if they would be written that way).

I totally agree, I tend to believe that in order to look serious journals favour more snobbish style


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Dina Abdramanova
Kazakhstan
Local time: 04:30
English to Kazakh
You in a technical paper Jan 8, 2009

Dear All, could you please tell some words about "You", when it is translated into Kazakh, it causes confusion. Does ayone else, in any language have difficulty while translating YOU in technical paper? Thanks

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Fabio Descalzi  Identity Verified
Uruguay
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German to Spanish
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A suggestion Jan 9, 2009

Abdramanova wrote:
Dear All, could you please tell some words about "You", when it is translated into Kazakh, it causes confusion. Does ayone else, in any language have difficulty while translating YOU in technical paper? Thanks

Hi Abdramanova
Thanks for posting at this forum. But I think you will have better luck if you post at the language-specific Kazakh forum, http://www.proz.com/forum/553
Best regards,
Fabio


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