Writing in the first person, or using I and we pronouns, has traditionally been frowned upon in academic writing. But despite this long-standing norm, writing in the first person isn’t actually prohibited. In fact, it’s becoming more acceptable – even in research papers.
If you’re wondering whether you can use I (or we) in your research paper, you should check with your institution first and foremost. Many schools have rules regarding first-person use. If it’s up to you, though, we still recommend some guidelines. Check out our tips below!
When Is It Most Acceptable to Write in the First Person?
Certain sections of your paper are more conducive to writing in the first person. Typically, the first person makes sense in the abstract, introduction, discussion, and conclusion sections. You should still limit your use of I and we, though, or your essay may start to sound like a personal narrative.
Using first-person pronouns is most useful and acceptable in the following circumstances.
When doing so removes the passive voice and adds flow
Sometimes, writers have to bend over backward just to avoid using the first person, often producing clunky sentences and a lot of passive voice constructions. The first person can remedy this. For example:
The study involved 30 participants, who were selected randomly.
We randomly selected 30 participants for the study.
Both sentences are fine, but the second one flows better and is easier to read.
When doing so differentiates between your research and other literature
When discussing literature from other researchers and authors, you might be comparing it with your own findings or hypotheses. Using the first person can help clarify that you are engaging in such a comparison. For example:
Miller’s (2022) study revealed that families are spending 50% more on groceries than they spent in the previous year. The authors’ findings align with this observation.
Miller’s (2022) study revealed that families are spending 50% more on groceries than they spent in the previous year. Our findings align with this observation.
In the first sentence, using “the author” to avoid the first person creates ambiguity. The second sentence prevents misinterpretation.
When doing so allows you to express your interest in the subject
In some instances, you may need to provide background for why you’re researching your topic. This information may include your personal interest in or experience with the subject, both of which are easier to express using first-person pronouns. For example:
The issue of classrooms needing new books is of interest because older, damaged books can dampen a student’s motivation to read.
I am interested in the issue of classrooms needing new books because, as a student, I lacked interest in reading when my books were old and damaged.
Expressing personal experiences and viewpoints isn’t always a good idea in research papers. When it’s appropriate to do so, though, just make sure you don’t overuse the first person.
When to Avoid Writing in the First Person
It’s usually a good idea to stick to the third person in the methods and results sections of your research paper. Additionally, be careful not to use the first person when:
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● It makes your findings seem like personal observations rather than factual results.
● It removes objectivity and implies that the writing may be biased.
● It appears in phrases such as I think or I believe, which can weaken your writing.
Keeping Your Writing Formal and Objective
Using the first person while maintaining a formal tone can be tricky, but keeping a few tips in mind can help you strike a balance. The important thing is to make sure the tone isn’t too conversational.
To achieve this, avoid referring to the readers, such as with the second-personyou. Use we and us only when referring to yourself and the other authors/researchers involved in the paper, not the audience.
It’s becoming more acceptable in the academic world to use first-person pronouns such as we and I in research papers. But make sure you check with your instructor or institution first because they may have strict rules regarding this practice.
If you do decide to use the first person, make sure you do so effectively by following the tips we’ve laid out in this guide. And once you’ve written a draft, send us a copy! Our expert proofreaders and editors will be happy to check your grammar, spelling, word choice, references, tone, and more. Submit a 500-word sample today!
Is it ever acceptable to use I or we in a research paper?
In some instances, using first-person pronouns can help you to establish credibility, add clarity, and make the writing easier to read.
How can I avoid using I in my writing?
Writing in the passive voice can help you to avoid using the first person.