An author recently asked me the following question while reviewing her page proofs of a journal article: “The section highlighted has the personal pronoun ‘we.’ I thought personal pronouns were not allowed in academic writing.”
Some scientists and health care professionals may have been taught at some point during their training that using personal pronouns is not acceptable in scientific and medical writing because I and we are subjective, whereas science is meant to be objective. In Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers, Mimi Zeiger refutes this idea. She writes,
But is science purely objective? Do not scientists make choices when designing experiments (when, how, how much)? Do not scientists define terms, make assumptions, have purposes, interpret results, make inferences?
In fact, Watson and Crick’s seminal paper in Nature began, “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.).”
The goal of every paper you write should be to communicate what you did as clearly as possible so that as many people as possible can read, comprehend, and apply your work. No rule forbids the use of personal pronouns in scientific and medical writing. Most well-edited journals encourage authors to use the active voice when appropriate. Using the active voice will invariably lead you to use personal pronouns.
Voice is used to describe verbs. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does the acting. For example, The clinician administered the drug. The AMA Manual of Style recommends that, in general, authors should use the active voice when writing. The active voice is especially useful for the methods section of a research article. Yet many authors go to great lengths to avoid naming who performed the experiment being described. But note the examples in the 6th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) under the heading “Prefer the active voice”:
Preferred: We conducted the survey in a controlled setting.
The preferred sentence (written in active voice) starts with the personal pronoun we. The nonpreferred sentence is written in the passive voice. You can tell because it meets the “by zombies” test, which is a humorous way to identify voice. Your sentence may be written in the passive voice if you can identify the actor by adding “by zombies” at the end: The survey was conducted in a controlled setting by zombies. Even though “the survey” is the subject of the sentence, it was not performing the action in the sentence. Those zombies were.
To recap, as a general style guideline, writing in the active voice is preferred (see 2.04 and 3.18 in the 6th edition of the APA Publication Manual and 7.3.1 in the 10th edition of the AMA Manual of Style) if the person performing the action taking place in the sentence is known. In addition, the use of personal pronouns is acceptable. Does this mean you should never use the passive voice? No.
Remember that your goal in writing is clear communication. The Chicago Manual of Style gives this advice on using voice appropriately:
The choice between active and passive voice may depend on which point of view is desired. For instance, the mouse was caught by the cat describes the mouse’s experience, whereas the cat caught the mouse describes the cat’s.
In some sections of your article, it is appropriate—and will result in shorter, clearer sentences—to describe what you did by using active voice and even personal pronouns. In other sections of your article, the research results take center stage and the passive voice may best provide the appropriate emphasis.
In his analysis of the writing techniques used in Watson and Crick’s paper, Scott L. Montgomery points out in The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science that Watson and Crick use “we” at the beginning and at the end of their paper but not in the middle, where the main subject of the narrative is the model itself. Montgomery writes,
We can envision this as a video that starts out with the authors in frame, then pans to the model, moves in for a close-up, pulls out, then shifts back to the authors.
Choose the voice that best matches the script of your research study. Just remember as you are writing that no rule forbids you from using personal pronouns.
American Medical Association. AMA Manual of Style. A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York: Oxford University Press; 2007.
American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2010.
Identify Passive Voice (With Zombies!). The Writing Center at American University website. http://auwritingcenter.blogspot.com/2012/10/identify-passive-voice-with-zombies.html. Accessed March 31, 2018.
Montgomery SL. The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2017.
The Chicago Manual of Style. 17th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2017.
Watson JD, Crick FH. Molecular structure of nucleic acids; a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature. 1953;171(4356):737-738. https://www.nature.com/articles/171737a0
Zeiger M. Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2000.