'Researcher' or 'I' or nothing?


Hi Everyone,

Last week I had a discussion with one of my friends about the form which we should use when writing PhD thesis. He says that we should refer to ourselves as 'researcher' (example: 'The researcher argues that...') rather than 'I'. Our English tutor claims that neither of those are acceptable, we should use passive form such as 'it is argued' and to make a distinction clear between who we cite and when we express our opinion we simply use references.
What are your views?


It might depend a bit on the area. The passive form was always considered the one to use, and may stem from the leaning towards scientific type research, although I have been told that nowadays things are changing here too. I tend to use things like 'it may be possible to suggest that... or the results suggest... which is supported by so-and-sos work, and don't use 'I' at all. Before I made a change to a different style - if I wanted to do this, I would look at some of the recent passes in your area and check the syle there, for although the convention may have changed for general use, your examiners (dare I say because they may have a less up to date take on this :$) may expect a certain way of expressing things, and in this case, they should probably be given what they want!


It could definitely depend on the area. In my area (humanities) the convention for PhD thesis writing is clearly the passive form, and I've been warned rigidly to stick to that by my supervisor. Never I, never my name.


I think the use of 'I' is acceptable and consistent with academic writing. At least it prevents the stupid and annoying passive circumlocution of trying to disguise subjectivity and the researchers role in constructing the knowledge. At least in the humanities, I am seeing more published papers and books that start to retain 'I'. I think that it makes the writing seem more reflexive and that the writer is aware of the subjective nature of academic work and their role in creating and articulating their position.


======= Date Modified 07 Jun 2009 16:18:52 =======
Interesting question. I've been reading a very good book (which I've also recommended on the Tips thread)- 'Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace'. The author warns against using the passive voice because it is so easy for your sentences to become unnecessarily complicated and wooly. 'It is argued' for example; what does this mean? Argued by whom? I've noticed that when my supervisor edits my work he tries to stamp out these kind of complications too, and he recommended the book to me (I'm in the humanities by the way).


I followed convention as Joyce describes. Although some papers are bucking the trend - I would take a more conservative approach with a thesis largely for the reason Joyce gives - external examiners are generally senior, older academics and I wouldn't want to take any chances.


Thanks Everyone. Although my supervisor wants me to use 'I' , I  :-) begin to have doubts whether it is right/correct/professional etc.
Personally, I think that 'the researcher', apart from sounding awful, implies a kind of detachment from the research which at the end is his/hers, therefore, I am not a big fan of this term. Every PhD students works so hard on the PhD; it is his/her own work, own perspective, etc. so although it still does not sound completely right in my ear, it seems to be the best form to use, UNLESS, as some of you pointed out, we are dealing with more scientific research. The passive form, in my view, can over complicate things, and in spite of the presence of references it can easily create a confusion to the reader as to which parts are argued/thought/discussed by myself as a researcher and which once are argued by others. So I completely agree with Keep-Calm on that.

P.S. Thanks for recommending the book.


I write in third person, passive voice - which is the norm for academic writing in my discipline. The active voice is clearer, more powerful and involves a shorter word-count, but it just doesn't work well in lots of disciplines, and I've never come across a thesis written wholly in the first-person.

I have seen a lot of writings where the abstract will be in first-person 'I intended to research a, b and c', the main body of the thesis is in third-person, then the conclusion will revert to the first-person, 'I make the following recommendations...'. This makes the conclusion more powerful, but a grammar expert will say it's wrong to flip back and forth from first- to third-person.

I don't why, but I find first-person writings using the royal 'We' really annoying eg. 'Here we see a and b do not correlate'.

I would steer clear of using first-person or active writing as some old school types won't like it - although I'm often tempted to use it in concluding remarks.

As for second-person usage 'The researcher...'/'The author...', I've rarely come across this.