The use of the personal pronoun in scientific writing is a choice with far-reaching repercussions, not least of which is the accuracy of the article in question. If a team of researchers collected the data, but one researcher is listed as the author, is it appropriate to say I, or should the author defer to his or her team and say we?
Should the researcher default to the team throughout the Methods section and then use I in the Results and Discussion sections at the risk of confusing the reader? These are difficult questions with which researchers are required to wrestle.
Less controversial is the personal pronoun’s ability to alleviate the tiresome ubiquity of the passive voice allowing -
We titrated the results.
The results were titrated.
This, unfortunately, has created a new redundancy – the tyranny of we. We tagged the badgers … We collected their scat … We produced three charts outlining the results … Monotony is monotony, no matter which voice is being used.
And while many American scientific journals have accepted the active voice as more engaging and readable, not all international journals have. And even in the United States, not all journals are in agreement about whether the personal pronoun can be used in conjunction with the active voice.
For example, in the world of conservation biology, where I work most often, a survey of three different journals yields three different approaches. Conservation Biology, which offers a somewhat comprehensive Style Guide for Authors, clearly states in its advice about the active voice to use we or I.
The Auk, on the other hand, offers no guidance whatsoever, either about the active voice or about personal pronouns. One would need to read its articles to discover its preference. Even then, there may need to be a discussion between the author and the journal’s editors and peer reviewers to arrive at a consensus.
And, because I work often for the Fish and Wildlife Service, I would be remiss if I did not mention the relatively new Journal of Fish & Wildlife Management, which refers authors for guidance to the Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format, now in its 7th edition.
Unfortunately, the CSE offers no guidance on the use of the personal pronoun, and this seems to me a grave omission on the part of a normally conscientious and scrupulous editorial body.
It’s one thing for a scientist to employ the personal pronoun in the Methods section and so engage the active voice. It’s entirely another when we consider the Discussion section. Not that I’m opposed, simply that I recognize its significance and am asking that the leaders of the scientific community do too.
The results indicate that …
We interpret the results to mean …
This is not a stylistic difference, but a paradigm shift on the order of that qualified by Thomas Kuhn as a scientific revolution. Yet rather than make a sweeping statement with one editorial voice, science editors are making the decision journal by journal, university by university.
Is the use of the personal pronoun in the Discussion section a matter of clarity? Is it a clear, objective statement of fact? Or is it a violation of the principles of objectivity and neutrality that separate the hard sciences from the soft, the natural from the social?
As a language expert, I have my own opinions on these matters. But I am not a scientist; therefore, I cannot be the ultimate arbiter. I recognize that language change is organic, and that prescriptive rules engender more dissent and confusion than obedience. Still, it seems time for the Council of Science Editors to at least open the debate, acknowledge the questions before the field, and invite the comments of its leadership so that individual scientists know where they stand and why.