Thursday, March 6, 2008

Impersonal science writing

I've got my first single-authored science paper in the review process right now. It is awesome probably. Guess what it's about. Ok, ok, I'll give it away... partly. It's about magnetospheric waves. But that's not what I'm going to talk about.

One of the revisions that they asked for was to remove all first-person mentions from the paper. I disagree with this idea. I'm not angry at the reviewers or anything. I suspect they're just students who are following guidelines, or doing what their past teachers have taught them. In truth, I didn't even hesitate to follow through with the changes, because I don't really care. But I'll put on my internet-angry face just for flavor. >:-( *wink*

So there's this idea that in science writing, you never use the first person. The first person is the use of pronouns like "I" or "we". The second person is "you". And the third person is "he", "she", "the experimenter" or "the present author", etc. The reason you're supposed to avoid the first-person is to make science look more objective, and to place less emphasis on the people doing science.

I disagree because, for one thing, it only creates the illusion of objectivity. Merely changing around the sentence structure of your paper cannot actually change the degree of objectivity of the research. Avoiding the first person does not actually make the research any more objective, it only makes it appear objective. And how objective is the research, exactly? The research was, after all, performed by a person or persons. Should we be trying to make the research look as objective as possible, or as objective as it really is? Trying to make a study look more objective than it really is just smacks of subjectivity.

On the other hand, I understand wanting to place less emphasis on the people. When you read a paper, you don't particularly care which scientists wrote it, nor which students did the grunt work. The study should be replicable, meaning that any other scientist can try the same experiment and get the same results. If other scientists can't replicate the work, its conclusions are called into question. Furthermore, prescriptive rules are entirely appropriate for technical writing. A uniform writing style makes for clearer communication. Scientists basically deal with information, so clear communication is essential. Individualistic styles, though flavorful, might be harmful to clear communication.

But what is the alternative to using the first person? There are two major alternatives. One is to use the third person, and the other is to use the passive voice.

In the third person, I would refer to myself as "the researcher", "the programmer", "the present writer" or something along those lines. The present blogger thinks that's pretty awkward. And is it really any better than the first person? I'm still mentioning that there are *gasp* people involved in my scientific research. So how exactly does this make it more objective, and how does it deemphasize the people involved? Well, it's true that "he" sounds more objective than "I", but this is, again, mostly an illusion. And I suppose this makes it easier to conceive of a replication of the study, since you only need to replace "the researcher" with a researcher of your own. Still, using the third person just sounds weird.

The other alternative is the passive voice. In the active voice, I would say, "I analyzed the data," "You do not amuse us," or "This researcher dislikes the third person." In the passive voice, I would say, "The data was analyzed by me," "We are not amused by you," or "The third person is disliked by this researcher." The basic idea is that the thing that is [verb]ed becomes the subject of the sentence. The advantage of the passive voice is that you can omit any mention of who or what is doing the [verb]ing. I can say, "The data was analyzed," "We are not amused," or "The third person is disliked." So this is the primary way to avoid the first person.

The problem is that the passive voice is sometimes very awkward, and some people are adamantly opposed to it. Some crazy people even think the passive voice should never be used. Orwell once said: "The passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active," apparently expressing extreme disapproval of the same passive voice he had just used. (An aside: someone way back asked me what I thought of Orwell's essay on language, so there you go.) I don't think it's a deadly sin to use the passive voice, but using it all the time is just as bad as using the active voice all the time. If you're forced to always use the passive voice, occasionally you'll get sentences that are suboptimal. Case in point, convert one of my earlier sentences into the passive voice: "Ok, ok, it will be given away (by me)... partly."

So, you see, writers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Using "I" doesn't give us that oh-so-important illusion of objectivity. Using "the researcher" is awkward and contrived. Using the passive voice is aesthetically displeasing, and widely disapproved of. You can't satisfy everyone.

I prefer using the first person, because creating an illusion of objectivity seems relatively unimportant. I think nowadays, most science journals no longer require avoiding first person. But it seems that this particular undergraduate science journal does. Of course, even I flinch at the mention of "I" in formal writing, so I prefer "we" instead. Of course, that doesn't make much sense in a single-authored paper. We guess we're using the royal "we"? In the end, I simply switched to the passive voice. It's not a big deal, really.


Anonymous said...

I agree that both your options--passive voice or third person--are awkward, and it would be nice if the first person were more accepted (ack, now I'm doing passive voice!). I prefer the most common style in mathematical papers, which is third person plural in the present tense (one more reason to be a mathematician!)

If you're going to use third person, though, make sure you say "the data WERE analyzed"!

miller said...

That's another thing I needed to be corrected about. "Data" is plural! I think I will leave it in there this time, just so I can contribute to the moral decay of language.

Linda said...

Thank you, Miller, for that lesson in writing. How about not using people at all as the subject? What about making the data or the results the subjects? "The data clearly shows XYZ..." or if you must use a person, you can say, "From the data, one can conclude XYZ..."

What do I know? I just thought I'd put in my two cents... :-) I could never get that passive/active thing straight.

miller said...

Yes, that's another possibility I skipped over, but It's not feasible to write the whole report that way. I'd end up treating every object like a person! Imagine: "The fourier transform applies itself to the data." Sometimes it works, but sometimes it sounds like nonsense.

Anonymous said...

So how are you getting a paper published as an undergrad, and single-authored at that? Pretty impressive!

miller said...

Well, I actually worked under an advisor as part of an undergraduate research program. I'm really in his debt for all his help. It took a lot of work! It also helped to have some computer programming skills.