The First Person in Academic Writing

Many students are taught never to use the first person (i.e., I or we) in academic writing. While the use of the first person has historically been rare, the practice has changed in recent years.

First-person writing can be used to improve clarity:

  • Use of the first person allows for more active (vs. passive) writing.
  • First person writing can at times be more concise and straightforward.
  • Use of the first person puts the writer front and center and prioritizes their ideas.
  • The use of the first person can help establish authority.

 General rules for using the first person:

  • “I” or “we” is used most often in introductions, in articulating a paper’s goal or thesis, in conclusions to communicate what you learned through your analysis, and in methods sections to state what methodology you used.
  • The first person should generally be used sparingly; overuse can result in prose that reads as opinion.
  • When used, the first person should still read as objective.
  • It is typically not necessary to write things like “I believe that” or “We think” because the reader knows that the paper is written from your perspective. Any uncited material is automatically attributed to the author(s).
  • In multi-authored papers, “we” generally refers to the authors, not to a communal “we.”
  • To learn more about first person use in your discipline, pay attention to published writing and ask your professors for their expectations.

Using the first person in STEM writing:

  • The use of the first person is less common in STEM and quantitative social science fields than it is in the humanities and more humanistic social sciences. Recently, however, scholars have begun using the first person more frequently, particularly in introductions (e.g., We hypothesized that…) and methods (e.g., We measured…).
  • The first person is less common in more technical writing. As an engineering professor once noted, “It’s not about you [the authors], it’s about the science.”
  • The use of the first person should never detract from a more objective, less subjective perspective of the sciences.



 Elissa Jacobs and Paige Eggebrecht