Sentences were written

Yesterday I was dicussing a draft of my MRes thesis with my supervisor and one of my questions was whether, in a few particular cases, I should write in the active or passive voice, and if I do use the active should I use the pronoun we or I?

Active or passive?

The sentence I had written was (key bit emphasised):

Despite Bloggs et al.’s description of the growth precursor as “extraordinarily stable”, I found that the growth precursor formed a fine red-brown precipitate within approximately 30 min of being loaded into a syringe, blocking the syringe outlet.

To begin with please ignore whether you think that’s a good sentence or not (I’ve read it so many times I’m beginning to think the word order is completely wrong).

It’s written in the active voice: I (the subject) found (the verb) that something was the case. I chose to use the active because I want to make it clear that I found that the precursor was unstable, in disagreement with what some other researchers found. I also tend to choose the active voice because it’s more direct; the passive can feel rather viscous and verbose. I’m often told to make it easy for the reader.

I could take out I:

Despite Bloggs et al.’s description of the growth precursor as “extraordinarily stable”, the growth precursor formed a fine red-brown precipitate within approximately 30 min of being loaded into a syringe, blocking the syringe outlet.

It’s readable, but I don’t like it because it’s slightly ambiguous.

In the passive voice (I think—this just sounds incredibly weird to me so I could be wrong):

Despite Bloggs et al.’s description of the growth precursor as “extraordinarily stable”, the growth precursor was found to form a fine red-brown precipitate within approximately 30 min of being loaded into a syringe, blocking the syringe outlet.

Both ambiguous and horrible. Hence I chose the first option: active and I.

I, we—no one?

But the problem now is the dreaded I. It does sound a bit schoolboyish. We is used in scientific writing all the time, but I—shudder—never, because science isn’t conducted by individuals, but by groups. In fact, no, not even groups, but by the whole scientific establishment. No one does science, science does itself! Hmm… But ignoring that, I does make me cringe a bit.

Putting we in place of I is significantly less cringeworthy but completely nonsensical. It always amazes me to see a single author paper start with “We [verb]…”. Is I really that repulsive? Is it meant to give an illusion of absolute truth? Perhaps it’s meant to say “this is not my opinion , it’s scientific fact”, but there’s always a personal element in science and to pretend it isn’t there is ludicrous and delusional.

So I’ve got to decide whether to stick with I or not. It’s only my MRes thesis not my PhD thesis, but I still care about the details. I’m definitely not writing we. My supervisor was told by his supervisor to do a find on “we” and replace with “I”. I’m leaning towards I because it’s concise and unambiguous about was my work (apparently it’s good to show in an MRes that you’ve done a good amount of work) and, whilst it may be a bit cringeworthy, it is definitely the easiest to read. Hopefully the mysterious anonymous marker will agree.

3 thoughts on “Sentences were written”

  1. “Despite Bloggs et al.’s description of the growth precursor as “extraordinarily stable”, it was found to form a fine red-brown precipitate within approximately 30 min of being loaded into a syringe, blocking the syringe outlet.”

    Any good? I wouldn’t talk in the first person for a thesis. Although I know in published papers we always talk abut what ‘we’ did.

    1. Hmm, possibly. I think I’ve read and thought about this sentence so many times I’ve no idea what is good anymore! I’ll give it a few days to mull it over.

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