Consider person and point of view

As a writer, you can choose to present a subject in a personal or impersonal manner. In a personal point of view, you play the role of writer and reporter openly, using I, me, and my, or we, us, and our. The impersonal point of view, on the other hand, requires avoiding all explicit reference to yourself.

As a writer, you also choose the level of formality of the writing, a closely related but independent factor. The decision is not solely between personal informality and impersonal formality; a personal point of view can accompany a very formal writing style.

On many occasions one point of view or the other is preferable. This book includes both. When we have offered you tips and suggestions, we've taken an openly personal point of view, feeling that it is a friendly approach to a very personal subject - your efforts at scientific writing. When we have had to present stern pronouncements or inflexible dictums, a more impersonal and formal style has often been used.

In their professional publications, scientists almost always maintain an impersonal writing style, which the scientific culture generally views as somehow having more prestige and objectivity. Usually, it is coupled with passive constructions and avoidance of the first person.

First Person Point View
Speed Bump. By permission of Dave Coverly and Creators Syndicate, Inc.

Total avoidance of the first person in scientific text is neither necessary nor desirable, however, as increasing numbers of journal editors are realizing. It has been rumored that some journals do not allow the use of personal pronouns, but our informal survey of over 200 of them located none that formally specified this in their Instructions to Authors. We suspect that scientific writing's heavy reliance on the passive voice is more a matter of tradition than a formal requirement.

Using the first person is often shorter, simpler, and less pompous than avoiding it. For example, "the authors are prepared to argue" can be shortened to "we contend." "The authors wish to thank" can be shortened to "we thank." An added benefit is that active verb forms can replace passive ones, making it difficult to construct dangling participles.

When referring to published results and then giving one's own, directly claim the latter. A common source of confusion is narratives such as the one below. Whose results are whose? And who found which inconsistencies? Phrases such as "it was found that" leave readers wondering who made the discovery. They are best avoided.

Confusing: This result was elucidated by Smith (1990) and Jones (1991). In these studies the authors found inconsistencies in the results. It was found that the data differed slightly.

Better: Smith (1990) was first to explain this result; Jones (1991) expanded upon the idea. Our research uncovered minor inconsistencies in the data given in both of their studies.

Exercise 5.1. Person and point of view

Change the use of third and first person in the following sentences.

Many variations are possible.

1. The laboratory technician will find that the new procedure is an improvement; you will not need to sterilize the skin.

2. Kristen Preston and colleagues showed that some bacteria do not give off molecular oxygen but the authors herein contend that they still photosynthesize.

3. The authors wish to gratefully acknowledge and thank Dr. C. F Snow for technical assistance and expertise.

4. It was found that the disease is contagious and that you should avoid contamination (van der Veen, 1850); the author concurs that cleanliness is essential.

5. It is postulated by the author, working alone and writing herein, that we have discovered a new species of Australopithecus.

When using the first person, employ it consistently and correctly. Sudden and illogical shifts in point of view make a document difficult to read.

Inconsistent: We have reached the point where one should do further experiments. [Does this mean we intend to do them? Or are we suggesting someone else should do it?]

Better: We have reached the point where we should do further experiments.

Unclear: The authors established the gene-splicing service in 1976, and we have expanded it ever since. [Are we and the authors one and the same?]

Better: We established the gene-splicing service in 1976 and have expanded it ever since.

One further point on correct use of the first person: When you are the sole author, do not refer to yourself as we. You must use I - unless you are a monarch or pregnant!

Rewrite for readability

A common complaint about scientific documents is that they are difficult to read because of the complexity and length of their words, sentences, and paragraphs. To present ideas effectively, minimize the combined weight of these factors. As

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DILBERT © Scott Adams/Dist. By United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

the complexity and length of words increase, reduce the complexity and length of sentences and paragraphs to compensate.

To reading experts, "readability" refers to aspects that can be measured and subjected to a formula. Systems such as FOG, SMOG, Fry, Flesch, and many others are widely available on computer software and online. They are generally based on relationships between average word length (or number of syllables) and average sentence length, and rank readability by difficulty or by grade level.

To scientists writing for other scientists, these scores can be helpful in tailoring material to a particular audience or in maintaining uniformity in multi-authored compilations. However, they generally do not adequately address three important elements of scientific writing: content difficulty, the recognition factor, and document design. Even general readers easily recognize some multi-syllable biomedical terms. Conversely, highly technical material may use short words, but still be difficult for any but specialists to comprehend. Finally, design aspects such as column width and font size also affect readability.

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