Examples of specificity within disciplines

Even though textbooks sometimes portray academic writing as a fairly unified concept and craft, scratching on the surface reveals a more multifaceted world. In this subsection, a number of differences between different disciplines will be accounted for.

Instructional video from the free online MOOC "Writing in English at University" which was developed at Lund University in 2016.

The use of first person pronouns (I and we) in academic writing

One of the more commonly mentioned trademarks of academic texts is the supposedly impersonal style that is used. Impersonal style is often correlated with a complete absence of personal pronouns, in particular the first person singular or plural pronouns I and we.

It is not uncommon for textbook writers, or star scientists (see the quote by Albert Einstein below, for a case in point), to advise against the use of personal pronouns. This is probably so because the absence of pronouns like I or we is thought to give the impression of research being more objective, credible, and free from individual opinion.

Einstein (1934) on the use of the first person singular pronoun (click to expand/contract)

"when a man is talking about scientific subjects, the little word 'I' should play no part in his expositions"

Einstein (1934: 113)


However, as empirical studies investigating this indicate, there is in fact quite a bit of variation across disciplines, when it comes to the use of the first person singular or plural personal pronouns.

In a study of 240 research articles from eight different disciplines (mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, marketing, philosophy, sociology, applied linguistics, physics, and microbiology), where the articles were analysed for their potential use of the pronoun forms I, me, my, we, us, and our (the subject, object and possessive forms), Hyland (2001) found that the average number of pronouns referring to the authors of the texts was much higher in articles from the soft fields (marketing, philosophy, sociology, and applied linguistics) than in the hard fields (engineering, physics and microbiology).

The more detailed results can be seen by clicking on the link below.

Hyland's (2001) study of the use of personal pronoun forms in research articles (click to expand/contract)

A study of the use of personal pronouns in research articles from eight disciplines

Disciplines

Average number of pronouns per article

Biology

      

15.5

Physics

17.7

Electric engineering

11.6

Mechanical engineering

2.6

Average hard fields

11.9

 

Marketing

 

38.2

Philosophy

34.5

Applied Linguistics

32.3

Sociology

29.4

Average soft fields

33.6

 Table based on Hyland (2001: 212)


There was also a difference in terms of which pronoun forms were used in the different disciplines. There were no instances of the subject form of the first person singular personal pronoun I in the articles from the hard sciences. In the articles taken from the soft sciences, however, there were on average around 12 cases per paper.

The average number of instances of the subject form of the first person plural personal pronoun we in the hard science articles was 8.7, compared to 10.9 in the soft science articles. Articles from mechanical engineering had only on average around 2 instances of we, whereas articles from marketing had around 20.

The numbers for each discipline can be seen by clicking on the link below:

Hyland's (2001) study of the use of 'I' and 'we' in research articles (click to expand/contract)

A study of the use of personal pronoun forms in research articles from eight disciplines

Disciplines

    

Number of uses of I             

Number of uses of we

Biology

0     

12.7

Physics

0

11.5

Electric engineering

0

8.4

Mechanical engineering

0

2.1

Average hard fields

0

8.7




Marketing

1.1

22.2

Philosophy

26.1

0.9

Applied Linguistics

12.7

8.9

Sociology

9.5

11.5

Average soft fields

12.4

10.9

 Table based on Hyland (2001: 214)


Advice: Should I use pronoun forms like 'I' or 'we' in my writing? (click to expand/contract)

If you are a student, consult your teacher/supervisor for whether pronoun forms like I or we are acceptable in your discipline.

If you are a researcher writing for publication, consult style sheets and guidelines issued by relevant journals, for advice on the use of pronouns. Alternatively, contact the journal or book editor(s).