By Susan Carter

Choosing terms for the agent in academic writing can be tricky for novices, and in my experience, not all supervisors give wise advice on the terms to use for the speaking author. This post considers choice from the perspective of textual clarity. ‘I argue that…’ could also be ‘this thesis argues that…’ or ‘the researcher argues that…’ Doctoral students must decide what nomenclature is best for their research projects.

Some writing shies away from admitting there is an author. Historically, empirical science disciplines sought objectivity; to do so, they chose to hide human agency with passive constructions, e.g., ‘It was found that’. With humans eliminated, arguments were muted, not acknowledged in text: ‘results may suggest that….’ Textual masking of agency signaled a positivist epistemology.

By disappearing the people from the text, the matter of the research itself is emphasised, since, in theory, anyone could duplicate the study, and a measure of objectivity is established. Thus, the use of ‘I’ would be almost misleading for empirical study, in line with the grammatical idea that the passive construction makes the receiver of action, not the doer, important.

In common speech, we use the passive less often than we use the active; its most common use is when we don’t know or care who did something or wish to avoid naming them for social reasons: ‘someone has taken my lunch’ means that I am not accusing anyone in particular.

We also use it when the topic of our focus is the object of an active sentence: ‘these people have been invaded in their homeland, raped, tortured and mass murdered ’ or ‘she was given a bunch of flowers.’ Then we need not name the doer because they are not important for the point we want to make: the focus is on the object of the main verb not the doer of it.

And yet, this is a convention undergoing change. I propose it is softening, as my data showed in Carter 2008, when no doctoral examiner [n23] from any discipline was averse to the use of ‘I’ in a thesis. And I believe that it should soften purely in the interest of readability. When it is not done very well, the results are unreadable. For me, the text of the thesis, its clarity and accessibility, matters too.

Active verbs, the ones we commonly use in speech, are easier to unpack. ‘I’m going for lunch’ makes instant sense, whereas ‘Lunch is to be gone for by me’ is awkward. Then when sentences are conveying something more complex than that ‘I’m off for lunch’, they can be a hard to read. (This is not to be dismissive of simple passives focusing on the objects of verbal action, as in ‘Every year, thousands of people are killed on the roads.’) For research to be replicable, you need to be able to easily read and accurately understand what the researchers did.

Another option for agency is for the writer to refer to herself in the third person as the ‘author’ or the ‘researcher’. I’m not sure of the epistemology behind this convention but it seems to me like a fusion of social science constructivism and hard science positivism. There are people, but they are part of the matter of the study, and the author thus distances herself as thesis writer from herself as researcher.

When I am examining or reviewing, I dislike the convention of an author writing about herself in the third person because it causes textual ambiguity. Commonly in the discussion, the research of the thesis project is compared with findings from other literature. More than once, as a reader I have had to read three times to figure out whether ‘the researcher found’ refers to the researchers of the last-mentioned piece of literature or the authorial candidate.

An option that allows for active verb construction and readability while keeping people out of the way is to allow the thesis, the chapter, or the findings to speak. ‘This chapter’ can review, analyse, or theoretically position the project. ‘This thesis’ may even argue. It is oddly anthropomorphic but does accord with different criteria–including mine, one shared by many examiners, that a thesis ought to be clear and easy to read. My preferences are not necessarily constructivist, but emerge quite simply from respect for readable academic writing.

That’s my approach. I’m sure others will have quite different approaches, or more to add here, and I’m curious as to what your experience has been with the issue of ‘who says’ the thesis.

Carter, S. (2008). Examining the doctoral thesis: A discussion. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 45(4), 365-374.