Tables and Graphs paper rejection/update – and on the use of personal pronouns in scientific writing

My paper, Tables and Graphs for Monitoring Temporal Crime Patterns was recently rejected from Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management. I’ve subsequently updated the SSRN draft based on feedback from the review, and here I post the reviews and my responses to those reviews (in the text file).

One of the main critiques by both reviewers was that the paper was too informal, mainly because of the use of "I" in the paper. I use personal pronouns in writing intentionally, despite typical conventions in scientific writing, so I figured a blog post about why I do this is in order. I’ve been criticized for it on other occasions as well, but this is the first time it was listed as a main reason to reject an article of mine.

My main motivation comes from Michael Billig’s book Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences (see a prior blog post I wrote on the contents). In a nut-shell, when you use personal pronouns it is clear that you, the author, are doing something. When you rewrite the sentence to avoid personal pronouns, you often obfuscate who the actor is in a particular sentence.

For an example of Billig’s point that personal pronouns can be more informative, I state in the paper:

I will refer to this metric as a Poisson z-score.

I could rewrite this sentence as:

This metric will be referred to as a Poisson z-score.

But that is ambiguous as to its source. Did someone else coin this phrase, and I am borrowing it? No – it is a phrase I made up, and using the personal pronoun clearly articulates that fact.

Pretty much all of the examples where I eliminated first person in the updated draft were of the nature,

In this article I discuss the use of percent change in tables.

which I subsequently changed to:

This article discusses the use of percent changes as a metric in tables.

Formal I suppose, but insipid. All rewriting the sentence to avoid the first person pronoun does is make the article seem like a sentient being, as well as forces me to use the passive tense. I don’t see how the latter is better in any way, shape, or form – yet this is one of the main reasons my paper is rejected above. The use of "we" in academic articles seems to be more common, but using "we" when there is only one author is just silly. So I will continue to use "I" when I am the only author.

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5 Comments

  1. I hope you also got more constructive feedback in the review… Erm, I mean, it is hoped that you also got more constructive feedback.

    Reply
    • Good example – writing like that is sort of the opposite of the Turing test – how much can you sound like a machine?

      One of the reviewers provided more substantial feedback, buy yes this was one of the main reasons listed.

      Reply
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