Student Expectations

First Person and APA

Many of my students are taught that first person (I, me, mine, my) is not acceptable in academic writing. This actually depends very much on the discipline, method, and training of the individual academic. Here is what the Purdue OWL has to say about the first person:

When writing in APA Style, you can use the first person point of view when discussing your research steps (“I studied …”) and when referring to yourself and your co-authors (“We examined the literature …”). Use first person to discuss research steps rather than anthropomorphising the work. For example, a study cannot “control” or “interpret”; you and your co-authors, however, can. –

This is important. Do not avoid the first person at all costs, as it will distort your claims and make your writing muddy.

I add an additional wrinkle to this approach, as I come from a qualitative research academy. The first person is appropriate when you are communicating personal anecdotal information. For example:

“After having a personal experience with trolling on YouTube, I developed an interest in the psychological mechanisms that motivate online aggression.”

But not:

“After reviewing all the evidence, I strongly believe that trolling is a defensive behavior with mixed outcomes.”

The first example serves as an introduction to and disclosure of my (the researcher) personal interest in the topic. The second is inappropriate because 1) It is implicit that this is my belief, and 2) “I believe” weakens my closing statements, as I should have already built a strong argument for my position. A more effective statement: “Clearly aggressive online behavior is associated with defensive behavior.”

Writing in the first person is a useful way to identify your assumptions and biases about your topic. I sometimes recommend that students write a “profane” version of their paper before they write the formal version. It usually takes the form of an essay or free-write that can surface opinions, feelings, experiences, and any other existing information you have absorbed about your topic. This will help you 1) Identify what is particularly compelling to you about the topic, and 2) help you recognize any existing biases that may affect the quality of your research.

We are not bias-free; human rationality is largely illusionary. As researchers, we are ethically obligated to recognize our motivations, assumptions, and biases so our contributions to the larger body of knowledge have integrity. Judicious use of the first person can help.