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Signalling your position

The I vs We debate

In a thesis, the relevance and importance of you as the author can change from section to section. The way your identity intrudes into the text depends to a large extent on accepted use in your particular discipline. Take your cues from the way this is done in published articles in your field (although note the different vehicle and audience), and seek the advice of your supervisor.

"I" or "we" is commonly found in mathematical writing, but is usually advised against for industrial or civil engineering. "I" and "my" can commonly be intrinsic for psychoanalytic writing, for instance - and case-study writing in a number of disciplines - but not for psychology. You will find "we" in history theses, and even "nous" in French.

Traditionally in much academic writing, it is not generally accepted to write: "I think..." or "It is my opinion...", because this detracts from the supposed objectivity of scholarship. It is true that too much insertion of yourself in your writing swings the focus away from the material you are investigating and on to you. However, under the influence of a number of (post-)modern philosophers and other theorists, this may even be desirable in some disciplines. It is a debate that is still in flux within the academic community.

It sounds awkward to style yourself as "the author", "the present writer", or "the researcher". There are more graceful ways of expressing your own opinion. If you are uncertain how to avoid an over-personalised tone in sections of the thesis where you do not want this, or too much passive voice, you can use the following expressions to make your position clear in relation to your sources:

Showing support or agreement

Example: "The following discussion is based on the work in Murray et al.(1990)."

Example: "From the above discussion, it is clear that the design of moment connections involving solid members offers considerable insight into..."

Example: "The characteristics of vapour flows in falling film evaporators are well described by Stenhede (1982)."

Showing disagreement

Example: "Bruegge et al. (1992) review OMT; however, their paper is from a project management and team communication perspective and is not relevant to the argument presented here."

Example: "Neither mathematics nor the classic Newell and Simon (1972) descriptions of human problem solving are particularly useful in domains where absolute correctness, resolution, proof and related concepts are inappropriate."

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