Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

How much is the unique view of a scientist reflected in his writing?

Recently, I received a review of a scientific article suggesting that I corrected grammatical errors such as “we observed” and “we evaluated”. First I thought these expressions were in the same sentence, but no. And no credible software pointed those expressions as grammatical errors. Why did the reviewer think of them as errors? And then it occurred to me. Is it because they are personal and unique?

unique and personal science

I’ve learned from the beginning of my career as a research that we should write science in the impersonal form. In Portuguese, this is relatively easy because part of the language richness is in using the passive voice. But when writing in English, the advice is to use as much as possible the active voice. For a foreigner, this implies a lot of inversions in how he expresses his thinking.

But the question remains. Should science writing be impersonal?

One thing is certain, science should be universal. But in my experience, it is also deeply personal (consider Michael Polanyi). I don’t expect the science I do in the way I do it to be equal to the same topic treated by someone else. The result of content is universal and the form is personal.

I think this is one of the reasons why scientists are artists of knowledge. And every article or presentation of their work is unique. I don’t expect to have the same painting if two artists paint the same landscape. There is always a personal touch.

Indeed, “we observed” and “we evaluated”, but I guess the reviewer would like us to focus on the instrument that performed the observation and the technique used in the evaluation.

The writing of a scientific article must be clear enough so that others may reproduce the work. But we tend to forget there is narrative in a scientific account which is not performed by some impersonal entity, but by the author, scientist, artist.

If there is anything scientific writing could gain by exploring more its personal side I would say it is the possibility to inspire others to pursue the journey of knowledge you started.

Question: do you think knowledge workers should use the words “I”, “we” in their scientific articles?

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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