Point of View in Academic Papers: When to Choose First- or Third-Person 

Much of academic writing is constrained by our disciplines. We do not get to experiment with creative interpretations of language and style. In fact, we pretty much follow a distinct set of rules, such as the APA Publication Manual, if we ever want to be published. However, we do get a few choices here and there, including first-person or third-person point of view (POV). In general, always check with the author guide on your target journal’s website. Some journals will specifically state which POV to use. If there is no guidance, then review the most recent issue of the journal to see if there is a standard. If the results are mixed, then the choice is yours! Here’s a few tips for choosing wisely.

Third-Person Point of View

Third-person POV has a lot going for it. It is the traditional style and comes across as more formal (is sciencier a word yet?). Such formality can be helpful when your topic is “The individuated hobbit: Jung, Tolkien, and the archetypes of Middle-Earth.” Another benefit is that authors can differentiate between team members without giving credit incorrectly. This is useful when some of the authors may not have been involved with all aspects of the project, and a blanket “we” seems inappropriate. For example, one could write, “the research assistants debriefed participants immediately following the interview.”

A danger of third-person POV is that it’s easier to fall into the trap of passive voice. For example, consider this quote from “Star Wars: A developmental study of expert and novice knowledge structures:

“A probe procedure determined whether a subject could successively identify a basic action and its related subgoals and high-level goals.”

Yucky passive voice! A probe procedure isn’t sentient and didn’t determine anything… humans did. Sticking with the third-person POV, the authors should have written the  sentence above as:

“The authors used a probe procedure to determine whether…”

Yeah, sounds kind of stilted, but that’s the nature and glory of third-person POV.

First-Person Point of View

First-person POV is my personal preference because I believe it is easier to read. Since I often write about suicide and suicide prevention, I like my academic writing to be as warm and personal as possible. In some disciplines, first-person POV is standard to help elucidate the authors’ personal connections to the topic-at-hand. I always get a kick out of disclosures like this:

“With regard to full disclosure, we acknowledge long histories of working with individuals with tattooing and body piercings (at least six previous studies and more than 25 years of  advanced clinical practice in women’s health care). None of us, however, have tattoos or piercings other than pierced ear lobes.”

If you are using qualitative analysis, don’t even think about third-person POV!

Second-Person Point of View

Really? Do we need to discuss second-person POV? The only acceptable times to use it are:

  • Informal blogs
  • Choose your own adventure books
  • A bizarre combination of the two

Any other use gets the red pen!