“Objective” science and the “subjective” I

The other day my son told me that in his school essays he is not allowed to use a phrase like “I will conclude that…” I agreed that such announcements are inelegant – just do it, and write clearly enough so that the reader knows what it is you’re doing. But that was not the problem. He is not allowed to use “I”, because “it is unscientific”. My heart sank. Why must 15-year olds be corrupted with this nonsense? It is bad enough that this dogma is stamped into our first-year students’ brains. Each year I need to reassure my bachelor thesis students that with me, they can use any personal pronoun they like. And then I have to reassure them again, because after all, they insist, using “I” is unscientific, everyone knows that. When it finally gets through to them that it’s really okay, they giggle.

I used to think that the Publication Manual of the APA must be the source of the no-“I” dogma, but I was wrong. For all its faults, the Manual is remarkably sensible about pronouns. Avoid passive constructions, it says for example (§ 3.18). You should write “we conducted the survey in a controlled setting”, rather than “the survey was conducted in a controlled setting”. Don’t use the third person to describe the steps you took in your experiment, use a personal pronoun: “we reviewed the literature”, not “the authors reviewed the literature” (§ 3.09). (And if you are the sole author, don’t use “we”, use “I”.) The Manual notes that authors use the third person because they think it is “objective”, and that, I think, hits the nail on the head. The real source of the prejudice against the first person singular is the mistaken belief that you can make science objective by pretending it is the work of anonymous people (“the authors reviewed the literature”) or by erasing all traces of human interference altogether (“surveys were conducted”).

We need to use the first person singular and plural more often. Science only gets better if researchers are explicit about their role in the research process, the decisions they made and the work they did. Don’t take my word for it, Henk Kiers (professor of statistics and dean of the faculty) said the same thing in the recent colloquium on “Healthy research practices”. To make your research maximally informative, he said, you should tell the full story of a study: your line of reasoning, the choices you made, the dead ends, the outliers you removed, in short: the full journey you travelled to arrive at your results. There’s nothing wrong with making choices, even after you’ve looked at the data, as long as you’re transparent about it. I think Henk Kiers is right; and with him Tom Postmes, who made much the same point in his presentation at the colloquium (see also his recent post on Mindwise). The way to make science better, more “objective” (whatever that means, but that’s for another day) is not to remove the human fingerprints, it is to examine each other’s work, the journeys we travelled, and explore alternative routes. Science is a product of human labour, of people making decisions and choices, and pretending that it isn’t, is just wrong. In fact, it’s unscientific.

Maarten Derksen studied Theoretical Psychology at the University of Leiden. He received his PhD from the University of Groningen for a study of the rhetoric with which psychologists demarcate their discipline from common sense. He is still interested in the boundaries of psychology; other current research topics include the possibilities and limitations of biological approaches in psychology, and social technology. He is the chair of the examencommisie for psychology, at RUG, and an associate of the ‘What makes organisation?‘ research programme at the Copenhagen Business School.

You can also find him, and most of his papers, on academia.edu.

Select Publications

Derksen, M. (in press). Putting Popper to work. Theory & Psychology.

Derksen, M. (2017). Histories of Human Engineering: Tact and Technology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rivers, N. A., & Derksen, M. (2015). Ecologies of deception in psychology and rhetoric. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 101(4), 633–654.

Rymarczuk, R., & Derksen, M. (2014). Different spaces: Exploring Facebook as heterotopia. First Monday, 19(6).

Derksen, M. (2014). Turning Men into Machines? Scientific Management, Industrial Psychology, and the “Human Factor.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 50(2), 148–165.

Derksen, M. & Wierenga, T. (2013). The history of “Social Technology”, 1898–1930. History and Technology, 29(4), 311–330.

Derksen, M. (2012). Control and resistance in the psychology of lying. Theory & Psychology, 22(2), 196-212.

Derksen, M., Vikkelsø, S. & Beaulieu, A. (2012). Social technologies: Cross-disciplinary reflections on technologies in and from the social sciences. Theory & Psychology, 22(2), 139-147.

Derksen, M. & Beaulieu, A. (2011). Social technology. In I. Jarvie, I. & J. Zamora-Bonilla (eds), Handbook of the philosophy of the social sciences (pp. 703-720). London: Sage.

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  • Brock A. Lee April 29, 2015  

    Really interesting for me as a student, I have not thought about it this way before.
    Without it really being a conscious topic for me so far, I just assumed that the less subjective a paper sounds, the more professional it is. Where I got that from… no idea. I just checked the owl.purdue.edu website to see if I read it there, but it also states what Maarten Derksen writes.


  • Eric Rietzschel April 29, 2015  


  • Eric Rietzschel April 29, 2015  

    That said, there probably is a difference between writing “I conducted this-and-that analysis”, or “I decided to remove so-and-so many participants from the sample” on the one hand, and writing “I think that this is interesting” or “I find this argument very compelling.” As a reader, I would find the former informative, and the latter a bit annoying. I want to know what the researcher did, but I don’t particularly care to know what the researcher’s personal opinions are.

    The rule of thumb I usually give my students is this: ‘it’s not forbidden to use “I”, but keep in mind that the story you write is not about you, but about your research. You,l as a person, should only play a role in the story when that is relevant for the research you describe.’ Of course, that only begs the question when it IS relevant, but, well…

    I guess we need to walk the fine line between Stalinistically editing ourselves out of our research reports, as if we never existed, and a ‘wethouder Hekking’-like style of forcing ourselves into the reader’s view whenever we can. If we manage to avoid both, we might be on the right track. 🙂

  • Maarten Derksen April 29, 2015  

    Sure, and that’s also the rule of thumb I suggest to my students. And as you say, making decisions about these things is inevitable when you’re writing, just as doing research involves making a lot of choices.

  • Stephan Schleim April 29, 2015  

    Does anybody know whether “objective” writing is less common in other disciplines than in (mainstream) psychology, which historically wanted/needed to separate itself from metaphysical speculation as well as introspection to be more respected as a science?

  • Tom Postmes April 29, 2015  

    Nice post Maarten! You may now know: the APA has made a u-turn on this dimension. The old APA manual (3rd ed. and maybe 4th too) instructed writers to avoid personal pronouns. I can not remember ever reading an explanation for why they changed their views on this (maybe because the manual still avoids sentences such as “we believe that”).

    For readers interested in scientific writing and its abuses, I can highly recommend Michael Billig’s (2013) book “Learn to write badly: How to succeed in the social sciences”. If reading a whole book is too much to ask, you can also read this article:
    Billig, M. (2011). Writing social psychology: Fictional things and unpopulated texts. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50(1), 4-20. DOI:10.1111/j.2044-8309.2010.02003.x

    Billig’s advice on how to improve your writing runs parallel to that in George Orwell’s (1948?) “Politics and the English language”, which can easily be found online.

  • Maarten Derksen April 29, 2015  

    Good tip, Tom. Billig is an excellent writer himself.

    I didn’t know about the U-turn. Good to know that even a colossus like the APA can change course sometimes.

  • Yvonne Groen May 6, 2015  

    Thanks for sharing your ideas on this; this is an eye-opener to me! I will try to take the U-turn, and hopefully many will follow.

  • Pingback: Science and I – Psychology & History June 13, 2017  

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