26 June 2011

The Passive We

The heart of academia is the peer review process, and the heart of the peer review process is peer review. We read one another's papers to try to make sure that published articles quack like a paper. And since the gatekeepers are peer reviewers, we all try to have peers review our papers before they are submitted to a journal, on the same theory as the lottery number picker I once saw on sale -- a ping pong ball bubbler just like the lottery has.

I like reviewing, and I'm pretty good at it, so I get asked to read friends' and colleagues' papers more often than the average academic. One thing I do for friends that we are advised against doing in real reviewing is throw in some copy editing. Academics, by and large, aren't great stylists but a better written paper is more likely, all other things equal, to get published than a poorly written paper.

We all have some odd writing habits (foreigners are absolutely convinced that it's ungrammatical to start a sentence with "Because"), but mostly the people I review accept my advice. There are two exceptions. I cannot convince anyone to: refer to themselves in the first person singular in single-authored papers; or to stop assigning agency to the paper (as in "This paper conclusively proves..."). So papers that I know a friend of mine wrote all on his own keep saying that "we" did this and "we" argue that. Then, in the next paragraph, "we" stop doing anything and the paper itself gets up off the table and conducts research.

I'm not sure how to explain this reluctance to take personal responsibility for a paper that the author hopes to publish and take credit for. Does it seem too egotistical to write that "due to the nested nature of the data, I used hierarchical linear modeling?" Why write that "we used" or "this paper uses?"

Management research and writing is almost always performed alone. Since peer review is double blind (the reviewers don't know the identity of the author and the author doesn't know the reviewers) the flow of credibility is from work to author, not the other way round. As a result, this blog post is puzzled that we write this way.


Harry Eagar said...

I'm waiting for a monograph that blames the errors on the editors.

David said...

The editors don't stop it, so to that extent it's their fault. But very little copy editing is done to a submitted article before it is published, at least in management.

erp said...

I never understood why being self-referencial was a bad thing and it's often all I can do to stop myself from mutilating library books with corrections of both grammar and facts.