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VIII. Using APA Style in Academic Writing: Clear Attribution of Action

Feb 12, 2015 by Jeff Hume-Pratuch

Writers new to the academic scene often struggle with presenting their ideas in objective language. The theory is that the facts of the research can be evaluated in a pure way if they are stripped of any reference to the researcher; after all, facts can be observed by anyone! This concept is often distilled into the rule “Never write in the first person.”

It might seem safer and more objective to avoid the first person altogether, but attempts to strictly eliminate it from your writing can lead to confusion about who is doing what. Fortunately, the APA Publication Manual does not forbid writing in the first person. Use of I or we is particularly recommended when writing about the steps of your experiment and the conclusions you reached as a result.

 Writers fall into three common errors when they focus on objectivity to the exclusion of clarity: misuse of the third person, anthropomorphism, and the editorial we.  

Third Person

  • Incorrect: As noted by Jenkins, Jones, and Berow (2009), mice are very fond of cheese. The authors tested this theory by placing pairs of mice in a cage with 2 kg of Wisconsin cheddar.

Who are “the authors” in this example? They could be Jenkins et al., or they could be the authors of the current paper. Use of the first person pronoun (we) clarifies the action and avoids any confusion.

  • Correct: As noted by Jenkins, Jones, and Berow (2009), mice are very fond of cheese. We tested this theory by placing pairs of mice in a cage with 2 kg of Wisconsin cheddar.

Anthropomorphism

The problem with anthropomorphism is twofold: (a) attributing human characteristics to animals, and (b) attributing agency to inanimate objects. 

  • Correct: Pairs of rats were allowed to forage together.
  • Incorrect: Rat couples were allowed to forage together.

In this example, couples is considered a human characteristic. Humans form couples; that is, they enter into a relationship. Rats may share a cage, but attributing an emotional attachment or relationship to them would be a subjective judgment.

  • Correct: In this experiment, we attempt to demonstrate that rats prefer peanut butter to cheese.
  • Incorrect: This experiment attempts to demonstrate that rats prefer peanut butter to cheese.

Who is actually making the attempt? It’s the researchers, not the experiment.

Editorial We

There is one use of we that should be avoided in APA Style: the editorial or universal we. Limit the use of the first person to refer to yourself (I) and your coauthors (we). If you are not attributing the action to yourself but talking about a more general experience, substitute the appropriate noun (e.g., people, humans, researchers, nurse practitioners).

  • Correct: Humans experience the world as a spectrum of sights, sounds, and smells.
  • Incorrect: We experience the world as a spectrum of sights, sounds, and smells.

It is possible to write objectively without obliterating all traces of your own activity from the report. Remember to keep attribution of action clear and logical by focusing on who’s performing the action, not avoidance of personal pronouns.

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