By Sean Carroll | March 11, 2008 2:01 pm

External review letters for tenure cases, like recommendation letters more generally, aren’t usually public, so who knows what juicy bits are in there that will never see the light of day? Here is a line from a letter which I promise is genuine:

[Prof. X] is too bold for [his/her] rank, and uses the first person pronoun too freely for a junior scholar.

Not a physicist, not anyone at Caltech or anywhere else I have been affiliated with, so don’t even try to guess. But I’d be tickled to get such a line. (The candidate received otherwise uniformly positive reviews, and was unanimously approved.)

  • andy.s

    If I were to receive such a review, I would insist on being referred to thereafter as “Andrew The Bold”.

    And Andrew The Bold would soon start referring to himself in the third person, oh, yeah, you’d better believe it.

  • Luis

    Maybe I’m also too bold for my rank, but I tend to have a grudge against people who use the agentless passive too often. Whenever someone writes “an experiment was performed”, it sounds to me like they just happened to stroll pass the lab while some mysterious person was doing sciency stuff.

  • B

    one wouldn’t believe what stuff gets written in letters. and I haven’t even seen many of them. the most interesting case was (junior faculty hire) a letter that pointed out candidate X has a long beard. more tragic are the cases in which the person writing the letter apparently was rather unwilling to, which reads like (i paraphrase) ‘I don’t know X, he appeared in my office late this semester and talked until blood run out of my ears. even if I wanted to I couldn’t say anything nice, so please don’t bother me.’

  • Rob Knop

    That is one of the saddest things that I’ve read in a long time.

    In fact, I would take that as a “avoid at all costs, never get involved in a venture with” about the *writer* of the letter.

  • anon.

    Oh, how I would love to have something like that written about me. It’s hilarious.

  • Thomas S.

    Sean, I think that line you posted is hilarious!

    Oh I’m sorry, I forget my lowly rank.

    It is thought that the line referenced in [1] is hilarious.

  • Elliot

    I have always been struck by what seems to be a scientific paper protocol where a single author may very well use “we” as the appropriate pronoun even though it is clearly incorrect.

    As such “we” think this is pretty funny and hope the author starts to get more fiber in his/her diet as the problem is obvious to us “regular” folk.


  • Brett

    I always use “we,” even in single-author papers. However, I try to phrase things in such a way that my “we” (to quote the Physical Review style guide) “politely includes the reader”–as in, “We can see from equation (3)….” I do not, however, hold myself strictly to that rule. If a first-person pronoun construction is called for, other options being awkward or confusing, I use “we,” even if the antecedent can be nobody other than myself.

    This use of “we” is often referred to as the “royal ‘we.'” Yet it carries almost the opposite implication from the actual use of “we” by a monarch to refer to himself. (Whether the implication is the same if it’s a monarch referring to herself is yet another question.) A king calling himself “we” implies plurality and, by extension, additional authority. He speaks not for himself but for the entire kingdom. (Related is the form of metonymy in which the king is referred to by the name of his realm. “Do it, Enlgand!” cries Claudius in Hamlet.) But a researcher using “we” paradoxically gives the impression of greater modesty than one using “I.” I suppose this is because the personal contribution of the scientist is seemingly downplayed with the plural usage. For me at least, “we” does sound more modest, and I came to this conclusion long before anybody told me that this was generally accepted to be the case. I found the first paper I remember reading that used “I” extensively (Robert Laughlin’s original correct explanation of the fractional quantum Hall effect, which I stumbled upon while searching for another paper in the same volume of PRL and decided to read) remarkably bold-sounding. (To be fair, however, Laughlin’s scientific style had quite a bit more personal narrative than that of most physicists.)

  • Thomas Larsson

    I use I when I mean I and we when I mean I and the reader. But then again, this author does not care much about other peoples’ opinion.

  • Jason Dick

    I don’t know. I don’t see how ‘we’ is more modest at all. It seems, to me, that if one writes a paper written by a single author in the exact same style as one written by multiple authors, it gives the impression that the single-author paper requires the same degree of scrutiny. In my opinion, however, the single-author paper desires significantly more scrutiny, as no matter how good a scientist you are, only a single person did the checking up on this paper. So I fully support the use of the singular pronoun in single-author papers, as it makes it more clear to the reader that things should be checked out perhaps a bit more thoroughly than normal.

    I guess this is just because I don’t understand [i]at all[/i] how it is in any way arrogant to explain plainly and clearly what I did.

  • The Bald

    Jason Dick
    If someone wrote a single author paper then he should give it at least to 3 experts to read before putting it on the arxiv for example. That goes without saying!

  • Mark S.

    Maybe he’s just like his mother — she’s never satisfied.

    What, too subtle?

  • Sufferer

    One of the things I keep suffering of when visiting the US: the “I” sayers. Had hardly any plane ride without having to listen to people saying, usually with a penetrating voice: “I did this I said that I said that I did this I I I I”… args. I’d be prepared to congratulate them for being how they are and to pay a fee for not having to listen to it any longer.

    How consoling that there are other people on the planet suffering in the same way.

  • Yarrow

    “the first person pronoun” — yes, but first person singular, or first person plural? This lowly individual would not presume to mention them by name, but the first, as you know, has one letter, and the second two.

  • B

    I feel very odd if I write a single authored paper using ‘we’. If anyhow possible I try to avoid it all together (‘one sees…’, ‘one can expand…’ etc), but it doesn’t always work. I find it perfectly okay if somebody writes a paper in the first person.

    @Sufferer: I find the omnipresent word ‘like’ much more disturbing. I recently had to listen to a student (of journalism) who (no exaggeration) managed to use the word ‘like’ after all two words. “And then I said like you know he like shouldn’t say like things like this if he like doesn’t want to like… etc.”

  • Neil B.

    About this first person thing: many times it is more honest to say, that the author suspects or finds an argument attractive etc, and can’t (or shouldn’t) just present actions, facts, and “obvious conclusions.” It seems to me, it would be more likely a less senior or expert writer could best benefit him/herself and readers by being candid in that regard. The alternative is the idiotic and deceiving royal “we”, or a pretense of certitude or descriptiveness that is not warranted in cases where “I ….” is indicated. To serve the needs of communication should trump petty habits and expectations based on the ethology or stale tradition.

  • Paul

    Although the most junior professorial rank in the US tenure system is called “assistant professor,” in reality one should not be assisting anyone, but rather establishing himself/herself as a leader. The idea that there is a “proper” style of written communication appropriate to “junior scholar” status is, therefore, quite offensive, regardless of whether it involves “we” or “I.” One shouldn’t have to know one’s place if it’s against one’s interest (broadly construed) to do so.

    That said, I’ve always thought that saying “we” when one is referring to oneself sounds … affected.

  • The AstroDyke

    Thanks for posting this, Sean.

    At a recent job interview, I was surprised how baldly they stated the tenure criteria. Paraphrasing: “Teaching, research, and impact on the department are irrelevant. What matters is what a few old men in your field think of you. We’ll be sending them letters asking them to compare you to a list of other youngins. Your name had better come up first.”

    Had I not done my homework before the visit, I would have been flabbergasted. As it, it still strikes me as strange. Is it, or is just me?

  • http://deleted Simon DeDeo

    I was told by a mystical spirit that “we” usage comes from the Enlightenment (Robert Hooke?) who used it not because they had co-authors (they usually didn’t) but to emphasise the revolutionary thing about science: anybody could replicate their results (this was not just for the enlightened), and they gave enough details (no secrets). So they settled on “we”, to include the reader in their descriptions of what they did.

  • http://deleted Simon DeDeo

    Also: slashdot has meta-moderation; could we not have meta-recommendations? “Professor X prasied Y to the skies, but was blind to the fact that Y was a raging asshole.” Or, alternatively, “Professor X slammed Z, but actually is just a big sexist.”

    The rumor at Princeton’s astro dept was that the faculty got votes on graduate applicants that were continuously adjusted based on the performance of those students after they graduated.

  • Dr. RTV

    Paraphrasing: “Teaching, research, and impact on the department are irrelevant. What matters is what a few old men in your field think of you. We’ll be sending them letters asking them to compare you to a list of other youngins. Your name had better come up first.”

    Had I not done my homework before the visit, I would have been flabbergasted. As it, it still strikes me as strange. Is it, or is just me?

    Certain departments or schools with very high opinions of themselves do things this way, though I would say that the majority do not. It’s just the way they do things – “We’re the top department in the country” [except not really] “so if you’re not the top person we need you to move along.” It’s open to question whether this actually gets them a better department then if they just hired good people and kept them.

    I can think of a couple of National Academy members who got the boot from this type of department when they were younger. Of course, the attitude of Department X that never tenures is that being an accomplished junior prof there for six years should guarantee you a plum job elsewhere when they put you on the street, so they might not see that as a problem. If you really prove yourself, they’ll think about bringing you back as a senior hire.

  • The AstroDyke

    Dr. RTV, that’s it, precisely. So the question is, is that attitude worth putting up with.

  • http://Celestialmechanician Celestial mechanician

    In science, and in technical discourse, I use I when I am referring to a hypothesis that is not yet experimentally proven that I am posting. I also use I when I want to show what I am doing, like I might state: “I am dividing this equation into two parts.” I never use we because it implies a group that understands and a group that does not understand. That seems to me pretentious and a bit of charlatanism. My goal with those that do not understand is to provide effective pedagogy, not to be an aloof high priest who does not speak the same language, or even a language of common sense.

    In creative works, and literary efforts, using I is inescapable. It is always used to preface or be included in any statements, stating some thing like: “This is what I think, or just I think, for instance saying that W needs waterboarding.

    All that being said any particular author’s style must flow both naturally and fluently from his or her fingers, by instinctive, intuitive use, that derives biologically from innate genetic ability and the nurture of the society we are raised in.

    About the concept of being bold I think we should look at the definition of bold:

    Main Entry: bold
    Pronunciation: b?ld
    Function: adjective
    Etymology: Middle English, from Old English beald; akin to Old High German bald bold
    Date: before 12th century
    1 a: fearless before danger : intrepid b: showing or requiring a fearless daring spirit
    2: impudent, presumptuous
    3obsolete : assured, confident
    4: sheer, steep
    5: adventurous, free
    6: standing out prominently
    7: being or set in boldface
    — bold•ly b?l(d)-l? adverb
    — bold•ness b?l(d)-n?s noun

    Could this attribute, if one is also not arrogant about it, be the highest adjective, the highest attribute of mankind?

  • http://theboldruler The Bold Ruler

    Celestial mechanician,

    When you use I and mean we does it make you feel:

    1. hypocritical
    2. a liar
    3. presumptive
    4. wrong
    5. right
    6. guilty as charged

  • Celestial mechanician

    1: What is prostitution?

    257: In addition to the oldest profession, it is giving up the responsibility of your klafte to a man.

    1: Is it bad?

    257: No. it’s Natural.

    1: How do the theorists today feel?

    257: Like utter whores.

    1: Is that good or bad?

    257: Quite good. It potentates the eel like capacitor.

    1: What is the voltage?

    257: Don’t know exactly but high.

  • Celestial mechanician

    Bold Ruler,

    Actually guilty by reason of insanity!

  • Celestial mechanician

    Oops, that’s NOT guilty by reason of insanity!

  • Mark Jackson

    I would take “The Jimmy” approach (Seinfeld episode 105) and refer to myself in the third person in a group of people who didn’t know me. Then I could casually state “Mark Jackson’s been doing some brilliant work lately” or “You know who our group should hire? Mark Jackson” and it would look like I’m praising a fellow colleague.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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