Once there used to be a royal ‘we’ – the word ‘we’ used to mean ‘I’, as in Queen Victoria’s ‘we are not amused’. These days royals almost never say ‘we’ unless they mean ‘we’. The current British monarch doesn’t even always use ‘we’ when she could. In a phrase association game, the answer to ‘my husband and I’ is ‘Queen Elizabeth II’.
Yet there is one place in which people still say ‘we’ when they mean ‘I’, and that is academia. Only a couple of weeks ago I had to remove the academic ‘we’ from a sole-author article to be published in Policy. At his blog, Andrew Leigh labels this usage ‘pretentious’. Insofar as the academic we is an implicit reference back to the royal we, he is right. But I am not sure that is what academics are consciously doing when they write ‘we’ instead of ‘I’.
Perhaps it reflects the collegial tradition within academia. As Damien Eldridge (himself an academic) writes in Andrew L’s comments:
even if the paper has a single author, it is quite possible to interpret the we as referring to the author and the reader.
But this saves ‘we’ from being pretentious by making it presumptuous instead. If a solo author writes in an academic paper ‘We conclude that…’ or ‘We believe that…’ my response is ‘speak for yourself’. The writer is trying to persuade the reader; the reader decides whether the argument warrants a ‘we’.
The ‘I/we’ problem can be solved by removing personal pronouns entirely. Over the years my articles have lost a few uses of ‘I’, excised by editors who insist it has no place in academic writing. While good stylists can keep the ‘I’ count low, a personal pronoun prohibition doesn’t always work well. If an author wants to draw a conclusion, but at the same time leave open the possibility that others could reasonably disagree, expressions like ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ are preferable to clunky formulations like ‘it could be argued that…’ or ‘it is suggested that…’ , as if arguments mysteriously exist without anyone in particular making them.
‘We’ adds authors and ‘it’ subtracts them. With one author, the precise and concise ‘I’ is better than either.