Single authors referring to themselves as "we" is still commonplace today, and already Newton was we-ing in Principia. There is even a Latin term for we-ing, nosism, from "nos", which is Latin for "we". Googling "royal we in scientific writing" returns surprisingly many hits, including a Wikipedia article, two questions on Academia.SE, and a hilarious thread on scienceblogs with passages like "I’m we-ing all over myself", "it is apparently meant to include the author and the reader, and presupposes that the reader always agrees with anything the author might say", and "As kids we were schooled to avoid ‘I’, lest we be look like we had big egos. Instead we should be humble, and therefore all first person was the plural. This was taught to us by teachers who thought their own opinions were pure gold and more important than anything else on earth".

I guess this tells us why the practice persists, but not how it originated. The best I could find is Grammarphobia blog quoting Oxford English Dictionary, whose earliest example of nosism is "Old English translation of a 5th-century Christian history written in Latin by Paulus Orosius, a student of St. Augustine". We doubt however that scientists of all people would have been swayed by an obscure student of St. Augustine. More importantly, at least in the English translation, Ptolemy is already we-ing in the Almagest three centuries earlier. Of course, we don't know if we can trust that modern translators did not insert modern usage, but they did translate Archimedes and Apollonius referring to themselves as "I".

So where did nosism come from and how did it take hold? Is Ptolemy we-ing in the original, and was he the one who started the practice in science (that would make more sense than Orosius)? Or was it somebody else?


1 Answer 1


The "we" in the scientific papers does not mean the "royal we". This "we" means "you and I", that is "the author and the reader". For example, in proving something they say "let us consider"... and then "we conclude". A teacher addressing the class says: "we write", "we draw", inviting her students to do the same.

Some people write instead "I consider..." "I obtain", but this sounds more arrogant and rarely used.

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    $\begingroup$ I guess it sounds differently to different people.english.stackexchange.com/questions/80493/we-i-this-author But the question is not about what it means (or rather how to justify using it), but how it came to be commonly used. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Feb 23, 2015 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ I do not read ancient Greek, but judging by translations that I have, Euclid and Archimedes write "I", while Ptolemy writes "we". Newton writes "I", while most modern mathematicians use "we". $\endgroup$ Feb 23, 2015 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ If it weren't for the many upvotes I would be tempted to flag this as "not an answer". While a perfectly valid comment, it doesn't actually address the question, which is why and when did the practice of writing scientific articles in first person come to be. $\endgroup$
    – A.P.
    Oct 29, 2015 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ From my comment before your comment you may see that this was probably already common in the ancient times. About flagging: why should you follow the crowd? Vote down or flag if you are not satisfied. Or better, write a better answer. $\endgroup$ Oct 29, 2015 at 19:09

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