TM&Th blog
Jean-luc Doumont
Use the subject as the subject

I have noticed a similar type of phrase in the introductions
of most technical papers, [namely] “This paper will discuss…”,
“The purpose of this document is to…”. I do not particularly
like to read this line and especially not to write it in my own
papers. Can you offer your feelings towards this phrase?

Asked by Thomas Coombes from Blackwood, New Jersey

In a sentence, it seems logical to use the subject as the subject,
that is, to use the subject you are talking about in the sentence
as grammatical subject for it. If you are talking about the paper,
for example in an effort to prepare the readers for its structure
(usually at the end of the introduction), there is nothing wrong
with writing This paper summarizes… or Section 2 explains….
The question is, are you sure you are talking about the paper?
And if you are, are you doing so in the most appropriate place?

Typically, readers of a technical paper first want to be told why
something needed to be done (the need for the work reported)
and what was done (the task)—including who did it. If they are
interested in these need and task, then they will want to know
what the paper is about; otherwise, why would they want to?
Starting the abstract or the introduction of a technical paper
with the sentence This paper… makes therefore little sense:
either this sentence is about the paper's content or structure
(as its subject this paper suggests) and thus comes too early,
or it is in fact meant to introduce the task (or even the need)
and thus has a misleading subject, as in This paper presents
an investigation of the effect of … carried out in response to …

A more logical sequence for the readers is to have the context
(In the last 10 years, …), then the need (Recently, however, …)
and the task (Therefore, we investigated the effect of … on …)
before discussing the document itself (This paper presents…).

As a rule, I recommend keeping task and object of the paper
clearly separated. The first is about the work of the authors,
and it is best written in the first person and in the past tense
(we investigated); the second is about communication, that is,
about the document, and it is best written in the third person
and in the present tense (this paper presents). Mixing the two
is usually suboptimal. The sentence In this paper, we show…
shifts the authors' contribution from research to reporting,
but is otherwise not problematic. In contrast, In this paper,
we investigate…
is already far less defendable (presumably,
the investigation took place before the writing of the paper),
while In this paper, we measure… makes no sense at all:
the authors measured (past tense) in the field or in the lab.

At a finer level, and exactly as I would recommend to replace
This paper will discuss (future tense) by This paper discusses
(present tense), I would be careful about expressing intent
rather than fact. For example, The purpose of this document
is to explain…
can be replaced by the more concise phrase
This document explains…. On the rare occasion when intent
must be maintained, the sentence can still use the document
as grammatical subject and express the intention in the verb,
as in This paper aims to clarify… (writing This paper clarifies…
might be presumptuous here: only readers can tell if it does).

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