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In scientific English writing, we can use royal "we" to refer to the author(s). Can we do that in German language also.

For example:

We used method X.

Wir nutzen Methode X.

I feel that does not read well in German language, based on my limited German skills.

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    Sorry to say, neither in scientific nor any other form of English writing can any of us use "the royal we" except when speaking as royalty; not to refer to multiple authors nor in any other case. My German isn't nearly good enough to Answer the remaining part of your Question but please accept, "the royal we" could never be relevant. – Robbie Goodwin Nov 17 '20 at 0:30
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    @RobbieGoodwin: on the contrary, the "royal we" describes this situation very well: the use of the first person plural to refer to onself, just as monarchs used to do when making proclamations. – TonyK Nov 17 '20 at 11:23
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    @TonyK The "we" that is often used in mathematical and scientific writing is not the "royal we" (which is using to plural to refer to one individual), but a "collective we". When "we" is used in mathematical writing, it should be interpreted as "collectively, we, as a civilization...". – Xander Henderson Nov 17 '20 at 14:04
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    @XanderHenderson or rather, "we, the author and the reader(s)". – henning -- reinstate Monica Nov 17 '20 at 14:08
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    @XanderHenderson: Nonsense. When a mathematical paper says, for instance, "In section 7, we show that...", we refers unambiguously to the author or authors of the paper. – TonyK Nov 17 '20 at 14:08
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I cannot judge about scientific writing in general, but in mathematical publications written in German it is quite common to use "wir". Okay, in international journals you will nowadays find practically no articles written in German because authors want to be understood by a wide audience, and at German universities also doctoral dissertations and postdoctoral theses are very often written in English. But Bachelor and Master theses are still frequently written in German.

Quotation from here:

Das "Wir" in wissenschaftlichen Texten. In der Regel werden mathematische Texte in der dritten Person verfasst. Eine Ausnahme bildet das in wissenschaftlichen Texten verbreitete "Wir". Dabei handelt es sich weder um einen Pluralis Majestatis noch meinen mehrere AutorInnen sich selbst, sondern es werdend ie LeserInnen angesprochen. Sie sollen eingeladen werden, sich aktiv an der Argumentation zu beteiligen.

The relevant part is this: "Wir" is neither a Pluralis Majestatis nor do multiple authors speak as "we", but its purpose is to invite readers to join the argumentation.

That is, "wir" means author(s) plus reader(s) as a group thinking together about the arguments.

  • Very correct. Actually using "ich" sounds either defensive or salf-aggrandizing. Unless it's about laboratory notes maybe, when you are recounting what exactly happened during the accident with the sphere of plutonium. If one wants to refer to the authors, one actually explicitly says "the authors" – David Tonhofer Nov 17 '20 at 8:01
  • What do you mean by postdoctoral theses? Habilitation? – gerrit Nov 18 '20 at 16:13
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    @gerrit Yes, Habilitationschriften. We could also say "habilitation theses" ;-) – Paul Frost Nov 18 '20 at 16:22
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I am a scientist (a chemist, to be precise) but never in my scientific career have I come across a Royal We—not in English and not in German.

Most journal articles I read are full of we. But these articles also tend to have between two and ten authors. While it is assumed that one author did most of the work (usually the one listed first) the text is phrased as if all people were doing the work. To a certain extent that is justified, because the PhD student doing the lab work will give their supervisor frequent updates and in return frequently receive suggestions on what to do and how to do it. Thus, the we in these articles is the collective of authors addressing the reader(s). In German, wir is appropriate for the same reason.

In dissertations or other theses, it is slightly different as there is one principal author who compiled the text. In this case, I is the most common personal pronoun. We is sometimes but rarely used if a certain experiment was undoubtedly a group effort. This extends to the PhD student’s defence where most sentences are phrased as I-sentences (but e.g. publications are mentioned as we published X). The same is true in German: My dissertation mostly uses ich, rarely if at all wir.

Finally, in textbooks and the like it is typically a single author writing to their readers. Nonetheless, they tend to use we a lot. This, however, is again not a Royal We but rather an invitation to the reader to follow the chain of thoughts or the maths or mechanism or whatever together with the author. The same form is typically used in lectures where the lecturer expects the students to follow and expand the lecturer’s thoughts and expressions on the blackboard/slides. Again, in German this is wir for the same reason and not royal.

In languages that distinguish inclusive and exclusive we (the former including the listeners/readers, the latter excluding them), journal articles would thusly be phrased using exclusive we while lectures and textbooks would use inclusive we.

The above notwithstanding many scientific chemical texts are written in an unpersonal passive voice to keep the chemistry in focus rather than the authors. I feel that German may be using the passive voice slightly more than English to depersonalise science. Thus, especially in the experimental section it would become:

Methode X wurde verwendet.

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    This is the most elaborate and agreeable (at least for me as a scientist) answer so far. Too bad it came so late. Worth an upvote, of course! – Björn Friedrich Nov 18 '20 at 7:22
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    "never in my scientific career have I come across a Royal We—not in English and not in German" – For me, it's the exact opposite: I can't remember reading "I" in any (math) paper ever, regardless of the number of authors. Here's just two examples from arXiv [1, 2] with single authors using "we". The logic is IMO the same as you described for textbooks: The reader and author are following a train of thought together. – Mophotla Nov 18 '20 at 12:18
  • @Mophotla Even the claim that "we" means "the author and the reader" is more descriptive than prescriptive. In practice, mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists just use "we" everywhere, even in situations where the reader is obviously not included. As an example, consider a sentence from your ref. [2], page 2: "We prove two results analogous to our results from [F2]". The reference [F2] is a paper written by the same single author as [2] itself, and assuming that "our" includes the reader does not make any sense. – Uwe Nov 18 '20 at 12:57
  • @Mophotla To be fair, single author papers in chemistry are exceedingly rare and have been for decades. – Jan Nov 18 '20 at 13:43
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My first idea is, that the number of scientific articles written by one person is still decreasing. So this we seems primarily matching the plural of authors, where the exact person is not considered relevant, and is not related to majestic plural.

While I have also seen einer von uns (Name) führte das Experiment durch, bei dem..., I understand that due to the clumsy structure this is seldom used.

Otherwise I see no difference between English and German here.

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    Any scientific paper is a collaborative effort no matter how many authors are listed; there are editors, referees, advisors, etc. So I think in English the "we" is used in that spirit rather than in the royal sense. The people who read these papers are used to having to translate them, and a few hundred years ago everything was written in Latin, so generally I don't think this kind of difference would be common in scientific papers. Even if there are differences in custom, I don't think following one's own custom would be "wrong", just "unusual". – RDBury Nov 16 '20 at 13:25
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    Isn't the royal "we" meant to represent the same collaborative spirit related to the whole country population? – fraxinus Nov 16 '20 at 23:11
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If we refers to a single person, this is definitely not common.

We used method X.
Wir nutzten Methode X.

I used method X.
Ich nutzte Methode X. ( not suitable for scientific texts )

Method X was used to ...
Methode X wurde genutzt, um ...

Note: using "wir" in scientific writing (unfortunately in german)

"pedagogical" we and "discursive" we is okay to use, but not the Pluralis Majestatis.

disclaimer: There is a controversy about this topic (not only in Germany) passive or active voicing or ego-form and we-form. I claim that most in Germany reject the roayle-form and the ego-form. Ideally, you should check this with guidelines from your university or similar.

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    Your first sentence I would add sth like "we refers usually to a group of two or more people" - you think so too? When my mom/dad/husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend says "wir müssten mal xy tun", then it usually means "I hint you that you should do it". It is just colloquial and far from scientific^^ – Shegit Brahm Nov 16 '20 at 12:40
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    @ShegitBrahm this kind of "we" actually means both of you. You forgot that someone needs to do the supervising and blaming while you do the work. :) – Gerhardh Nov 16 '20 at 13:50
  • The preference for a particular style depends highly on the subject area. In math and (theoretical) computer science, first-person plural active voice is standard, even for single-authored papers, and anything else is rare. In the experimental sciences, passive voice is preferred, and I wouldn't be surprised if there is some area where people use first-person singular active within single-authored papers. – Uwe Nov 17 '20 at 9:58
  • As the question refers to scientific writing, "nutzten" (past) is wrong. Paraphrasing all of my advisors at uni: "You will use the present tense in your thesis. Even if it sounds wrong. Even if it refers to events in the past." – orithena Nov 17 '20 at 12:42
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Since, as others have mentioned, the number of scientific articles in German is quite limited nowadays, you can also have a look at lecture notes to get a feeling for scientific writing. Lecture notes for undergrad classes taught at German universities are often in German, so you will find a lot of those online.

As a concrete example, in these notes for Analysis I, the string  wir  appears 509 times, whereas  ich  appears 13 times, 12 of those in the context of a fictional conversation between two people.

So, at least as far as mathematical writing is concerned (and I don't think it is very different in other fields), the use of "wir" is absolutely common.

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    Yes, but as other answers have already mentioned, in educational context "wir" is usually understood to include the readers as well as the authors. – Hulk Nov 17 '20 at 5:31
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Your question (lacking the physical question mark) is answered by Yes!, and this in both the cases

  • there is a single author,
  • the paper is multi-authored.

This is already well-covered in this thread, IMHO, especially in the answers by Jan and by Paul Frost.

My single motivation for adding this is to propose a concrete example in scientific writing where the single author consistently uses "wir".
Have a look at/read of the 3 pages long introduction of Bivariante K-Theorie für ... which is an older but (or and) seminal mathematical article, written in German.

  • By the way, it is very obvious that the word "wir" ("we") in this example text means just "I". Not "I and my co-author", not "I and the reader", not "I and the scientific community". Authors of style guides may dislike this practice, but that doesn't change the fact that it is standard in math. – Uwe Nov 18 '20 at 22:07

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