Tense in scientific papers – a question of ethics

“There is one special convention of writing scientific papers that is very tricky. It has to do with tense, and it is important because its proper usage derives from scientific ethics.

When a scientific paper has been validly published in a primary journal, it thereby becomes knowledge. Therefore, whenever you quote previously published work, ethics require you to treat that work with respect. You do this by using the present tense.” — Robert A. Day

Because the Introduction, Discussion, and Conclusion often emphasize previously established knowledge, you would use the present tense much of the time.

Present Tense (is, are)

  • Introduction
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion

In the Abstract, where you discuss the results of your paper, you would mostly use the past tense. Following this rule, you should use the past tense in the Materials and Results sections, where you describe what you did and found.

Past Tense (was, were)

  • Abstract
  • Materials and Methods
  • Results

According to Day, in attribution, it is conventional to use the “historic present” tense because the published work is considered knowledge. But using the past tense is acceptable. You can find a discussion of tense in attribution and presentation from Robert A. Day’s How to Write & Publish a Scientific Paper.

Please check your university or publication’s guidelines for authors as these conventions may not be applicable to all publications.

©Susan Hatch Morgan and Oxford Editing, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Hatch Morgan and Oxford Editing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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