Using the Correct Verb Tense–Critical to Making an Impact on the Reader
When writing an academic paper, writers should follow the accepted grammar and style conventions: not only to abide by the institutional and domain standards, but to communicate clearly to readers what was studied, when it took place, and from what perspective you are discussing your research (and that of others) in your paper. One crucial writing element that you must consider when composing your paper is verb tense. Which tense you use will determine the flow and coherency of your paper.
You might have found yourself thinking along these lines: “Everything in this study has already been completed, so shouldn’t I simply write everything in the simple past tense?”
The answer is no–at least not in a strict sense. The verb tense you use for a given sentence or phrase depends on your position as the author to the material you are discussing. As the author, you look at each element mentioned in your text from a distance in terms of your role: as a participant, critic, or messenger, among others. You must also take into account the chronological reasons for choosing between present and past tenses in a given instance.
Knowing which tense to use requires both knowledge of the exact guidelines set out for you in whichever formatting style you are following (APA, AMA, etc.), as well as some discretion and savvy in choosing the tense that makes the most sense for a given statement in the paper.
While new authors should certainly familiarize themselves with the specific guidelines of the formatting style they are applying, this article will focus on the most common rules of verb tense applied to research papers in journals and at academic institutions, reflecting basic verb usage rules in academic English and encompassing all formatting styles.
Bear in mind that these grammar and verb-tense issues will largely be corrected by any competent manuscript editor or research paper editing service, and thus professional revision of all academic documents is recommended before submission to journals or conferences.
Some Rules of Thumb for Present, Past, and Perfect Tense
First, there are three basic verb tenses used in research papers: present (simple present), simple past, and present perfect. We will talk about how research paper sections determine verb tense in a minute, but first let’s review when each tense should be used in general throughout the paper.
The present tense is used to talk about general facts, discuss current meanings and implications, and suggest future applications.
General facts are constant and do not change throughout time (the ultimate evolution of scientific progress notwithstanding). Always use the present when discussing general scientific facts.
Example: “Insulin and glucagon regulates blood glucose levels.”
Implications are closely related to general facts and thus the same rule is applied.
Example: “An elevated glucose level indicates a lack of glucagon hormones in the pancreas.”
Further research is called for or stressed as important through a phrase in the present tense.
Example: “Further studies about glucagon receptors are needed.”
SIMPLE PAST TENSE
The simple past is generally used to discuss events that have been completed in the past at some distinct time and/or place. It is most often applied to discrete events such as studies, experiments, or observed phenomena.
Example: “Scientists in Wales discovered a new enzyme in the liver.”
Example: “Protocol X was used to analyze the data.”
PRESENT PERFECT TENSE
The present perfect tense (or simply “perfect tense”) is used in research paper to refer to events or actions that have taken place at some unidentified time in the past or have started but are still ongoing or only recently completed. It often establishes a general background in the Introduction section, adding a backdrop on which you can explain the motivations for and purpose of your study.
Note that it is the least frequently used tense in most research papers and should not be over-employed–focus more on detailed actions by using the simple past.
Example: “Many studies have focused on glucagon as an important regulating hormone.”
Example: “Until recently, researchers have analyzed this kind of data using Chi-Square Statistics.”
Example: “Efforts have been made to understand more about this process.” (passive)
Appropriate Verb Tenses By Research Paper Section
It bears repeating that the “best” tense to use is the one that is recommended (or demanded) by whichever formatting manual you are using. However, there is a high degree of continuity between the common styles, and the following rules for usage in each section will likely apply to your research paper no matter where it will be published.
In general, use the simple past for the abstract of your manuscript; for a concise introductory sentence, use the present perfect. To establish a need for your study—–for instance, by explaining the current circumstances of the world or the specific area in which you are working—–you can also use the present tense.
Example of introductory sentence (present perfect): “Recent studies of glucagon and insulin production have led to breakthroughs in medicine.”
Example of establishing background/circumstances/purpose (present): “Diabetes accounts for a higher number of deaths in the US than previously calculated.”
For general statements and facts, the paper itself, or analysis of findings, use the present tense.
Example of a statement of fact: “In the US, diabetes is the most common endocrine disease.”
If you are stating a fact or finding from an earlier specified time or place, use the simple past:
Example: “In 2016, diabetes was the most common endocrine disease.” Have a look at our more in-depth instruction to writing an abstract for a research paper or at these do’s and don’ts of abstract writing if you need additional input.
Use a mixture of present and past tense in the introduction section.
The present tense is applied when discussing something that is always true; the simple past tense is used for earlier research efforts, either your own or those reported by another group.
Example of earlier research efforts (simple past): “This same research team discovered a similar enzyme in their 2012 study.”
If the time of demonstration is unknown or not important, use the present perfect.
Example: “Prior research has indicated a correlation between X and Y.”
For the concluding statements of your introduction, use the simple past or present perfect.
Example of concluding statement (simple past): “The CalTech glucagon studies were inconclusive.”
Example of concluding statement (present perfect): “Prior research in this area has been inconclusive.”
Use the past perfect when you talk about something that happened or was found to be the case in the past, but which has since been revised. Example of revised information (past perfect): “The Dublonsky study had determined that X was Y, but a 2012 study found this to be incorrect.”
Knowing which tenses to use for a literature review (either as part of a research paper or as a stand-alone article) can be a bit tricky, as your usage depends both on which style manual you are using (APA, AMA, MLA, or others) and on how you are discussing the literature.
The simple past is usually applied when using the researcher’s name as the subject of the sentence and discussing the methods or results of that study itself
Example of describing researcher’s actions: “Pearson (1997) discovered a new enzyme using similar methods.”
Other verbs commonly found in this usage context: investigated, compared, studied, analyzed, investigated, found, confirmed, performed, etc.
When giving your opinion on another researcher’s work or bringing up the results, discussion, and conclusions they make in their work, use the present tense.
Example of discussing another’s work: “Ryuku (2005) concludes that there are no additional enzymes present in the liver, a finding this current study directly refutes.” Other verbs commonly found in this usage context: stresses, advocates, remarks, argues, claims, posits. etc.
The Methods section fairly clearly delineates between sections written in past and those written in present tense.
Use the simple past tense to talk about what you did. (Note that you will generally find the passive voice used when describing the actions of the researchers. This puts more focus on the actions being completed and less on the agents completing the action. Passive voice has become the general standard for research papers in recent decades, but it is okay to mix passive and active voice in order to make your paper clearer and more readable.)
Example of methods of study: “A glucose molecule was added to the mixture to see how the peptide would respond.”
Example of methods of analysis: “The results were analyzed using Bayesian inference.”
Use the present tense to refer to or explain diagrams, figures, tables, and charts.
Example: “Table 5 shows the results of this first isolated test.”
Example: “The results of this first isolated test are displayed in Table 5.”
The verb tense rules for the Results section are quite similar to those applied to the Methods section.
Use the past tense to discuss actual results.
Example: “The addition of 0.02 μg of glycogen activated receptor cells.”
Example: “Receptor cells were activated by the addition of 0.02 μg of glycogen.”
Use the simple present tense to explain diagrams/figures/tables. Again, sentences may use both the active and passive voice.
The Discussion section consists of an analysis of the findings and a kind of translation of what the meanings and implications of these findings are.
Use the simple past to summarize your own findings.
Example of summarizing own findings: “The experiment yielded a number of results associated with the processing of glucose.”
Use the present tense to interpret and discuss the significance of your findings.
Example: “[This study confirms that] synthetic glucagon is two-thirds as effective at decreasing fatty acid synthesis.”
Conclusions and Further Work
The conclusion and call for further work to be done are either provided in the last sentence or two of your paper or in a separate (but short) section at the end of the main text (check the target journal’s author instructions to be sure you follow the journal style) and summarize or emphasize the new insights your work offers.
Use the present perfect tense to clarify that your statements still hold true at the time of reading.
Example: “Results from this study have led to a deeper understanding about how different peptides interact in this enzyme.”
Use the present tense to apply findings, state implications, and suggest further research.
Example of wider implications: “This study confirms that endogenous glucagon is even more essential in metabolism than previously thought.”
When discussing further research that is either needed or intended to be carried out, the future or present tense (or subjunctive mood) can also be used, in addition to the present tense passive voice.
Example of call for future research: “Further clinical studies are needed/will be needed/must be carried out/should be carried out to isolate the cause of this reaction.”
Follow these general rules about tenses and your paper will be clearer, more chronologically correct, and generally easier to read—meaning the important implications of your study will be more easily understood. You can always go back and edit verb tenses—the more you practice, and the more papers you read, the easier it will be to identify which tense should be used for which kind of information.