Many students and early career researchers find themselves grappling with various aspects of academic writing. One critical aspect is ensuring correct grammar, most importantly the appropriate use of tenses in your research paper. In this article, we explain the basics of using tenses in scientific writing and list best practices for different sections of your academic manuscript. By understanding the role of tenses in your research paper and applying them accurately, you can enhance the clarity and credibility of our research work.
Understanding the basics: Using tenses in research papers
Tenses in scientific writing serve as valuable tools to indicate the time frame in which certain actions or ideas take place. The simple past tense and simple present tense are the most used tenses in research papers. They are supplemented by the present perfect, past perfect, and occasionally the future tense. Consistency and precision are crucial in academic writing, so let’s into the basics of tenses in your research paper and discuss the recommended tenses for each section.
The simple past tense: Literature review, methods
Use this tense in your research paper when talking of or describing specific actions or events that occurred in the past; they should not be linked to the present in the same sentence. The simple past tense is used predominantly in the literature review to talk about existing research on the topic, for example, “Watson and Crick published their landmark paper on the structure of DNA in 1953.” It is also typically used in the methods section to describe the methods used in previous studies; what you did and how you did it. For example, “We selected five samples at random.” This tense in scientific writing can also be used to state facts that were once believed to be true but have since been invalidated, for example, “Bats were thought to be blind.”
The past perfect tense: Methods, conclusion
Best used to describe two related events that occurred at different times in the past, this tense is typically used in the methods section, especially when describing earlier stages of the experimental procedure. For example, “By the time the temperature and humidity reached optimal levels, the plants had already begun to revive,” or “Respondents who had been grouped into different control groups were given a placebo instead of the new formulation.” Use the past perfect tense in your research paper to describe research or experiments that may have already been completed at the time of writing the manuscript and in the conclusion to summarize the research findings.
The simple present tense: Introduction, results, tables and figures
A researcher or academic writer can use simple present tense in the introduction when stating the objectives of the study, to interpret the results, discuss the significance of the findings or to present conclusions. Use the simple present tense in your research papers when referring to results presented in tables and figures in your writing. For example, “Fig.3 shows that…”. The present tense an also be used to talk about the research paper as a whole, for example, “Section 4.1 discusses…”.
This tense in scientific writing is also used to state what is generally true and what is unlikely to change. For example, “The Earth revolves around the sun” or “Human babies generally start speaking when they are 2 years old.” This tense works well in the results section, which indicates what one believes to be true and relevant to the present research. For example, “Robinson maintains that soaking seeds in strong acid helps in breaking seed dormancy.”
The present perfect tense: Introduction, literature review
The present perfect tense in scientific writing is used to talk about a past event that is linked to the present or to talk about trends or events that have occurred recently. One may need to use this tense in the introduction while providing a background to the study. For example, “The demand for more sophisticated 5G devices has increased significantly over the past few years.” Additionally, the present perfect tense is also used frequently in the literature review sections while referring to previous research that is fairly recent. For example, “Recent experiments on the samples collected have revealed high levels of saline.”
The future tense: Discussion, conclusions
Use the future tense in your research paper when describing events that are expected to occur in the future; this is not very common in academic writing. Typically, its use is limited to the discussion section toward the end, when one needs to make recommendations or indicate a future course of action based on the research results. It is usually recommended that parts of the conclusion section be written in the future tense. For example, “These research findings will open up new possibilities for the effective use of Epsom salt in agriculture.”
Understanding and implementing the appropriate use of tenses in different sections of your research paper is essential for effective communication of your ideas. However, remember that the guidelines provided above are not hard and fast rules. That being said, proofread your work carefully and avoid mixing up tenses in a single sentence or paragraph or it could impact readability. By mastering the use of tenses in your research paper, you can ensure clarity, consistency, and accuracy and elevate the quality of your academic writing.
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