Frakt’s rules of temporal tense in research articles

Very early in my research career (actually, as a grad student) I noticed that researchers were not consistent in their use of temporal tense (past, present, future) in journal articles and manuscripts. It was (and still is) all over the map. You’ll see stuff like this, even within the same paper:

  • “We ran OLS regressions and find …” [“ran” is past tense; “find” is present]
  • “We estimate a model with fixed effects.” [“estimate” is present]
  • “The coefficient is … which meant that.” [“is” is present; “meant” is past]

Yikes! Which of these is correct? This bothered me, and I wondered if there were rules about whether research was or is or results are or were. I think I asked around and got different opinions. Then I made up my own set of rules, which I’ve followed to this day, and attempt to get others to follow. They’re below. Do you agree with them?

All the things I (or my colleagues and I) did methodologically, I (we) did in the past, so I use past tense for methods and data collection. However, all the results are true for all time (so we think), so I like to report results in the present tense, with one exception. I use these rules when writing about the work of others too.

Example 1: “We ran [past] an OLS and found [past] that people with bigger feet are [present] smarter than people with smaller feet, even controlling for age.”

Example 2: “Smith et al. used [past] a regression discontinuity approach to show that foot binding* is [present] associated with smaller feet and is not [present] associated with measures of intelligence.”

The only exception is if I’m explicitly referencing a prior year. Example: “However, we found that in the 1990s, people with bigger feet were [past, because we’re explicitly referencing a past year] stupider than people with smaller feet.” It would read oddly to say that people in the 1990s with bigger feet “are” stupider …

That’s it. Not hard to follow. Even if you disagree, it has the advantage of consistency. At a minimum, authors should decide what tense they want to use for methods and (separately) for results and then do so consistently in a single paper. Read closely, and you’ll find that researchers don’t/didn’t/and may never pay attention to tense.

* For illustrative purposes only, a fictional study that would be unethical.


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