• 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.


    • “people in the 1990s with bigger feet “are” stupider …”

      The exception to this exception would be if you are trying to say that people who had bigger feet in the 1990s (past tense) are currently stupider (present tense) than people who had smaller feet in the 1990s (past tense), regardless of their current foot size (current tense).

    • I like the simplicity of your rules, and that you have rules. I tried it on a results section that I’m working on now, but it seemed strange to write about descriptive results from survey data collected in 2014 in the present tense. I’m not using the year…but I feel the year. Oh well, I appreciated the column.

    • Have had the same issue for years, and (try to) use the same rules that you do.

    • I would bet the problem is widespread.

      But have you ever looked for any papers to quantify it? Whether analyzed in groupings of topflight econ or medical journals, you could base a standard from that grouping and assume it gets worse from there.