Which Tense Should Be Used in Abstracts: Past or Present?

Research Writing

Writing tips: Which tense to use in the abstract of a research paperMany of you had questions about seemingly conflicting rules about which tense to use in a research article abstract, so we wrote this article to clarify the issue.

When writing an abstract for a research article, several tenses can be used. We previously stated that past tense is used to describe the results (i.e., observations) mentioned in abstracts. This statement remains true. However, tenses can be different in other contexts. We do see a rise in the use of present tense in abstracts, but let us explain why that is. (It’s not because the grammar rules have changed!)

The tense you would use largely depends on the subject of your sentence. As a general rule:

  • Any statements of general fact would be written using the present tense.
  • Any discussion about prior research would be explained using the past tense.
  • If the subject of your sentence is your study or the article you are writing (e.g. “Our study demonstrates…,” or “Here, we show…”), then you should use the present tense.
  • If you are stating a conclusion or an interpretation, use present tense.
  • If the subject of your sentence is an actual result or observation (e.g. “Mice in Group B developed…”), you would use past tense.

In the case of the abstract, you were taught to use present tense because, stylistically, your professors wanted you to focus on sharing your interpretations in your abstract rather than simply stating what the results are. (And, in that regard, we agree!)

To further illustrate by example, let’s take a look at this abstract from Nature.

  • We see present tense for general facts (“The anaerobic formation and oxidation of methane involve…”).
  • We see present tense when the study/article is the subject or is the thing you are referring to (“Here [this article] we show that an anaerobic thermophilic enrichment culture …”).
  • However, when we talk about an actual observation, past tense is used (“Genes encoding 16S rRNA…were repeatedly retrieved from marine subsurface sediments…”).

As you can see from the example we linked, most of this abstract is largely written in present tense, but this is because these abstracts focus on the authors’ interpretations and not on specific observations and methods. We hope this addresses any questions you have about tense use. We know how complicated these grammar rules can be!

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