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

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

  • Any statements of general fact should be written using the present tense.
  • Any discussion about prior research should 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 the present tense.
  • If the subject of your sentence is an actual result or observation (e.g. “Mice in Group B developed…”), you would use the past tense.

In the case of the abstract, you may have been taught to use the present tense because your professors want you to focus on sharing your interpretations in your abstract rather than simply stating what the results are. (And we agree since the main reason for reading your research papers is to understand the significance of your findings!)

To illustrate the different use of tenses in an abstract, let’s take a look at this abstract from an article published in Nature.

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

As you can see from the example we linked above, most of this abstract is written in the present tense. This is because it focuses 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!

For rules about what tense to use in other parts of your research paper, check out our infographic! For additional information about how to write a strong research paper, make sure to check out our full research writing series! You can also find these resources plus information about the journal submission process in our FREE downloadable e-book: Research Writing and Journal Publications.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post in the comment box below, email us at edit@wordvice.com or reach out to us through our Contact Us page.

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