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For example, A published a paper with title B in 2000.

Then, in my paper:

A says / said that [C works / worked out perfectly].

and

B illustrates / illustrated that [C works / worked out perfectly].

As the content between [] is derived from the original paper, the tense may vary.

The pair of the simple present tense (in the source) and the simple past tense (in my current paper) is used as an example.

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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The 5th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) has this to say on page 33:

  1. For literature review and description of procedure (if of past events): use the past tense ("Jiang showed") or present perfect ("Jiang has shown").

  2. For describing results: use the past tense (e.g., "weight increased marginally").

  3. For discussing results and presenting conclusions: use the present tense (e.g., "The results of this study suggest").

According to the APA, using the present tense for (3) includes the readers in "deliberating the matter at hand" (Publication manual, APA, p. 33). In other words, readers feel as if they are part of the final process of arriving at the all-important conclusion.

More on tenses can be found on pp. 41-44. Areas discussed include:

  • preferring the active voice over the passive (e.g., "Jiang designed the experiment" NOT "The experiment was designed by Jiang").

    Note, however, that the passive is acceptable in some situations; the APA gives expository writing as an example and in instances where you intend to emphasise the "object or recipient of the action" (APA, p. 42). You might also want to use the passive to soften the impact of sentence after sentence written in the active voice.

  • using the past tense for "specific, definite" (APA, p. 42) situations in the past (e.g., "Jiang (2010) presented similar findings.").

  • using the present perfect tense for expressing the same situations in the point above that are neither specific nor definite (APA p.43)(no example of this from me) or for describing "an action beginning in the past and continuing to the present" (APA, p. 43), (e.g., "Since the publication of the experiment, researchers have attempted to disprove its results").
  • using the subjunctive (best that you read it for yourself, in fact, you should try to get hold of a copy of the APA's manual and go over the various sections. That would be better than anything I could summarize here for you.)

APA's website is www.apastyle.org

Disclaimer: All examples are mine.

Hope this helps

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Could you give more details? Thank you very much. –  user3812 Jan 26 '11 at 5:14
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I've edited my answer, but it's better to go to the source, i.e APA. Their examples are better than mine. –  Sky Red Jan 26 '11 at 18:28
    
And the explanations in the manual are better, too. By the way, the 6th edition is out. See the website for the differences between this edition and the previous one. Also, there's a great study, groundbreaking even, on the most common APA style errors. Number 1 on the list? Well, it's not tenses, you'll find those at numbers 11 and 42. And from my answer above, you'll see that I've made a few style errors of my own. –  Sky Red Jan 27 '11 at 9:53
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Going quickly through my scientific papers database shows occurrences of both present and past tense. Actually, I find both "A reports that", "A reported that" and "A has reported that". I’ve been thinking about it, and what I would do myself is:

  • For a recent paper that I’m directly referring to, or comparing with, I would use “has reported”.
  • For an older paper, e.g. if more recent works have been published on the topic, I would use “reported”.
  • I mostly avoid the present tense when discussing the author is the subject (because he might have changed his mind about it), but I use the present tense when the work is the subject. For example, I would write “Zhiang stated in his 2001 monograph that ...”, but “Zhiang’s 2001 monograph states that ...”.

Of course, I welcome criticism on this, or alternative propositions. Especially so because writing scientific papers in English is part of my job, so I'd be glad to improve myself!

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+1, nice explanation! I was wondering how you built your scientific papers database, so that your can do the search so quickly? Thanks! –  Tim Jan 20 '11 at 13:04
    
I just searched for “report” in a number of papers written by native speakers, to see which tense they used. I use Papers (mekentosj.com/papers) for maintaining my article database, but I suppose Endnote or another solution would work the same. –  F'x Jan 20 '11 at 13:07
    
+1, good explanation! It would be useful to know what field you’re in, though. I would imagine that this might vary between fields (related issues like the usage of “I” vs. “we” vs. passive certainly do). –  PLL Jan 25 '11 at 20:12
    
The fields are physics and chemistry. –  F'x Jan 26 '11 at 19:43
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