To answer the above research questions, we firstly collected a large amount of data (Section 2), and then did some statistics and experiments (Section 3, 4 and 5) on the data set focusing on three main goals:

I’d like to write something like the quoted part. Is it proper to use the past tense in an academic paper?

In addition, in most cases I should use the present tense to describe what we do, but is it true for this situation?

Some papers would write something like “evaluation shows that ...” or “the data set contains ...”

  • Normally I believe you use the "Past Passive" voice, which doesn't refer to any specific people (unlike "we"). So you'd say "A large amount of data was collected", "experiments were done on the data set" etc. Jul 25, 2016 at 13:00
  • @MaxWilliams but many papers enjoy using "we propose a method" or something else.
    – zsf222
    Jul 25, 2016 at 13:02
  • @MaxWilliams so if I use "we", what should the tense be?
    – zsf222
    Jul 25, 2016 at 13:04
  • 1
    @MaxWilliams: Using we is common in many academic fields. You would only use the authors if a we including the reader would make no sense whatsoever, e.g.: “The authors were funded by X.”
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jul 25, 2016 at 14:05
  • 1
    Consult the literature in your field and do what the published authors do. Every field has its own individual conventions and following them carefully is part of the academic tradition. If you are serious about writing for publication, you should already be familiar with the literature. Jul 25, 2016 at 15:24

1 Answer 1


Your question asks about present or past tense, but your last example appears to be talking more about active or passive voice.

In relation to tense, your writing should make clear whether the things you refer to in your paper are in the past, present or future. The tenses you select must correspond with the facts (the style guides linked below also expand on this).

As for voice, some universities still favour the passive voice - e.g.

use passive verbs to avoid stating the ‘doer’ - Birmingham City University, UK

(Note, though, that the instruction to use passive voice is itself written using the active voice.)

Style guides at other universities now prefer the active voice, reversing this tradition.

Here are some examples:

Writing in the active voice almost always improves the clarity of writing. - Duke University, USA

Use personal pronouns – I, you, us, we – as though you’re talking one-on-one. - Monash University, Australia

You could try using: ... This essay discusses the importance of ... - De Montfort University, UK

If in doubt, consult your institution's and publication's style guides.

  • What does your institution’s opinion matter in this respect? It’s the journal’s style that you should adhere to.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jul 25, 2016 at 14:07
  • @Wrzlprmft The journal's style should also be taken into consideration, of course. I'll add that to my answer. Note that in cases such as the IEEE style manual and the ACM style guide, there is no guidance on active/passive voice.
    – Lawrence
    Jul 26, 2016 at 1:01

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