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What (grammatical) tense to use when doing reference in a paper?

In the two examples below, which tense is preferred?

"Smith (2001) noted that ..." or
"Smith (2001) notes that ..."

"The paper established ..." or
"The paper establishes ..."

If both forms are equally valid, is it customary to use both forms within a text, or should I stick to one form?

  • I think if the information presented in the paper has become common knowledge within the target audience, use the past tense. If not, use present tense (i.e. - if it's likely any significant proportion of your audience are unaware of the information, use present tense because they are only now coming to know it through your reference). – FumbleFingers Jan 27 '12 at 18:26

MLA style and others recommend using present tense when citing published sources. Their explanation is that "Smith notes that" is a signal phrase, and that signal phrases should have present tense verbs.

The lone exception seems to be APA style, which "dictates that writers use the past or present past tense when citing previous research," i.e. "Smith (2001) noted" or "Smith (2001) has noted."

If you're governed by APA style, follow their guidelines and use past or present past tense. Otherwise, use present tense.

  • Maybe (if present tense is not required by a style) you could use past tense in cases like "Already Socrates (399 BC) noted: '"I know that I know nothing'". – Stephen Jan 27 '12 at 19:11

"APA style requires authors to use the past tense or present perfect tense when using signal phrases to describe earlier research, for example, Jones (1998) found or Jones (1998) has found."

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