One conundrum I sometimes face while editing academic writing is the question of tense and whether to use present or past when discussing previous work, as in a lit review. My own habit when I was in graduate school was to write in the present tense, but many of my clients use past, and I have wondered whether to change it or not. That is, were my own habits standard or just a style preference? or even incorrect?
The answer is, it’s largely a matter of style, particularly pertaining to the field of research. There are arguments for both present and past tense in lit reviews and other parts of a paper that address prior research. The important thing is that the writer either be consistent in his or her choice or have a particular reason for any variation.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when establishing present or past tense for an academic paper:
Are you describing concrete findings or general theoretical contributions?
This distinction is probably at the core of why I have a present tense habit in my own writing: although my background is a mix of social science and humanities, it seems the humanities have dominated my writing in this respect. When you’re describing general theoretical contributions, the kind of thing that is intended to apply broadly and into the future, the present tense will usually feel more natural (e.g., “Butler proposes…”). When the work you’re citing is an experiment or study with discrete preparation, follow-through, and conclusion segments, then past tense might be more appropriate (e.g., “the researchers found…”).
Are you describing the theories as currently valid or casting them in a historical light?
I used Sigmund Freud as a backdrop for a discussion in this blog not long ago. I suggested then that while Freud’s work is seldom applied these days without adaptation or tweaks to his original theories, it is often applied with such revisions or reimaginings. To discuss what the contemporary theorists say, it might be necessary to introduce the older theorist’s work within a historical framework. In that case, one might see both present and past tense in the same lit review, as the author treats the sources as alternately current or historical. This can sometimes get a little tricky, but the important thing is to judge whether the final version will read as intended. Will readers understand the point better or be distracted by the tense changes?
What does your style guide say?
Not all style guides comment on tense, but some do. A style guide often reflects or even establishes the norms for the field it’s written for, so following its guidelines will help your paper fit into the canon for that discipline. APA, for instance, leans toward past (“showed”) or present perfect tense (“have shown”). MLA, on the other hand, recommends present tense except when describing past actions or historical context. These mirror the broad “experimental vs. theoretical” comparison I made above. The Chicago Manual of Style, meanwhile, doesn’t comment on tense, but the website indicates here that present tense is acceptable (but not obligatory), noting instead that the arbiter is the journal (or publisher’s) style requirements.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.