Tense Usage in Academic Writing

Academic writing is the style most often used in colleges and universities or for publications like journal articles, research reports, and books that include edited collections. It is important to make academic writing clear, unbiased, and formal in tone. Most academic publications are well-structured and focused on specific studies or topics. 

To help create the proper tone for academic communication, you will focus on the present simple, past simple, and present perfect tenses. This doesn’t mean you CANNOT use other tenses, but only that these three are most commonly used. 

The Present Simple Tense in Academic Writing

The present simple tense is the choice you will use unless you have a specific reason to choose another tense. It serves many functions:

To Frame a Paper

Use the present simple tense to state what is already known about a topic in an introduction and what has been learned in the conclusion.

For example: 

  • Researchers agree that changes in climate happen, but they differ in the reasons why. 
  • Various studies point to more than one reason behind climate change. 

To Emphasize the Focus

Use the present simple tense to emphasize the focus or main argument and highlight the current paper’s purpose.

For example: 

  • This essay explores the various environmental factors that impact climate change.

To Create General Statements, Conclusions, and Research Interpretations

Use the present simple tense to focus on what is currently known. Use it to create general statements, conclusions, and interpretations of recognized material.

For example:

  • A research fellowship is an important part of a graduate student’s education because it allows the student to work within their course of study.

To Refer to Research and Data

Use the present simple tense to refer to previous studies, tables, figures, and other forms of data.

For example: 

  • Table 1.7 shows the effects of water temperature increases. 
  • The underwater rift increases initial surrounding water temperatures by thousands of degrees. 

To Describe Events in Literary Works

Use the present simple tense to describe a plot or events within literary work. This is also called the narrative present and is commonly used in analytical publications.

For example: 

  • In Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” he introduces us to the nostalgia of childhood memories and suggests life is simpler as a child. 

The Past Simple Tense in Academic Writing

The past simple tense is used in academic writing for various reasons. These include: 

To Report Specific Findings 

Use the past simple tense to report on the results of previous studies or to support a general statement about it.

For example:

  • Fibonacci discovered the mathematical sequence that explained natural formations in the 13th century. 

To Describe Methods or Data

Use the past simple tense to describe the methods or data collected from completed studies and experiments.

For example:

  • An analysis of the temperatures was used for the published report.

To Report Results of Studies

Use the past simple tense to report the findings of data collection or a specific study. 

For example:

  • The studies’ results revealed anomalies that forced the withdrawal of the materials. 

After Any Time Marker, Usually Historical

Use the past simple tense when writing about any sort of past time marker. This usually refers to historical content.

For example: 

  • The French Army retreated after the Battle of Waterloo, marking the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  

The Present Perfect Tense in Academic Writing

The present perfect tense is often used to refer to previous research that still has relevance today. This tense emphasizes what has been done instead of what is known to be true. 

Use it to do the following:

To Introduce a New Topic

Use the present perfect tense to introduce a new topic, report, or paper.

For example:

  • The previous research has been entered into the analysis to determine if the results are accurate. 

To Summarize Previous Research

Use the present perfect tense to summarize previous studies, data, and research. 

For example:

  • The data has presented a unique view of the discrepancies between oceanic tectonic plate movement and previously unknown volcanic vents. 

To Make a Connection Between Past Research and the Present

Use the present perfect tense to highlight the connections or gaps between past research and data and present or ongoing studies.

For example: 

  • Although the collected measurements have highlighted an increase in continental plate drift in recent years, there is little knowledge of the reasons why. 

To Describe Previous Findings

Use the present perfect tense to describe previous findings, especially those not directly referring to an original source.

For example:The research has shown that climate changes are not evenly distributed across continents.