Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sticky wickets: Borne of frustration

Writers for whom English is not a first language tend to be more particular about grammar than those from so-called native English-speaking countries (data not shown; statistical analysis pending). This is most apparent when it comes to the tenses used when referencing other authors' work.

Personally, phrases such as "previous studies" or "past studies" are (horribly) redundant. In the interest of concision and brevity, the only distinction to draw is if a study is still in progress, and only preliminary results have been published.

Chances are though, such "citations" are not citations, but personal communication between the author and the study leader.

The person reading a published report may not give much thought (if at all) to whether the tense (present/present perfect/past/past perfect) used to cite the study of Richardson et al. (1995) is correct, but it's an entirely different matter between the author of said paper and the grunt tasked with tidying it up. YES THIS IS AN ISSUE.

In my opinion, discerning and comprehending the author's true message is more important than which tense to use, but I would aim for consistent use of tenses for literature reviews.

However, if you are required to draw a distinction when citing the studies of others, it would be helpful to determine which style guide your journal of interest follows:

The American Psychological Association (APA) style dictates that writers use the past or present past tense when citing previous research, e.g.:
  • Past tense: Smith (2004) noted ...
  • Past present tense: Smith (2004) has noted
The Modern Language Association (MLA) tells writers to use present tense when referring to the studies of others, e.g. "Norton argues that the deep sea sawtooth is the most dangerous fish in the world." 

Professor Budd* of St. Lawrence University says to "word experimental evidence and recorded observations in the past tense. Only use present tense for general information and continuing situations."

Journals themselves may have specific guidelines regarding the use of tenses, such as that of the Journal of Bacteriology:

"ASM strongly recommends that for clarity you use the past tense to narrate particular events in the past, including the procedures, observations, and data of the study that you are reporting. Use the present tense for your own general conclusions, the conclusions of previous researchers, and generally accepted facts. Thus, most of the abstract, Materials and Methods, and Results will be in the past tense, and most of the introduction and some of the Discussion will be in the present tense. 

Be aware that it may be necessary to vary the tense in a single sentence. For example, it is correct to say "White (30) demonstrated that XYZ cells grow at pH 6.8."

* This link will be useful for undergrads working on their honours/honors project. FFS DO NOT spell it as "honest".


Snuze said...

Honest? Yeah, right. With the data fudging and plagiarism and false claims that goes on, it is all but honest.

Thanks for the heads up!

Angela Gripesalot said...


I heard that's how a lot of the undergrads spell it nowadays though. kids these days...