I am currently writing a cumulative dissertation which is based on several published papers. I am supposed to shortly (one page) summarize each of the papers. These summaries come before the actual papers in the thesis.

Now for me the question about the correct tense in these summaries comes up. For example I have the following sentences

The results reveals that in all weeks the methods led to reduced costs of 10 %.

On average, method B needed 14:06 minutes.

Would you rather use the past tense or the present tense in these examples. Here it is said that I should only use the past to refer to something that has been mentioned before. Basically the results and simulations have not been mentioned before. But at the same time the linked page says that I should use the past tense for summaries and to refer to specific simulation runs (which is obviously the case in my examples).

I tend to use present because I have used the present tense for the whole thesis.

What would you advise me to do?

  • This is probably better suited to the English Language and Usage stack exchange. Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 14:23
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    @astronat I dunno, I followed for some time ELU SE, but honestly it didn't impress me when it comes to academic writing. See also this meta answer of mine. Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 14:56
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    @astronat: I concur with Massimo Ortolano. The use of tenses as described in the question is primarily an academic convention and thus it is certainly on-topic here. It will likely even get better answers.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 9:21

4 Answers 4


It's not really about if you have mentioned the work before (don't get confused by the instructions), but that the work itself was done before. So stick with the past tense for the situation here.

In general*, the past tense is safer than present or future. Probably 95%+ of the time you should be in past tense when writing a technical report. And if debating, past or present (either might work), you are usually better off going with the past. Only do the present or future if you know what you are doing as a writer and have a strong reason to change the tense.


  • Thanks for your comment guest. To be totally honest, I was told many many times that the basic tense fro scientific papers is the present tense. Most of my writings are in the present tense. I just do not know what to do in this special case. Normally in a summary chapter I also use the past tense as I have already explained everything. But in my special case it is differnt. The summary is about content in papers that have not yet been metioned. So I am really totally confused at the moment.
    – PeterBe
    Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 18:58

Your university may have specific guidelines for this, which compel you to make a specific choice. In the absence of those, I would say that this is a matter of personal style. So you can choose whichever style fits you best.

I personally find it most pleasant to write any piece of work, whether it is a single conference paper or a cumulative dissertation, as if the content all appears as a monolithic whole right here right now. Hence, I write everything in present tense, active voice. Others, however, strongly feel that academic writing is more appropriately served by writing dispassionately about it, and that implies writing in passive voice.

I'd say that there is no single correct answer here, which leads to the pleasant conclusion that you cannot really do wrong. I would write your sentence in present tense, since this suits my overall writing style. You should choose the solution that fits your writing style. More important than which tense you choose, is that you apply your choice consistently.

  • Thanks Wetenschaap for your answer. I also tend to use the present tense. However, I use passive voice throughout the whole thesis. In conference papers I also use active voice but for the dissertation this is not possible, because I should not use "I" or "we"
    – PeterBe
    Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 9:48

Actually using present tense could be dangerous, depending on the situation. Your data was probably gathered in the past. Your conclusions are based on that data. If the study is statistical, based on samples, then there is the measurable possibility that it reached the wrong conclusion.

If the way you write seems to imply, even indirectly, a prediction for the future you could be on dangerous ground. It isn't a question of writing style, but of honest presentation of what you did and what was (past) concluded.

The examples you give certainly seem to imply that past tense is preferable here. You are describing a study that was carried out in the (perhaps recent) past.

  • Thanks for the answers. No I have two answers with different opinions. I guess I have to make a decision and there is no wrong or right here.
    – PeterBe
    Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 16:38
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    Actually, the question isn't an opinion poll. Evaluate the reasoning behind the answers.
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 16:58

You should consider all of:

  • Present tense: "The results reveal that XYZ", "This method reduces costs by 10%". Use this one when being more abstract, dispassionate, theoretical. You're "committing" less on concrete facts with this tense (but not much less).
  • Present perfect tense: "The results have revealed that XYZ", "This method has reduced costs by 10%". The period or duration you're alluding to with this one can be the course of your own research, the period of time in which your research was conducted (as experienced by others, e.g. in the field rather than in academia), or even to recent years up to the present, independently of the time you've done research.
  • Past tense: "The results revealed that XYZ", "This method reduced costs by 10%". With this tense, you're alluding to specific events and processes which have concluded already in the past and are known - or will be known by reading the thesis. This is more of a commitment to things having actually happened, and having had impact.
  • Future tense or sorta-future infinitive with qualification: "We expect the results to reveal how that XYZ", "This method will, in all likelihood, reduce costs by 10%". With this tense, you're discussing ongoing processes which have not concluded, but of whose conclusion you are certain or almost certain.
  • Present Progressive: "The results are now revealing how that XYZ", "This method is reducing costs, by an expected 10%". With this tense, you're strong alluding to very meaningful ongoing processes in the field which are the application of your research. Actually, it's rather similar in rhetorical effect to the future-tense option, except that you're committing that progress is occurring at the very moment you're writing your text.

Don't expect all of the text to use the same tense. Try to choose an overall narrative tense (Present or Present Perfect would be my preference), and choose other tenses in specific sentences or paragraphs in which they're relevant (not too many IMHO).

Also, as others suggest, your university or department may have guidelines on this matter.

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