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The following examples are representative situations in scientific writing. I hope to understand whether there are any preferred or correct tenses, and whether there are grammatical reasons and stylistic conventions.

  1. Refer to published work:

    In his famous publication [1], Einstein [shows/showed/has shown] ...

  2. Talk about earlier parts of the paper:

    Earlier, in Section 2, we [show/showed/have shown]...

    The previous discussions [show/showed/have shown]...

  3. Talk about later parts of the paper:

    Later, in Section 22, we [show/will show]...

    The following discussions [show/will show]...

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    Some of this is a style question, some depends on other sentences around it. For (3) either might work, for (1) any might work. For (2) either of the last two might be fine, but the present tense seems unlikely to be the right one.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jul 23, 2023 at 23:40
  • We were told 3rd person singular for reports: this was done, this was discussed, the result shows that... There is a small book "Writing Technical Reports: by B Cooper. amazon.com/Writing-Technical-Reports-Pelican-Cooper/dp/…
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 9:29

2 Answers 2

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For 2 and 3, there are certainly people who think that everything in a paper should take place in the present tense, and would use "show". However, I personally think that is unhelpful, as it means you have to be much more careful to specify whether you are talking about the immediate proximity in the paper or about something earlier or later.

Therefore I would normally use past, present or future depending on what part of the paper I am talking about. However, I would make a distinction between whether the subject is a person/people or is an argument/paper. So I would write "Earlier, we showed..." but "The previous arguments show...". The argument hasn't stopped showing it, but we (the author(s) and reader(s)) have moved on.

I would use the simple past "we showed" if the past is indicated elsewhere in the sentence e.g. by "Earlier..." or "In Section 2...". In the absence of something like that, "We have shown ..." would be preferable.

For similar reasons I would say "In his famous publication [1], Einstein showed ...", but "Einstein's famous publication [1] shows ...".

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  • The distinction between "Einstein" and "Einstein's paper" is an important one, thank you.
    – Ambicion
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 16:53
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  1. ... showed ... is perhaps best as it is a "point in past time" and the past tense is more precise than the perfect has shown. The present tense shows for a paper published in 1905 (?) is syntactically wrong although in colloquial English it is often heard and the context supplies the meaning adequately.

  2. ... Earlier, in Section 2, it was shown...

  3. ... Later, in Section 22, it will be shown ...

It's better to use the passive voice to make it less personal and to focus on the paper's argument rather than on one's own role, cf. journalists and authors referring to themselves as "the writer of these lines" or "this observer" rather than I when writing a serious piece with objective arguments.

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    "It's better to use the passive voice to make it less personal" That's just, like, your opinion, man. Plenty of people prefer the exact opposite. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 0:08
  • Of course this is my opinion. But not just me: it's one that is shared by many other people - writers, broadcasters, journalists, academic researchers plus many of their readers.Yes, some people want to be personal at work communication. And some want to be detached with family members. It's a world of varied opinions, indeed.
    – Trunk
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 0:55
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    This seems like one of those made up rules like "never end a sentence with a preposition" in that it only becomes "vexing" if you are first taught somewhere that you should perceive it as vexing. In maths it is perfectly normal to use "we". No-one will think that this makes your paper "whimsical" or less "objective". (I cannot speak to what the conventions are in other fields.) Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 12:24
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    In any case, objectivity is not a matter of grammar: you wrote "it's better to use the passive voice", but using "it" instead of "I" as a subject did not in fact turn your subjective preference into a objective claim. Conversely, saying "we show that x=y" instead of "it was shown that x=y" does not turn an objective claim into a subjective one. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 12:27
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    There may be discipline-specific nuances, but it's probably worth noting that from a quick survey of journal style guides, they are almost all neutral or actively advocate for the active voice - e.g. Nature, Springer, the APA and AMA. I don't see any which explicitly advocate for the passive voice. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 13:38

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