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I am well aware of the fact that there are a number of questions that talk about tenses in research, but I still have not found exactly what I am after.

Basically my question is this, in a Master dissertation, should the tense be the same throughout the entire text? Or is it acceptable (or even required) to use different tenses in different structures?

Assuming the following structure, if you believe that there should be separate tenses, would the suggestions in brackets be correct?

  • Title (Present)
  • Abstract (Imperfect Past)
  • Introduction (Present + Future)
  • Methodology (Past Perfect, Present, Future or Mix?)
  • Results (Past Perfect)
  • Discussion (Present*)
  • Conclusion (Mix?, conditional present)

*Would the choice of any present tense put all preceding sections in a past tense?

Looking at that structure I find it hard to see that only one tense should be adopted throughout the entire text.

Sources: This, this and that.

  • I was about to say "The correct tense for the correct sections" but I see you are already thinking in terms of sections. Good question. It might be interesting to run corpus linguistics on this to find out. – Lyndon White Jul 4 '17 at 15:39
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    I would use the past only for discussion of prior work. – gerrit Jul 4 '17 at 17:09
  • @gerrit: In papers involving experiments, the experiments are typically described in the past tense. – Peter Shor Jul 4 '17 at 18:51
  • @PeterShor Maybe so. That makes me a minority. I don't destroy my instruments after use so when I describe them, I do so in the present tense. I might use them again! Consistency is most important, however. – gerrit Jul 4 '17 at 18:57
  • @gerrit: I can see writing "The apparatus consists of ...", but do you mean you would also write "500 observations are taken for each value of the electric field" ? – Peter Shor Jul 4 '17 at 19:27
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The answer to this question varies across disciplines. Your dissertation presumably falls within some academic discipline. Look at other papers in the same discipline, and see what tenses they use. For example, unlike your suggestion, in math papers the abstract is usually present tense.

If some of the premier journals in your discipline have a style guide, look at these style guides and see what they say.

The journal Nature, in which the majority of articles are in the sciences, has the following suggestions for verb tense (I've left out a few of their examples):

Past tense

Work done

  • We collected blood samples from . . .
  • Consequently, astronomers decided to rename . . .

Work reported

  • Jankowsky reported a similar growth rate . . .
  • In 2009, Chu published an alternative method to . . .

Observations

  • The mice in Group A developed, on average, twice as much . . .
  • The conversion rate was close to 95% . . .

Present tense

General truths

  • Microbes in the human gut have a profound influence on . . .
  • The Reynolds number provides a measure of . . .

Atemporal facts

  • This paper presents the results of . . .
  • Section 3.1 explains the difference between . . .
  • Behbood's 1969 paper provides a framework for . . .

Future tense

Perspectives

  • In a follow-up experiment, we will study the role of . . .
  • The influence of temperature will be the object of future research . . .
  • "We collected blood samples from . . ." That's strange. I thought they want you to avoid I and We? "Blood samples were collected from..." sounds much more like a nature paper. – DSVA Jul 4 '17 at 22:01
  • @DSVA: There has been a rethinking of the tradition of never using we or I in scientific papers. While some journals still maintain this rule, many welcome use of the first person plural. Another quote from that same link: 'As a second argument against a systematic preference for the passive voice, readers sometimes need people to be mentioned. A sentence such as "The temperature is believed to be the cause for . . . " is ambiguous. Readers will want to know who believes this — the authors of the paper, or the scientific community as a whole? ' (continued ...) – Peter Shor Jul 4 '17 at 23:55
  • 'To clarify the sentence, use the active voice and set the appropriate people as the subject, in either the third or the first person, as in the examples below. Biologists believe the temperature to be . . . Keustermans et al. (1997) believe the temperature to be . . . The authors believe the temperature to be . . . We believe the temperature to be . . . ' – Peter Shor Jul 4 '17 at 23:55
  • And let me modify the Nature suggestions. I have the impression that work done and observations are usually past tense, but work reported is often present perfect tense — Jankowsky has reported a similar growth rate ... Of course, if you mention a year with work reported, then for grammatical reasons it has to be past tense. – Peter Shor Aug 27 '17 at 20:16

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