Writing in Science: Practical Tips Academic Writing Science Communication
Practical Tips: tense



article use

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compare to/with


dates & numbers

dangling participle

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faulty parallelism

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In scientific writing there has been a traditional style governing the use of past and present tense. click here for ppt

Robert Day in “How to Write a Scientific Paper” writes:

“When a scientific paper has been published in a peer-reviewed journal its contents thereby become knowledge. Whenever you quote or discuss previously published work you should use the present tense; you are quoting established knowledge…. Your own present work must be referred to in past tense.”

He mentions two exceptions: cases of attribution and presentation. Here are examples or each:

(attribution ) Smith (2007) showed that …
(presentation ) Table 3 shows that …

Currently this tradition has been relaxed somewhat in favour of a more ‘natural’ writing, however, if you are in doubt, stick to the traditional past / present ‘rule’.

Published information = established knowledge (facts) - use present tense

Current work - use past tense

EXAMPLES: (from Nature and Science, May 2011)

HIV is a highly mutable virus that has evolved over millennia to escape host control1. It is not surprising, therefore, that researchers have faced numerous challenges in inducing effective responses by the T cells and B cells of the immune system against this virus2. Over the past decade, considerable effort has gone into developing AIDS vaccines designed to induce T-cell responses that slow disease progression; such vaccines, however, are unlikely to prevent the explosive burst of viral replication that occurs during primary infection2.

Johnson RP. Vaccinology: Persistence pays off. Nature 473:456-457. Published: 26.05.2011 (Taken from Introduction)

Caste in social insects represents one of the major transitions from one level of organization to another in evolution1. The honeybee (Apis mellifera) exhibits polyphenism, that is, adult females form two interdependent castes, the queen and the worker, depending on their environment at critical periods of caste determination2, 3. This dimorphism is not a consequence of genetic difference4, 5. Queens have a larger body size and shorter developmental time than workers, have ten times the lifespan of workers, typically 1 to 2 years, and lay up 2,000 eggs per day, whereas workers rear young larvae and gather nectar6, 7. When larvae are nourished with royal jelly, which is secreted by workers2, 3, they differentiate into queens. Royal jelly seems to contain a specific factor(s) that determines caste differentiation, but this has not previously been identified. Furthermore, the relationship between caste-specific modulation of juvenile hormone and ecdysteroid after ingestion of royal jelly and the developmental signal in caste differentiation has remained elusive. Therefore, I aimed to identify the factor(s) that induces caste differentiation in the honeybee and to investigate the mechanism through which this factor drives the caste-specific developmental pathway.

Kamakura M. Royalactin induces queen differentiation in honeybees. Nature. 473:478-483. Published: 26.05.2011 (from the Introduction)

The existence of a terrestrial Precambrian (more than 542 Myr ago) biota has been largely inferred from indirect chemical and geological evidence associated with palaeosols1, 2, the weathering of clay minerals3 and microbially induced sedimentary structures in siliciclastic sediments4. Direct evidence of fossils within rocks of non-marine origin in the Precambrian is exceedingly rare5, 6. The most widely cited example comprises a single report of morphologically simple mineralized tubes and spheres interpreted as cyanobacteria, obtained from 1,200-Myr-old palaeokarst in Arizona5.
Palynological samples were prepared using conventional acid maceration techniques. Following HCl-HF-HCl acid maceration, the residues were sieved using a 10 µm mesh. They were then treated to a heavy liquid separation using zinc chloride, followed by further sieving at 10 µm. The organic residues were mounted directly onto glass slides using epoxy resin.

Strother PK, Battison L, Brasier MD, Wellman CH . Earth’s earliest non-marine eukaryotes. Nature. 473:505-509. Published: 26.05.2011 (from Introduction and Methods)

Exploiting statistical regularities of the environment predictively, to adapt behavior to future events, is a basic strategy in biology. Humans, even in infancy, use observed frequencies to learn words (1, 2), spatiotemporal patterns (3, 4), and visual object features (5). Adults can make rational statistical judgments on the basis of frequencies of previously experienced events or summaries of event frequencies (6, 7).

We addressed these questions by using a combination of novel experiments and computational models (19). Our experiments independently varied several features of dynamic displays, such that forming appropriate expectations required infants to quantitatively integrate multiple sources of perceptual evidence with optimal weights that vary over time. Across these manipulations, we kept test events fixed and equal in salience so that infants’ looking times had the potential to show variations in degrees of belief (or conversely, degrees of surprise) as their expectations changed.

More broadly, our work opens the possibility that a cognitive architecture based on probabilistic generative models, complemented by abstract knowledge representations, can account for early common-sense reasoning beyond the limited physical domain we explored.

Téglás E, Vul E, Vittorio Girotto V, Gonzalez M,Tenenbaum JB, Bonatti LL. Pure Reasoning in 12-Month-Old Infants as Probabilistic Inference. Science. 332(6033):1054-1059. Published: 27.05.2011 (from the Introduction and Conclusion)


Day R. How to Write & Publish a Scientific Paper. 5th Ed. Cambridge University Press. © 1998

English Writing Centre. Tenses in writing. [Internet accessed 18.06.2010] University of Washington WA, USA. Available from: http://depts.washington.edu/engl/askbetty/tenses.php

Effective Learning Service. Features of academic writing. [Internet accessed 18.06.2010] Glasgo Caledonian University, UK. Available from: http://www.gcu.ac.uk/student/coursework/writing/index.html

Joshi Y. Getting the tenses right. [Internet accessed 18.06.2010] English Editing Services. USA. Available from: http://blog.editage.com/?q=Getting-the-tenses-right-2-always-use-the-present-tense-while-referring-to-tables-and-figures

On-line Resources. Introduction to Journal-Style Scientific Writing. [Internet accessed 18.06.2010] Dept. of Biology, Bates College, ME, USA. Available from: http://abacus.bates.edu/~ganderso/biology/resources/writing/HTWgeneral.html

Writing Guide. A Guide to Writing in the Biological Sciences: Practical Tips for Scientific Writing. [Internet accessed 18.06.2010] Dept. of Biology, George Mason University, VA, USA. Available from: http://classweb.gmu.edu/biologyresources/writingguide/PracticalTips.htm

Questions? Suggestions? contact: elinor.bartle<at>uib.no