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Name: Siobhan
Status: educator
Age: 20s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 1999-2001

When doing experiments or projects based on the Scientific Method, is it true that everything must be written in the past tense, including the method?

Not necessarily. I think this is dependent on the writing style of the author(s).


Dr. Ali Khounsary
Advanced Photon Source
Argonne National Laboratory
Argonne, IL 60439

When you are recording your experimental results write them however you wish as long as you and others reading it can understand how to reproduce the experiment and can understand what occurred. I found verbs pretty superfluous when writing my results in my notebooks which ended up being about 400 pages of results. In my methods in my research notebooks I wrote in the present tense, eg.,..."groups 1,3,5 and 7 receive 6mg of PHZ, I.P. dailey for three days beginning on day 2"... It is typical in a publication to write in the both methods and rsults in the past tense.

Peter Faletra

The accepted convention for reporting scientific results is past tense, passive voice. This removes the scientist from the center of attention and focuses the attention on the apparatus, methods, and results, where it belongs. After all, an experiment should be reproducible by anyone following the procedure, so the identity of the actor is irrelevant.

Most, but not all scientific writing follows this convention. Often part of an introductory section will be written in first person, reporting the investigators' motivations for carrying out the project described. Conclusion sections often will have a sentence or so in future tense, describing what the investigators intend to do in the future. Review articles and Accounts are often told in narrative format.

Richard E. Barrans Jr., Ph.D.
Assistant Director
PG Research Foundation, Darien, Illinois

From a common sense point of view, if you are writing a report for a proposed project (one that has not taken place yet) it would make sense that the tense is in the future (i.e., the experiment or research WILL show or determine such and such). If the report is on the results of an experiment or the application of the scientific method that has already taken place, then common sense dictates it be written in the past tense (i.e., the beaker WAS filled with x liters of good sourmash, etc. and the experiment showed that Jack Daniels was superior to Jim Beam in terms of viscosity, turbidity, etc.). The important things to remember are that the document you are writing needs to be coherent, be accurate and truthful, make sense, and be intelligible to the audience you are writing for. The tense you choose should be consistent throughout your report. If you apply the basics of good writing style that you learned in high school and college (which is why you take those courses), you can produce a great report. You do not have to be a Ph.D. to write a good report (and a lot of Ph.D.'s cannot write to save their lives; that is why there are people called technical editors to help them out). A good report is like a good novel; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

If the tense of the document is that important a detail to you, try consulting the Chicago Style Manual or Strunk & White's Elements of Style or some other suitable writing style guide. These are available in any good library reference section or your local book store, like Barnes & Noble, Borders, Super Crown, etc.


According to the format I use with my students: The introduction is written in past tense when referri

ng to the experiment, but in present tense when referring to another investigator's published work Materials and Methods is written in paragraph form in past tense The results are in past tense, the discussion is in past tense. Also, in most cases personal pronouns are not used- ie. don't say I did this, or we did that, or you should do this- but say this was done.

So to answer your question-YES they are written in past tense.

Van Hoeck

Hello Sioban,

Scientific Method is a process used to gain information - it is a process rather than a writing style. The scientific method consists of three basic components:

1) A question
2) A hypothesis that explains the question
3) One or more testable predictions based on the hypothesis
4) The experiment(s) that test the prediction(s)
5) Support or disproof of the hypothesis.

It is important to note that a scientific theory can never be proven - it can only be supported or disproven. Every hypothesis is just waiting for a more rigorous test to knock it down. This also is part of the scientific method - the continual critical scrutiny of hypotheses.

When a hypothesis has survived scrutiny for a fair while it often gets called a theory indicating that people are pretty confident in it. If people get really confident it becomes a law.

In regard to writing styles when writing up an experiment - it is not the case that all scientific experiments must be written entirely in past tense...but some sections almost certainly must be. For example, the methods and results sections are a description of what you did and what you saw. These sections cannot be written until after you have done the experiment so they are normally in the past tense. However, the aim should be written before the experiment begins (it should include your prediction of what will happen) and therefore it is sometimes written in present tense 'The aim of this experiment is to...' but more often in past tense 'The aim was to...' because most people don't write it until after the experiment is over (although some of us consider this poor method). The discussion is a very free section of the write up and may discuss things that happen in the past (the results or a situation that relates to the results that happened in the past) or may discuss events that happened in the present or are expected to happen in the future. The discussion is written in the tense that is most appropriate for what is being discussed.

Many people also make it a rule that scientific papers should be written in the third person. This was once almost universal but in recent years it has become less frequent - corresponding to the rise of 'plain english'.

I hope this is useful to you.

Cameron Millsom
Trinity Education Centre
University of Melbourne
Parkville, Victoria, 3052, Australia

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