Scientific Method Writing
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Trinity Education Centre
University of Melbourne
Parkville, Victoria, 3052, Australia
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Update: June 2012