Last week my friend and PhD student @tokenlefty emailed me to ask:

“When writing literature reviews, does one use past tense or present tense?  ie: Sorensen examined the potential for .. or: Sorensen examines the potential for

I wrote back:

“I prefer present tense because it implies an active conversation. Unless the author is dead, mc dead dead and everyone knows it. Even then there’s dead and Really Dead.”

Which didn’t make much sense when I read it back to myself. In my defense I was kind of busy and @tokenlefty is accustomed to getting cryptic emails from me. Then I had a thought – is this just the way I do it? Is there a ‘correct’ way to do tense that I was not aware of? As I looked into the issue, it was surprisingly complex and I decided it needed a post on its own.

The usual advice it to pick a tense and stick to it throughout your thesis. I like present tense – most of the time. For me the use of present tense implies that a scholarly conversation is going on Right Now, and that you are commenting on it (much like a cricket game). The Scholarly Conversation may have been going on for some decades – but that is still Right Now in an academic sense. Besides I have read many times that using present tense is one way to have an ‘active’ voice in your writing – which makes your thesis an easier read.

I do ‘break the rules’ and use past tense alongside present tense, usually for rhetorical purpose. For instance, like many other disciplines, the research field I work in (education) has a heritage of ideas.  I will still routinely use present tense to refer to people who ‘grandfathered’ the ideas which I am using (sorry for the gendering there, but unfortunately they are all men). I learned this from my colleague and philosopher Dr Robyn Barnacle, who argues that although people die, their ideas live on. Following this logic I use past tense to talk about dead ideas – even if the people who wrote about them are still living. There is however the ‘dead mc dead dead’ category, which I reserve for people like Socrates and Aristotle: some of their ideas are so fundamental they have never died, but to refer to them in present tense would be, well – kind of weird.

But. Should I be recommending this approach to someone in an entirely different field to me? As the Explorations in Style blog said in a post about using resources this week, we should be careful of any kind of ‘universalizing’ advice when it comes to doing a thesis. I agree with this wholeheartedly; disciplinary context matters. As Howard Becker pointed out: we all have an ‘academic accent’ in our writing which marks us as members of a certain tribe. Learning to develop this accent is part of the reason for doing a PhD in the first place.

With this in mind I raised the issue of tense on Twitter. Immediately I got back multiple points of view and rationales for various practices.It seems there are, as I feared, multiple practices and points of view on ‘the right way’. Scientists, on the whole, seemed to think passive voice was preferable, while the humanities preferred present tense. The debate generated such interest that Andy Coverdale wrote an entry on his blog clarifying the social science position.

I still didn’t have an answer for this blog, which tries to cater to all disciplines. So I tried to get clarity by consulting with the oracles, i.e.: all my ‘go to’ texts on writing a thesis which you can see in the photo. I’m sorry to say, most of them let me down. In “Helping Doctoral students to Write” by Kamler and Thomson there is an excellent discussion on active voice and passive voice (chapter seven). This seemed, from close reading, to back up what I am saying. But again, this is written for a social science / educational audience.

Facing a dead end, I emailed my back up oracle, and fellow research education nerd, Dr Judy Maxwell at the Study and Learning Centre here at RMIT, who spends most of her days teaching scientists about grammar. Judy confirmed that the debate about which tense to use is a hot topic amongst research students and confirmed that there isn’t one authoritative text on it. She noted that there is “a general feeling among science/engineering students that the past tense is always used”.

Like me, Judy doesn’t like the use of past tense, but for a different reason. She pointed out that there’s the potential for ambiguity: does the person you’re citing still think the same way, or has she/he moved on? Judy tells me, however, that when she presents this point of view to science/engineering researchers they don’t see it as a problem, she thinks this stems from:

“… the way the hard/technical sciences generally talk about the literature – they’re usually more interested in the actual research rather than what was found, which is generally the opposite of social sciences, where what was found, and who found it, is more important. This is probably why author/date systems such as APA and Harvard and more author-prominent citations are used in these areas, compared to Vancouver or footnotes and information-prominent citations are used in hard/physical sciences.”

Usually Judy’s answer for questions about writing style (and mine) is to refer students to journal articles and theses in their discipline. But, as Judy and I talked, we wondered if this is good advice. We don’t want to promote replicating present practice if the practice itself is questionable. Just like the Greeks still built stone temples like they were wood temples, we can hang onto ways of doing things long beyond their use by date: especially, I would argue, in academia.

As so often happens, I am left with more questions than answers (but you guys don’t read this blog for simplistic answers right?!). Clearly there’s the potential for choice here; maybe talking about it more will help you make a decision. So how do you ‘do tense’ in your literature review and why? Have you argued with your supervisor about it? Do you think the argument that “everyone does it this way” is a good enough reason to keep doing it that way?

Related Posts:

The Dead Hand of the thesis genre?

The literature review – knowing when to stop

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