Dec 8, 2017

How to Write a Compelling Research Paper Introduction

Wordvice HJ

After the title page and abstract, the reader’s first true interaction with your research paper is the Introduction. Your Introduction will establish the foundation upon which your readers approach your work, and if you use the tips we discuss in this video and article, these readers should be able to logically apply the rules set in your Introduction to all parts of your paper, all the way through the conclusion.

What is the purpose of a research paper Introduction?

Think about your paper as a chronological story: it begins with point A (the introduction) and move in time towards point B (the discussions/conclusions). Since your introduction includes content about the gaps in knowledge that your study aims to fill, the results you will elaborate on in your Discussion section should therefore be somewhat familiar to the reader, as you have already touched up them in the introduction section.

In the Introduction, you must answer two main questions:

  1. “Why was this particular study needed to fill the gap in scientific knowledge that currently exists?
  2. “Why does that gap need filling?”

Imagine our entire plane of knowledge as an incomplete puzzle—the pieces snapped together are what is established, or what is known. The missing piece is the “gap” in knowledge, or what is currently unknown. This is what your study will be helping to explain.
Therefore, the context you provide in the Introduction must first show that there is a knowledge gap and identify where it is, explain why it needs to be filled, and then briefly summarize how this study intends to fill that gap and why.

What needs to be included in the introduction?

The introduction consists of background information about the topic being studied; the rationale for undertaking this study (for “filling a gap” with this particular information); key references (to preliminary work or closely related papers appearing elsewhere); a clarification of important terms, definitions, or abbreviations to be used in the paper; and a review of related studies in which you give a brief but incisive analysis of work that heavily concerns your study. It could be a very similar study or one that supports the findings of your study.

Tips for structuring your Introduction

As you can see in this figure, your introduction should start broadly and narrow until it reaches your hypothesis. The first thing you want to do is to state your area of research and then immediately show what is already known. This is also known as “background information”.

Start with a strong statement that reflects your research subject area and ask questions or pose statements to frame the problems your study explores. You can ask general questions here to guide your readers to the problem and show them what we already know: For instance “What do we know about the lung capacity of bottle-nosed dolphins?” Use keywords from your title (the exact language of your study, that is) to zero in on the problem at hand and show the relevance of your work.

The beginning of your Introduction: “What do we already know?”

  • Avoid stating background information that is TOO broad in nature. You don’t need to state too many obvious facts that your readers would know. If you are writing about bottle-nosed dolphins, you probably don’t need to explain that mammals breathe oxygen.
  • Be sure to cite all of the sources that you use for background information and support.
  • Only provide the necessary background information and use it to set up the context for undertaking this study.
  • Only review relevant, up-to-date primary literature that supports your explanation of the current base of knowledge.

The Second Part of the Introduction: “Where is the knowledge gap?”

  • After you have provided background information, you will begin to highlight areas where too little information is available.
  • Explain HOW and WHY we should fill in that gap—what does this missing information do to impede understanding of a process or system. Identify what logical next steps can be developed based on existing research
    By showing you have examined current data and devised a method to find new applications and make new inferences, you’re showing your peers that you are aware of the direction your field is moving in and showing confidence in your decision to pursue this paper’s study.

The final part of your introduction: “How does your study fill the knowledge gap?”

You have located the missing knowledge and what is needed to fill it, so now you must state your purpose and give a clear hypothesis or objective of the study.

  • The hypothesis is a very short, 1-2 sentence supposition or explanation of what will happen in your study.
  • This is quite often written in an “If….then…” format: “If x and y are present, then z will occur.”
  • Try to answer the question, “If we fill this gap, what useful information will the readers gain?”

When should I write the Introduction?

Many researchers have difficulty when it comes to deciding WHEN to write their introduction. It is important to consider the order of your research paper sections, for as you recall, everything else in the research paper must flow from the Introduction. Therefore, because it is one of the most difficult sections to nail down (since there are so many elements to include and little space to do it), consider writing the introduction second-to-last, after writing the Materials and Methods, Results, and the majority of the Discussion section, and just before writing the brief conclusion that comes at the end of the paper. This will ensure that you effectively lay the groundwork for the rest of your paper, and you can use the research you have already compiled to ensure that everything in your introduction is pertinent and accurate.

Some grammar and style reminders

In addition to content and organization, writers of research papers should also be aware of grammar and style issues that directly affect the readability and strength of their printed work.

  • Try and write in the active voice when it is possible—this will shorten your sentences and enhance the impact of your information
  • Write concise sentences—this will allow you to get in all the necessary information in this compact introduction section
  • Use stronger verbs when possible—this also impacts sentence length and strength of writing
  • Always move your arguments from the broad to the specific.

A strong introduction will encourage readers to read your entire research paper and help get your work published in scientific journals. For more information and tips on manuscript writing and journal submissions, check out our Resources page.

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